Fighting Joe Hooker: Part One

 

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Another biographic vignette from my Gettysburg text, the first part of a section dealing with Major General Joseph Hooker who almost commanded the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. This section of the text deals with Hooker and his command of the Army leading up to the Battle of Chancellorsville. I find him to be one of the most complex and intriguing commanders of the Civil War. He was vain, profane and ambitious, as well as a gifted administrator who actually cared about the welfare of his soldiers. At the same time as a division and corps commander he was outstanding. As the commander of the army he was singularly unsuccessful in battle, but what he had done in the months between his appointment and the disaster at Chancellorsville he turned the Army of the Potomac around. The improvements that he made to the army were very important when it won the Battle of Gettysburg under the command of George Gordon Meade. What Hooker’s legacy shows me is that some men have different talents. Had Hooker been successful at Chancellorsville he would be hailed and what he did before the battle to care for his troops and improve the army would be used as examples of how one should lead. Since he lost and eventually was relieved by Lincoln days before Gettysburg, what he did to make the Army of the Potomac a fighting machine is largely forgotten.

Peace

Padre Steve+

hooker

“Fighting Joe” Hooker had been in command of the Army of the Potomac about five months, assuming command from Burnside, who Lincoln had relieved following the crushing defeat at Fredericksburg, and after that general had demanded the wholesale firing of ten generals from the army of the Potomac, including Hooker. Hooker was a graduate of West Point, class of 1837 and veteran of the Mexican War. During that war he was brevetted three times for bravery acting as Chief of Staff to General Pillow and his division, and as well as the commander of a mixed infantry-cavalry regiment known as the Voltiguers. He received his third brevet of the war to Lieutenant Colonel at Chapultepec. General Winfield Scott “mentioned him prominently in his report on the capture of Mexico, and Pillow testified that he was distinguished by his extraordinary activity, energy and gallantry.” [1]

However, by 1863 he was not well regarded by some of his peers and one very important superior, Major General Halleck, who he had run afoul of in California. “While on Garrison duty in California in the 1850s, he cultivated “bad habits and excesses”- too much liquor, and too many women. He left the army, failed at business, and amassed gambling debts and legal problems.” [2] Hooker, like many contemporaries, finding advancement slow and pay bad resigned from the army in February 1853, and engaged in a series of less than successful business operations in Northern California, and also became active in California politics. However in 1858 Hooker was the recipient of a political plum, and “was appointed Superintendent of Military Roads in Oregon” and in 1859 was appointed a Colonel in the California State Militia. [3]

When war came Hooker managed to obtain an appointment as a Brigadier General of volunteers over the objections of General Winfield Scott from McClellan. Hooker was a “capable commander and brave soldier” [4] and became an excellent brigade commander. He combined strict training and discipline with care and concern for his troops. He “made himself accessible to officers and men who had complaints to air or favors to ask. He also took care that his brigade received its rightful share of rations, clothing and other supplies. He early struck upon the right balance of discipline and paternalism which marks those generals who gain the good will of their men.” [5]

But Hooker had a dark side, his unchecked ego and boundless ambition which were unconstrained by ethical considerations or loyalty to superiors and peers. He worked shamelessly against previous army commanders, including George McClellan, to whom he owed his appointment as a Brigadier General in the Regular Army.

In appearance, Hooker was “a strikingly handsome man” with “erect soldierly bearing…” but he was also “arrogant and stubborn, more than willing to work behind the scenes to advance himself, and reputed to have a headquarters that Charles Francis Adams Jr. described as “a combination barroom and brothel.” [6] The commander of XII Corps, Henry Slocum had “no faith whatever in Hooke’s ability as a military man, in his integrity or honor,” [7] a sentiment echoed by many other officers. However, George Meade was more circumspect, and wrote to his wife “He is a very good soldier, capital general for an army corps, but I am not prepared to say as to his abilities for carrying out a campaign and commanding a large army. I should fear his judgment and prudence…” [8]

Hooker genuinely believed in his abilities and much of the “criticism which he so freely bestowed on his superiors came simply because his professional competence was outraged by the blunders that he had to witness[9] on battlefields such as Second Manassas, Antietam and Fredericksburg. But his enemies, and “there would be a host of them- regarded him as “thoroughly unprincipled.” Hooker was driven by an “all consuming” ambition and undoubted self-confidence…. War intoxicated hi m and offered salvation for a troubled life. As a gambler he liked the odds.” [10]

During the war Hooker was what we would call now “media savvy.” He used the press of his day to shamelessly promote his image and “deliberately played up to the press to swell his image as a stern, remorseless campaigner, and he reveled in the nickname the newspapers happily bestowed on him, “Fighting Joe.” [11] However, he would later express his “deep regret that it was ever applied to him. “People will think that I am a highwayman or bandit,” he said; when in fact he was one of the most kindly and tender-hearted of men.” [12]

But Hooker was not just disrespectful of his military superiors, but also those in the Lincoln administration, including Abraham Lincoln himself. Hooker told reporters after Fredericksburg that Lincoln “was an imbecile for keeping Burnside on but also in his own right, and that the administration itself “was all played out.” What the country needed was a dictator….” [13] Hooker was an intriguer for sure but unlike many generals who did so anonymously. Hooker was quite open and public going before the “Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War investigating Fredericksburg” [14] where he not only provided damning testimony against Burnside, but against potential rivals, and after Fredericksburg the press clamored for Hooker to be named commander. One paper wrote:

We have in the Army of the Potomac, however, a General of the heroic stamp. A general who feels the enthusiasm of a soldier and who loves battle from an innate instinct for his business. The cry is universal, Hooker to the command.” [15]

After the failure at Fredericksburg Burnside had to contend with a “General’s Revolt” within the army. Numerous senior officers were involved, some speaking to the media, others to the high command in Washington and still others to influential congressmen, among these was Hooker.

After the infamous “mud march” Ambrose Burnside, now tired of Hooker and his other subordinates machinations drew up General Order Number 8 in which he planned to relieve seven generals, “two of his three Grand Division chiefs (along with the third Grand Division’s chief of staff), one corps commander, two division commanders, and one brigade commander.” [16] At the insistence of personal friends and staff who pointed out that only Lincoln had that authority, Burnside requested a meeting with the President during which he showed the order to Lincoln and also his letter of resignation if Lincoln refused to back him against his generals. The order stated in part:

“General Joseph Hooker…having been found guilty of unjust and unnecessary criticisms of the actions of his superior officers, and of the authorities, and having, by the general tone of his conversations, endeavored to create distrust in the minds of officers who have associated with him, by having, by omissions and otherwise, made reports and statements that were calculated to create incorrect impressions, and habitually speaking in disparaging terms of other officers, is hereby dismissed from the service of the United States as a man unfit to hold an important commission, during a crisis like the present…” [17]

Burnside was fed up with Hooker and since he did not have the authority to dismiss senior officers from the service he took the matter to Lincoln. Meeting the President at the White House Burnside “confronted Lincoln with this order and his own resignation, either the dissident generals had to go, he said, or he would. Lincoln agreed- and accepted Burnside’s resignation.” [18]

Much to Burnside’s dismay, Lincoln appointed Hooker, Burnside’s nemesis, to command the Army of the Potomac and sent Burnside west to command a corps. As far as the other conspirators of the Generals Revolt, none gained profit of honor from their machinations, and most, with the exception of Hooker ended the war in obscurity or out of the army.

Hooker Appointed to Command

Lincoln knew Hooker’s unsavory side, but the President “considered him an aggressive, hard fighting general…and hoped that Hooker could infuse that spirit into the army,” [19] which now was at its nadir. When Lincoln appointed Hooker to the command of the Army of the Potomac, he gave his new army commander a letter that is unique in American military history. In the letter, Lincoln lectured Hooker as to his conduct while under the command of Burnside, “and just how much he disapproved of the unbounded ambition Hooker had displayed in Undercutting Burnside.” [20] In the letter and during his meeting with Hooker Lincoln laid out his expectations, as well as concerns that he had for him in his new command:

“you may have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country.” Continuing: “I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I ask now is military success, and I will risk dictatorship.” [21] However, Lincoln pledged his support to Hooker saying “The government will support you to the utmost of its ability” but warned “I much fear the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticizing their commander and withholding confidence in him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in it.” [22]

Never before or since has an officer been given such responsibility by a President who recognized the man’s qualities, in this case a fighting spirit, as well as his personal vices and shortcomings in character. In fact, the letter can be viewed as “a model for a leader dealing with a flawed, willful, but energetic and useful subordinate.” [23] Lincoln finished the latter to Hooker with the admonition “And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories.” [24] Hooker believed the last comment was due to the way he was portrayed in the press, the “Fighting Joe Hooker” moniker had stuck.

The letter “engendered neither resentment nor misunderstanding” [25] and Hooker’s reaction to the letter was an interesting commentary to say the least. He recalled a few days later that, when he read it, he “informed him personally of the great value I placed on the letter notwithstanding his erroneous views of myself, and that sometime I intended to have it framed and posted in some conspicuous place for the benefit of those who might come after men.” [26] He read it to a number of others and told a journalist “It is a beautiful letter…and, although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.” [27] Hooker was certainly sincere in this as he not only preserved it but ensured that it was published after the war was over.

The Positive Contributions of Hooker to the Army of the Potomac

Despite the misgivings of the President and many of his peers, Hooker began a turnaround in the army that changed it for the better. At the beginning of his tenure he inspired confidence among his troops. He reorganized the Cavalry Corps and instituted many other reforms. Hooker discarded Burnside’s failed “Grand Division” organization and returned to the corps system. He was aided by experienced Corps commanders who had earned their promotions in combat and not due to political patronage, even the political animal Dan Sickles of III Corps had shown his abilities as a leader and commander, gone were the last remnants of McClellan’s regime.

Despite the many positives gained during the reorganization, Hooker made one significant mistake during the reorganization which hurt him at Chancellorsville, this was in regard to the artillery. Before that battle decided to “strip General Hunt of command of the artillery and restrict him to purely administrative duties…he had restored Hunt to command the night of May 3 after the Confederates had driven him out of Chancellorsville.” This act ensured that “The advantages traditionally possessed by the Union artillery in the quality of its material and cannon disappeared in this battle through Hooker’s inept handling of his forces.” [28]

When Hooker took command many of the men in the army were “disheartened, homesick, in poor health and without confidence in their officers. Thousands died in their quarters from lack of proper care or medicines for which there was no excuse.” [29] Hooker became immensely popular with the men as he conducted reforms which improved their lives. “He took immediate steps to cashier corrupt quartermasters, improve food, clean up the camps and hospitals, grant furloughs, and instill unit pride by creating insignia badges for each corps…Sickness declined, desertions dropped, and a grant of amnesty brought back many AWOLs back into the ranks.” [30] Additionally “paydays were reestablished and new clothing issued…. Boards of inspection searched out and dismissed incompetent officers.[31] Soldiers sang a ditty about him:

“Joe Hooker is our leader, he takes his whisky strong-” [32]

The most important thing that Hooker did was inspire his troops, both to them and for the cause of the nation was the way he saw that the troops were cared for, no previous Union commander had made troop welfare a priority. Hooker’s “sober, unimaginative, routine work of eternally checking up on rations, clothing, hospitals, living quarters, and other little details which in the long run make all the difference.” [33]

But nothing impacted morale more that his order that “soft bread would henceforth be issued to the troops four times a week. Fresh potatoes and onions were to be issued twice a week, and desiccated vegetables once a week.” [34] The most singularly important accomplishment of Joe Hooker as commander of the army was to demonstrate that he actually cared for his soldiers. It was radically different than Burnside, and even an improvement over the days of McClellan. Such actions made a huge difference in army morale. One officer wrote home “His ‘soft bread’ order reaches us in a tender spot….” [35] Regimental commanders were ordered to ensure that “regular company cooks went to work, and if there were no company cooks they were instructed to create some, so that the soldier could get some decent meals in place of the intestine-destroying stuff he cooked for himself.” [36] Hooker announced “My men shall eat before I am fed, and before my officers are fed” and he clearly meant it.” [37] Hooker’s actions to supply his troops with better food and living conditions as well as his attitude that the welfare of his troops came above his own and his officers was a remarkable example of leadership by example. These very concrete actions of Hooker “did more than anything else to enhance his popularity.” [38] One veteran recalled:

“From the commissary came less whisky for the officers and better rations, including vegetables for the men. Hospitals were renovated, new ones built, drunken surgeons discharged, sanitary supplies furnished, and the sick no longer had to suffer and die without proper care and attention. Officers and men who from incompetence or disability could be of no further use to the service were allowed to resign or were discharged, and those who were playing sick in the hospitals were sent to their regiments for duty.” [39]

Additionally Hooker reformed training in the army. He knew that bored soldiers were their own worst enemy, and instituted a stringent training regimen that paid dividends on the battlefield. “From morning to night the drill fields rumbled with the tramp of many feet. Officers went to school evenings and the next day went out to maneuver companies, regiments, brigades, and divisions in the tactics just studied.” [40] Fitzhugh Lee noted of Hooker that “it must be admitted his preliminary steps toward reorganization and the promotion of the battle power of his army were well taken.” [41] Not only did Hooker mandate such training he frequently showed up and observed the training as well as spent time visiting isolated pickets along the Rappahannock.

Hooker ridded himself of the last vestiges of McClellan’s reliance on the Pinkerton detective agency, and for his uncoordinated use of spies, cavalry and balloons while no “coordinated bureau compiled this information.” [42] Hooker consolidated intelligence operations and created a new staff office in the army, the “Bureau of Military Intelligence, led by Colonel George Sharpe” who “built a network of spies, who soon supplied Hooker with accurate information on Lee’s numerical strength and the unit composition of the Confederate army.” [43] Additionally Hooker helped quash key sources of information relied on by Lee, the local residents along the Rappahannock and Union newspapers. In regard to the former he restricted the movement of civilians along his lines, and cleared out Confederate partisans. As far as the newspapers he “found it expedient to ask Stanton to take action against certain Northern newspapers which were publishing revealing information about the army and offsetting his efforts to retain some secrecy.” [44]

Hooker also reorganized and systematized the Medical Department of the army, and “placed it under the supervision of the competent medical director Dr. Jonathan Letterman.” [45] Under Letterman’s direction and Hooker’s supervision “new hospitals were built and old ones renovated,” [46] this attention to the health of his soldiers paid dividends. Within weeks, “sick rolls had been reduced, and by April, scurvy had virtually disappeared. A veteran contended that Hooker “is a good man to feed an army for we have lived in the best since he took command that we ever did since we have been in the army.” [47]

Hooker worked to combat the vast number of desertions which were plaguing the Army of the Potomac which when he took command were averaging an estimated 200 per day. Tens of thousands of soldiers, some 85,000 according to Hooker’s estimate were absent from the army when he took command. In addition to his work to improve living conditions and the lives of his soldiers in camp Hooker revitalized the office of the Inspector General and used it aggressively to monitor conditions in the camps. One of Hooker’s first initiatives was to systematize “the granting if leaves of absences…..In those regiments lacking discipline, inspection reports were used as a basis for canceling leaves and furloughs, while leaves were increased for those units earning high commendations.” [48]

It was a remarkable turnaround which even impressed his soldiers, his critics, and enemies and his enemies alike. Darius Couch of Second Corps, who later resigned and became Hooker’s arch-enemy, wrote that Hooker had, “by adopting vigorous measures stopped the almost wholesale desertions, and infused new life and discipline into the army.” [49]

The actions of Hooker in the three months between his assumption of command and Chancellorsville were some of the most important of any Federal commander during the war. One senior officer who was not fond of Hooker noted “The Army of the Potomac never spent three months to better advantage.” [50]

The Crisis in Command: Hooker, Lincoln, and Halleck

Hooker had gone into the Battle of Chancellorsville with high hopes and great confidence, but the disaster at Chancellorsville Hooker was not the same. During that battle it was as if he was two persons, the first supremely confident and competent and the second lost and out of his league. During the campaign Hooker had: “planned his campaign like a master and carried out the first half with great skill, and then when the pinch came he simply folded up. There had been no courage in him, no life, no spark; during most of the battle the army had to all intents and purposes had no commander at all.” [51]

The defeat had a lasting effect on Hooker, the connection with his soldiers which he prized was broken. The general who had “once been so popular, was no longer well received in the camps – “there was something in the air of the men which said: ‘We have no further use for you.’” [52] In the immediate aftermath of the battle “Hooker had been deeply depressed… he told Meade that he “almost wished that he had never been born.” [53] However, it was a visit from Lincoln which helped revive him as “Lincoln let it be known that he blamed no one for the defeat.” [54] Henry Halleck who accompanied Lincoln told the President afterward that “Hooker was so dispirited that he offered to reign his command. Not surprisingly, Halleck thought Lincoln should accept the resignation, but the President disagreed. He wanted to give Hooker another chance to show his mettle.” [55]

After Lincoln’s visit he did begin to recover some his self-confidence. Hooker, a slave to his vanity who had little capacity for reflection and blamed various corps commanders including Oliver Howard, John Sedgwick and cavalry commander George Stoneman for the defeat. Unlike the unpopular Ambrose Burnside who after Fredericksburg, had “taken responsibility for the defeat on his shoulders,” [56] Hooker refused to take any responsibility for it. Years later, Hooker when asked about the defeat, “knew a rare moment of humility and remarked, “Well, to tell the truth, I just lost confidence in Joe Hooker.” [57]

Notes

[1] Hebert, Walter H. Fighting Joe Hooker University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1999. Originally published by Bobbs-Merrill, New York 1944 p.33

[2] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.74

[3] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.42

[4] Jordan, David M. Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier’s Life Indian University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1988 p.67

[5] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.53

[6] Marszalek, John F. Commander of All of Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 2004 p.165

[7] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.331

[8] Huntington, Tom Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 2013 p.127

[9] Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 p.7

[10] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln pp.74-75

[11] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.331

[12] Bates, Samuel P. Hooker’s Comments on Chancellorsville in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III, The Tide Shifts. Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel Castle, Secaucus NJ p.217

[13] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.136

[14] Sears, Stephen W. Controversies and Commanders Mariner Books, Houghton-Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 1999 p.150

[15] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.165

[16] Ibid. Sears Controversies and Commanders p.154

[17] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.165

[18] McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief Penguin Books, New York and London 2008 p.162

[19] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.162

[20] Ibid. Sears Controversies and Commanders p.157

[21] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.219

[22] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two pp.132-133

[23] Cohen, Elliot A. Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesman and Leadership in Wartime The Free Press, New York 2002 p.20

[24] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.133

[25] Ibid. Cohen Supreme Command p.20

[26] Sears, Stephen W. Chancellorsville Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 1996 p.62

[27] Godwin, Doris Kearns Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln Simon and Shuster, New York and London 2005 p.514

[28] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.31

[29] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.179

[30] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.133

[31] Ibid. Sears. Chancellorsville p.73

[32] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.141

[33] Ibid. Catton Glory Road pp.141-142

[34] Ibid. Sears Chancellorsville p.73

[35] Ibid. Sears Chancellorsville p.73

[36] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.143

[37] Ibid. Sears Chancellorsville p.73

[38] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.179

[39] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.143

[40] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.145

[41] Girardi, Robert I. The Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals in Their Own Words Zenith Press, MBI Publishing, Minneapolis MN 2013 p.89

[42] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.180

[43] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.229

[44] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.181

[45] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.225

[46] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.179

[47] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln pp.225-226

[48] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.179

[49] Ibid. Sears Controversies and Commanders p.157

[50] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.184

[51] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.210

[52] Cleaves, Freeman Meade of Gettysburg University of Oklahoma Press, Norman and London 1960 p.114

[53] McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief Penguin Books, New York and London 2008 p.177

[54] Ibid. Marszalek, Commander of All of Lincoln’s Armies p.171

[55] Ibid. Marszalek, Commander of All of Lincoln’s Armies p.171

[56] Ibid. Sears Controversies and Commanders p.158

[57] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.211

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1 Comment

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, Military

One response to “Fighting Joe Hooker: Part One

  1. Marty

    Have you read the R E Lee biography “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington”? I heard the author on TV and would be interested in your take on the book. Kind of ironic, given Lee’s scorn for “Mr F J Hooker,” that the reforms which revitalized the Union Army were at least partly responsible for Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg. Didn’t Hooker reform the Union cavalry too?

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