The firstborn child of U.S. Senator John J. Crittenden, and the brother of Union Major General Robert Crittenden, George B. Crittenden was a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army and a major general in the Provisional Confederate Army whose struggles with alcoholism led to his fall from grace during the Civil War.
Major-General George Bibb Crittenden was born in Russellville, Kentucky, on March 20, 1821. He was the firstborn of John Joseph and Sarah “Sally” (Lee) Crittenden’s seven children. Crittenden hailed from a prominent family. His grandfather, John Joseph Crittenden, was a major in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. George’s father was the seventeenth Governor of Kentucky, who also represented the Commonwealth in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, and he served twice as U.S. Attorney General. As a member of the Senate, in 1860, the elder Crittenden drafted the Crittenden Compromise, an unsuccessful eleventh-hour attempt to save the Union and to avoid the American Civil War,
After living his early years in Frankfort, Kentucky, George attended a private academy in Lexington. In 1828, he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. Not an outstanding student, Crittenden graduated twenty-sixth in his class of thirty-three cadets on July 1, 1832.
U.S. Army Officer
After leaving West Point, army officials brevetted Crittenden as a second lieutenant with the 4th U.S. Infantry. They sent Crittenden to Illinois to serve in the Black Hawk War, but apparently he did not see action. Following short stints of garrison duty at Augusta Arsenal, Georgia, and Fort Mitchell, Alabama, in 1833, Crittenden resigned his military commission on April 30, 1833.
Crittenden returned to Kentucky to study law at Transylvania University. After receiving his degree and passing his bar exams, Crittenden practiced law in Kentucky for two years. It was during this time that Crittenden’s struggles with alcoholic addiction began negatively affecting his life.
By 1842, Crittenden had tired of practicing law and moved to the Republic of Texas where he enlisted in the Southwestern Army of Operations. On December 26, 1842, Mexican forces captured Crittenden and 242 other Texans during the Battle of Mier near the Rio Grande River. Crittenden remained a prisoner of war for several months until Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna yielded to pressure from American political leaders (including Crittenden’s influential father) and announced his release on March 15, 1843. Departing from Veracruz by ship, Crittenden safely set foot on American soil at New Orleans on May 7, 1843.
Following his repatriation, Crittenden returned to Kentucky, where he resumed practicing law for three years. When the Mexican-American War erupted in April 1846, Crittenden accepted an offer to rejoin the U.S. Army as a captain with the Mounted Rifles. During the conflict, Crittenden served with General Winfield Scott’s Army of Occupation, earning a brevet promotion to major on August 20, 1847, for “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco.”
Struggles with Alcohol
Crittenden’s struggles with alcohol continued to plague him during his service in Mexico. Despite being charged several times with drunkenness while on duty, the army promoted Crittenden to major on March 15, 1848. A few months later, Crittenden’s struggles with alcohol caught up. On August 18, 1848, shortly after he returned from Mexico, a court-martial convicted Crittenden of drunkenness and dismissed him from the service. Once again, Crittenden’s influential father interceded on his offspring’s behalf. The elder Crittenden worked his connections with government officials, including Mississippi Senator (and future Confederate President) Jefferson Davis to secure his intemperate son’s reinstatement to the army on March 15, 1849.
Crittenden rejoined the Mounted Rifles at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, in time to take part in its noteworthy 2000-mile march to the Oregon Territory in 1849. After returning to Jefferson Barracks in 1851, Crittenden served at various posts in the American West for the next ten years. Despite continuing bouts with alcoholism, the army promoted him to lieutenant colonel on December 30, 1856. On January 2, 1861, Crittenden gained some notoriety for defeating a band of Kiowa and Comanche Indians and destroying their camp along the Cimarron River in New Mexico.
When the Civil War divided the United States in April 1861, many U.S. Army officers sided with the South, citing family allegiances and loyalties to their home states. Crittenden cast his lot with the Confederacy, but he could not justify his decision on either basis. His home state of Kentucky declared its neutrality on May 16, 1861, and never seceded from the Union. Crittenden’s father, although a slaveholder, was an ardent Unionist, and his younger brother, Thomas, served as a general officer in the U.S. Army throughout the Civil War. Over his family’s protestations, Crittenden resigned his commission in the U.S. Army on June 10, 1861, to join the Confederate cause.
Following his resignation, Crittenden made his way to Richmond, where Confederate officials commissioned him as a brigadier general in the Provisional Confederate Army on August 15, 1861. Six days later officials ordered him to report to Manassas, Virginia, to assume command of a brigade in General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Potomac (not to be confused with Major General George B. McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac).
Within three months, Jefferson Davis had other ideas about how to best use Crittenden’s talents. On October 25, 1861, the Confederate President wrote to Crittenden:
DEAR GENERAL: I have thought of you as my first choice to command a column of ten regiments, to advance from Cumberland Gap towards the center of Kentucky, and elsewhere, as circumstances will permit. It has occurred to me that personal considerations might render the service undesirable to you, and I write this unofficial note to request the free expression of your wishes in the matter.
Battle of Mill Springs
Apparently, Crittenden had no qualms about leading Confederate operations in his home state. On November 9, 1861, he accepted a promotion to major general. Soon thereafter, Crittenden replaced Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer as commander of the District of East Tennessee, headquartered in Knoxville. Crittenden’s command represented the eastern Kentucky-Tennessee section of General Albert Sidney Johnston’s thin line of defense that stretched from the Mississippi River to the Appalachian Mountains.
In late November, before Crittenden arrived in Knoxville, Zollicoffer led his brigade into Kentucky in search of a winter camp and advanced as far as the Cumberland River near Somerset. Rather than establishing a position on the high bluffs on the south side of the river, he crossed to the north side. When alerted of Zollicoffer’s error, Crittenden ordered Zollicoffer to re-cross the river and to hold the more defensible position on the south side. Zollicoffer did not comply.
Meanwhile, Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell dispatched a Union force commanded by Brigadier General George H. Thomas to drive Zollicoffer back across the Cumberland River. Aware of the Union movement, Crittenden traveled to Mill Springs. Upon discovering that Zollicoffer had not complied with his orders to re-cross the river, Crittenden took direct command of the Rebel troops in the area. With the swollen river at his back and the threat of Thomas’ force at his front, Crittenden attacked the Federals rather than trying to defend the position Zollicoffer had chosen.
Around midnight on January 18, 1862, Crittenden’s forces began a nine-mile march through a cold rain and a sea of mud toward Thomas’s troops encamped at Logan’s Crossroads. The Rebels arrived just before dawn on January 19 and launched an assault, hoping to surprise the Federals. Thomas’s troops were alert, however, and despite giving ground initially, they halted the Confederate attack and killed Zollicoffer. A second frontal assault and attacks on both Union flanks also failed, and the Federals forced the Rebels from the field in a retreat that ended at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The Union triumph at Mill Spring cracked the eastern end of the Confederate defensive line in Kentucky and gave the North its first major battlefield success of the war.
Following the defeat at Mill Springs, some Southern newspapers began searching for a scapegoat. Rumors materialized alleging that Crittenden was drunk during the battle. In February, the general requested an official court of inquiry to clear his name. Before Confederate officials granted his appeal, they reorganized their forces in the West. They reassigned Crittenden to a relatively minor role as commander of the Reserve Corps of the Army of Mississippi on March 29, 1862.
Just two days later, Crittenden’s new commanding officer, Major General William J. Hardee, arrived at Iuka and found an intoxicated Crittenden in charge of a camp in a “wretched state of discipline.” Hardee had Crittenden arrested and charged him with drunkenness on duty. Relieved from duty, Crittenden offered his resignation on April 11. Officials granted Crittenden a leave of absence while they considered his offer. After two courts of inquiry failed to resolve the affair, a shocked Crittenden learned on October 23, 1862, that the War Department accepted his resignation. A subsequent personal appeal to President Davis proved unproductive.
To Crittenden’s credit, after losing his stars he remained true to the cause and accepted reassignment along with a demotion to the rank of colonel. The disgraced general faithfully served the Confederacy in the Trans-Allegheny Department, successfully leading mounted troops into action in western Virginia occasionally during the next two years.
The Civil War ended for Crittenden near Christiansburg, Virginia, when General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Major General William T. Sherman at Bennett Place, near Hillsborough, North Carolina, in April 1865. The next month, on May 5, 1865, federal officials paroled Crittenden.
Following the Civil War, Crittenden returned to Frankfort, Kentucky, where he found employment as the state’s librarian from 1867 to 1874. On November 9, 1867, President Andrew Johnson formally pardoned Crittenden who, like many Confederate general officers, faced charges of treason.
Never married, Crittenden later lived with his sister, Cornelia Young, in Danville, Kentucky. A lifelong, passionate angler, the old general spent his last years fishing the waters of Elkhorn Creek. On November 27, 1880, Crittenden died at his sister’s home at age sixty-nine, in Danville. Family members interred his remains in the Crittenden family plot in Frankfort Cemetery, Frankfort, Kentucky.