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Following the murderous defeat of the Union Army commanded by Major General Ambrose Burnside at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11- 16, 1862) and the debacle of the “Mud March” that followed, President Lincoln appointed Major General Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863. Jeffery D. Wert, in his book The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac (1), summarizes General Burnside’s unfortunate and unbalanced military legacy:  “… His tenure had been marked by bitter animosity among his subordinates and a fearful, if not the needless, sacrifice of life. A firm patriot, he lacked the power of personality and will to direct recalcitrant generals. He had been willing to fight the enemy, but the terrible slope before Marye’s Heights stands as his legacy.”

In Orrin’s February 2, 1863 letter to his brother-in-law Ebenezer F. Witherell, he expresses his anguish when he writes: “Whether he [Hooker] will do any better than Burnside remains to be proved … we are under our third commander [McClellan and Burnside preceded Hooker] and, if I know anything of the feeling and disposition of our soldiers in the Army of the Potomac, they are down on the fighting business. The army is completely disheartened and may safely be described as greatly demoralized.” One can only speculate on the degree to which Orrin’s anguish was colored by his brother’s death (see Fredericksburg: Two Brothers on the Battlefield, One Survived), which occurred as his regiment, the 16th Maine Volunteer Infantry, stormed Marye’s Heights on December 13, 1862 during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Similar sentiments are evident in the last sentence of President Lincoln’s letter of appointment to Major General Hooker (2) that reads: “And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.”  President Lincoln, after a series of humiliating Union losses at First Manassas (July, 1861), the Peninsula Campaign (March – August, 1862), Second Manassas (August, 1862), and Fredericksburg (December, 1862) under the command of two ill-suited commanders of the Army of the Potomac, demands victories from Major General Hooker, but only without ill-considered haste or petulant boldness, that is, without rashness.

How did Joseph Hooker, who was a man of contrasting talents and reputation, come to be appointed commanding General of the Army of the Potomac at this low point in the Union’s military and political struggle with the Confederates to keep the United States intact? Joseph Hooker was born in Hadley, Massachusetts and graduated from West Point in the class of 1837 with other Civil War generals that included Braxton Bragg (CSA), Jubal Early (CSA), William French (USA), and John Sedgwick (USA). As a Lieutenant, Joseph Hooker distinguished himself for meritorious service in the Mexican-American War (April, 1846 – February, 1848), which proved to be a training ground for several prominent military leaders in the Civil War including George B. McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, Winfield Scott and George G. Meade.

Following the War, he remained in California during its transition to statehood in 1850 and became Adjutant General of the Pacific Division of the US Army before resigning his commission, and buying a large farm in Sonoma, where he became active in local civic affairs until the outbreak of the Civil War. After serving with distinction in leading a Brigade in the Peninsula Campaign under the command of Major General George B. McClellan, he received his initial commission as a Brigadier General from President Lincoln in 1861. During the Battle of Fredericksburg, he once again was recognized for meritorious service as a Corps commander under the leadership of Major General Ambrose Burnside. However, General Hooker’s distinguished military record was marred by two personal characteristics. First, he was publicly critical of several of his former commanders: in his testimony against General Winfield Scott during the Pillow Court-Martial following the Mexican-American War, in comments about General McClellan after the Peninsula Campaign, and in comments about General Burnside after Fredericksburg (see entry on January 23rd). Second, his reputation was further blemished by rumors of drunkenness, womanizing, and military infighting with his superiors. ”And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness.”

Given these personal flaws and the demands for victory for the Union Army, how did the newly appointed Commander of the Army of the Potomac transform the demoralized Army in preparation for the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30 –May 6, 1863) only a few months away? “Hooker… has command of us now.”  General Hooker transformed the Army of the Potomac by a combination of military leadership and keen insight into the plight of disgruntled soldiers (3) He consolidated the cavalry into an effective fighting unit, devised distinct Corps badges to give the soldiers a sense of identity and promote unit cohesiveness, improved leave procedures for deserving men, hastened court-martial proceedings for deserters, improved the quality of food, and organized sports events to improve spirit among units.

At Chancellorsville, Major General Hooker commanded a force of about 133,000 men that he organized into seven Army Corps, each command by a Major General and the Cavalry Corps, outnumbering General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia two to one. “When he [Hooker] launched his campaign against Lee, Hooker swore off liquorthat may have hurt more than it helped.”  General Hooker’s strategy was to cross the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers about 11 miles north-west of Fredericksburg into The Wilderness and attack the Confederates entrenched at Chancellorsville, located on its eastern edge.Following the planned Confederate defeat, the Army of the Potomac with its cavalry would rapidly move south to attack and capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, bringing the Civil War to a close. Initially, Hooker’s strategy worked well and a victory for the Union Army seemed assured when, to the disbelief of the Corps commanders, Major General Hooker ordered that the Union Army cease their attacks, pull back and retreat into The Wilderness. Many of the Corps commanders, including Major General George G. Meade, were stunned by the command, but in accordance with military protocol, were required to obey his orders. General Lee’s Army was quick to respond by driving the Army of the Potomac back across the Rappahannock River, resulting in a decisive victory for the Confederates, albeit with devastating numbers of combined casualties totaling about 30,000 men. 

This defeat left the Army of the Potomac discouraged, and it prolonged the Civil War for an additional two years. It was not known then, nor is it known now with any certainty, why General Hooker ordered retreat (3). Was it a transient loss of self-confidence in his ability to direct the engagement or a loss of courage initiated by flashbacks to the string of Union defeats in 1861 and 1862? “… Beware of rashness …“ Although President Lincoln was traumatized by the Union loss at Chancellorsville because of its military and political implications, he maintained his resolute leadership as Commander in Chief, accepted the resignation of General Hooker and appointed Major General George G. Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac just four days before the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 – 3, 1863). Hooker's devastating decisions as commander of the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville validated Orrin's prior ambivalence when he wrote: “Whether he [Hooker] will do any better than Burnside remains to be proved … “.  Would Major General Meade do any better, or would he become the fourth in the sequence of ill-suited Commanders of the Army of the Potomac?

Selected Readings

1. Wert, Jeffery D. The Sword of Lincoln:  The Army of the Potomac. Simon & Schuster. New York, NY. 2005.

2. Gilbert, Peter A. Civil War Book of Days. Lincoln Appoints Fighting Joe Hooker to Lead the Army of Potomac. Vermont Humanities Council,  Vol. 4, Issue 4. January 2013.

3. Smith, G. The Destruction of Fighting Joe Hooker. American Heritage. Vol. 4, Issue 6, October 1993.

Related Images

  • Chancellorsville: “Hooker, or Fighting Joe as he is called, has command of us now.” Orrin L. Gatchell
  • Chancellorsville: “Hooker, or Fighting Joe as he is called, has command of us now.” Orrin L. Gatchell
  • Chancellorsville: “Hooker, or Fighting Joe as he is called, has command of us now.” Orrin L. Gatchell

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