This letter was written by 34 year-old Joseph John Cooper (1828-1912) of Taunton, Massachusetts. Joseph was born in Wiresdale, England, the son of John Cooper (1793-1830) and Mary Lakelin (1801-1882) who were married in Lancashire, England, in 1823. Joseph’s father was the youngest son of an extensive mine owner in Cornwall, was head master of a public school; his mother, Mary Lakeline Cooper, was the daughter of Rev. Joseph Lakeline, a non-conformist preacher of local fame in his native Scotland, where he was several times imprisoned for his vigorous stand against the presumptions of the clergy of the Established Church.
Joseph’s father when he was two years old, and his widowed mother was induced by her brother-in-law, George Cooper, to cross the sea to America. She brought Joseph and her two daughters, Sarah and Elizabeth, and arrived with her children in Taunton in July, 1831. Mary Lakeline Cooper was “an unusually well-educated woman; she was of strong and decided character; and it was her purpose that her children should have an education and due respect for law and order. Her son, Joseph, was the partial support of the family. He was a strong and vigorous boy. He rose early, worked for two or three hours, and then, his morning duty over, he attended the public school. He was a leader among the boys; was a good swimmer, a wrestler, a good shot, could ride any horse in town, and generally excelled in the sports of those day. He also made good use of the books which his mother had saved from her husband’s library and brought to America.”
“On January 1, 1844, Joseph Cooper was apprenticed to Elijah Caswell of Taunton, to learn the trade of tackmaking. After serving his apprenticeship he became connected with the nail and tack works of Albert Field, and later with the factory of Lovett Morse. In 1855 he entered the employ of Chess, Wilson and Company of Pittsburgh, Pa., as superintendent of their tack and nail factory, and remained in their service until September, 1860. He then returned to Taunton, purchased land on Wales Street, where the store yard of the Mason Machine Works is now located, and in his own factory began manufacturing a line of small nails and tacks. At this time he had acquired the reputation of a skilful tackmaker, and received offers of a partnership from manufacturers, elsewhere, but he preferred to remain in Taunton.”
In Massachusetts, Joseph’s mother married a man named Smith who apparently died prior to 1850. In the 1860 Census, Mary was enumerated in the household of Edward Mott and his family in Taunton.
Joseph married Mary Ann Nichols (1833-1911) in May 1851. She was the daughter of James Madison Nichols (1809-1884) and Eliza M. Worsley (1808-1894).
This letter was written while Joseph served as the Captain of Co. F, 39th Massachusetts Infantry during the American Civil War. He mustered into the service in August 1862 and mustered out in June 1865. The 39th Massachusetts served in the defenses of Washington D. C. from Fort Tillinghast to Fort Craig, until September 14, 1862. They had guard duty on the Potomac from Edward’s Ferry to Conrad’s Ferry and Seneca Creek until October 20. They were at Muddy Branch until November 10 and at Offutt’s Cross Roads, Maryland, until December 21, when they marched into Poolesville, Maryland, where they remained until April 15, 1863.
By comparative standards, the 39th Massachusetts had relatively light duty until 1864 when they slugged it out across Virginia in Grant’s Overland Campaign. They participated in most of the major battles between the Wilderness to Weldon Railroad in 1864 and then again in the Appomattox Campaign in early 1865. After Lieutenant-Colonel Tremlett was wounded on 31 March 1865 in action near Gravelly Run, the command of the 39th Massachusetts fell upon Captain Cooper who continued in command until the end of the war. For gallant and meritorious service in the battle of Five Forks, Virginia, April 1, 1865, he was brevetted major. He was still in command of the regiment when reviewed by the President, and on June 2, 1865, when it was mustered out of active service.
Addressed to Mrs. M. Smith, Taunton, Massachusetts, Care of E. Mott
Postmarked Poolesville, Maryland
December 28, 1862
I suppose you think I am very negligent in not writing to you before but I have not had the time, I assure you. You may say I might sit up an hour at night and write but when I get through at night, it is eight o’clock and I am very glad to go to bed at that time being out and on my feet all day. It makes a man feel ready and willing to go to bed.
In your last you wished me to write some of my thoughts — [to] just pen them down as I had time. That I cannot do very well but I will state something of what I have seen here in Poolesville.
We arrived here on Sunday last at dark [and] went into camp anyplace we could get cover. Part of us [slept] in a schoolhouse, the rest in sheds and stables. Monday morning I heard some of the men say the cavalrymen were cleaning out the stores in the street. I started out fearing some of the company might be there. When I got there, they had just burst the door open. I went to the door made up my mind. All I could do was to stop our own regiment from joining in the destruction of property. I done what I could but that was not much. With an hundred or more men, the Col. of the [14th] N. H. Regt. came and most of the men were his so that we put a stop to the further destruction but that that was left was not much. ¹
The cavalry are not under much restraint. They go into a man’s yard and take his poultry right before his face, stop negroes in the street and take away anything they may have, go into a store [and] take what they want and go off without paying for them. If stopped, [they] take out their pistols and threaten to shoot if they are interfered with. I saw them bring a hog into camp that would weight over two hundred that they have killed. One man has had two miles of board fence taken away that cost a thousand dollars for the boards alone. Other men have lost miles of rail fence. Now, if that is not enough to make a man Secesh, I do not know what will. I know that I could not stand what I have seen men stand here. I have never expected to see what I have seen here. It is a burning disgrace to the country the way things are done here. I do not favor protecting property too far, but mobs must be put down and highway robbery punished. If I had an order to destroy or confiscate property from proper authority, I would not hesitate one minute to put it in force.
It is getting late and I have written a long letter to May so that I am rather tired. You will hear from me again through Ed if we do not have to move camp again. Much love to you and the family. May God watch over and keep us from harm.
Yours truly, — Joseph John Cooper
to his mother
¹ In the regimental history of the 14th New Hampshire written by Francis Henry Buffum, the author described the raid on Walters’ store in Poolesville where the “greedy frenzy, and the uncontrollable tumult, incident to the impetuous attack of a whole battalion on a large and well-furnished store…[belonging to] one of those double faced, treacherous Maryland Rebels who professed Unionism by day and entertained Moseby’s bushwhackers by night,” was a scene of “wild commotion” never to be forgotten. “A shout, a rush, a crash — the store was open, and the scrimmage was begun. Flour, whiskey, sugar, calico, and malasses were mixed up in novel combinations. Barrels of molasses, sugar, and whiskey were broken up in the street, though fortunately little of the latter was gathered up. The scrambling for plunder was desperate in its recklessness, but the individual adventures and the general spectacle furnished comicalities for a volume. The officers somehow learned of the riot and appeared on the scene to disperse the men at the critical moment; ie., when the store had been completely gutted, and nothing remained to confiscate.” Though the author conceded the participation of the 14th New Hampshire in the looting, he indicated it was initiated by Scott’s “Nine Hundred” [11th New York Cavalry] who had been recently targeted by bushwhackers that were guided to their encampment by someone from Poolesville thought to be Walters, though this later turned out not to be the case. Walters eventually recovered $4,000 in damages from the U. S. Government for his losses.
In the regimental history of the 39th Massachusetts, Alfred Roe also attributed the looting to Scott’s Nine Hundred but mentions the store of Jesse Higgins who was perceived to be the Rebel sympathizing informant. Roe’s version leads one to believe that it was only the cavalrymen who looted the stores and that members of the 39th Massachusetts only helped themselves to the loot scattered about in the streets.