War left Crook with scars

Profile: George Crook, commander of the Union 8th Corps, maintained a long enmity with his commander in the Shenandoah Valley campaign over decisions made during the fighting in Virginia.

October 12, 2003|By Jennifer Pesonen | Jennifer Pesonen,SUN STAFF

Most people who have heard the name Brig. Gen. George Crook associate him with his days of fighting Indians in the West during the late 1800s. But Crook also served as an important member of the Union army during the Shenandoah Valley campaign.

Crook, a West Point graduate of 1852, was first assigned to fighting Indian forces in the Pacific Northwest but was called back East at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

He led campaigns against Confederate guerrillas in West Virginia and at the battles of Second Bull Run and Chickamauga before coming under the command of Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan during the Shenandoah campaign.

It was during this campaign that Crook and Sheridan began to wage war against each other while trying to defeat their common enemy. In Crook's eyes, Sheridan was making poor decisions and taking credit for victories he didn't deserve. Under Sheridan's command, Crook took charge of the 8th Corps, also known as the Army of West Virginia, in September 1864.

The first conflict between Crook and Sheridan began when they were positioned near Opequon Creek, W.Va. The infantry was sent in against the Confederates positioned on the ridge across the creek. Sheridan ordered Crook to advance his command, which was split into two divisions. Sheridan ordered them to advance up to the right and to cover the rear of the 19th Corps.

Crook decided instead to leave one division behind the 19th, and he personally took the other division around the Confederate left in an attempt to turn its flank. Crook was able to attack the Confederates from the rear and ordered the other division to charge from the front. They were successful and able to capture 1,000 prisoners.

Then the Union cavalry rode up and took not only the prisoners Crook had captured, but also the credit for their arrest.

Sheridan knew the true events of the day but never gave Crook and his men the credit they deserved. In his reports, he made it sound as though he planned for Crook to deviate from his orders for the successful maneuver.

The next day, the Confederate soldiers made a stand at Fisher's Hill, between the North and Massanutten mountains, where they overlooked the Shenandoah River. Sheridan sent Crook and his men to picket the north side of Cedar Creek, along with the 6th and 19th Corps, and he sent the cavalry to cover the ground that Crook couldn't cover.

In mid-October, when Sheridan was called to Washington, the cavalry pickets were taken away, leaving many creek fords unguarded. Crook informed Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, who took over command for Sheridan, and Wright promised to replace the missing men.

On the night of Oct. 18, the Confederates moved from their position at Fisher's Hill, crossed the unguarded fords and enveloped one of Crook's divisions.

At the same time that Crook's first division was under attack, the Confederates came pouring in at the rear of his other division, then led by Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, and to the left of the 19th Corps.

Hayes was able to fend off the Southern forces for a while, but Wright shortly gave the order to retreat.

The Union retreated and again formed a line of battle, managing to hold off the enemy at 10 a.m. The line continued to grow in strength, as more men were able to fall back and join in. By midday, Sheridan returned from Winchester and assumed command. He ordered the line to advance and by dark the Union forces had forced back the South.

Sheridan was happy with the victory, claiming that he would get the credit for what happened.

Crook quotes Sheridan in his autobiography as saying, "Crook, I am going to get much more credit than I deserve, for, had I been here in the morning the same thing would have taken place, and had I not returned today, the same thing would have taken place."

Once again, Crook felt that Sheridan withheld the truth about who was due proper credit for the Union victory that signaled the end of the Shenandoah Valley campaign.

Crook would never forget the slight, saying, "Myself and division have never had justice done us in this affair."

Crook visited the site of the battle 25 years later, and his diary entry for that day indicates that he still had not forgiven Sheridan:

"After examining the grounds and position of the troops after 25 years which have elapsed and in the light of subsequent events, it renders General Sheridan's claims and his subsequent actions in allowing the general public to remain under the impressions regarding his part in these battles, when he knew they were fiction, all the more contemptible.

"The adulations heaped on him by a grateful nation for his supposed genius turned his head, which, added to his natural disposition, cause him to bloat his little carcass with debauchery and dissipation, which carried him off prematurely." (Sheridan died the previous year, Crook would survive him by nearly two years.)

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