The Destruction Of Fighting Joe Hooker

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At Antietam he was aggressive and inspiring, and after he went down with a wound, McClellan wrote him that had he not been put out of commission the Rebel army would have been destroyed. He picked up a nickname that stuck to him always although he always disliked it: “People will think I am a highwayman or bandit.” It derived from a newspaper typesetter’s mistake. What had been intended was the headline FIGHTING—JOK HOOKER , but the dashes were omitted.

As Fighting Joe, recovering from his wound in a Washington hospital, he held court for politicians and impressed them all. When Ambrose Burnside was given the Army of the Potomac, replacing McClellan, Hooker was named one of his corps commanders. He did not greatly admire his new leader and even less his plans to assault Lee at Fredericksburg. They were “preposterous,” he said. He could not comprehend how Marye’s Heights had been selected above all other places for attack, and when Burnside got his men across the Rappahannock after suffering severe losses in the crossing, Hooker was seen to be right. Anyone who today visits Fredericksburg and stands looking down from above the town will immediately understand why the waiting Confederates told one another that a chicken could not live on the slopes once their guns opened up. But Burnside flung his troops forward. “Oh, great God! See how our men, our poor fellows, are falling!” cried Maj. Gen. Darius Couch. It was murder, not war.

Wave after wave was cut down. The long hill up to Marye’s Heights turned blue with Union dead. Burnside persisted. Hooker went to him and pleaded for an end to orders to do the impossible, but Burnside had lost his head, wildly saying he would lead the soldiers himself against the stone wall and sunken road where only death awaited. Dissuaded from doing so, he continued ordering men forward. After night fell, Rebels came down seeking new clothes, and in the morning the field was literally white with bodies. One could have walked up from the river to the heights, it was said, without ever touching earth.

May God have mercy on General Lee,” said Fighting Joe, “for I will have none .”

After that Burnside tried a flank attack, but the roads were found impassable, and his movement bogged down in what was called the Mud March. It was futility itself, humiliating. He had never wanted command of the army and had correctly said he was unworthy of the position, but it was another matter to learn that Hooker, his subordinate, held him to be “this wretch” of “blundering sacrifice,” “madness,” and “follies.” Burnside drew up an order dismissing Hooker from all future service for being “guilty of unjust and unnecessary criticisms” and for “habitually speaking in disparaging terms.” Hooker was, the order concluded, “unfit to hold an important commission during a crisis like the present.”

And if, Burnside’s aides asked, Hooker disregarded the order or even raised a mutiny against it? Then he would “swing before sundown,” Burnside replied. But in actuality he had no authority to issue such an order of dismissal, and so, unpublished, it was laid before the President. Lincoln’s response was to send Burnside elsewhere and to give the Army of the Potomac to Fighting Joe. The move surprised no one. “Ever since the battle of Antietam,” said the New York Tribune , “Hooker has been looked upon as the inevitable General.”

Along with the command of the Union’s main force, Lincoln offered a letter: “I have placed you at 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 that there are some things in regard to which I am not satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. You have confidence in yourself, which is a 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 with your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country. … 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. …

“And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward and give us victories.”

“That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son,” Hooker said. It was January of 1863. He put the army into winter quarters and prepared for the spring campaign.