Adelbert Cronkhite (January 6, 1861 – June 15, 1937) was a career officer in the United States Army. He was notable for his command of the 80th Division during World War I. He also served as interim commander of IX Corps and commander of VI Corps after the war. In addition, his later command assignments included command of the Newport News Port of Debarkation, the Coast Artillery Training Center, and III Corps Area.
Cronkhite was the subject of national attention in the early 1920s when he advocated publicly for the investigation into the death of his son to be reopened; Alexander P. Cronkhite was an Army major stationed at Camp Lewis, Washington in 1918 when he died as the result of a gunshot. The investigation determined that the wound was accidental and self-inflicted; Cronkhite’s public campaign led to the indictment of two soldiers who had been with Alexander Cronkhite at the time of his death. The 1924 trial of one ended in an acquittal, and charges against the second were dropped. Cronkhite’s public campaign to renew the investigation brought him into disfavor with senior Army leadership, and he was retired against his wishes in 1923.
After his retirement, Cronkhite lived in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area and became active in veterans’ groups. He was also a frequent speaker at military reunions and other public events.
Cronkhite died in Florida in 1937 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Adelbert Cronkhite was born in Litchfield, New York on January 6, 1861. His father was a surgeon in the Army, and Cronkhite was raised at military posts throughout the United States. He was appointed to the United States Military Academy from Arizona in 1878; he graduated in 1882 ranked 10th in his class, and was assigned to the Field Artillery branch.
Start of career
Cronkhite was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 4th Artillery Regiment and assigned to the garrison at Fort Warren, Massachusetts. He then attended the Artillery School at Fort Monroe, Virginia; after graduating, he remained on the faculty until 1888.
In July 1888, Cronkhite was assigned to the garrison at Fort Trumbull, Connecticut. From May to October 1889 he served at Fort McPherson, Georgia, and he was assigned to Fort Barrancas, Florida until July 1890. Cronkhite was promoted to first lieutenant in the 4th Artillery in January 1889.
From 1890 to 1891 Cronkhite served at Fort Riley, Kansas. From January to August 1891 he served in South Dakota during operations against Native Americans at the end of the Sioux Wars. He was Professor of Military Science at the Michigan Military Academy from 1891 to 1892. Cronkhite then returned to Fort McPherson, where he performed garrison duty until May 1893. He served at Fort McHenry, Maryland from 1893 to 1896, and then returned to Fort Riley, where he served until 1898.
Cronkhite organized and trained units intended for combat overseas, serving at Jackson Barracks, Louisiana, Camp Thomas, Georgia, and Tampa, Florida. He served in Puerto Rico with the 4th Artillery during the second half of 1898, and took part in the Battle of Coamo. He returned to the United States for demobilization in Savannah, Georgia before traveling to his regiment’s home base at Fort Riley. Cronkhite was promoted to captain in March 1899.
After taking an extended post-war leave, Cronkhite performed garrison duty at Fort Terry, New York. From June 1899 to September 1901 he was assigned as adjutant of the School of Submarine Defense at Fort Totten, New York. (The School of Submarine Defense taught the use of torpedoes and naval mines for protecting harbors.) When the Artillery Corps was divided into Field Artillery and Coast Artillery, Cronkhite opted to serve with the Coast Artillery.
From September 1901 to May 1904 Cronkhite was assigned to Fort Douglas, Utah as commander of the 22nd Field Artillery Battery. He then performed temporary duty as a quartermaster until July 1906. In November 1905, he received promotion to major.
Cronkhite performed extended duty on the staff of the Army’s Department of the East from 1906 to 1911, including inspector general, artillery officer, and coast defense officer. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in January 1909, and colonel in August 1911.
From September 1911 to October 1914, Cronkhite commanded the garrison at Fort Totten. He was then assigned to command the Panama Coast Artillery District -- the coastal defenses of Panama and the Panama Canal Zone. He was promoted to brigadier general in May 1917, and major general in August 1917, and he remained in Panama until September 1917.
World War I
As the Army expanded during its wartime mobilization, Cronkhite was appointed to command the 80th Division, an organization created with draftees from Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. He organized and trained the division at Camp Lee, Virginia, and led it to France as part of the American Expeditionary Forces. He remained in command during the division’s 1918 combat operations, including the First Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
Cronkhite commanded IX Corps from November 1918 to January 1919, and VI Corps from January to April 1919. He returned to command of the 80th Division in May so that he could lead it home to the United States for demobilization.
Post-World War I
Cronkhite returned to the United States in May 1919, and commanded the Newport News Port of Debarkation until September. His other post-war assignments included chief of officer classification for the Coast Artillery Corps, commander of the Coast Artillery Training Center at Fort Monroe and the coastal defenses of the Chesapeake Bay, and member of the Army’s General Selection Board that determined which officers would be retained in the Army after the post-World War I demobilization was complete.
In September 1920, Cronkhite was assigned to command III Corps Area with headquarters at Fort Howard. From November 1920 to January 1921 Cronkhite served temporarily as military aide to Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby during Colby’s extended mission in South America.
Investigation into son’s death
Adelbert Cronkhite’s son Alexander Pennington Cronkhite, nicknamed "Buddy", was a 1915 graduate of West Point. In October 1918, he was serving as a major commanding a battalion in a Camp Lewis, Washington engineer regiment. Major Cronkhite died of a gunshot wound while at a Camp Lewis training area; subsequent investigation determined that the wound was self-inflicted, and that it was accidental.
Some members of Alexander Cronkhite’s regiment talked among themselves and raised the possibility of suicide. Others suggested that a sergeant who was with Cronkhite at the time of his death might have been the shooter.
Adelbert Cronkhite and his wife refused to accept the finding that the shooting was accidental. After hiring private detectives and having a second autopsy performed, they were convinced that their son had been murdered. In Adelbert Cronkhite’s view, the sergeant who was with his son on the day of the shooting and the captain in temporary command of Alexander Cronkhite’s troops at the time of the shooting were responsible. (Alexander Cronkhite was not in command on the day of his death because he was recovering after having been hospitalized with influenza.)
For two years, Adelbert Cronkhite attempted to have the War Department re-open the investigation. When this didn’t happen, he tried to convince the Justice Department to pursue the investigation and prosecute the two soldiers he believed to be guilty. The Justice Department eventually took up the investigation, and law enforcement agents were able to obtain multiple confessions from the sergeant who had been with Alexander Cronkhite at the time of the shooting; the sergeant implicated the captain who had been in temporary command. With no motive immediately obvious, Adelbert Cronkhite suggested that the killing of his son was part of a plot to ruin his, Adelbert’s, reputation. Because the captain who was implicated was Jewish, members of the right wing press, led by Henry Ford’s newspaper The Dearborn Independent, claimed that the shooting was murder, and that the captain had forced the sergeant to carry it out in the captain's supposed role as a “Bolshevist Jew agitator”.
The sergeant eventually repudiated his confessions, claiming they had been coerced. The agents who obtained them admitted to harsh interrogation techniques, so the confessions were excluded at the sergeant's trial in October 1924. With the prosecution case largely consisting of the argument that it was impossible for Alexander Cronkhite to have shot himself by accident, given the angle of the shot and the distance of the gun from his body when it was fired, their central claim collapsed when a friend of Alexander Cronkhite’s, Eugene M. Caffey, and a second officer each demonstrated in court that an accidental shooting that fit the circumstances was not only possible, but that it was simple to recreate a plausible series of events which could have resulted in Alexander Cronkhite pulling the trigger by mistake. The sergeant was quickly acquitted; charges against the captain were soon dropped.
Adelbert Cronkhite had refused to accept assignment as commander of the Panama Canal Zone so that he could continue to pursue the investigation into his son’s death. This refusal, coupled with his public denunciation of the Attorney General for not pursuing the case rapidly enough, brought him into disfavor with the Secretary of War John W. Weeks and John J. Pershing, the Army Chief of Staff. As a result, Cronkhite was retired against his will “for the convenience of the government” in 1923.
Cronkhite received the Distinguished Service Medal for his World War I service. In addition, he was a recipient of the French Croix de Guerre with Palm and Legion of Honor (Commander), and the British Order of St Michael and St George (Knight Commander).
In addition to his United States Army and international military awards, Cronkhite was also a recipient of the Virginia Distinguished Service Medal, which the governor and adjutant general presented to several individuals who commanded Virginia soldiers during World War I, including Philippe Pétain and John J. Pershing.
Distinguished Service Medal citation
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Army Distinguished Service Medal to Major General Adelbert Cronkhite, United States Army, for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services to the Government of the United States, in a duty of great responsibility during World War I. General Cronkhite commanded the 80th Division during the Argonne-Meuse offensive, where he demonstrated great ability as a leader and proved himself a commander of initiative and courage.
General Orders: War Department, General Orders No. 12 (1919) Action Date: World War I Service: Army Rank: Major General Company: Commanding General Division: 80th Division, American Expeditionary Forces
After retiring, Cronkhite lived in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, was active in several veterans’ organizations, and was a sought after speaker for reunions, Independence Day commemorations, and other ceremonies. Until the end of his life he argued that his son had not died accidentally, and that the murderers had gone unpunished.
Death and burial
He died in St. Petersburg, Florida on June 15, 1937. He was buried at West Point Cemetery, Section K, Site 26.
Adelbert Cronkhite’s father was Henry M. Cronkhite, a physician and Union Army veteran of the American Civil War who remained in the Army until retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1895.
He was the husband of Annie Estelle Pennington (1865-1932), the daughter of Army Brigadier General Alexander Cummings McWhorter Pennington Jr. Her other family members included grandfather Alexander C. M. Pennington Sr., a member of Congress from New Jersey, as well as other members of the Pennington family who served in offices including Governor of New Jersey and Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.
In addition to their son Alexander, Adelbert and Annie Cronkhite were the parents of a daughter, Dorothy (1890-1954).
Following the death of his first wife, in 1933 Cronkhite married Gertrude E. Horne of Pittsburgh. Gertrude Horne Cronkhite was active in veterans' organizations, and died in Pittsburgh on February 3, 1954.
In 1893, Cronkhite authored Gunnery for Non-commissioned Officers. This work was a compilation of information on cannons, ammunition, fuses, and other details necessary to master the use of artillery in combat.
After his death, the Army honored him by naming a Marin County, California Coast Artillery post as Fort Cronkhite. The site, which contains remains of the long-defunct military post, is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.