This Man Was at Every Key Civil War Battle
Samuel W. Crawford, M.D. was about to enjoy the comforts of civilization on a September morning in 1860. An Army surgeon, he’d spent the past 10 years at posts in the “frontier” of the country, such as Texas and New Mexico. But now he was visiting friends in Newport, R.I., and was about to start breakfast when he received a telegram. It was from the adjutant general of the U.S. Army directing him to proceed at once to Fort Moultrie, off the coast of Charleston, S.C.
Crawford, a captain of the medical staff of the army, immediately left his friends and caught a train. Shortly after his arrival, Crawford attended a convention where the secession question was debated, and he had no doubt the state would leave if Abraham Lincoln were elected president that November.
(For the record, Crawford was not particularly impressed with the candidate, having described him in a letter to his brother as a third-rate politician.)
Crawford soon found himself caught in a vortex of events that led to one of the most remarkable careers in the Civil War. He was with the garrison at Fort Sumter when the Confederates fired upon it. Afterwards, he joined the regular infantry army and saw action at Gettysburg, the Battle of the Wilderness, and Antietam, where he was severely wounded. In April of 1865, he was with Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse when General Robert E. Lee surrendered. Few men on either side of the war were present at so many crucial encounters.
He was born on Nov. 8, 1827, in Franklin County, Penn., the son of a minister and educator. He enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania when he was only 14. Although the curriculum stressed a “liberal arts education” – philosophy, history, Latin, etc. – he showed an interest in science. When he graduated in 1846, his thesis was on flowers. But by university rules, he was too young to start medical school, so he went on to earn a master’s degree, and his thesis was on anatomy. He then began medical school and earned his degree in 1850.
A year later, he joined the Army. According to several sources, he had the highest score of anyone who took the entrance exam to join the medical corps. Richard Wagner, author of "For Honor, Flag, and Family: Civil War Major General Samuel W. Crawford, 1827-92," believes Crawford chose the Army because it would provide adventure. “At that time it was a very honorable thing to be an officer in the U.S. Army,” says Wagner. “But it was important for him to travel. After he retired, he became a world traveler. He wrote articles back to local newspapers from all over Europe and the Middle East.”
Part of Crawford’s adventurous nature was displayed while he served on the Mexican border: he climbed Popocatépeti Volcano, nearly 18,000 feet high, calling it “an exhausting and exhilarating experience.” He drew sketches of its interior. He also conducted botanical and zoological research before the Civil War and submitted papers to the Smithsonian Institution. In 1858, he became a member of the Geographical Society of Mexico; and in 1879, he was named a fellow of the Royal Geological Society of Great Britain. The scientific training Crawford received would serve him well in another capacity: as author.
Adam Goodheart, in "1861: The Civil War Awakening," writes: “As a medical man, Crawford had attended not West Point but the University of Pennsylvania. After nearly a decade in the Army, he still brought the eye of an outsider and of a scientist, to bear on things around him. From the beginning of the crisis, he had been taking meticulous daily notes with an eye toward not only history but also the literary marketplace. While at Sumter, Crawford even made sketches of the fort, which he sold to Harper’s Weekly.”
While at Sumter, Crawford also wrote to his brother that he hoped to write a book about his experiences there. Three months before the first shots were fired, he wrote his brother about the impending war: “The truth is we are the government at present. It rests upon the points of our swords. Shall we use our position to deluge the country in blood?” Crawford was also upset by the defection of some soldiers to the Confederate side. As he wrote in his journal, “We cannot repress the sadness that comes over us when we see one by one of our old comrades dropping away, men with whom we have [shared] many a bivouac in the far distant frontier. How are we to regard them as our enemies now?”
On April 12, 1861, the Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, which controlled the entrance to Charleston harbor. The barrage lasted for 34 straight hours. In the end, the U.S. Army agreed to surrender and evacuate the fort. Once the Confederacy fired upon Sumter, the Union soldiers – which included Abner Doubleday – became celebrities while holding out against the unrelenting barrage. P. T. Barnum staged a show in New York City highlighting the men. While it’s known who portrayed Doubleday, there’s no record of who had the part of Crawford.
(Two years later, Crawford wrote a letter of recomnendation for Doubleday for promotion from major to major general; part of it read: “I have known Major Doubleday since the commencement of the war. He is far beyond the standard of the usual applicant for the position he seeks & he has won the highest opinions from all for his conduct in the field, & his devotion to his profession, & the interest of the service required... I commend most highly Major Doubleday for the position.”)
While Sumter was being shelled, Crawford was not merely a passive observer of events: he asked the commander, Major Robert Anderson, if he could lead one of the batteries in the fort, and Anderson agreed. Wagner speculates that seeing death and injuries gave Crawford a glimpse of what life would be like for him during the war if he stayed with medicine, and he didn’t particularly care for the prospect of constantly operating on wounded soldiers and amputating limbs. Crawford’s change of course “has everybody puzzled,” says Wagner, adding people have speculated “he could make rank faster in the infantry. There are those who say he wanted more glory. I’ve read things that have indicated this was probably true.”
In May of 1861, Crawford was commissioned as a major in the 13th U.S. Infantry, and saw action – and much death. Crawford was promoted to brigadier general in April, 1862 and during the war he led both volunteer units and regular troops. He first saw action when he commanded a brigade at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, where he spearheaded a suprise attack on a division that included the Stonewall Brigade. His next battle was at Antitem.
There, he became unpopular with his troops before the battle when he forbade his them to go foraging for food. He supposedly called his outfit “Pennsylvania cattle.” One soldier said it was wrong to shoot an officer, but added if Crawford “accidentally stepped between (me) and a rebel, he would not think twice about pulling the trigger.”
At Antietem, Crawford brigade's consisted of the 10th division of Maine, the 28th division of New York, and the 124th, 125th and 128th divisions from Pennsylvania. The troops were inexperienced, and while they fought bravely at times, their lack of experience showed. Crawford's troops suffered heavy casualities. One historian wrote that the lack of drill in Crawford's troops was “tragically apparent.”
Unlike many of his fellow generals, Crawford entered the soldier's profession without the schooling, training and experience of battle that his contemporaries gained while at West Point or during the Mexican War. One quality he did possess was courage, and Crawford made an effort to be seen by his troops during battle to inspire them.
At Antietem, Crawford was seriously wounded in the thigh. One account has him staying on the battlefield until he nearly passed out from blood loss and had to be carried off on a stretcher. It took Crawford eight months to recover sufficiently to resume his duties. (The wound, however, continued to cause him pain for the rest of his life and in his later years he walked with a cane.) He also suffered from malaria. He was again wounded in the chest at Weldon Railroad.
When he was healthy enough to rejoin the army, he was given command of the Pennsylvania Reserves Division. Crawford and his division, part of the V Army Corps, arrived at Gettysburg on July 2, and were engaged on the slopes of Little Round Top.
Accounts of his importance at Gettysburg vary. By the second day of the battle, Confederate troops had advanced through an area called “Devil’s Den,” driving Union troops to a small stream. Crawford was ordered to engage the enemy and drive them back. As the troops were about to advance, the corporal carrying the U.S. flag was wounded in the hand. Crawford, riding his horse, took the colors from him and carried the flag high as he charged the enemy, telling his troops, “Make Pennsylvania your watchword and quail not upon its soil. Forward, reserves!” One historian wrote, “This gallant charge saved the day. . . .” On the other hand, another scholar called the charge “a minor engagement.”
Richard Goedkoop, a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg National Park, said, “I have been told that Crawford had a tendency to inflate his role and that of his Pennsylvania Reserve Division at Gettysburg. But for that sin he was hardly alone. Since it was a major Union victory, everyone was trying to gain their share of the glory.”
Several weeks after the battle, a commemorative ceremony was to be held in which General George Meade was to be presented with a sword from the Officers of the Pennsylvania Reserve. Corps. Crawford wrote to President Lincoln requesting his presence at the ceremony, but the commander in chief sent his regrets.
Crawford remained in command of the Pennsylvania Reserves for the rest of the war, and was promoted to Major General on Aug. 1, 1864.
At the Battle of the Wilderness, a soldier from another division described Crawford as “a tall, chesty, glowering man, with heavy eyes, a big nose, and bushy whiskers” who “wore a habitually a turn out the guard of expression.”
During the battle, Crawford had reached an excellent place for Union troops at the Chewing Farm, but was ordered by General Gouverneur Kemble Warren to send some of his divisions to leave it and defend General James Wadworth's troops. An aid to Warren was with Crawford and argued against the movement, but to no avail. With less than a full compliment of soldiers, Crawford's troops were eventually pinned down and one of his regiments was captured.
Although Crawford was not in the McLean house when General Lee met with General Grant to discuss peace terms, he was in the area. He later met with Lee after the surrender at the Confederate headquarters – which was nothing more than a large tent. According to an article by W. Barksdale Maynard in The Pennsylvania Gazette, Crawford was “one of only two men known to witness both the alpha and omega of the Civil War.”
Crawford remained in the Army for eight more years, then began writing the book he had planned since the conflict began. "The Genesis of the Civil War: The Story of Sumter 1860-61", was published in 1887. It is a heavily detailed work: Craword does not begin to describe the shelling at Sumter until 400 pages into the book. He spent 12 years researching the history, which included many interviews with crucial figures, including members of President James Buchanan’s cabinet. Actors have used the book as a guide for staging re-enactments at Fort Sumter.
Crawford’s other postwar obsession was having a monument constructed to the Pennsylvania Reserves at Gettysburg. He purchased the 49-acre tract today called the Valley of Death, where his troops had fought, but no memorial was ever constructed. Crawford died Nov. 3, 1892. Eventually, the acreage he purchased became part of Gettysburg National Park, and in 1988 a bronze sculpture of Crawford carrying the flag was dedicated.