Gen. George R. Crook may have been near the bottom of his class at West Point, but that didn’t stop him from being one of America’s finest generals in the Civil War and in the battle against Native Americans.
He’s considered the Army’s greatest Indian fighter, but later fought to protect them.
President Rutherford B. Hayes — who was once his subordinate — trusted him, and so did Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. Many of the Indians learned to trust him as well. The Apache nicknamed Crook “Nantan Lupan,” meaning “Chief Wolf,” and Red Cloud, war chief of the Oglala Lakota Sioux said, “He, at least, never lied to us. His words gave us hope.”
Throughout the 1800s, the U.S. military was ordered to do things totally unacceptable today. In 1832, Gen. Henry Atkinson ordered the slaughter of 150 Sauk and Fox Indian men, women and children at the Battle of Bad Axe in Wisconsin during the Black Hawk War; Col. George Wright ordered the killing of 800 Indian horses just across the Idaho border into Washington in 1858; and toward the end of the Indian wars, in 1890 the 7th U.S. Cavalry commanded by Gen. James W. Forsyth killed a similar number of men, women and children at Wounded Knee, S.D.
In his book “An American Genocide, the United States and the California Catastrophe, 1846-1873,” historian Benjamin Madley says that in California alone there were more than 350 massacres — that he describes as “intentional killing of five or more disarmed combatants or largely unarmed noncombatants, including women, children, and prisoners, whether in the context of a battle or otherwise.” Up to 16,000 were killed.
Those were tough times in American history and not everyone agreed with such cruelty.
Gen. Crook was a good soldier and did what he was ordered to do, but it must have been heart-wrenching for him to obey the commands.
The list of atrocities is much longer, going back to before the days of Columbus and have been perpetrated not only by the Europeans who came to America but also by the indigenous people already here.
George Crook was born in 1828 on a farm by Taylorsville, Ohio, near Dayton. He graduated from West Point in 1852 near the bottom of his class and was sent west to serve in Oregon and northern California.
His first big assignment was commanding the Pit River Expedition in 1857 against several Native American tribes causing violence. He quickly became a casualty with a poisoned arrow in his right hip. It took two weeks for the poison to dissipate, and the arrowhead was never removed.
In California, the young lieutenant soon learned how badly the Indians were being treated. He decried the U.S. Senate rejecting 18 treaties negotiated with 139 tribes and leaving them with no rights.
“When they were pushed beyond endurance and would go on the warpath, we had to fight when our sympathies were with the Indians,” he said. But following orders like a good soldier, he led successful campaigns against them in Washington, Oregon and California, and dealt effectively with the Shoshones and the Nez Perce Indians.
Contrary to popular thinking of those times, he believed Indians were human beings and deserved to be treated as such. At the same time Gen. Philip Sheridan — who would later be his superior officer during the Civil War in the Shenandoah campaign — was said to have told Comanche Chief Tosawi “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”
Conflicts with the Indians quieted down and Crook devoted much of his time to hunting and learning wilderness skills. One of his aides compared him to Daniel Boone. All of this would help him as a battlefield commander during the Civil War just ahead.
Remarkably, Crook also learned several Indian languages.
During the Civil War, Crook had only been out of West Point for 10 years and was made a brigadier general — and two years later major general. He was breveted six times for that rank, made permanent at the end of his career.
Early in the Civil War in September 1862, newly promoted one-star general Crook joined the Gen. George B. McClellan’s Maryland campaign, bringing a brigade of regiments from Ohio. They battled the Confederates in the South Mountain campaign in Virginia to help open up three mountain gaps to get at the Confederates.
The Union Army eventually controlled the gaps but the battle gave Robert E. Lee enough time to regroup elsewhere.
Then three days later came Antietam, the bloodiest battle in American history, with more than 22,000 casualties. Then Crook fought in numerous other battles including Chickamauga, the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Shenandoah campaign, and Appomattox Courthouse where the war ended.
On the evening of Feb. 21, 1865, a detachment of Confederate guerrillas sneaked into Crook’s headquarters and captured him, along with Brig. Gen. Benjamin F. Kelley, He was held as a prisoner of war for a month and then released when Confederate authorities exchanged him.
The Civil War ended just weeks later on April 8, and for the rest of his career he was assigned to deal with the Indians.
He was sent to Boise City the following year to stop Indian attacks on the Oregon Trail and white settlers during the four-year Snake War. Within two years, he defeated the great Cheyenne chief Dull Knife, and then with the help of the Arapahoe, Bannock, Shoshone, Utes and Winnebago defeated the mighty Sioux and Chief Crazy Horse.
Next was to Arizona. Crook arrived in Tucson by stagecoach from San Francisco wearing civvies and nobody knew who he was.
In 1871, as commander of the U.S. Army’s Arizona Department, Crook’s mission was to stop the fighting between the whites and the Apaches, primarily by rounding up the Apaches and putting them on reservations.
He met with the major chiefs — including Cochise — and told them that he would protect them but that they had to stop raiding, stealing and killing.
Crook understood that as more whites moved in, it would be impossible for the Indians to live on wild game. They could only survive by living safely on the reservation and learning white man ways.
However, most of the Arizona whites believed the Indians should be exterminated. And the Tucson Ring of corrupt businessmen wanted the Indians to continue being on the warpath so they could continue to profit by selling supplies to the military.
Crook was against government plans to send Indian children east to boarding school, preferring that schools be established on reservations. He lost that battle.
Crook made a treaty with Cochise and things calmed down, and in 1875, Crook was transferred to Omaha to take charge of the Department of the Platte and deal with the Indians fighting white intrusion.
Then in 1882, the Chiricahua Apaches under Geronimo left the reservation and went back to their old ways. Crook was sent back to fix it. During the next four years, he again and again forced Geronimo to surrender, only to have him run away and hide in the mountains or Mexico.
Because of that failure, Crook was returned to Omaha, and it was up to Gen. Nelson Miles to bring Geronimo to heel and end the Apache War.
Miles did not treat the Apaches kindly. They were shipped off to Florida and remained imprisoned for 26 years. That included the loyal Apache scouts who helped both generals fight their own people.
Crook never forgave Miles for that.
Crook was promoted to major general by President Cleveland in 1888. He ended his career in Chicago in charge of the Department of the West.
Gen. Crook was still serving as commander of the Military Division of the Missouri in 1890 when he died suddenly of a heart attack in Chicago. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, his wife, Mary, bedside him on Crook Walk.
There was a certain nobility of character about George Crook. His last years were devoted to protecting the Indians — his former enemies.
He was a man of his times but changed as age and experience brought wisdom. Cultures change and the hope is that it will be for the better, but we’re still having massacres in schools and other public places — sadly ignoring the lessons of history.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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At the age of 43, George Crook is described as over six-foot tall, athletic, with blue-gray eyes, short cropped hair and long beard that parted in the middle of his chin and flared out on each side from there. One report called Crook “the most magnificently whiskered Civil War general on either side.”
Another said, “He dressed in an old canvas hunting outfit and a pith helmet. He rode a mule named Apache and carried a rifle across the pommel of his saddle.”
An officer and a gentleman…
“Crook was a model soldier — fearless, modest, a good listener. He did not drink or use strong language. In his years in the West he fought corrupt Indian agents and spoke and wrote in favor of granting the Indians full citizenship and the right to vote. His wife, Mary, supported him throughout his long and colorful career.”
Another good officer…
There were other good Army officers who treated Native Americans humanely. One was Major Henry B. Mellen, who commanded Fort Crook during most of the Civil War, keeping peace with the Indians. “My constant policy has been to treat the Indians justly, and to impress them with the idea that while I will severely punish them when guilty, I will protect them if they keep good faith and are peaceable.”
Local Indians trusted him and turned over a renegade accused of robbery and murder. Mellen had him shot, and the Indians considered the sentence just.
Stuck in the mud…
There was an embarrassing moment for General Crook at the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain on May 9, 1864. He and his troops had to cross a waist-deep creek. Dismounting, the general’s riding boots quickly filled with water, bogging him down. To the rescue were two soldiers, each grabbing one of their commander’s arms and hauling him safely to the other side.
Assigned to the 4th Infantry Division in California in 1852, brevet Second Lieutenant George Crook established a fort in Northeast California that was later named in his honor; and then renamed Fort Ter-Waw in what is now Klamath Glen, Calif.