Major General George Crook (1828–1890) was one of the best-known officers of the post–Civil War United States Army. His career spanned the Indian wars of the Pacific Northwest in the 1850s, the Civil War, and the campaigns against the Apaches and the northern Plains peoples during the 1870s and 1880s. Crook's military record was good, but inconsistent and well supplied with controversy. His greatest military glory came in the Southwest during the early 1870s with the offensive against the western Apaches and Yavapais. At the time of his sudden death of heart failure in 1890, Crook was among the leading figures of the American military, respected as a fighter, but he was also recognized as an Indian rights advocate.
Crook was born on September 8, 1828, on a farm near Taylorsville, Ohio. He entered West Point in 1848, studied with mediocre success, and graduated thirty-eighth in a class of forty-three in 1852. The young officer saw his first action in the Pacific Northwest and made a favorable impression on his superiors. Although Crook was "a soldier of the West," the four years spent in the Union Army shaped his character extensively, bringing him rank (major general of volunteers), experience, and vision. In 1871, as a lieutenant colonel, he received the assignment as the commander of the Department of Arizona. There Crook orchestrated an aggressive offensive by deploying several small converging detachments, which combined regulars and indigenous enlisted men. Troops struck against the parties and camps of Yavapais and western Apaches wherever they could be found and forced them onto reservations. For his exploits Crook won the star of a brigadier general, surpassing several outraged colonels in the process who proved eager to exaggerate Crook's failures in the future.
After the Arizona campaign, Crook took the field against the Sioux and Cheyennes in 1876 and 1877, suffered a defeat at Rosebud, and managed only mediocre results in other engagements. On the Plains, Crook proved militarily inefficient, uncompromising, and often frustrated. He returned to Arizona in 1882 and again took the offensive aggressively, this time against the Chiricahua Apaches, taking his troops across the international border into Mexico in 1883. Temporary peace was followed by another war. Again Crook sent his troops after the Chiricahuas, but, following a failed peace conference in March 1886, he found his policies in disfavor at Washington. Crook resigned and witnessed General Nelson A. Miles bringing an end to armed conflict in Arizona and New Mexico later that same year. Miles and Crook rushed to claim the glory for ending the Indian conflict in the Southwest and debated over Miles' decision to exile the Chiricahuan Apaches, many whom had served in the U.S. Army, as prisoners of war into Florida.
During the decades spent in the Trans-Mississippi West, Crook grew increasingly critical of the nature of American conquest and colonization. He saw the reason for armed conflicts in the greed and ruthlessness of white invaders. Anger toward white settlers and an ambivalent federal government filled Crook with a passion for understanding indigenous cultures. He believed that through paternalistic guidance Native Americans could learn to live under the new white order. Individualism, the cash economy, and hard work were the main instruments of Crook's Indian policy. Crook also appeared in the forefront enlisting indigenous men into the Army. He usually got good results, but discovered that most military officials and policy makers did not favor indigenous soldiers doing the white regulars job. Increasingly stubborn and uncompromising, Crook became an eccentric outsider in his own army, straining his relations with the Commanding General Phil Sheridan.
Crook was and remains a mystery. He certainly was ambitious, egoistic, eager for recognition, and vengeful toward those he saw as his enemies. Through his skillful aides and political connections, including President Rutherford B. Hayes, Crook was able to promote a public image of himself as a taciturn, honest, civilian-clothed man of action. Certainly, Crook was at times an innovative commander who obtained good military results through heavy dependency on indigenous soldiers, but equally often he met failure, most notably in the Sioux War of 1876–1877. His personal life is inadequately known (he was married for twenty-four years and had no children), and even his professional achievements are clouded in debate. Perhaps Crook was the greatest Indian fighter and thinker in the post–Civil War U.S. Army, or he might have been the ablest self-promoter of mediocrity.
Robinson, Charles M. 2001. General Crook and the Western Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Schmitt, Martin F., ed. 1986. General George Crook: His Autobiography. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.