By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved
Ohio general George Crook had one of the most adventurous and interesting Civil War and post-Civil War military careers. This included participation in many of the major battles of the Civil War (both East and West), acrimonious feuds with Phil Sheridan and Nelson Miles, and postwar campaigns against such notable Native American chiefs as Crazy Horse and Geronimo.
George Crook, of Scottish heritage, was born on a farm near Dayton, Ohio in 1828. He graduated from West Point in 1852, where a close friend was fellow Ohioan Phil Sheridan. He was assigned to the Pacific Northwest, where he fought Indians in northern California and southern Oregon and was wounded.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Crook was appointed colonel of the 36th OVI, and in September 1862, after being wounded, was promoted to brigadier general commanding the third brigade of the Army of West Virginia. It fought at Second Bull Run, South Mountain, and at Antietam at the fight over the Burnside Bridge. Crook was then transferred to the Army of the Cumberland in command of its second cavalry division. It participated in the Tullahoma Campaign and in the Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga.
In 1864, he was transferred back to the Army of West Virginia as its commander. It was ordered to join the Army of the Shenandoah under David Hunter. He unsuccessfully protested Hunter’s torching of the Virginia Military Institute. When Hunter was replaced by Phil Sheridan, Crook’s force was renamed the VIII Corps. Crook and his command then took part in all of Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
After being defeated at (Second) Kernstown, Crook initiated flanking attacks at the Union victories over Jubal Early at Opequon (Third Winchester) and Fisher’s Hill, causing postwar controversy when Sheridan claimed credit for these maneuvers. Crook bitterly resented Sheridan’s claims.
At Cedar Creek, it was Crook’s first division which was routed by Kershaw’s surprise attack in the fog, before the epic ride and arrival of Sheridan from Winchester that galvanized the army and led to a reversal of fortunes and the defeat of Early’s army. A hero of that Union victory was another fellow Ohioan, Rutherford Hayes, commander of Crook’s second division. Crook and this future President of the United States became close friends.
Following the end of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign and his promotion to Major General of Volunteers, Crook went into winter quarters at Cumberland, Maryland, the home of his future wife. There, on the night of February 21, 1865, a sleeping Crook and another general were captured in a daring raid by guerillas (one of whom was his wife’s brother).
Crook was sent to Libby Prison in Richmond but was exchanged a month later at the insistence of Ulysses Grant, in time to participate as a cavalry commander in the Army of the Potomac’s last campaign against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Crook fought at the Battles of Five Forks and Saylor’s Creek and was present at the surrender at Appomattox. He was overshadowed by others like Phil Sheridan and George Custer.
Crook, now a lieutenant colonel, helped to subdue the Paiute and Snake Indians in the Northwest. He was then re-assigned to Arizona in 1871, where he successfully fought Apaches.
Promoted to brigadier general in 1873, he was re-assigned in 1875 to serve under Sheridan, whose wedding he attended. He then played a key role in the Great Sioux War of 1876. He commanded one of the three columns ordered to force hostile Indians led by Sitting Bull in Montana back to the reservation in a pincer movement. On June 17, 1876, his force (accompanied by Crow and Shoshone Indian allies) was unexpectedly attacked on Rosebud Creek by Crazy Horse. After a stand-off, Crook retreated back to his supply base, not being able to communicate this battle to either of the commanders of the other converging columns – George Armstrong Custer and John Gibbon. For this, he was blamed by some for being at least partly responsible for Custer’s disastrous defeat eight days later at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Crook would participate in the battles that would end this war the following year with the surrender of Crazy Horse (who was later killed while in captivity). In 1882, he returned to Arizona, where he defeated the Chiricahua Apaches whom he pursued into Mexico and twice persuaded their chief, Geronimo, to surrender, but who still later escaped. This led Crook into conflict with Miles, who relieved him in 1886 and eventually sent Geronimo, his band, and also Crook’s Apache scouts into exile in Florida. Crook never forgave Miles (later commander of the U.S. Army) for this.
Criticized by then U.S. Army commander Phil Sheridan for his lenient treatment of Indians, Crook nevertheless, in 1888, was promoted to major general and appointed to head the military department of the Missouri. Sheridan died that same year.
Crook died in 1890 and was eventually buried in Arlington National Cemetery, where Crook Walk is named after him. As the U.S. Army’s most successful Indian fighter, Crook (called the “Gray Fox” by Indians) was known for his extensive use of Indian scouts, his relentless pursuit, and his readiness to negotiate rather than force conflict (in contrast to Sherman, Sheridan, and Miles). His death was lamented by Native American leaders who had once been his foes. Never a flashy general, haphazard in his attire, and caustic in his criticism of some of his fellow officers, nevertheless, Crook should be remembered for his considerable accomplishments, both military and in championing the cause of those Native Americans whom he so ably fought.
Aleshire, Peter. 2000. The Fox And the Whirlwind: General George Crook And Geronimo: a Paired Biography. Wiley.
Crook, George. 1946. General George Crook: His Autobiography. University of Oklahoma Press.
Hedren, Paul. 1991. The Great Sioux War 1876-77. University of Nebraska Press.
Lewis, Thomas. 1988. The Guns of Cedar Creek. Harper & Row.
Click on any of the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.