Best Defense

A fine book on Crook, perhaps the most un-generalish of great American generals

Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on June 14, 2016.



Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on June 14, 2016.

I was fogged in the other day, so I used the downtime to finish reading The Gray Fox: George Crook and the Indian Wars, by Paul Magid. It is terrific.

I was especially interested in it because at one point a few years ago, casting about for my next book project, I considered writing a biography of Crook. Now I am glad I didn’t. Magid was way ahead of me, and his book answered all the questions I had — and the major reason I write books is to address questions that intrigue and puzzle me.

My first question was, why was Crook considered such a good Indian fighter? No, it was not because he was a tough, tenacious guy, though that certainly helped. On one hard march, he supplied his troops by having them slaughter their horses. On another occasion, after a 26-hour march, while everyone else went to sleep or built fires, he went out and shot birds to feed the troops some breakfast. He also was relentless. The chief of a surrendering Apache tribe reported that he had given up because his people could not sleep, hunt or cook, or take refuge in the warmer valleys, and that when they hid on the mountain tops, Crook found them there.

Rather, he was a successful Indian fighter because he thought ahead. For example, when he had defeated a tribe or band, his next move was to enlist their warriors as scouts. Consider this passage, after the Paiute have surrendered to him after a multi-year fight. His first major demand was that they provide him with scouts. Why? “His objective was to obtain knowledgeable guides for his troops and, more importantly, to test the tribe’s commitment to peace…. The chief assented, knowing that… it would give his young men an opportunity to demonstrate prowess in battle, crucial to their status within the tribe.”

Crook insisted that his Indian scouts — what we would today call local allies — receive the same pay and benefits as his own troops. This was “an article of faith with Crook,” Majid writes. That’s quite a contrast to our treatment of Afghan and Iraqi allies in our recent wars.

He gave a lot of time to his scouts, spending time with them (and with his mule packers) around the campfire at night. His chief of scouts at one point was Albert Sieber, an immigrant with a thick German accent and an understanding of Apache culture, values, and language. (This is something you don’t see in most Westerns.)

He also insisted that prisoners be well treated. This paid off in the long run, as respect and dignity often was repaid with trust and even friendship. When a leading Apache chief surrendered, Crook shook his hand and promised to be “the best friend he ever had” — if the chief kept the peace. When Crook wanted to send messages to influence the Apache population, he released prisoners with messages.

He was noted as a winter campaigner. This was in part because it was easier to attack Indian tribes bedded down for the season, but also because, in his Arizona campaigns, the abundance of snow freed him from being forced to march along the handful of rivers. In a later campaign, to prepare his men for a winter campaign against the Sioux in the area around northern Wyoming, southeastern Montana, and western South Dakota, he issued each wool socks. Over those would go moccasins that reached to the calf — and then, over those, buffalo-skin boots. Clothing began with wool underwear, then punctured buckskin, and then a heavy suit. Then an overshirt. And a coat of buffalo or beaver. Plus a beaver cap.

Unusually for a general, he was an expert on mules and on how to pack them. He preferred riding a mule in desert territory. He was a field commander, always out front — yet still avoiding micromanagement of his subordinate commanders.

Magid tells the story well. He is especially good on the battle of the Rosebud, in southeastern Montana, and especially why, coming on June 17, 1876, it was so crucial to setting up Custer’s defeat a week later in the next valley to the west.

For all his good will, Crook understood that at the heart of his success was the ugly truth that the best way to defeat a warrior culture was not to give it battle, but to rip out its soul. Victory was achieved not by fighting but by driving Indians out of their villages during the winter, burning their food, and capturing their ponies. As Magid writes, “The twin disasters robbed the Indians of their mobility and means to fight, and left them destitute and demoralized, struggling to survive in the subzero temperatures that prevailed on the northern plains at this time of year.”

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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