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.”
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.
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.