Author Paul Magid, a retired attorney, wanted to write a book on George Crook to “discern the inner man and his motivations” and “paint a more complete picture of his multifaceted and complex character and of his role in American history” (10). The author is planning a second volume on Crook’s life, covering his post–Civil War career to his death in 1890. To improve his writing skills, Paul Magid completed course work in nonfiction writing; this paid dividends.
George Crook was born outside of Dayton, Ohio. His father was a farmer. Instead of picking up the plow, Crook went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (Class of 1852). There he developed important relationships, including one with Philip Sheridan.
Crook’s first army assignments took him to small posts in northern California. There, he learned hard campaigning, mule handling, and maintaining relationships with hostile adversaries. He also learned the rudiments of irregular, or guerrilla, warfare in the antebellum Indian Wars of California. He was not a typical young army officer; he helped draft a Klamath Indian vocabulary, which was submitted to the Smithsonian Institution.
While in California, Crook developed a disdain for volunteer and militia units. Ironically, however, when war erupted in 1861, he requested a command in the Ohio State Volunteers. Ohio governor William Denison granted his request, and he took command of the 36th Ohio. Crook, always an advocate for training, drilled and trained the men of the 36th. Western Virginia and the tough guerilla fighting in the hills and valleys of the region were Crook’s first testing ground. Crook and the 36th Ohio did well. He “had set the Thirty-Sixth Ohio on a path that would make it one of the most effective volunteer units in the war, one that regular officers often compared to their own units in terms of soldiers’ professionalism in the field” (121). Growing confidence, skill, and reputation earned Crook more responsibilities. At the Battle of South Mountain, he commanded a brigade in the Ninth Corps, Army of the Potomac. Two days later, fighting at Rohrbach Bridge on Antietam battlefield, he poorly handled his unit and responsibilities. Magid wrote, “More telling than his mistakes on the field was his lack of forthrightness in reporting the events of that day” (149).
In early 1863, Crook and his command were transferred from western Virginia to the Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee. During the Chattanooga campaign, he was promoted to command of a cavalry division where he developed “a skill essential to his future in the Indian Wars” (157). Out of military necessity, Crook was transferred back to western Virginia in February 1864. His assignment “was to quell the guerrilla war that continued to rage in the mountains of the southern part of the region” (174). His efforts were notable. His reputation was solid. Then he ran into Confederate general Jubal Early at the Second Battle of Kernstown, July 24, 1864. The war was in its third year. The Union needed victories. Crook was defeated. At [End Page 260] Kernstown, another failing of Crook’s reappeared: his inability to acknowledge his own mistakes and his tendency to blame subordinates and troops for his errors.
In the Shenandoah Valley campaigns of August and September 1864, General Crook performed well at the battles of Winchester and Fisher’s Hill. His efforts, however, were often over shadowed by his more exuberant commanding officer and self-promoting friend Gen. Philip Sheridan, who commanded the Army of the Shenandoah.
Five months after his defeat at Kernstown, Crook was captured by Confederate raiders, and he was briefly held in Libby Prison. The event nearly ruined his career. U. S. secretary of war Edwin Stanton wanted Crook sacked. Only with the intervention of fellow Ohioan and longtime acquaintance Gen. Ulysses Grant was Crook’s career salvaged. He was given a cavalry division command in the Army of the Potomac. He would serve out the war the as cavalry commander in the Army of the Potomac.