On August 5, 1862, McCook was shot in a skirmish near Huntsville, Alabama. At the time, renegade guerrillas in Alabama and Tennessee were constantly harassing the Union Army, as well as terrorizing the many Union sympathizers in those states. These outlaw bands were accused of “the most terrible outrages-robberies, rapes, arsons, and plundering.”
McCook was riding in an ambulance because of his wound, three miles ahead of his brigade with a staff member, an officer from the 35th Ohio Infantry, and an escort of nine men. The enemy cavalry opened fire, and one bullet struck McCook, mortally wounding him. McCook’s brigade was outraged by what they believed to be a cold-blooded murder of a defenseless, much-loved general and quickly took revenge on local civilians. They burned and looted private property, shot a Confederate lieutenant who was home on furlough, and hung several men believed to be Confederate guerrillas.
Huge headlines in Northern papers screamed that McCook was killed by outlaws led by Frank Gurley while he lying incapacitated in the ambulance. The public was inflamed by dozens of inaccurate press reports of cowardly craven murderers of a defenseless hero, including some that stated: “The marauders surrounded the ambulance, overturned it, throwing the wounded and helpless officer to the ground, and there butchered him.” Newspapers and magazines such as Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper were filled cartoons and lithograph artwork that fanned the flames of controversy. Some of these drawings depicted McCook on his knees, or similarly defenseless, surrounded by heavily bearded Confederate ruffians as they shot him down.
Robert’s younger brother, Dan McCook Jr., who was recruiting his own regiment, the 52nd Ohio, at the time of the attack, swore, “I’ll never take another rebel prisoner as long as God gives me breath.”
Gurley was captured and the Federal authorities tried him for murder, although several Confederate generals, including Nathan Bedford Forrest and William Hardee, wrote letters to Union officials, stating Gurley was a legitimate officer with the 4th Alabama Cavalry and was conducting military operations. Regardless, a military court found Gurley guilty of murder on January 11, 1864 and sentenced him to death. General George Thomas suspended the execution because he didn’t believe the murder to have been a crime, but simple warfare. Gurley remained a prisoner of war for the next year when he was accidentally released in an exchange.
When the war was over, however, President Andrew Johnson had Gurley arrested and the death sentence reinstated. Friends of Gurley met with Johnson, and warned that violence would be carried out against Federal authorities if Gurley was indeed hanged. General Ulysses S. Grant urged Johnson to release Gurley, and eventually Federal authorities decided McCook’s death was “one of the fortunes of war” and paroled Gurley.
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