The Destruction Of Fighting Joe Hooker

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“He sat in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of—triumph; and as I looked upon him in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, and confidence in his army had won, 1 thought that it must have been from such a scene that men in ancient times rose to the dignity of gods.”

What a concept. Magnificent, isn’t it? Artillery blasts are shaking the earth as masses of smoke- and powder-blackened Confederates fire at the fleeing enemy, and Robert E. Lee, on Traveller, rides into the clearing where the Chancellorsville mansion flames. An immediate common impulse possesses his men, and one long, great cheer rises unbroken over the roar of battle. Even the wounded on the ground shout. What Lee’s biographer Douglas Southall Freeman will call the supreme moment of his subject’s life has arrived. Looking on is Lee’s aide Col. Charles Marshall, who decades in the future will suggest to his young relative George C. Marshall that he try for Virginia Military Institute and an officer’s life.

“Rose to the dignity of gods,” Marshall wrote. But of course, Lee was not a god and indeed would have thought it idolatrous that anyone even saw him as godlike. Yet Colonel Marshall was on the right track and struck the correct note. For what Lee did at Chancellorsville was miraculous, magical, almost unearthly.

That he victoriously achieved great and unimaginable things means by definition that he faced great odds and won from someone holding all the high cards, who was what in horse racing is called odds-on, a very heavy favorite. Couldn’t lose. But … “You never can tell what makes a general,” Ulysses S. Grant said. “Our war, and all wars, are surprises in that respect.” Going to war is like opening the door to an unknown room, noted Adolf Hitler, quite correctly. One can never be sure of what’s in it. Nor in the general who goes to the battle. “Nowhere do events correspond less to men’s expectations than in war,” said Rome’s Livy.

Hooker disliked his nickname: “People will think I am a highwayman or bandit,” he said .

Of the fact that Lee, the almost unbettable long shot, wins against a sure favorite, “biographers, strategists, and psychiatrists,” says the most recent chronicler of the Battle of Chancellorsville, “have spent more than a century wondering why.”

That Lee is the winner means someone is the loser, and of those who know the loser’s name probably 99 percent think he lent it to a term descriptive of a certain type of woman. But they are wrong despite the belief of one contemporary that his headquarters resembled a brothel. The usage predates by decades the rise to eminence of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.

Hooker was born in 1814 in Hadley, Massachusetts, the son of an unprosperous father and dominating mother. His best subject in school was public speaking. His mother suggested that he go to West Point; it was free. There he did middling work. Back home for furloughs he became known in town as the Beautiful Cadet, for he was extremely handsome, graceful, elegant, athletic, with a thick mane of blond hair. When he left the Point, a female admirer said that with his ruddy face, blue uniform coat, and white trousers he epitomized the American flag. Commissioned into the artillery, he fought Indians in Florida and served with minor distinction in various posts. When war with Mexico came, he blossomed and did brilliantly, was brevetted three times for gallantry in action, stormed Chapultepec. In Mexico City he was known among the señoritas as the Handsome Captain.

The withdrawal of United States troops found him shipped to California, where he resigned the Army and bought a 550-acre farm near Sonoma. He grew cordwood with indifferent success, drank, and gambled. When he got bored with farming, he sold his place, built roads, fooled around with politics, drilled the local militia. The outbreak of the Civil War found him without the price of transportation east, but a friend staked him, sending him off with money in his pocket and a well-stocked liquor cabinet for the long trip. He arrived in time to witness the Union rout of the war’s first battle. Someone took him in to see Lincoln, and he said, “Mr. President, I was at Bull Run the other day, and it is no vanity in me to say I am a damned sight better general than any you had on that field.” Lincoln looked at an extraordinarily handsome and decisive-seeming man with a great record in Mexico and told people that here was someone who seemed to know what he was talking about and appeared perfectly able to make good his words. Hooker got a brigadier generalship.

In the Seven Days he did marvelously, while feeling contempt for George McClellan’s extreme caution. Richmond could have and should have been taken, he declared, saying of the Army of the Potomac commander, “He is not only not a soldier, but he does not know what soldiership is.” (Hooker was always a critic and always had a sharp tongue. “He is a damned coward,” he said of Gen. Franz Sigel, “and has an irresistible instinct to run, and manifests it on all occasions.”) During the long retreat from the gates of the Confederate capital Hooker’s defensive work was outstanding, and he made the Rebels pay for every forward step they took. “In every engagement he seemed always to know what to do and when to do it,” Gen. James Rusling wrote. It was said that where Hooker was, there the fighting was thickest. He was given a second star and made major general, the highest rank the United States Army then possessed.