Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker was elevated to the command of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863. Up to that point Hooker had a distinguished record of achievement both before and during the Civil War.
Hooker was a graduate of West Point’s class of 1837 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the artillery. His initial assignment was in Florida fighting in the second of the Seminole Wars. He served in the Mexican-American War in staff positions in the campaigns of both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott.
He received brevet promotions for his staff leadership and gallantry in three battles: Monterrey (to captain),National Bridge (major), and Chapultepec (lieutenant colonel). His future Army reputation as a ladies’ man began in Mexico, where local girls referred to him as the “Handsome Captain”.
Hooker left the army in 1853 after he had testified against General Winfield Scott in defense of Gideon Pillow who had been charged with insubordination. He left the army in California and settled in Sonoma County working as a farmer and land developer. In actuality, he was more devoted to gambling and liquor than to agriculture. In 1858, he asked to be reinstated but nothing came of his request. Instead, he served as a colonel in the California militia.
At the start of the war he again asked for reinstatement but was again rejected perhaps because Winfield Scott, the General-in-Chief, harbored some lingering resentment from the Pillow trial. After the disastrous Battle of First Manassas he wrote directly to President Lincoln offering his services. This time he was reinstated with the rank of brigadier general in August 1861.
He commanded a brigade and then a division in the Army of the Potomac. During the fighting on the Peninsula he distinguished himself while leading the 2nd Division of the III Corps at the Battle of Williamsburg and throughout the Peninsula campaign and the Seven Days Battles. He was promoted to major general on May 5, 1862.
Ever the aggressive commander, he chafed under the cautious leadership of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. He openly criticized McClellan for his failure to take Richmond. Of his commander, Hooker said, “He is not only not a soldier, but he does not know what soldiership is.” During these campaigns Hooker became known for his devotion to the welfare and morale of his men, and his hard drinking social life, even on the battlefield.
Hooker’s division was transferred to John Pope’s Army of Virginia. He was appointed to the command of the III Corps after the defeat at Second Manassas replacing Samuel P. Heintzelman who was relieved of command and shunted off to the command of the Washington defenses.
His corps was redesignated I Corps and returned to the Army of the Potomac in early September 1862. They joined the army for the fighting at South Mountain and Antietam where Hooker and his troops distinguished themselves. At Antietam Hooker’s corps launched the initial assault of the day at the Cornfield against “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps.
Hooker’s men paid heavily in the fighting, suffering 2,500 casualties in the first two hours of the battle. It was estimated that the Cornfield changed hands no fewer than 15 times in the course of the morning.
Major Rufus Dawes who assumed command of the Iron Brigade’s 6th Wisconsin Regiment in comparing the fighting to latter battles said that “the Antietam Turnpike surpassed them all in manifest evidence of slaughter.” When Confederate Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood was asked by a fellow officer where his division was, replied: “Dead on the field”, having suffered 60% casualties.
Hooker was wounded in the foot during the fighting and carried from the field. He later insisted that if he had not been wounded his attack would have succeeded. General McClellan’s caution had again cost the Union a clear-cut victory and Robert E. Lee had once again succeeded in extricating his smaller force to the safety of Virginia.
President Lincoln apparently agreed because he relieved McClellan of command when he did not pursue the enemy. In his place, Lincoln appointed Ambrose Burnside to the command of the Army of the Potomac. Recovering from his wound Hooker was at first given command of the V Corps and then a “Grand Division” of the of both III and V Corps. Hooker’s Center Grand Division had a total of 6 divisions of infantry and one brigade of cavalry.
Hooker thought that Burnside’s plan of attack was “preposterous”. His Grand Division suffered serious losses after 14 futile, frontal assaults against the Marye’s Heights defenses. After the humiliating Mud March in January Burnside proposed a wholesale purge of his commanders but instead Lincoln relieved him of command and replaced him with Hooker.
During the spring of 1863 Hooker set about reviving the morale of the Army of the Potomac. Among his changes were fixes to the daily diet of the troops, camp sanitary changes, improvements and accountability of the quartermaster system, addition of and monitoring of company cooks, several hospital reforms, and an improved furlough system (one man per company by turn, 10 days each).
Other orders addressed the need to stem rising desertion (one from Lincoln combined with incoming mail review, the ability to shoot deserters, and better camp picket lines), more and better drills, stronger officer training, and for the first time, combining the federal cavalry into a single corps.
Hooker said of his army:
I have the finest army on the planet. I have the finest army the sun ever shone on. … If the enemy does not run, God help them. May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.
Hooker relieved a number of officers who had been McClellan’s favorites and sent Burnside’s old corps to the Virginia Peninsula. His headquarters acquired a reputation as a combination of a “bar-room and a brothel” according to Charles F. Adams, Jr.
Hooker had an elaborate plan for the spring and summer campaign against Lee. He first planned to send his cavalry corps deep into the enemy’s rear, disrupting supply lines and distracting him from the main attack. He would pin down Robert E. Lee’s much smaller army at Fredericksburg, while taking the large bulk of the Army of the Potomac on a flanking march to strike Lee in his rear. Then he would move on Richmond.
However, the execution of his plan required commanders as daring as he was. The cavalry was commanded Brig. Gen. George Stoneman who cautiously moved forward and met none of his objectives. The flanking march started off well but Hooker lost his nerve and pulled back to the small crossroads of Chancellorsville.
While the Army of the Potomac sat immobile and on the defensive, Lee split his army twice and sent “Stonewall” Jackson on a flank attack against the Union right where they routed the XI Corps. In the midst of all this Hooker was knocked unconscious when a cannonball hit the porch where he was standing. He refused to turn over command of the army to his second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch.
Hooker ordered his army back across the Rappahannock. Meanwhile, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia set off for their second invasion of the North. Lincoln ordered Hooker to pursue Lee and forego any movement toward Richmond.
When the general got into a dispute with Army headquarters over the status of defensive forces in Harpers Ferry, he impulsively offered his resignation in protest, which was quickly accepted by Lincoln and General-in-chief Henry W. Halleck. On June 28, three days before the climactic Battle of Gettysburg, Hooker was replaced by Maj. Gen. George Meade.
However, Joe Hooker’s career was not over. He returned to combat in November, leading two corps from the Army of the Potomac to help relieve the besieged Union Army at Chattanooga, Tennessee, and achieving an important victory at the Battle of Lookout Mountain during the Chattanooga Campaign. He continued in the Western Theater under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, but left before the end of the Atlanta Campaign when he was bypassed for a promotion to command the Army of the Tennessee.