"George Crook and Rutherford B. Hayes: A Friendship Forged in War"

By Peter Cozzens 
Copyright: 2000 Peter Cozzens

Presented by Cozzens on the occasion of the 11th Hayes Lecture on the Presidency, February 20, 2000, in the Hayes Museum auditorium. 

On the morning of May 13, 1886, some five years after he had left the White House and retired to Spiegel Grove, Rutherford B. Hayes was leafing through the New York Tribune when his eyes fell upon an article that moved him to tears. It was an excerpt from the not-yet published memoirs of General Grant, praising Hayes's conduct during the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864. These are the words Hayes read:

On more than one occasion during these engagements General Hayes bore an honorable part. His conduct on the field was marked by conspicuous gallantry as well as the display of qualities of a higher order than that of mere personal daring. Having entered the army as a major of volunteers at the beginning of the war, General Hayes attained by meritorious service the rank of brevet major general before its close.

That evening, Hayes recorded in his diary why Grant's words had so touched him. "I am more gratified by friendly reference to my war record than by any other flattery. Of course I know that my place was a very humble one - a place utterly unknown in history."

Why did Hayes attach more value to a few kind words about his comparatively obscure Civil War service than to the loftiest praise of his far more illustrious years as governor of Ohio or as president of the United States? Because Hayes considered the four years he spent in uniform to have been the most precious years of his life. He had reminded a gathering of veterans a year earlier that the war years had been "the best years of our lives. Those years are indeed golden." Hayes belonged to every veterans' organization he could join, spoke at their reunions year after year, and told William McKinley, who had begun the war as a private in his regiment, "that the Grand Army of the Republic button he wore on his coat was the grandest decoration he had ever had."

Of those four "golden years" of war, Hayes felt the ten months during which he served under the command of Major General George Crook to have been the most glorious and satisfying of all - the apotheosis of the grandest episode of his life. He considered Crook to be the best general he had known. He developed a regard and friendship for him so profound that he named a son, George Crook Hayes, after him and constantly defended the general's reputation, even at risk to his own.

Crook became Hayes' commander in February 1864 when he took charge of the Kanawha division. The Kanawha division consisted of three brigades and took its name from the Kanawha River Valley of West Virginia, where it had spent most of the war. Hayes commanded the First Brigade. Crook was a fellow Ohioan and, like Hayes, had been in and out of the West Virginia theater since the beginning of the war; they had fought in the same division during the Maryland Campaign of 1862 and so knew one another at least casually.

Hayes was willing to give Crook the benefit of the doubt, if only because the man he replaced, Brigadier General Eliakim P. Scammon, had tormented Hayes for nearly three years. Scammon had been colonel of the Twenty-third Ohio when Hayes was its major. When Hayes assumed regimental command, Scammon was his brigade commander. And later, when Hayes attained brigade command, Scammon became his division commander. Scammon was ostentatiously spit and polish and so fussy that the soldiers called him "old granny." He also was too cautious in combat for Hayes's taste. When Hayes aggressively captured Princeton, West Virginia from the Rebels in May 1862, Scammon censured him for exceeding orders, even though the division commander commended Hayes and the department commander praised him to the War Department for having seized a key campaign objective. The more Hayes had seen of Scammon, the more critical he had become of professional officers in general. As he told his uncle Sardis, "I am less disposed to think of a West Point education as requisite for this business than I was at first. Good sense and energy are the qualities required."

George Crook was West Point and Regular Army, but he was in every other way the antithesis of Scammon - the personification of the "good sense and energy" Hayes felt critical to success in the business of war. He was ruggedly built where Scammon had been small and effete, modest where Scammon had been pompous, and so informal that he dressed in a manner another volunteer general called "half civil and half military." Sizing up his commander, Hayes wrote his mother that Crook was "a considerate, humane man; a thorough soldier and disciplinarian." The enlisted men took to Crook as readily as did Hayes, and during a morning dress parade in April 1864, before they had even seen him in action, the troops presented Crook with a seven-hundred dollar sword.

In one of his first acts as division commander, Crook assigned to Hayes's brigade the Thirty-sixth Ohio, the regiment he himself had led at the beginning of the war. Hayes was touched by, and grateful for, the gesture.

Crook had given him the regiment because he recognized that Hayes was the most competent of his three brigade commanders - the others being colonels Horatio G. Sickel and Carr B. White - and the most beloved by the rank and file. "We were a happy military family, with one of the bravest and most gallant officers of the army as our head, a man in whom we had implicit trust," recalled the brigade adjutant. Hayes had a similar regard for Crook's leadership. "We expect our full share of active service under the immediate command of General Crook. We all feel great confidence in his skill and good judgment," he wrote his mother on April 26.

Active service began less than a week later. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had given Crook an important supporting role in the spring 1864 Virginia Campaign. While the Army of the Potomac marched under Grant's direction against Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, Crook was to sever the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad at Central Depot, the point where the line crossed the New River, near Dublin. If he succeeded, Crook was to join Department of West Virginia commander Franz Sigel for offensive operations in the Shenandoah Valley.

Crook's mission was a familiar one to Hayes, and the 140-mile march to Dublin took him over country he and the Twenty-third Ohio had traveled two years earlier. On the evening of May 8, 1864, the Kanawha Division made camp at Shannon's Bridge, seven miles from the Dublin depot. There Crook learned that a Rebel force awaited him along a chain of bluffs opposite Cloyd's Mountain, which was the last natural obstacle between the Federals and the railroad depot. On the morning of May 9 Crook ascended Cloyd's Mountain to survey the enemy lines. At the far end of a meadow, five hundred yards to the south, the Confederate line of battle ran along the ragged northern slopes of Shuffle Ridge, as the bluffs were called. A hasty barricade of rails, logs, and dirt protected the Confederates, whose strength Crook did not know.

Though there actually were fewer than 2,500 Rebels opposed to him, uncertainty over Rebel numbers did not trouble Crook, and he decided to attack at once. He brought his brigades up, with White on the left, Hayes in the center, and Sickel on the right. White's brigade was to move through dense woods against the Rebel right flank; as soon as he heard White's guns, Hayes was to charge directly across the meadow against the Confederate center. Sickel would support him.

Hayes sat on horseback on the summit of Cloyd's Mountain, while his brigade lay in the timber behind him. Confederate artillerists took aim at Hayes's mounted retinue, but the colonel kept his composure. "Ready and willing for the fray," remembered the brigade adjutant, "[Hayes] was chatty and smiling, and while the shells of the enemy were screaming over our heads, or bursting in the trees above, he seemed as composed as though on dress parade." At 11:00 A. M. White struck the Rebel flank. Sickel's brigade advanced prematurely and was slaughtered in Cloyd's meadow. Hayes ordered an immediate charge by the rear rank, which was a difficult maneuver under fire. Down the mountain and across the meadow his line lunged at the double-quick, splashing across the waist-deep waters of a creek near the base of Shuffle Ridge. On the far bank Hayes called a brief halt to reform his line and allow the men to shed their knapsacks.

While he ran along the ranks, conferring with his company commanders, Hayes was astonished to find Crook among his men. The commanding general had accompanied the charge. The troops were both moved and amused by his presence. Crook had dismounted during the charge. While crossing the creek his riding boots had filled with water, and he had become stuck fast in the mud. An impudent lieutenant of the Twenty-third Ohio said his only objection to the commanding general leading their charge was that he had to be helped through the water.

In a few moments all was ready, and Crook and Hayes led the men up the ridge. Hayes was everywhere, one soldier recalled, exhorting and cursing as if "heated clear through." For twenty minutes the two lines grappled, transforming the breastworks into "one living, flashing sheet of flames," before the enemy broke. Hundreds surrendered to Hayes, among them the Confederate commander, Brigadier General Albert G. Jenkins.

Although he was six years younger than Hayes, Crook apparently was not quite his equal in endurance, because he fainted as soon as the Yankees carried the ridge. With Crook down and his staff busy trying to revive him, pandemonium reigned along the bluffs. White's brigade had been wrecked, and Sickel's men staggered about back in the meadow. Only Hayes kept his head. He collected five hundred men and two cannon, then chased the Rebels to the outskirts of Dublin, where he encountered eight hundred dismounted enemy cavalry. Hayes seized on one of the most critical principles of war - maintain the momentum of victory. He employed his favorite stratagem of deception; he ordered his five hundred troops to charge while yelling as if they were five thousand. The screaming unnerved the Rebels, and they broke. Crook showed up moments later with the remainder of the division, and at twilight Hayes entered Dublin.

The next morning Crook swung his command east and burned the New River bridge. Concerned now over his extended supply lines and having no word from Sigel, Crook elected to retire. After a grueling nine-day march under heavy rains, the Kanawha Division reached the Federal supply camp at Meadow Bluff.

Although the losses at Cloyd's Mountain had been heavy and the gains uncertain because the enemy quickly repaired the New River Bridge, Hayes was pleased with the expedition. "This campaign in plan and execution has been perfect," he wrote home. "Altogether this is our finest experience in the war and General Crook is the best general we have ever served under."

Cloyd's Mountain had fused the mutual regard of Crook and Hayes in the crucible of combat, but the greatest testimony to their partnership came during the Shenandoah Valley campaign, which began in early August when General Grant appointed Major General Philip H. Sheridan to command what came to be called the Army of the Shenandoah.

By that time Crook had risen to command of all the West Virginia forces - three divisions that he had for a time rather grandiosely called the "Army of West Virginia." In keeping with its small size - slightly over 7,000 men - Sheridan had Crook's "army" renamed the Eight Corps.

Sheridan's orders from Grant were simple: He was to move up the Shenandoah Valley until a 15,000-man Confederate force under Jubal Early, which earlier had threatened Washington, D. C., could be brought to battle and destroyed. Simultaneously, Sheridan was to lay waste to the valley and end its utility as a Confederate bread basket. "We are, for the present, part of a tolerably large army under Sheridan," Hayes wrote Lucy on August 8. "This pleases General Crook and suits us all. We are likely to be engaged in some of the great operations of the autumn.

The first major battle of the campaign came on September 19, 1864. In response to a visit from Grant two days earlier, Sheridan marched west against Early's army, then strung out northward from Winchester, Virginia, intending to cross Opequon Creek five miles east of town and defeat the Rebels in detail. But Early concentrated most of his command between the town and the creek before Sheridan could bring his army to bear. Leaving Crook's corps in reserve, Sheridan launched a frontal attack with the Sixth and Nineteenth corps while his two cavalry divisions swept south down the Martinsburg pike.

At noon the Federal infantry advanced. Sheridan outnumbered Early nearly two-to-one, but Early counterattacked, sending a division into a gap between the Sixth and Nineteenth corps. The Yankees recoiled, but eventually forced Early to withdraw to his original defenses. With the outcome of the battle in the balance, Sheridan called on Crook's corps to cross Opequon Creek and fall upon the Confederate left flank, concealed in a dense growth of timber. Crook elected to make the flank attack with Colonel Isaac H. Duval's Second Division and leave the First Division in reserve. In a testimony to his esteem for Hayes, Crook chose Hayes' brigade to lead the way. Crook told Hayes to march silently at a fast walk until within one hundred yards of a battery that anchored the Rebel left, then "with a yell charge at full speed." Passing over a ridge, Hayes was about to begin the rush when the brigade stumbled upon the boggy banks of a twenty-five-yard wide creek, and the enemy opened fire. "Of course the line stopped," Hayes confessed to Lucy. "To stop was death. To go on was probably the same; but on we started again." Yelling, "Come on, boys," Hayes spurred his horse, which "plunged in and mired down hopelessly" in the waist-deep water. Hayes jumped off and crawled to the far bank, while all about him men splashed and struggled. "Soon they came flocking, all regiments mixed up - all order gone," recalled Hayes. "There was no chance of reforming, but pell-mell, over the obstructions, went the crowd." Amidst the bedlam, Hayes noticed that - just as at Cloyd's Mountain - Crook was in the forefront, waving his sword wildly and urging Daniel Johnson's trailing brigade across the creek.

During the crossing Colonel Duval was shot and Crook gave Hayes command of the division. Together they chased the enemy five hundred yards to a second Rebel line tucked behind a stone wall. At that instant Sheridan's cavalry thundered down the Martinsburg pike beyond Hayes's right, turned the Confederate flank, and sent the Rebels flying. Hayes had the pleasure of leading his division into Winchester well in advance of the rest of Sheridan's army. Downplaying his own achievements, Hayes told his wife that "Crook's skill made the victory possible." And "it was great victory," he crowed, "but a much greater battle to take part in than the results would indicate. I certainly never enjoyed anything more than the last three hours."

More satisfying yet was the battle that followed three days later. Early had reformed twenty miles south of Winchester on Fisher's Hill, where the valley narrowed to a width of five miles. Here, Early entrenched. He anchored his right flank at the base of the lofty Massanutten Mountains and his left flank beneath rugged Little North Mountain. On the morning of September 21, Sheridan and his corps commander examined the enemy lines. Sheridan proposed a frontal assault. The other corps commanders concurred, but Crook suggested instead a flanking movement of the sort that had carried the day at Opequon Creek. He dissented so strongly from Sheridan's plan that Sheridan agreed to reconsider the matter at a second council of war that afternoon.

The second gathering, to which Crook brought Hayes, reflected the partnership of the taciturn Crook and the eloquent Hayes at its best. Lyman Kennon, a member of Crook's staff, described how the two worked in unison to convince Sheridan of the soundness of Crook's proposal. Said Kennon,

Crook was always preeminently a man of action and found great difficulty in expressing his views in spoken words. Hayes was a lawyer and talker by profession, and Crook would at times call Hayes to speak for him. The present is a case in point, and Hayes, with less of the respect for rank inbred in the West Pointer, expressed his views in the freest manner. During the conversation with Sheridan, Crook turned to Hayes and said, "Colonel Hayes, I want you to tell General Sheridan what you think of putting our men in on the enemy's front." Hayes said at once, "General, it would be simply murder." He warmly seconded Crook's idea of a flank attack and stated that the West Virginia troops were mostly mountaineers, all of them had grown accustomed to service in the mountains, and that the move through the woods and brush along the mountainside was entirely practicable with such troops. The move could result in slight loss if unsuccessful and might produce great results if successful. On this presentation of the case Sheridan finally yielded and gave the authority asked for.

It took longer than Crook and Hayes had expected to get their troops into position. The men had to march toward Little North Mountain under cover of woods and ravines, with the color bearers dragging their flags, in order to escape detection from Rebel signal stations atop nearby mountains. But their attack, when it came at 4:00 P. M. on September 22, proved as irresistible as they had assured Sheridan it would be. "Early's Rebel veterans made our Bull Run defeat respectable," quipped Hayes. "They ran like sheep." And their own casualties were even fewer than Hayes had predicted. Total Union losses were only 528, of whom a mere 83 came from Hayes' division, as opposed to Southern casualties of over 1,200. With Sheridan in pursuit, Early's defeated army fled south beyond Harrisonburg.

The whole North rejoiced at the news from the valley. Hayes was thrilled with what he assumed to be the concluding battle of "a most happy campaign."

Hayes was delighted too when Crook kept him on as division commander despite the entreaties of "five or six brigadier generals and one or two major generals, sucking their thumbs in offices at Harper's Ferry and elsewhere, who would like to get my command." Partly out of gratitude, but more fundamentally out of respect, Hayes named a new-born son George Crook Hayes. Hayes's wife Lucy and their other children took to calling the infant "the little general." Hayes also decided that, while Sheridan was "a whole-souled brave man," Crook was the real "brains of this army" because he had planned the battle of Fisher's Hill.

Neither Crook nor Sheridan displayed particularly good judgment in their next encounter with Early. After laying waste to the countryside, Sheridan abandoned Harrisonburg and retired to Cedar Creek to shorten his supply lines. Early followed at a safe distance. He halted at Fishers' Hill while his staff sized up Sheridan's dispositions from the heights of Three Top Mountain. They found the three Federal corps carelessly arrayed, especially Crook's command, which was encamped at the confluence of Cedar Creek and the Shenandoah River with a mile separating Colonel Joseph Thoburn's First Division and Hayes's Second.

With that news, Early determined to attack. The first blow fell against Thoburn's slumbering command in the foggy, predawn hours of October 19. The second came moments later, when John B. Gordon's division slammed into Hayes. Both divisions were swept from the field.

"As usual with me I had some narrow escapes," Hayes told Lucy with decided understatement. First his horse was shot, dashing Hayes to the ground so hard that he blacked out; word spread that he had been killed, but his men were too panicked to go back for him. Hayes revived in time to duck into a concealing grove a few steps ahead of the Rebel infantry. A short time later he was "hit fairly in the head by a ball which had lost its force in getting (I suppose) through somebody else! It gave me only a slight shock." Somehow Hayes caught up with his staff, borrowed a horse, and reformed his division north of Middletown.

Crook had been little better off than Hayes during the Federal hegira, riding about the field in something approaching a state of shock after his two divisions collapsed.

Despite Early's initial success, numbers eventually told, and Sheridan, who had passed the night at Winchester, reached the field and fashioned a counterattack that drove Early back to Fisher's Hill. Dealt a crippling blow, Early retreated to New Market, and the Shenandoah Valley campaign was over.

Perhaps because Sheridan himself had literally been caught napping far from the battlefield, no great blame attached to Crook or Hayes for the rout of the Eighth Corps at Cedar Creek. Hayes's division had been soundly thrashed, but his larger accomplishments during the campaign led Crook to recommend, and Sheridan to endorse, his promotion.

On the frigid winter afternoon of December 9, 1864, Crook dropped by Hayes's headquarters to tell him he had been named a brigadier general "for gallant and meritorious services in the battles of Opequon, Fisher's Hill, and Cedar Creek." Crook didn't have the commission in hand, but gave Hayes "a very agreeable present - a pair of his old brigadier-general straps" to wear in the meantime. Hayes put them on proudly. "The stars are somewhat dimmed with hard service," he wrote Lucy, "but will correspond pretty well with my rusty old blouse."

Hayes had not sought the promotion. Throughout the war he had preferred to "be one of the good colonels to being one of the poor generals" and long had forbidden friends from engineering a political promotion. But advancement on merit pleased him, particularly as it came "at the close of a most bloody campaign on the recommendation of fighting generals like Crook and Sheridan" and because it relieved him "of the apprehension I had often painfully felt that I was liable for want of rank to lose my splendid brigade and division and to be put under some incompetent political brigadier."

Crook and Hayes were parted, but hardly in the manner Hayes had feared. On the night of February 19, 1865, a group of Rebel guerrillas that included Crook's future brother in law, kidnaped him and Brigadier General Benjamin Kelley from their hotel rooms in Cumberland, Maryland.

Hayes was mortified, but relieved that no one placed any blame on Crook for having been spirited off in the night. After all, Kelley had been in command of the post and thus was responsible for ensuring sufficient guards were placed. Besides, Hayes assured Lucy, "General Crook's reputation is so good that it will not affect him much."

Hayes was right. Crook was exchanged after a rather pleasant three weeks captivity, in which he was treated almost as a visiting dignitary in Richmond, and then assigned to command the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac.

Before taking the new command, Crook asked Grant to allow him to return to Cumberland and resume charge of the Department of West Virginia for one day, just to demonstrate he had not lost official favor because of his kidnapping. Hayes had come to like the new commander, General Winfield S. Hancock, well enough. But when Crook paid his parting visit, Hayes could not resist contriving a grand display of loyalty to his old commander. He had two bands turn out and all the troops assembled to give "forty rousing cheers" for Crook. Hayes made a stump speech, a good deal of drinking was done, and Crook left for the Army of the Potomac, having had "lots of fun."

Crook went on to play a distinguished role in the final destruction of Lee's army. Hayes saw no further combat after Cedar Creek. Although he had been elected to Congress less than a week before that battle, he nonetheless remained with the army until after Appomattox. Hayes submitted his letter of resignation on May 19, 1865.

He and Crook remained fast friends after the war. Although Hayes cherished his old army friends above others, it was not merely remembrances of times past that kept up their bond. Like Hayes, Crook was a dedicated reformist at a time when far too many of their fellow veterans were wading in the muck of "Gilded Age" corruption. For more than two decades after the Civil War Crook served on the frontier, becoming, in the estimation of William T. Sherman, the most effective Indian-fighting general the army ever produced. But he was also the tireless champion of Indian rights. He worked incessantly to promote acculturation on the Apache reservations of Arizona and to protect the bands he defeated in battle from corrupt Indian agents, governmental indifference, and abusive white settlers. As Hayes remarked to the chief justice of the Supreme Court upon Crook's promotion in 1888 to major general in the Regular Army, "his appointment will be especially gratifying to all who take an interest in just and humane treatment of the Indian."

On March 21, 1890, exactly nine months after the death of his beloved wife Lucy, Hayes learned of Crook's passing. Crook had died in his suite at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago, his headquarters as commander of the Military Division of the Missouri. Hayes hastened to Chicago by train that evening, and the next morning was gazing upon his body in the room where he died. Before leaving for Chicago, Hayes had jotted down his first reaction to the news:

When I visited at Chicago in the winter I saw much of General Crook and was much with him. He did not seem to be in good health. But he was so hardy and strong, so full of courage and spirit, that it made no impression on me. How the soldiers loved him! - The Thirty-six Ohio! The Army of West Virginia! - indeed, all who knew him well! Without pretension, plain, simple, warm-hearted, kind. Faithful in his friendship; appreciating the volunteer soldier; with an Indian's patience, endurance, and sagacity.

Hayes served as a pall bearer at the funeral. When he returned to Spiegel Grove, he set about putting together a scrapbook of all the newspaper clippings he could find about General Crook. "He was my nearest and best friend of all the commanders under whom I have served," Hayes confessed to his diary four days after the funeral, paying tribute to the same qualities in Crook that others so admired in Hayes - and therein perhaps is key to their friendship. Crook was, said Hayes, "a man of wonderful character and gifts. No seeker after popularity, he was loved by all sorts and conditions of men. With all of the essential and usual virtues of the soldier, he had modesty, sincerity, tenderness, absolute integrity, and veracity. He wears the double wreath - the soldier's and the humanitarian's.

As he gave voice to his grief, Hayes also recorded for posterity a remark Crook had made during the war that remained with Hayes during his years as governor of Ohio and as president. Remembered Hayes:

General Crook was written to by his brother, elected captain of his company, to know how he could learn to command it well. The reply was an apothegm - a gem: "Learn to command yourself, and you will find no trouble in commanding your company.”

Peter Cozzens, Deputy Consul General to the U.S. Embassy in Panama, spent 15 years in diplomatic service, yet he is best known as a Civil War historian and author. All five of his published works earned "featured selection" status in the History Book Club. His first effort, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River, reached best-seller status in its first year of release by the University of Illinois Press. Cozzens' second book, This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga, became one of Civil War Magazine's 100 greatest books on the Civil War.

It was while researching a project on the American Indian Wars that Cozzens became intrigued by General Crook. Rutherford B. Hayes served under Crook in the Civil War and the two developed a life-long friendship. In the post-war years Crook became a noted Indian fighter, in large part due to his humane approach to resolving disputes. His philosophies gained Crook a reputation of being fair and honest. He earned the devotion of his men, the admiration of his enemies, and the respect of Native Americans.