Thursday, December 8, 2011

Magid: "GEORGE CROOK: From the Redwoods to Appomattox"

[ George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox by Paul Magid (University of Oklahoma Press, 2011). Hardcover, 4 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:356/417. ISBN:978-0-8061-4207-4  $39.95 ]

Much has been written about General George Crook's career fighting western Indian tribes in the 1870s and 1880s (including his own autobiography), but Paul Magid's military biography George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox takes the novel approach of closely following the Ohioan's earlier professional life, from company command in the Pacific Northwest to successive regiment, brigade, and division leaderships during the Civil War.  Charles Robinson's recent comprehensive biography George Crook and the Western Frontier (Oklahoma, 2001) stressed some of the same points*, but the earlier biographer devoted less than 100 pages to this significant period of Crook's life, while Magid explores it fully.

Magid's work is primarily focused on the Civil War, but Crook's experiences in northern California, Oregon, and Washington are recounted in some detail (highlights include the Williamson-Abbot Expedition and the Rogue River War). It is always difficult to take an officer's duty performance in tiny, company sized outposts and use it to predict ability to handle massive Civil War formations, and Crook is no different. However, several personal characteristics, good and bad, clearly can be traced back to his first postings in the Far West.  With an emphasis on training (and even regular target practice), Crook did develop a reputation for taking care of his men and always having them ready to fight.  But a less admirable character trait, quarreling with fellow officers (the best example being his long feud with Capt. Henry Judah), also became apparent during this period. Highlighting both strengths and faults of his biographical subject, and weighing both with equal seriousness, is one of the finest aspects of Magid's writing.

Crook's first active Civil War command was colonel of the 36th Ohio, an infantry regiment assigned to the wilds of western Virginia. Later, temporarily taking charge of a brigade, Crook performed well at the Battle of Lewisburg, where he was wounded for the first and only time during the war. There, he defeated a superior Confederate force led by Henry Heth and began to attract positive notice. During the South Mountain and Antietam battles,  Crook once again led a brigade, this time with mixed results.  After fine work at South Mountain, he exhibited command confusion and lack of aggressive action at Antietam. He also failed to obtain information about the enemy in his front. Although lethargy would not be a hallmark of his service, the end of the campaign established a discreditable pattern of post battle behavior on the part of Crook -- blaming others for his mistakes and writing self serving reports that took liberties with the truth.

In the west with the Army of the Cumberland, as in rugged West Virginia earlier, Crook developed something of a reputation for skillfulness in counter guerrilla operations. Although Magid notes that the general did not create Blazer's Scouts as claimed in his autobiography, the author credits the Ohioan for prioritizing them and using them effectively. Combined with his antebellum Indian fighting service, this guerrilla warfare and scout unit experience would serve Crook well in post-Civil War army operations in the West.

After a discussion of the Dublin Raid and Crook's victory at Cloyd's Mountain, Magid continues his balanced assessment of Crook's leadership with a detailed examination of the Shenandoah campaigns of 1864.  The general's mishandling of subordinate intelligence again caused his command dearly, this time at Second Kernstown. The defeat again highlighted Crook's unfortunate tendency to ignore military information offered by personally disliked sources and unfairly blame generals for his own errors.  Crook performed better under Philip Sheridan at Opequon and Fisher's Hill, where his VIII Corps drove off Jubal Early's smaller army with well executed flanking attacks.  Although Crook didn't know it at the time, Sheridan would take credit for these moments of glory in later writings, embittering the Ohioan, whose personal initiative in the matters was key.  Later on at Cedar Creek, in another demonstration of his inconsistency, Crook failed again to adequately police his front, although, in his defense, Sheridan ordered away his cavalry screen before the Confederates attacked and sent it to the opposite flank. Thus, Crook's performance continued to be mixed, though with mistakes masked by overall victory and the patronage of then friend Sheridan.

That winter, Crook and General Benjamin Kelley were captured in their hotel rooms at Cumberland, Maryland by Confederate rangers.  Confinement was brief, but calls for a return to command from professional colleagues (most notably by General Grant) lessened Crook's personal embarrassment and held off career ending threats made by Secretary of War Stanton.  Though acknowledging Crook's overall command responsibility in terms of post security, the author is not highly critical of the general's role in his own capture. Regardless, the final stage of the war was spent by Crook in a comparatively undistinguished capacity commanding a cavalry formation in the Army of the Potomac.

George Crook ends with a nice summary of the general's Civil War legacy, the good and the bad, although the discussion of lessons learned for future service might have been explored in more depth.  Then again, one gets the impression the author is not finished with his subject. A greater source of disappointment lies with the cartography.  Military biographies, like unit histories, too often neglect this area, and, indeed, the four large scale maps gracing the text are inadequate visual supplements to the text's detailed descriptions of Crook's roles in so many Civil War battles, large and small.  However, these are only minor irritations from what will clearly come to be regarded as the standard work on George Crook's antebellum and Civil War military service.

* - Examples include Crook's emphasis on duties often left neglected by frontier colleagues (e.g. training and marksmanship), as well as his flawed relationships with fellow officers and inability to accept responsibility for defeats suffered during the Civil War.

Other CWBA reviews of OU Press titles:
* Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres
* A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865


  1. Looks like a great book.

    That quote by Crook about Sheridan is still one of my favorites from the war: "The adulations heaped on him by a grateful nation for his supposed genius turned his head, which, added to his natural disposition, caused him to bloat his little carcass with debauchery and dissipation which carried him off prematurely."

    Its hard to believe they began as the best of friends and how Crook became so embittered for the credit that Sheridan would take for the Shenandoah Valley battles. I guess that's just human nature sometimes.


  2. Yes, that is one hell of an awkward eulogy. If you are going to betray your friends, make sure you outlive them!

    In some ways, the two were made for each other.


***PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING***: You must SIGN YOUR NAME when submitting your comment. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties, anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be removed. Thank you for your cooperation.