In an interpretive setting sometimes we get into a groove of saying things a certain way without even thinking twice about it. We read it, ingest it, try it in a program, visitors provided a positive reaction and we stick with it. If it is not broken, don’t fix it, right?
This spring, a V.I.P. (Volunteer in Park’s) brought to my attention that I was making a mammoth historical mistake. During interpretation and talking to visitors I was referring to Brig. General George Crook’s men as the “Union 8th Corps”, however, our V.I.P. pointed out Sheridan never referred to them in this nature and called them as the “Army of West Virginia”. I knew that this name existed, but opted for the 8th Corps nomenclature because it provided a quick name, and helped visitors relate to the other Union Corps at Cedar Creek. (19th and 6th). He quickly provided me with a pile of documents proving this, which included primarily Official Records and Reports from the war. I quickly started to second guess everything I was saying. Where did I originally get this information? Did I misread something during my research? Other Rangers and authors were referring to them the same way I was, were they wrong too?
After doing some more research, I have come to a conclusion. There are two schools of thought. The 8th Corps camp and the Army of West Virginia camp, to explain this, come historical context is needed.
The men that compiled the 8th Corps at Cedar Creek were veterans of the Civil War by 1864. Many were from the mountainous areas of western Virginia (now West Virginia) and fought in these areas during the war. Before 1864, the 8th Corps was responsible for protecting the B&O Railroad between Winchester, Harpers Ferry and Baltimore. By the fall of 1864 a detachment of these men were sent west, to the serve in the Shenandoah Valley with Phil Sheridan. This detachment was known as The Army of West Virginia. These “mountaineers” as they were sometimes known, were commanded by Brig. Gen. George Crook, good friend of Phil Sheridan. This detachment of men however, still held ties to their former command with the 8th Corps. During the 1864 Valley Campaign they flew flags that had the 8th Corps insignia, wore 8th Corps badges and so on. The official 8th Corps was still under the command of Lew Wallace, and following the battle of Monocacy, were still protecting rail lines during the fall of 1864. Crook;s men in the Valley however were integral to Sheridan’s success during his 1864 Campaign. At Fisher’s Hill, on September 22nd, it was Crook’s command that marched to the Confederate left flank and launched a surprise attack that rolled up Early’s line, leading to a Union victory.
On paper, the men in the Union 8th Corps who fought at Cedar Creek were never referred to by this name. They were always known as the Army of West Virginia. The 8th Corps along with the Union 19th Corps and famed 6th Corps from the Army of the Potomac, made up the Middle Military Division, commonly known as the Army of the Shenandoah, commanded by Philip Sheridan. This conglomeration of men was Sheridan’s fighting force in the fall of 1864 in the Shenandoah Valley. From the outset this is confusing; there is an army within a larger army, in addition with two other corps. In the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies all the correspondences between Crook and Sheridan refer to George Crook as Brevet Major-General Crook, commanding Army of West Virginia. Dated on September 19th 1864, here is a direct order from Sheridan to his subordinates:
The army will move at 5 a.m. to-morrow, an in the following order: The cavalry will be moved under the special direction of Brevet Major-General Torbert, chief of cavalry. The Sixth Corps, Major-General Wright commanding, will move at the above named hour on the west side of the Strasburg pike to Strasburg. The Nineteenth Crops, Brevet-Major-General Emory commanding, will move at 5 a.m. to-morrow on the east side of the Strasburg pike to Strasburg. The ammunition trains, ambulances, and wagons will be moved on the Strasburg pike, those of the Sixth Army Corps in advance. The Army of West Virginia, Brevet Major-General Crook, will be in reserve, and will march to Strasburg via the Strasburg pike
By command of Major-General Sheridan
You will find references like this throughout all of the O.R,’s, including the Union order of battle. This makes perfect sense. In a greater context, men such as Grant, Lincoln and Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton would be utterly confused if their reports, there were two generals, commanding two 8th Corps, in two different parts of Virginia. (Wallace near Baltimore and Crook in the Valley). To differentiate between these two, Crooks command was known as the Army of West Virginia. This is seen through all the official correspondences and reports.
So the question lies, how do we as interpreters or historians interpret this information and convey it to the public? I think the question lies in the men themselves. What did these men call themselves? The answer lies in various regimental histories of unit’s who were apart of this 8thCorps. Veterans refer to themselves as the 8th Corps, rather than Army of West Virginia. In the history of the 12th West Virginia infantry, William Hewitt recalls the Battle of Cedar Creek:
Our Army at Cedar Creek had met with a surprise attack mainly against its left flank. The Eighth Crops (Crook’s) being farthest to the front and left, was struck first, just at the break of dawn..
More telling, following the war there were numerous veteran reunions that took place in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan’s Veteran Association, led by Carol Wright of the 14th New Hampshire, organized two trips to the Valley in 1883 and 1885. Veterans traveled the Valley to see the battlefields they fought on, dedicate monuments and reconcile with former Confederates. Many of these men had ribbons made, that showed their former command. Many of Crook’s men, still, some 20 years after the war, associated themselves with the 8th Corps. You will see the 6 pointed star that was representative of the 8th Corps badges below:
From my point of view, in an interpretative setting, I do, and will continue to refer to Crook’s men at Cedar Creek as the 8th Corps for a couple of reasons. First, nine times out of ten, visitors who come and visit Cedar Creek are not, “Civil War Buffs.” Their knowledge of the war is often limited, and usually will stumble onto our park not knowing anything about the battle. Therefore, the interpretation should be given in a clear, concise and understandable manner. For organizational sake, saying 8th Corps, 19th Corps and 6th Corps gives visitors some continuity in the Army’s layout. Throwing in Army of West Virginia, then 19th Corps and 6th Corps, confuses the visitors from the onset, maybe leaving them with a negative experience at the park. However, every interpreter should have this knowledge in their head. So when they do get a question along the lines of, “I thought the 8th Corps was under Lew Wallace?” They can accurately and intelligently answer the question. Secondly, since the men who fought under Crook called themselves during, and after the war as men of the 8th Corps, I think that they deserve the right today to still be called this. I compare this to a child, who disregards the name their parents give him or her, and they decide to be referred to by their middle name. Same idea, on paper these men were known as The Army of West Virginia, but for all interpretative purposes, we are not doing any harm in referring to these men as the 8th Corps.
United States War Department. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Vol. 43 pp. 110-111. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office
Hewitt, William. History of the Twelfth West Virginia Volunteer Infantry: and The Story of Andersonville and Florence. Charleston, WV: 35th Star Publishing, 2010.