George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox
Paul Magid; University of Oklahoma Press Biographies, the late Joseph Harsh once declared, are “the lowest form of history.” Fortunately for readers of From Redwoods to Appomattox—the first modern biography of Union General George Crook— author Paul Magid does a good job of rising above such skepticism.
Magid’s stellar prose is one of the book’s strengths. Opening with a look at Crook’s boyhood in Ohio and his West Point years (1848-52), Magid’s tale truly takes shape when Crook is assigned to the Pacific Northwest and gains credible small-unit combat experience battling Native American tribes.
It is admirable that Magid was willing to critically examine Crook’s own words, which like virtually every general’s memoirs were wrought with inaccuracies, scapegoating and glory seeking. Crook often portrayed himself as one who had always done the right thing, only to have his plans ruined by the incompetence of others or to see credit given to another party. In all fairness to Crook, however, it should be noted that there were several known drafts of his memoirs and the general was not able to see it through to publication in his lifetime.
Magid’s research effort is commendable. He presents an unabashedly critical portrayal of Crook’s failures at the Battle of Antietam and also the general’s later misrepresentations of his actions. Magid also covers Crook’s brilliant performance in chasing down Confederate General Joseph Wheeler and his raiders in October 1863, in the aftermath of the Union debacle at Chickamauga, including the courtmartial of Colonel Robert Minty. In detailing the 1864 Valley Campaign, both Crook’s achievements and shortcomings get equal coverage, and Magid does not shy away from Crook’s embarrassing capture by Confederate partisans in western Maryland in February 1865.
Magid deserves credit for using reputable battle studies to ensure that his depiction of Crook is grounded within the historical literature. An exception comes late in the 1864 Valley Campaign, when Magid relies on Thomas Lewis’ lightly regarded The Guns of Cedar Creek while apparently not consulting Theodore Mahr’s heralded The Battle of Cedar Creek.
George Crook provides a well-researched glimpse into the life of a determined man dedicated to serving his country. Some readers will likely be disappointed that the book stops with the end of the Civil War. But Magid notes he may turn next to the Indian Wars, where Crook indelibly stamped his name on the annals of American history.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.