Part of the USA Today Network

York soldier saved & inscribed old book in Virginia

Members of the 87th Pennsylvania reenactors group portray period Union soldiers.

The 87th Pennsylvania is perhaps the best-known infantry regiment from York County, Pennsylvania, where the majority of its companies were raised. Perhaps a close second is the 200th Pennsylvania, which saw hard fighting in the Army of the Potomac during the Siege of Petersburg.

Organized in Harrisburg in September 1864, the 200th contains a significant number of York Countians, including teen-aged Charles Cook.

He found himself in April 1865 in Nottoway County, Virginia, where U. S. Grant’s army was pursuing Robert E. Lee’s retreating Rebels after the Army of Northern Virginia abandoned its long-held entrenchments around Richmond and Petersburg. Several Union soldiers raided the records of the local courthouse and started destroying some of the old documents.

Charles Cook decided to intervene.

And, the Library of Virginia is glad he did.

Charles Cook was born in York on January 24, 1846, to Alfred and Emily Cook. At the age of 18, the brown-haired, brown-eyed lad went to the enlistment office in downtown York and signed up as a private in Company A of the newly raised 200th Pennsylvania. Colonel Charles W. Diven commanded the regiment, which, after training, was assigned to the Engineer Brigade of the Army of the Potomac. In November, the 200th was transferred to the Army of the James, where the men “saw the elephant” (experienced their first combat) at Dutch Gap in successfully repulsing a Rebel attack.

By December, the regiment was back in the Army of the Potomac, this time to stay. It was part of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, Ninth Army Corps, and fought near Petersburg. As the Ninth Corps pursued Lee in April 1865, they paused at Nottoway, where soldiers captured some empty boxcars and small quantities of saddle trimmings, but nothing of military value. Frustrated, and perhaps bored, several soldiers entered the county clerk’s office and began rummaging through the records, some dating back to 1787. Some of the men began tearing up the papers and tossing books into a nearby horse trough.

Charles Cook grabbed one of the books and inscribed a salutation for whomever would come clean up the mess: “Johney Reb you can thank me for saving Lawyer Jones books. I save them because I am a sort of a Yankee lawyer myself. Charles Cook, York, Pennsylvania.”

Cook and his comrades, a few days later, were at Appomattox Courthouse as the Confederate surrendered. He came home to his family, but his health was broken from exposure to malarial-type fevers. He had spent considerable time in the hospital during his term of service, and he was now a worn-out man, although still young.  He tried farming, but would only live another fifteen years, all in poor health, before dying on January 8, 1880, in York.

His name recently came across the news wires.

“The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that the Circuit Court Records Preservation Grants Review Board met on December 14 and evaluated 69 applications submitted from 61 localities. The board awarded 69 grant projects to local circuit courts totaling $903,205.75. Among the items to be conserved are: deed books, surveyors’ records, will books, order books, marriage registers, birth records, minute books, free persons of color records, superior court order books, rosters of Confederate soldiers, death registers, and plat books. Many of these materials are brittle, have torn and loose pages and broken spines, and show the results of previous repairs using glue or tape. In some cases they have been laminated and the ink is faded.

The books and records to be conserved are used heavily by genealogists, historians, lawyers, and title researchers. They contain pieces of family and local history found nowhere else. Jane L. Brown, clerk of the Nottoway County Circuit Court, recounts that an 1805–1809 deed book scheduled to be conserved survived the ravages of the Civil War and includes an inscription stating, “Johnny Reb you can thank me for saving Lawyer Jones Books. I saved them because I am sort of a Yankee Lawyer myself./s/Charles Cook, York PA.”

Charles Cook, an obscure York County teenager, can be thanked for saving this book from the ravages of Union soldiers. Now, preservationists will again save it from the ravages of time.

Well done, Mr. Cook, well done!


Press release, the Library of Virginia

Michael E. Haskew, Appomattox: The Last Days of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia (Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2015), 138-39.

I want to especially thank Emmett Vollenweider, a fellow Civil War buff from Ohio, for alerting me to this interesting story. He has his own connection to York County, Pa. Emmett’s direct ancestor Jacob Vollenweder, a Swiss immigrant who lived in New Orleans, camped here in York County for three days during the Confederate occupation of York. He was a member of Company D of the 5th Louisiana, part of Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays’ famed (and widely feared) Louisiana Tigers. Jacob perished during the 1864 battle of Monocacy.