Friday, April 30, 2010

Command Profile: “Fighting Joe” Hooker

Photo-1 If ever there was man who lived down to the opinions of his critics, it was “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Joseph Hooker’s record as a commander during the Civil War is punctuated by sound planning and aggressive leadership under fire as well as complete incompetence and total failure at critical moments. He also seems to have been unscrupulous and conniving, a man distrusted by almost all the other professional soldiers who served with him. This low opinion was best expressed by none other than Ulysses S. Grant who wrote in his memoirs that he “regarded him [Hooker] as a dangerous man. He was not subordinate to his superiors. He was ambitious to the extent of caring nothing for the rights of others.” Even the mild-mannered Ambrose Burnside, a man who clearly knew his own limitations as a commander, despised Hooker. When President Lincoln wanted to sack George McClellan and replace him with Burnside, the modest, humble Burnside rebuffed all proposals from the president for him to assume command of the Army of the Potomac. Then, only when he was told the job would go to Hooker if he did not accept, did he finally agree to take command—despite his misgivings about his own abilities, he could not allow “Fighting Joe” to command the army.

Not surprisingly, at the same time, Hooker had a very high opinion of himself and seemed at times to be conducting a nonstop, lifelong campaign of self-aggrandizement, even at the price of others. After serving with distinction in Mexico, young Hooker went to serve as adjutant general of the Pacific Division. However, he damaged his career by testifying on behalf of General Gideon Pillow and against General Winfield Scott at Pillow’s court martial. As a result, he resigned his commission and tried to find success in civilian life. Remaining in California, he failed as a farmer, land developer, and politician, primarily because of his tendency to drink and gamble to excess. In 1858, having failed in all his business and political ventures, he wrote the Secretary of War requesting to be returned to active service as a lieutenant colonel. The request was rejected because no one trusted him. Worse, even when the Civil War broke out in 1861 and the Union was desperate for officers with experience, his initial pleas for active service were ignored by the War Department.

Finally, after the disaster at First Manassas, Hooker was granted a commission as a Brigadier General of Volunteers and given command of a brigade in the defenses of Washington. However, when the Army of the Potomac moved to the Virginia Peninsula, Hooker would prove his worth as a commander in the field. He took care of his men and was a sound, aggressive leader in battle. He distinguished himself so much that he quickly rose to the rank of major general and was given command of the army’s I Corps, which he ably led at Antietam, he where was wounded. At Fredericksburg, Burnside gave Hooker command of both I and III Corps as a part of the former’s “Grand Division” concept. Hooker would again lead his men well, but nothing could compensate for Burnside’s disastrous orders for a frontal assault on Marye’s heights.

Up to this point in his wartime career, Hooker had established himself as a commander who looked after both the welfare and morale of his soldiers, while, at the same time, instilling good discipline and order. Further, he clearly possessed a unique ability to lead those soldiers in battle, and he always aggressively sought the enemy’s weak points and did his best to exploit them. Having seen what McClellan’s passive style of fighting and Burnside’s inept leadership had brought him, Lincoln decided to give Hooker a chance as commander of the Army of the Potomac, appointing him to that position in January 1863. Just prior to the appointment, Hooker was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Nothing would go right until we had a dictator, and the sooner the better.” Lincoln noted this quote in a letter to Hooker, commenting, “I have heard, in such 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 success can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”

Photo-2 Hooker took up his new assignment with a vigor not previously seen in the army up to that point. He added to his reputation as a good administrator and military manager by, first, actively working to restore the army’s morale, which had been badly damaged by the slaughter at Fredericksburg. He improved the food supplies, cleaned up the camps, overhauled the quartermaster system, reformed the hospitals, and instituted a new furlough system that allowed men to take turns by company in getting 10 days of leave at home. Then, he added new rigor to military discipline and conduct, added more and better drilling, and began more intense training for his volunteer officers.

As the spring of 1863 arrived, Hooker had, indeed, revitalized the army, and decided it was time to take on Lee in a new offensive. He developed a marvelous plan that was both militarily sound and audacious. Hooker’s plan called for General John Sedgwick to confront Lee’s army at Fredericksburg while Federal cavalry swung around the Confederate left and struck their rear. Meanwhile, Hooker would take 70,000 men and execute a turning maneuver to Lee’s left, crossing the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers just above Chancellorsville, and moving on Lee’s exposed flank and rear, crushing him between the two wings of his army.

Moving out in late April, Hooker’s plan worked almost to perfection, at first. Seeing what was happening, Lee had no choice but to divide his army in the face of the enemy. He turned part of his army north to face Hooker, and, at first, the Army of the Potomac drove relentlessly forward. However, as the fighting grew in intensity, Hooker displayed what was probably his signature weakness: While he could ably lead a brigade or a corps in a fight that he could physically “see,” he could not fight from a map. As soon as Lee resisted his advance, Hooker froze, paralyzed by fear of what he could not see, and was gripped by intense indecision. Over the protests of his corps commanders, who were advancing smartly against Lee, Hooker ordered a halt, and had his leading corps withdraw to defensive positions near the Chancellor House. While Jackson’s flank attack against XI Corps on May 2 would be the immediate cause of Hooker’s defeat at Chancellorsville, in all truth, he had lost the battle as soon as he lost confidence and surrendered the initiative to Lee.

His shattering defeat also shattered whatever confidence he might have had as an army commander. In his mind, his elegant, dynamic, and innovative plan had failed miserably. Therefore, when Lee began his move north to Pennsylvania a few weeks later, Hooker was totally passive and reactive. He simply could not see what was to be done. When his intelligence indicated movements by the Confederate forces, he was unsure what to make of them. At first, he thought perhaps Stuart was going to attempt another large cavalry raid on the Federal rear. To counter that possibility, he ordered General Pleasanton to take his cavalry, along with some supporting infantry, and attack Stuart’s forces in the Culpeper area. This led to the battle at Brandy Station, which did not break up Stuart’s forces but did demonstrate that the Federal cavalry was gaining on its Southern foe in quality and fighting abilities.

As evidence mounted indicating there was more happening here than a mere cavalry raid, Hooker seemed unable to properly analyze his opponent’s actions and formulate a countermove. Even when he seemingly knew Lee’s army was stretched vulnerably along the Shenandoah Valley, he proposed that he attack Lee’s remaining forces at Fredericksburg and thus threaten the Confederate capitol at Richmond. President Lincoln turned this idea down without hesitation and there ensued a continuous series of harsh, combative communications among Hooker, President Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and General Halleck. Lincoln urged an attack on Lee’s exposed army as it transited the Shenandoah, but it was to no avail. Hooker was more concerned about again being made the fool in Lee’s game than in countering his opponent’s thrust into the North. Hooker was paralyzed by a fear of what Lee might do. He was so concerned that Lee might again do something unconventional, he could apparently do nothing but attempt to shadow his enemy and move roughly parallel to him.

Even in this, Hooker failed. He grossly underestimated Lee’s rate of movement and soon discovered Lee was already across the Potomac and into northern Maryland. To his credit, however, Hooker did react properly to this threat. He hurried the Army of the Potomac northward with grueling forced marches. In addition, he positioned the army well and placed it such that it could react to any potential move by Lee’s army, and still cover both Washington and Baltimore. Finally, Hooker crossed Lincoln in a minor squabble over the fate of the garrison at Harper’s Ferry. Hooker stated that he would resign over the issue and Lincoln immediately accepted the offer.

Photo-3 Hooker would later be reassigned to command the XII Corps when it was sent west to help break the siege of Chattanooga. First Grant and later Sherman would seek his removal, but Hooker again proved his worth as a fighting field commander. His leadership was a key part of the successful seizure of Lookout Mountain and the collapse of the Confederate line at Chattanooga, and he continued to perform ably in that same role under Sherman in the fighting around Atlanta. But, once again, his political backroom maneuvering and ego would cost him dearly. When Sherman appointed Oliver Howard to command the Army of the Tennessee, Hooker protested because he was senior in grade and threatened once more to resign. Just like Lincoln in the days leading up to Gettysburg, Sherman had been looking for way to get rid of Hooker, and gladly accepted the resignation. Hooker would be sent to the rear, never to command in combat again.

Joe Hooker was his own worst enemy. He had military talents, but those talents had very distinct boundaries. Unfortunately, his ego had no such boundaries nor did his lack of personal integrity. He may have been loved by his soldiers, those who had to serve with him in command disliked, distrusted, and even hated him. They never felt they could depend upon him because, in the end, the only thing Joe Hooker that seemingly motivated Joe Hooker to lead and to fight was his own ambition.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Command Profile: Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson

Photo-1 Known to most people as “Stonewall” Jackson, Thomas J. Jackson remains very much an enigma, despite considerable historiography. That is because like Robert E. Lee, for whom Jackson was such an able lieutenant, much of Jackson’s life and career remains hidden behind the veil of the Lost Cause mythology. If Lee was the Lost Cause’s suffering saint, Jackson was its adored martyr, cut down by a hail of bullets at the zenith of his military career. Those who adhered to these myths, as well as the many who still do, proclaimed that, had Jackson survived Chancellorsville, had he been in command of his corps on the Confederate left that first day at Gettysburg, all would have been different, all would have changed for the Southern cause. The Yankees would have been driven from Cemetery Hill on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, the Army of the Potomac broken, and the Southern war for independence won. But, that did not happen and, in fact, Jackson was a far more fallible and far more interesting man than his Lost Cause admirers claim.

It must be said at the outset that Stonewall Jackson was, in many ways, the ideal partner, the ideal lieutenant for Robert E. Lee. Lee, always audacious and aggressive, needed an operational commander who could carry out his plans with boldness and without hesitation—Jackson was that man. Jackson was an aggressive fighter, a man who trained his troops to march fast and fight hard. The Confederate brigade that he formed and trained, and that would forever bear his name as the Stonewall Brigade, moved faster over greater distances and struck the enemy with more force than any in all the Confederate armies of the Civil War. Jackson was a harsh taskmaster and unforgiving of any error. As a result, his brigade and division commanders would constantly feud with him and, more often than not, face arrest and formal charges. And, just as often, it would be Lee’s job to step in, sooth ruffled feathers, and maintain some semblance of command cohesion.

Photo-2 On a more personal level, Jackson was an overachiever and a man in constant battle with himself. Orphaned at a young age, he was raised by an uncle who instilled the value of hard work in young Thomas. The uncle also garnered Jackson an appointment to West Point for which he was academically unprepared. Jackson was certainly no intellectual and he passed the entrance exam by the smallest of margins. Once a cadet, however, Jackson managed to rise from the bottom of his class as a plebe to the top third simply by outworking everyone else. After graduation, he served ably in Mexico, where he was cited for bravery under fire. But, as the years passed, Jackson seemed to feel increasingly in a battle against his inner self.

In 1849, he became a devout Christian, reading the Bible every day, and developing his own rules for behavior from what he read. He drove himself intensely to eliminate all sin from his being, and, in doing so, he turned his back on almost all forms of earthly pleasure or joy. This internal struggle made him seem even more aloof, more distant, and eccentric than he already was. As a result, he was close to only his wife and a few friends, and was utterly unable to form healthy relationships with anyone else. Further, his eccentricities became almost legendary. For example, he would not eat any food he enjoyed to rid himself of dyspepsia and would ride with one finger raised in the air to improve his blood flow. Little wonder then that A.P. Hill once referred to Jackson as “that crazy old Presbyterian fool.”

In addition, for a man supposedly devoted to Christ, he was unusually brutal in battle. When asked what should be done with the Yankees after the destruction of Fredericksburg, he howled, “Kill them, kill them all!” On another occasion, he would say that “duty has no place for sentiment.”And then there was the time his men refused to fire upon a Union officer who was displaying particularly gallantry. When Jackson asked why they were not firing on him, they responded that the enemy officer was too brave to shoot. Jackson replied angrily, “That is exactly why I want him dead.”

Militarily, popular mythology would describe Jackson as a brilliant tactician and strategist. However, he truly was neither. As with his religion, Jackson refined warfare down into a set of simple rules, which he followed as passionately as he did his biblical precepts. As stated earlier, he trained his men hard and pushed them hard in battle, sometimes too hard. He believed military success could be found in simply out-marching, outmaneuvering, and outhitting the enemy, and that is what he tried to do. As an independent commander fighting in the Shenandoah Campaign of 1862, he was able to employ this simple but effective approach so well, that it appeared absolutely brilliant. During a period of six weeks, his men fought five battles, innumerable skirmishes, and were victorious in all of them. They fought three separate Union armies, moved faster than any of them, and thoroughly embarrassed the opposing commanders. At times, Jackson was aggressive to the point of being impetuous and foolhardy. But, in each case, he was saved by the incompetence of his opponent. After all, he wasn’t fighting a Grant, a Sherman, or even a Sheridan. Rather, he was battling against the likes of Nathanial Banks and Robert Milroy, none of whom could truly be called a soldier.

Photo-3However, I do not want to take too much away from Jackson’s abilities as a commander, for, while he may not have been a talented tactician or gifted strategist, he truly shown brightest under Lee functioning in the role historian Joseph Glatthaar refers to as an “operational commander.” An operational commander is one that executes the plan of the overall commander, and Jackson was at his best when executing Lee’s orders. He threw himself and his command into battle with fury, bringing Lee’s audacious, bold operational plans to reality. At Second Manassas, at Antietam, and, finally, at Chancellorsville, he brilliantly executed Lee’s vision, especially at Chancellorsville.

In that battle, Lee had skillfully divided his forces in the face of Joe Hooker’s turning movement and battled the Federal advance on two fronts. On the night of May 1, 1863, he found himself facing Hooker’s main army in the Wilderness region near the Chancellor House, while part of his Army of Northern Virginia opposed a Federal flanking attack at Fredericksburg. Once the battle engaged the next day, he would be in a very tenuous position that only a bold move might resolve. Together with Jackson, Lee devised a plan that was both bold and dangerous, for it involved him dividing his army in the face of the enemy one more time. The plan called for Jackson to move his entire corps to the left, through the dense forest down narrow pathways, until they were opposite the far right of Hooker’s army. From there, they would assault the exposed Federal flank and, hopefully, crush Hooker’s line and then completely collapse it.

Jackson and his men departed at 4:00 a.m. the next morning and, by late evening on May 2, they arrived opposite the Union XI Corps, whom they found peacefully cooking dinner. Federal pickets had reported Jackson’s presence, but the reports were dismissed as ridiculous. After all, they said, not even Lee would divide his army in such a manner and not even the wily Jackson could move his corps through the dense forest. They would pay dearly for underestimating both Lee and Jackson. Jackson’s “foot cavalry” came screaming out of the forest to smash XI Corps, crushing the Union right, and causing the entire Army of the Potomac to retreat in near panic.

Ironically and tragically, Jackson would not survive this great triumph. As he moved forward to observe the results of the action, his was struck by three shots, all fired by his own men in the growing darkness of evening. One hit his right hand, another his left wrist, and the third shattered his left arm, just above the elbow. His surgeon amputated the damaged arm that night and he was moved to the nearby Chandler plantation, Fairfield, to recover. His wife soon joined him but, by the time she arrived, Jackson was suffering from pneumonia, for which there was no effective treatment at the time. He died of complications from the disease on May 10, 1863. His physician, Dr. Hunter McGuire, later wrote an account of Jackson’s death which, whether accurate or not, has become part of the Jackson mythology:

A few moments before he died he cried out in his delirium, "Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks"—then stopped, leaving the sentence unfinished. Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief, "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees."

Photo-4 However, shortly before Jackson’s death, his commander, Robert E. Lee, would offer what, perhaps, was the most fitting eulogy for his loyal lieutenant. As Jackson lay dying, Lee sent him a message through his chaplain, saying, "Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: he has lost his left arm but I my right."

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Command Profile: George B. McClellan

Photo-1 I will begin this blog entry with a warning to readers: I despise George Brinton McClellan more than any other historical figure of the Civil War era. He represents everything I detest in people, in general, but even more so in a military professional. McClellan was an imperious, obstinate, arrogant, pseudo-intellectual patrician who saw almost everyone as his inferior. He trusted no one, could not delegate authority, had a massive ego, and a messianic complex that allowed him to see himself as the sole savior of the republic. He was also a class-conscious prig, who considered his commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln, as his social and intellectual inferior, and clearly unqualified for any national leadership role. He identified with the Southern aristocracy that led the rebellion against the government and, as a result, wanted a war that was limited, that respected property, including slaves, and that sought merely to restore the Union without inflicting emancipation, which he considered equal to inciting servile insurrection. Therefore, if you are seeking an objective opinion of the man, you would be wise to go elsewhere.

From that description, one might think McClellan would make an excellent subject for psychological analysis, and, indeed, he probably would. McClellan had issues with authority figures from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. He clashed with teachers, his West Point instructors, commanding officers, and even his bosses while working in the railroad business. He saw enemies everywhere, and anyone who disagreed with his wisdom was instantly labeled as evil, as a foe to be vanquished. However, McClellan was not without incredible professional talents. He had remarkable energy and focus, and could organize and train an army like no other general during the Civil War.  But, of course, that was not enough to achieve military success.

He also possessed a remarkable and powerful intellect, but it was one that was purely linear. As a result, he tended to make snap judgments and refused to adapt when events changed conditions or proved his initial decisions to be erroneous. This characteristic also led him to see dangers everywhere, to become timid in battle, and always overestimate the strength of the enemy. This latter aspect dominated his command of the Army of the Potomac and caused him to be overly cautious, passive, and defensive. Lincoln once characterized McClellan as having a case of the “slows” and that was being kind. This malady was a product of McClellan’s constant obsessive belief in the strength of the Confederate army before him. He would overestimate their numbers by orders of magnitude and insist he could not move forward without more troops and resources. But, what he was actually doing was setting the stage for either a brilliant victory or a defeat that was someone else’s fault.

This can be clearly seen in his reports on the Seven Days Battles in 1862. Before the beginning of the first battle at Fair Oaks, he insisted that his army of 130,000 men was outnumbered almost two to one, when, in fact, he faced only about 50,000 of the enemy. Following a successful battle, he overstated the brilliance of the victory and claimed results that were, frankly, utterly dishonest. However, when the newly appointed Southern commander, Robert E. Lee, counterattacked and took the offensive, McClellan began to blame the Lincoln administration for his defeats—defeats that were only losses because he withdrew in the face of inferior numbers. Worse, as the fighting continued, McClellan withdrew from command as well, letting his subordinates attempt to coordinate the army’s actions on the field. Meanwhile, he focused on making a successful retreat and upon shifting his line of supply from the York to the James River, an act he would later proclaim as one of the most brilliant in the annals of military history. Meanwhile, he failed to defeat the enemy. However, in his mind, that was the result of poor support and a numerically superior enemy.

Photo-2 McClellan also fought a near constant battle with Abraham Lincoln, whom he told his wife, Ellen, was “the original Gorilla.” McClellan considered Lincoln to be a fool, a man ill-suited to lead. His arrogance did not allow him to see that, while his own mind worked on a basis of linear thinking, Lincoln possessed an incredibly multidimensional intellect. As a result, McClellan thought he would always be able to outthink and outmaneuver his commander-in-chief. Instead, Lincoln quickly surpassed him in terms of both strategic thinking and political prowess. Still, as McClellan sat on the banks of the James River, cowering before Lee and his army, he wrote a policy paper on the conduct of the war, which he placed in the President’s hand during a visit by Lincoln to the Army of the Potomac.

McClellan’s policy proposal, which he assured his wife would “save the nation,” called for a polite war, a restricted war, one only intended to defeat the Confederate armies in the field and make the Southern leadership see the errors of their way. There was to be no subjugation of the Southern people, no confiscation of property, and, above all, no emancipation of the slaves. McClellan was particularly pointed on the latter, stating, “A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.” In saying this, McClellan was not only demonstrating his sympathies for the Southern aristocracy, he also was showing that he did not recognize the rapidly changing dynamics of the conflict.

Following the disaster on the Virginia Peninsula, McClellan would quickly reorganize the Army of the Potomac and lead it forward in pursuit of Lee as the Confederate general invaded Maryland. Many had called for him to be sacked following the Peninsula Campaign but, with the defeat of John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia at Second Manassas, Lincoln could see that, once again, he badly needed McClellan’s administrative and organizational skills to repair the army and return it to fighting condition. So, he would give him one more chance.

McClellan would fail to deliver once more, although not as painfully as he had at the gates of Richmond. At Antietam, he faced a cornered, desperate Confederate army, badly outnumbered by Federal forces. However, once again, McClellan saw a nonexistent host of enemy forces and certain disaster at every turn. He believed Lee to have better than twice his actual strength and, at a crucial moment of the battle when his plan produced a desired situation, he hesitated. Lee’s entire center was open, utterly vulnerable to an attack that would split his battered forces in two. All McClellan had to do was launch an attack with a fresh reserve corps and Lee would be smashed. However, General John Fitz-Porter, a McClellan disciple, whispered to him that to do so would require committing the last remaining corps in the army to battle. McClellan quickly changed his mind, hoping instead that some other success might come without sending in his last reserves. That success did not manifest itself, as Lee was saved by the last minute arrival of A.P. Hill’s division on the field. McClellan would not renew the battle the next day, and Lee would slip across the Potomac into the safety of Virginia.

Photo-3 Lincoln’s attempts to prod McClellan into a pursuit failed, even weeks after the battle. However, ironically, McClellan’s bloody draw at Antietam allowed the president to issue of the Emancipation Proclamation, an action bitterly opposed by McClellan. It was now clear to everyone that McClellan could no longer be allowed to command the army or, in fact, serve anywhere in it. He was relieved on command and returned to civilian life. His last hurrah was his attempt to unseat Lincoln as President of the United Sates in the elections of 1864. Unfortunately for him, his plank calling for a peaceful reconciliation with the Confederacy did not ring true with either the voters of the North or the men serving in the army he once commanded. He was soundly defeated at the polls and disappeared into history.

But, I will end this essay by adding a few positive notes on the career of George McClellan. First, McClellan cared for his men, fed them and equipped them well. As a result, he was dearly loved by the soldiers he led in the Army of the Potomac, who lovingly referred to him as “Little Mac.” However, he cared for his men too much, perhaps, and could not bring himself to employ what Lincoln later called “the awful arithmetic” of war. Still, McClellan did leave us one truly positive legacy: Through his obstinate, arrogant, and insubordinate nature, he forced Abraham Lincoln to turn his considerable intellect toward the study of war. Almost singlehandedly, George McClellan caused Lincoln to see that war must not only be fought with vigor, with tenacity, and that it must have a moral basis in emancipation and “a new birth of freedom.” He also led Lincoln to see the true role of the Commander-in-Chief, which caused the President to eventually find the kind of general he needed to win the war and restore the nation whole.

So, perhaps, we actually owe him a somewhat perverse debt of gratitude.