It is Veterans’ Day again, and time to remember those of the St. Paul’s family who served in the military. We have mentioned veterans of two twentieth century wars. A year ago, we celebrated our one-time organist and choirmaster, T.F.H. Candlyn, who served in World War I. And we have mentioned those from St. Paul’s who died while fighting in the Second World War. Today, we reach back into the preceding century, to a man who fought with the United States army in two wars. But there are other reasons to remember this man, who contributed significantly to Albany’s entertainment and musical life in the middle third of the nineteenth century.
John Cooke was born in England about 1797. He came to the United States in 1820 as part of the circus band with the Page, Austin and Tufts Menagerie. By 1825, he was in Providence, Rhode Island, where he formed his first band.
Shortly afterward, he moved to Albany, where his first job was again as a band musician, with a circus situated on North Pearl Street, now the site of the Capital Repertory Theater. Settled in Albany by 1830, John Cooke quickly established two institutions that formed an important part of the city’s entertainment: the Albany Brass Band and Castle Garden.
The Albany Brass Band (often referred to as Cooke’s Brass Band), was Albany first wind band, and during the antebellum period the only source of popular wind music here. Between 1830 and 1861, the band played at many public events, and sponsored concerts, military events, dances, cotillions and balls. The band was also associated with Albany’s Republican Artillery. The band drilled with the soldiers, and accompanied them on a formal visit to New York City.
In 1833, Cooke created Castle Garden, a pleasure garden located on State Street, near Dove “from whence a spacious view of the river and the surrounding countryside for several miles can be had.” But the view was hardly the only entertainment. Castle Garden was known for its fireworks, some designed by “Mons. T. Alesander, from Paris, an artist well known, and who has distinguished himself as a pyrotechnist.” Displays included such exotic and extravagant exhibitions as The Battle of Algiers, Bengola Lights, The Chinese Lychenaise, and Zannia Peruvia. There were also balloon ascents (one conducted by Louis Anselm Lauriat “the celebrated aeronaut”), and refreshments, including “ice cream, soda water and many other delicacies of the season.”
Neither the brass band nor Castle Garden produced much income. But their popularity, and the personal affection felt for Cooke, can be gauged by the numerous benefits for him, each attempting to cover the losses of the season.
Cooke volunteered for the army during the Mexican War of 1846-1848. He was appointed a First Lieutenant in the 2nd Regiment of the First New York Volunteers. Cooke ended that conflict as a captain of artillery, and used that title for the rest of his life.
During the 1850s, Cooke’s Brass Band continued its busy schedule of balls and cotillions. Castle Garden had closed as a pleasure garden in 1845, but for much of this period Cooke continued a smaller business as a bowling saloon at the same address. “Saloon” should not be understand to mean Captain Cooke was serving alcohol: advertisements make it clear that this was a soda parlor, serving ice cream during the summer months to quench the thirst of the bowlers.
With the advent of the Civil War in 1861, John Cooke joined those responding to President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers. When that three month enlistment expired, Cooke, now 64 years old, volunteered as a captain in Company F of New York’s 91st Infantry Regiment.
Two years later, in May 1863, while leading his men on an assault of a Confederate battery, Captain Cooke was injured at the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana. A bullet struck his right shoulder and lodged against the bone, shattering the arm. Cooke was evacuated to St. James Hospital in New Orleans, where he spent 44 days. He was mustered out on June 22, 1863 and by August of that year had returned aboard ship to New York City, on his way home to Albany.
Captain Cooke wanted to return to military service, but his health would not allow it, nor it seems was he able to return to work with his band or his saloon. In 1867, a newspaper reported that he was “in the most indigent circumstances.” It had been hoped that the Constitutional Convention of 1867 might award him a pension, but that did not happen. Instead, his friends held yet another benefit, this time a concert at Tweddle Hall.
In 1870, Captain John Cooke was appointed a messenger in the Adjutant General’s Office, and he held that position until his death in December 1875. Cooke’s funeral was held at St. Paul’s church on Lancaster Street, the service read by our rector, J. Livingston Reese. The building was crowded with his many friends, and particularly the musical and military groups with which he had been associated. A contemporary newspaper praises the music, both choral and instrumental, which would have been led by our organist and choirmaster, Edward Savage.
The procession from St. Paul’s to Albany Rural Cemetery must have been very impressive, with uniformed enlisted men and officers of the Ninth Brigade, the 10th and 25th Regiments and the 91st Volunteers, as well as Albany’s Burgesses Corps. Klein’s Band was joined by 45 bandsmen of Doring’s Band and the Albany City and Tenth Regiment Bands. Veterans from Post 21 of the Grand Army of the Republic were represented as well. From St. Paul’s, the process moved west on Lancaster to Swan, north on Swan to State, east on State to Broadway, and thence to the Albany Rural Cemetery. We are told that “[a]ll along the route of the procession the streets were occupied by an immense concourse of people.” Cooke’s tombstone at Albany Rural reads simply “Capt. J. Cooke.”
A final memorial was made to the old veteran the next year, with the publication of “Captain Johnny Cooke’s Grand March,” by James Haydn Waud, organist at Albany’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. It is dedicated “to the surviving members of the Albany Brass Band.” The cover displays the only likeness of Captain Cooke that we have been able to find. It shows him late in life, heavily bearded, with his crippled right arm supported in a sling.