Samuel Zook, forty-two years old, was one of the many volunteer generals whose credentials did not include military schooling, but were prominent civilians with militia experience. Zook grew up in the rich historical milieu of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and was infatuated with the military from early childhood. As a boy he enjoyed commanding his schoolmates on the fortifications around his home (even to the point of "arresting" his sister for failure to obey orders). As soon as he could carry a musket, Zook became involved in local militia activity.

As a young man he gravitated toward the blossoming new field of telegraphy and was one of its pioneers, helping to string the wires as far west as the Mississippi River. By the time he was forty he had established himself as superintendent of the Washington and New York Telegraph Company and was living in New York City. There, his fascination with the military led him to join the 6th New York Militia. He had worked his way up to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the time the Civil War broke out.

The 6th New York Militia volunteered as a 90-day unit in the first summer of the War. During these months, while the First Bull Run Campaign was being fought, Zook served as military governor in Annapolis while he made the rounds of influential friends, seeking command of a regiment of his own. Zook was not a man to be denied--when the 6th New York was mustered out in October 1861, Zook was commissioned colonel of the new 57th New York Volunteers within two weeks. During this period of raising his regiment, Zook sent a letter to Captain William Clark responding to Clark's inquiry about joining the 57th, stating his principles on the matter of regimental command: "I am determined to have none but gentlemen for my officers & no amount of men will induce me to depart from this determination. Some Colonels are so eager to get men they will receive the most ignorant & vulgar loafers . . . ."

Zook and his regiment first saw action the next summer on the Peninsula. During the Seven Days battles, he demonstrated his enterprise. Personally scouting far out in front of his men, he got behind enemy lines and discovered the ruse of the Confederate general John Magruder, who was shifting troops ostentatiously back and forth in view of the Union lines to make Confederate numbers in front of Richmond seem larger than they really were while the rest of Lee's forces massed to crush the Federals at Gaines' Mill. Zook reported the Rebels' deception back to headquarters and demanded permission to lead an assault personally, but corps commander "Bull" Sumner was afraid to give such an order on his own responsibility. Sumner referred Zook's observation to army headquarters, and McClellan overlooked the report. The enemy thus maintained their elaborate illusion, the desperately thin Rebel line was never attacked, and the capture of Richmond would be postponed for three more bloody years.

Zook missed the battle of Antietam on medical leave, probably as a result of his ongoing bout with rheumatism, an affliction so severe he occasionally had trouble moving. (The nineteenth-century remedy--doses of the poisonous alkaloid colchicine--only exacerbated Zook's suffering by adding intestinal disorders to his woes.) When he returned to the army in October 1862, he stepped back in as new leader of his brigade. As senior colonel, he had inherited command from previous brigade leader Brig. Gen. William French, who had been promoted to divisional command just before Antietam.

In mid-November, Zook's brigade was one of the first in the Army of the Potomac to arrive at Fredericksburg. Zook wanted to cross the Rappahannock immediately, but the pontoons did not arrive until weeks later, by which time the Rebels were dug in and waiting for them. On December 10, Zook wrote prophetically, "If we had had the pontoons promised when we arrived here we could have the hills on the other side of the river without costing over 50 men--Now it will cost at least ten thousand if not more."

Three days later that cost was paid--over twelve thousand men, as it turned out--and 527 of the casualties were from Zook's brigade. Leading the heartbreaking attack on Marye's Heights, Colonel Zook had his horse shot from under him and was momentarily stunned, but managed to lead his men to within sixty yards of the Stone Wall, one of the farthest Union advances on that terrible day. After the battle, Zook's attack was praised for its "spirit" by division leader Winfield S. Hancock. "Now by God!" wrote Zook afterward, "if I don't get my star, I'm coming home."

Zook was not disappointed--he received his commission to brigadier general early in 1863. In the fighting around the Chancellor House at the Battle of Chancellorsville later in the spring, his brigade faced east while most of the heavy fighting was done by the brigades facing west and south, and Zook's men suffered only 188 casualties. After the battle, Zook again went on medical leave for his rheumatism, returning to his brigade as they moved towards Gettysburg at the end of June. Morale in his brigade was high, according Zook's letter to his father on June 28: "The men are in good spirits, and will fight splendidly. If Ewell is not reinforced before we reach him, he'll get warmed."

Zook was a firm disciplinarian, a man known to be blunt and severe, who hated cowardice. Despite his Mennonite upbringing, he often expressed his sentiments with a towering mastery of profanity. In this, he was even able to hold his own with the redoubtable Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock, according to an enlisted man's description of an incident on the road to Chancellorsville: "It was the greatest cursing match I ever listened to; Zook took advantage of Hancock, by waiting until the latter got out of breath, and then he opened his pipe organ, and the air was very blue." For all that, he was also known by the men who knew him as a good-hearted man. Having led the brigade for nine months by the time of Gettysburg, he was one of the more experienced brigadiers in the army.

At Gettysburg
Zook and his brigade moved south toward the sound of battle with the rest of Caldwell's division just after 5:00 in the afternoon of July 2, but Zook was intercepted by Major Tremain from Sickles's staff, who asked him to detach his brigade and move into action immediately. As Tremain recalled later, Zook replied, "with a calm, firm look, inspiring me wth its significance, 'If you will give me the order of General Sickles I will obey it.'" Tremain obliged, and Zook left his division and followed him, deploying for battle, as chance would have it, diirectly on the right of the line Caldwell was preparing to send forward in the Wheatfield. Zook's regiments plunged forward with their general still mounted in their midst. He made an easy target on horseback, and was one of the first to fall, with a bullet in the stomach. Supported in the saddle by two aides, Zook made his way to the rear, where he told his lieutenant, "It's all up for me, Favill."

Zook was carried to a field hospital on the Baltimore Pike. He died the next day around 5:00 P.M.

For further reading:
Gambone, Al. The Life of General Samuel K. Zook. Dayton, 1995
Favill, Josiah M. The Diary of a Young Officer. Chicago, 1909

Excerpted from "The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America's Greatest Battle" by Larry Tagg