Joseph Hooker

Joseph Hooker

Joseph Hooker was born in Hadley, Massachusetts, on 13th November, 1814. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in the Seminole War (1838-42) and the Mexican War (1846-48). While in Mexico he clashed with General Winfield Scott and decided to resign from the army in 1855.

Hooker became a farmer in California until offering his services to the Union Army on the outbreak of the American Civil War. Commissioned as a brigadier general in August, 1861, he was sent to defend Washington. Later he was sent on offensive duties and his aggressive style at Antietam (September, 1862) and Fredericksburg (November, 1862) earned him the nickname name 'Fighting Joe'

After the disappointment of Fredericksburg President Abraham Lincoln selected Hooker to replace Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. In April, 1863, Hooker decided to attack the Army of Northern Virginia that had been entrenched on the south side of the Rappahonnock River since the battle of Fredericksburg. Hooker crossed the river and took up position at Chancellorsville.

Although outnumbered two to one, Robert E. Lee, opted to split his Confederate Army into two groups. Lee left 10,000 men under Jubal Early, while he and Thomas Stonewall Jackson on 2nd May, successfully attacked the flank of Hooker's army. However, after returning from the battlefield Jackson was accidentally shot by one of his own men. Jackson's left arm was successfully amputated but he developed pneumonia and he died eight days later.

On the 3rd May, James Jeb Stuart, who had taken command of Jackson's troops, mounted another attack and drove Hooker back further. The following day Robert E. Lee and Jubal Early and joined the attack on the Union Army. By 6th May, Hooker had lost over 11,000 men, and decided to retreat from the area.

Abraham Lincoln lost confidence in Hooker after Chancellorsville and he decided to resign on the eve of Gettysburg (July, 1863). He returned to the front when he led troops to rescue William Rosecrans after he was defeated at Chickamuga (September, 1863).

Hooker joined with William Sherman at the Battle of Atlanta but resigned after he failed to get the promotion he felt he deserved. Hooker moved to command the Department of the East until he retired from the army after suffering a stroke on 15th October, 1868. Joseph Hooker died in Garden City, New York, on 31st October, 1879.

Primary Sources

(1) George Smalley, New York Tribune (20th September, 1862)

There were woods in front of Doubleday's hill which the Rebels held, but so long as those guns pointed that way they did not care to attack. With his left then able to take care of itself, with his right impregnable with two brigades of Mansfield still fresh and coming rapidly up, and with this center a second time victorious, General Hooker determined to advance. Orders were sent to Crawford and Gordon - the two Mansfield brigades - to move directly forward at once, the batteries in the center were ordered on, the whole line was called on, and the General himself went forward.

To the right of the cornfield and beyond it was a point of woods. Once carried and firmly held, it was the key of the position. Hooker determined to take it. He rode out in front of his furthest troops on a hill to examine the ground for a battery. At the top he dismounted and went forward on foot, completed his reconnaissance, and returned and remounted. The musketry fire from the point of woods was all the while extremely hot. As he put his foot in the stirrup a fresh volley of rifle bullets came whizzing by. The tall soldierly figure of the General, the white horse which he rode, the elevated place where he was - all made him a most dangerously conspicuous mark. So he had been all day, riding often without a staff officer or an orderly near him - all sent off on urgent duty - visible everywhere on the field. The Rebel bullets had followed him all day, but they had not hit him, and he would not regard them. Remounting on this hill he had not ridden five steps when he was struck in the foot by a ball.

Three men were shot down at the same moment by his side. The air was alive with bullets. He kept on his horse for a few moments, though the wound was severe and excessively painful, and would not dismount till he had given his last order to advance. He was himself in the very front. Swaying unsteadily on his horse, he turned in his seat to look about him. "There is a regiment to the right. Order it forward! Crawford and Gordon are coming up. Tell them to carry these woods and hold them - and it is our fight!"

I see no reason why I should disguise my admiration of General Hooker's bravery and soldierly ability. Remaining nearly all the morning on the right, I could not help seeing the sagacity and promptness of his maneuvers, how completely his troops were kept in hand, how devotedly they trusted to him, how keen was his insight into the battle; how every opportunity was seized and every reverse was checked and turned into another success. I say this the more unreservedly, because I have no personal relation whatever with him, never saw him till the day before the fight, and don't like his politics or opinions in general. But what are politics in such a battle?

(2) President Abraham Lincoln, letter to Joseph Hooker (26th January, 1863)

I have placed you the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know what there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which of course I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is valuable if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside's command of the army you have taken counsel by your ambition and thwarted him so much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer.

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 the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders.

(3) General Oliver Howard wrote about Joseph Hooker in his autobiography published in 1907.

After the battle of Fredericksburg we returned to the same encampments which we had left to cross the Rappahannock, and on January 27, 1863, orders from the President, dated the day before, placed our "Fighting Joe Hooker" in command of the army. Burnside, Sumner, and Franklin were relieved. Hooker had been a little hard, in the camp conferences, upon McClellan, and for poor Burnside he had shown no mercy. My own feelings at the time was that of a want of confidence in the army itself. The ending of the peninsular work, the confusion at the termination of the second battle of Bull Run, the incompleteness of Antietam, and the fatal consequences of Fredericksburg did not make the horizon of our dawning future very luminous.

(4) Carl Schurz served under both Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker during the American Civil War. He wrote about his commander and the battle of Chancellorsville in his autobiography published in 1906

If Burnside lacked self-confidence, Hooker had an abundance of it. he had been one of the bitterest critics of McClellan and Burnside, and even the administration - perhaps the loudest of all. He had even talked of the necessity of a military dictatorship. But he had made his mark as a division and corps commander and earned for himself the name of "Fighting Joe". The soldiers and also some - although by no means all - of the generals had confidence in him. Lincoln, as was his character and habit, overlooked all the hard things Hooker had said of him, made him Commander of the Army of the Potomac in view of the good things he expected him to do for the country, and sent him, with the commission, a letter full of kindness and wise advice.

Joseph Hooker was a strikingly handsome man, a clean-shaven, comely face, some-what florid complexion, keen blue eyes, well-built, tall figure, and erect soldierly bearing. Anybody would feel like cheering when he rode by at the head of his staff. His organizing talent told at once. The sudden gloom of the camps soon disappeared, and a new spirit of pride and hope began to pervade the ranks.

(5) The journalist, Henry Villard, met General Joseph Hooker just before the battle at Chancellorsville. He wrote about the meeting in his book, Memoirs of Henry Villard (1904).

His exterior was certainly most attractive and commanding. He was fully six feet high, finely proportioned, with a soldierly, erect carriage, handsome and noble features, a slight fringe of side-whiskers, a rosy complexion, abundant blond hair, a fine and expressive mouth, and, most striking of all, great, speaking grey-blue eyes. He looked, indeed, like the ideal soldier and captain, fit for a model of a war-god.

He had even then an unenviable notoriety for a rash tongue, to which he added lamentably in his subsequent career. He burst forth into unsparing criticism of the general conduct of the war, of the government, of Halleck, McClellan and Pope. His language was so severe and, at the same time, so infused with self-assertion as to give rise immediately to a fear on my part that he might be inclined to make use of me for his own glorification and for the detraction of others.

(6) George S. Boutwell, Abraham Lincoln: Tributes from His Associates (1895)

Hooker was in Washington on the Thursday of the week before the battle of Gettysburg, and at a conference with the President and the Secretary of War, it was agreed to hold Harper's Ferry, which, the year before, had been surrendered with great loss of men and materials of war. Upon his return to headquarters General Hooker changed his opinion, and, without reporting to the Secretary of War, he ordered General Wilson to evacuate the post and join the main army. The order Wilson transmitted to the Secretary of War. Mr. Stanton, assuming that there had been in error in the dispatches, or a misunderstanding, counter-manded Hooker's order. Thereupon Hooker, without seeking for an explanation, resigning his command.

(7) Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, was deeply upset when General Joseph Hooker resigned in July, 1863.

When I received the dispatch my hear sank within me, and I was more depressed than at any other moment of the war. I could not say that any other officer knew General Hooker's plans, or the position even of the various divisions of the army. I sent for the President to come to the War Office at once. It was in the evening, but the President soon appeared. I handed him the dispatch. As he read it his face became like lead. I said, "What shall be done?" He replied instantly, "Accept his resignation."

(8) In his book American Conflict, Horace Greeley commented on the resignation of General Joseph Hooker in July, 1863.

Such a change of commanders, for no more urgent reasons, on the brink of a great battle, has few parallels in history. Hooker was loved and trusted by his soldiers. Had the army been polled, it would have voted to fight the impending battle under Hooker without the aid of 11,000 men, rather than under Meade with that reinforcement.