At just 13 years of age Johnny Cook enlisted as a bugler with Battery B, 4th United States Artillery. During the Battle of Antietam, 15 year old Johnny served as a messenger. He and the other men in his unit came under heavy fire from Confederate soldiers along the Hagerstown Pike near the infamous Cornfield. When Johnny returned from helping his wounded commander to safety, he discovered that the men serving on one of the cannons had been killed.
Johnny began to load the cannon by himself until General Gibbon rode by, saw what was happening, jumped off his horse, and began to help the brave young cannoneer. The Confederate soldiers came dangerously close, but Johnny and General Gibbon were able to man the cannon and push them back towards the West Woods.
Cook later described the incident in his own words:
“General Gibbon, our commander, had just ordered Lieutenant Stewart to take his section about one hundred yards to the right of the Hagerstown Pike, in front of two straw stacks, when he beckoned me to follow. No sooner had we unlimbered, when a column of Confederate infantry, emerging from the so called west woods, poured a volley into us, which brought fourteen or seventeen of my brave comrades to the ground. The two straw stacks offered some kind of shelter for our wounded, and it was a sickening sight to see those poor maimed, and crippled fellows, crowding on top of one another, while several, stepping but a few feet away, were hit again or killed.
Just then Captain Campbell unlimbered the other four guns to the left of Stewart, and I reported to him. He had just dismounted, when he was hit twice and his horse fell dead, with several bullets in its body. I started with the Captain to the rear and turned him over to one of the drivers. He ordered me to report to Lieutenant Stewart and tell him to take command of the battery. I reported, and, seeing the cannoneers nearly all down, and one, with a pouch full of ammunition, lying dead, I unstrapped the pouch, started for the battery and worked as a cannoneer. We were then in the vortex of the battle. The enemy had made three desperate attempts to capture us, the last time coming with in ten or fifteen feet of our guns.
It was at this time that General Gibbon, seeing the condition of the battery, came to the gun that stood in the pike, and in full uniform of a brigadier-general, worked as a gunner and cannoneer. He was very conspicuous, and it is indeed surprising, that he came away alive. At this battle we lost forty-four men, killed and wounded, and about forty horses which shows what a hard fight it was.”
Johnny went on to serve at Gettysburg and several other battles. After the war, he moved back to his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. Cook seems to have done well for himself. At 24 he married Isabella, a Scottish immigrant 10 years younger than he. The two had 3 children, 2 of whom made it to adulthood. Around 1880 the John and Isabella moved to Washington, D.C. where he worked as a watchman for the government printing office and bought a home outright. In 1894 a 47 year old Cook was finally honored for his bravery at Antietam as he became one of the youngest soldiers ever to receive the Medal of Honor. His official Medal of Honor citation reads: “Volunteered at the age of 15 years to act as a cannoneer, and as such volunteer served a gun under a terrific fire of the enemy.”
He died in 1915 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Isabella Cook died the next year and shares a headstone with her husband.