A prominent Union general officer, Samuel W. Crawford was possibly the only person who was present for the beginning of the American Civil War at Fort Sumter and for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House four years later.
Samuel Wylie Crawford was born on November 8, 1827, in Franklin County, near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. He was the son of the Reverend Dr. Samuel Wylie Crawford and Jane (Agnew) Crawford. Crawford’s father, an ardent abolitionist, was an ordained minister, and a noted educator who taught at the Chambersburg Academy and served as Principal of the Academical Department of the University of Pennsylvania from 1830 to 1853.
Crawford was a bright lad who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1846 at the age of nineteen. Four years later, after receiving his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Crawford joined the United States Army Medical Corps as an assistant surgeon in 1851. Crawford spent the next ten years in the American West, principally in Texas. During that time he engaged in several scientific studies and expeditions.
In September 1860, Crawford transferred to Fort Moultrie, one of three federal facilities in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, commanded by Major Robert Anderson. Three months later, on December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union, in reaction to Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the November presidential election. After South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens could not negotiate a peaceful takeover of the federal facilities in Charleston Harbor, Anderson evacuated Fort Moultrie and moved the garrison to the more formidable Fort Sumter. Tensions continued to mount and finally erupted on the morning of April 12, 1861, when the South Carolina Militia began bombarding Fort Sumter, touching off the American Civil War.
Although Crawford was the fort’s medical officer, he received Anderson’s permission to man one of the fort’s batteries returning fire on the Rebels. After enduring thirty-four hours of shelling, Anderson negotiated a settlement with Brigadier-General P. G. T. Beauregard, who commanded the South Carolinians. Beauregard’s terms were generous. He allowed the entire Union garrison, including Crawford, to leave the fort unmolested and to return to New York City.
One month after tasting combat at Fort Sumter, Crawford traded his scalpel for a saber, accepting a major’s commission with the 13th U.S. Infantry in June 1861. One year later, on June 10, 1862, the United States War Department issued General Orders, No. 63, announcing that the United States Senate had confirmed President Abraham Lincoln’s appointment of Crawford as a brigadier general of volunteers, effective April 25, 1862.
In May 1862, army officials placed Crawford in command of a brigade in Nathaniel P. Banks’ 5th Army Corps, which was operating in the Shenandoah Valley. On June 26, 1862, President Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation creating the Army of Virginia, commanded by Major General John Pope. Lincoln’s directive specified that “the troops of the Shenandoah Department, now under General Banks, shall constitute the Second Army Corps” of the Army of Virginia.
Battle of Cedar Mountain
The 2nd Corps came close to defeating Major General Thomas J. Jackson’s Stonewall Brigade at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862. Jackson’s personal heroics and reinforcements from Major General A. P. Hill’s Light Division turned back a spirited attack by Crawford’s soldiers late in the day and shifted the tide of the battle. Crawford’s unit bore the brunt of the punishment inflicted by the Rebels at Cedar Mountain. His brigade suffered over a fifty percent casualty rate, losing 867 men killed, wounded, or missing/captured out of 1679 engaged. Because the 2nd Corps was so decimated at Cedar Mountain, Pope held it in reserve during the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).
Wounded at the Battle of Antietam
Crawford’s next action was at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Crawford entered the fray, commanding the 1st Brigade of Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams 1st Division of the 12th Corps. When the Rebels mortally wounded the corps commander Major General Joseph K. Mansfield early in the day, Williams took charge, and Crawford assumed command of the division. Crawford’s tenure as a divisional commander was brief. Shortly after taking over, a bullet struck him in the right thigh. Weakened by a considerable loss of blood, doctors evacuated Crawford from the field. Taken to his father’s home to convalesce, Crawford did not return to action for eight months.
Army of the Potomac Shakeup
By the time that Crawford returned to active duty in May 1863, the Army of the Potomac was in disarray. On November 5, 1862, President Lincoln issued an executive order naming Major General Ambrose E. Burnside to replace Major General George B. McClellan as head of the army. Five weeks later, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia scored an overwhelming victory over Burnside at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11, 1862–December 15, 1862). Less than three months later, the U.S. War Department issued General Orders No. 20, on January 25, 1863, announcing that Lincoln had sacked Burnside in favor of Major General Joseph Hooker. Fighting Joe’s tenure did not last much longer. After Lee’s army decisively defeated Hooker at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30, 1863–May 6, 1863), the U.S. War Department issued General Orders No. 194 on June 27, 1863, announcing that Major General George G. Meade was replacing Hooker “by direction of the President.”
Just prior to Hooker’s demise, Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, commander of the Department of Washington, named Crawford to command of the 1st and 3rd Brigades of the Pennsylvania Reserves, on June 1, 1863. Two days later, Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded the North.
When Lee launched his Gettysburg Campaign, Union officials ordered Crawford’s Pennsylvania Reserves to leave the defenses around Washington, DC. They joined the Army of the Potomac, as the undersized 3rd Division of Major General George Sykes’s 5th Army Corps. Initially, Crawford’s division pursued the Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as it moved north through Maryland and into Crawford’s home state of Pennsylvania.
Battle of Gettysburg
Sykes’s Corps arrived at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, the second day of the battle. Meade ordered Sykes’s command toward the left of the army to support the 3rd Corps, which was under assault by 14,000 Rebels commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet. When Meade discovered that a small knob known as Little Round Top was undefended, he ordered Sykes to occupy the hill and to “hold at all hazards.” Sykes deployed Colonel Vincent Strong’s Brigade to seize the hilltop. He then ordered Crawford’s Division forward to assist Strong, but by the time Crawford arrived, Strong’s men had completed the task.
Although Crawford was not much help to Strong, he showed up in time to encounter the remnants of three Confederate brigades that were advancing up Plum Run between Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. Following the lead of brigade commanders William McCandless and David J. Nevin, Crawford ordered his division to join in a charge down the slopes of Little Round Top, into an area that became known as “the Valley of Death.” During the assault, an aroused Crawford seized his division’s colors and personally led the attack that met with little resistance from the weary Rebels who had been fighting all day in an area known as the Wheatfield. For his heroics, officials later brevetted Crawford to colonel in the regular army. Although the combined Union assault drove the Rebels back across the Wheatfield, it was a relatively minor engagement. Nonetheless, Crawford spent the rest of his life promoting it as a pivotal event during the Battle of Gettysburg.
Mine Run Campaign
Crawford’s lingering Antietam injury forced him to take a leave of absence after the Union victory at Gettysburg. He returned to his command in November 1863 in time to take part in the ill-fated Mine Run Campaign.
When Ulysses S. Grant came east in the spring of 1864 and launched his Overland Campaign, Crawford maintained his command. Assigned to Major General Gouverneur K. Warren’s 5th Corps, Crawford took part in the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-7, 1864), the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21, 1864), and the Battle of Totopotomoy Creek (May 29-30, 1864).
Crawford later took part in the Petersburg Campaign (June 1864–March 1865), where he was wounded during the Battle of Globe Tavern (August 18-21, 1864), and in the Appomattox Campaign (March–April 9, 1865). On February 14, 1865, Crawford received a brevet promotion to major general in the volunteer army, to rank from August 1, 1864.
During the Appomattox Campaign, Crawford led his division astray during the Battle of Five Forks (April 1, 1865) causing the 5th Corps commander, Major General Gouverneur K. Warren to go searching for him when he should have been elsewhere. Vexed by Warren’s absence, despite the Union victory, Major General Philip Sheridan relieved Warren of his command after the battle, with the approval of Ulysses S. Grant.
The federal victory at Five Forks threatened Robert E. Lee’s supply lines and his best escape route out of Petersburg. On the next morning, Lee informed Confederate President Jefferson Davis that the Army of Northern Virginia would have to evacuate Petersburg. Sensing the urgency of Lee’s situation, Grant ordered a general assault on the Confederate defenses at Petersburg on April 2, which resulted in the fall of the Confederate capital at Richmond. The Army of the Potomac doggedly pursued Lee’s army for the next week. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House. As a divisional commander in the Union army, Crawford was present for the surrender, giving him the distinction of possibly being the only person who witnessed the beginning of the Civil War at Fort Sumter and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.
Like many Union general officers, Crawford received several brevet promotions after the Civil War ended. On April 10, 1866, officials brevetted him to colonel in the regular army for “gallant and meritorious service at the Battle of Gettysburg” to date from July 2, 1863. Also on April 10, 1866, Crawford received a brevet promotion to brigadier general in the regular army for “gallant and meritorious service at the Battle of Five Forks” to date from March 13, 1865. Finally, on July 17, 1866, officials brevetted Crawford to major general “for gallant and meritorious services in the field during the war,” to date from March 13, 1865.
Regular Army Duty
Crawford mustered out of volunteer service on January 15, 1866, but he remained in the regular army at the rank of major with the 13th U.S. Infantry. Remarkably, he never attained the rank of major general in the volunteer army, despite being a divisional commander for over two years. Crawford remained in the regular army for seven more years. On February 22, 1869, army officials promoted Crawford to the rank of colonel with the 16th U.S. Infantry. He transferred to the 2nd U.S. Infantry a few weeks later on March 15, 1869. Crawford remained in the army for four more years, until army officials allowed him to retire on February 19, 1873, due to injuries he received during the war. At the time of his separation, officials promoted Crawford to the rank of brigadier general, U.S. Army Retired.
Crawford spent the rest of his life traveling abroad extensively and lobbying for heightened recognition of his unit’s achievements during the Battle of Gettysburg. His efforts led him to purchase the ground where his men fought to ensure its preservation. The forty-nine-acre tract eventually became part of the Gettysburg National Park.
Crawford served as a director of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association from 1880 until his death. He died at his home in Philadelphia on November 3, 1892, and was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia.
In 1988, park officials dedicated a bronze statue of Crawford in Gettysburg National Park along Crawford Avenue, near Devil’s Den and Little Round Top.