The Destruction Of Fighting Joe Hooker

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What Hooker was able to do with a gloomy and dispirited force was “magical,” thought General Couch. He improved leave procedures, granting furloughs only to men who showed efficiency in their training. He ran tightly disciplined field exercises. He insisted on good food for his soldiers with fresh bread served four times a week and fresh vegetables twice and with corruption in the commissariat rooted out. He consolidated his cavalry and made into a distinct corps what had been a disorganized grouping of adjuncts to the infantry. He invented corps badges with divisional markings which fostered esprit de corps and made each soldier instantly identifiable. He quickened up courtmartial proceedings and shot a few deserters without delay while at the same time sponsoring sports events—ball games, sack races, greased-pole competitions, steeplechases aboard chargers and mules. He organized mass dancing—jigs, reels, hornpipes. He set up formal regimental snowball fights with officers present on horseback, and he encouraged religious meetings. Desertions in the Army of the Potomac dramatically dropped, and fewer men reported sick.

Seen at his reviews, inspections, and drills, he presented the stern but chivalric appearance of Mars himself, the god of war, the newspapers said, as his great white horse, Colonel, carried him along, virile, upright, and strong, in the midst of a flurry of staff officers sparkling with gold lace, a brilliant cavalcade escorted by the showy Philadelphia Lancers. When President Lincoln came to visit, he rode with the general surrounded by glittering colonels and brigadiers and accompanied by crashing bands and flying banners, little Tad Lincoln at the edge of the party, his gray riding cloak sailing behind. Seventeen thousand horsemen jingled through the snow in a colossal display of cavalry, tens of thousands of infantrymen following to create what seemed like a moving forest of bayonets. There were great rolling concourses of artillery pieces, flags, rolling drums, trains of wagons, trumpets, bugles. “I have the finest army on the planet,” Fighting Joe said. “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.”

 

He brimmed over with confidence, sparkled with it, as he went about with chin up past the brilliantly groomed horses and shining guns of his great host. “If you get to Richmond, General—,” Lincoln said, and Hooker interrupted, “Excuse me, Mr. President, there is no ‘if in this case.” Nights he drank and dallied with women as befitted a dashing soldier who was a bachelor and as might have been expected despite the feeling of the cavalry officer Charles Francis Adams, Jr., grandson and great-grandson of Presidents, that Army of the Potomac headquarters appeared “a combination of bar-room and brothel.”

Spring was coming. Hooker floated balloons above the Confederate lines to spy out their positions and rode among his men saying the damned Rebs hadn’t made and never would make the bullet that could hit him. His processions through the ranks of his reinvigorated army fired the troops up as they saw an undoubted leader of men and felt a powerful presence, and on March 17 he sent his cavalry on a foray against the enemy that for the first time in the war saw Yankee horsemen hold their own against Jeb Stuart’s riders. Elation filled the North. Saying “I must play with these devils before I spring,” he put on demonstrations all up and down the Rappahannock and made feints and marches and false starts so that the Rebels would cry wolf, wolf. Then the wolf sprang.

For fifty miles the Confederates had defense lines and observation and picket posts strung along the Rappahannock. On the morning of April 29 Lee awoke to the sound of distant gun-fire, lapsed back into sleep, and then was roused by a messenger telling him the Yankees were coming across below Fredericksburg. He got up to take a look. The real blow was elsewhere. Upriver Hooker was getting men across in tremendous force. With great secrecy he had sent in pontoons and had them covered with pine boughs so that the sound of marching men and rumbling artillery wheels would be muffled and difficult of estimation to any Rebel scouts his skirmishers failed to flush out. His cavalry was ranging south behind the Confederates, sent on its way to rip up telegraph and railroad lines with his injunction ringing in commanders’ ears: “Celerity, audacity and resolution are everything in war.” For his part, Hooker forswore liquor once he got his troops across the Rappahannock.

Swiftly, surely, six corps of the Army of the Potomac poured across the river uncontested before turning in a great sweeping movement cleverly screened by hills from Jeb Stuart’s horsemen. They constituted the powerfully menacing right wing of a mighty army. Below Fredericksburg the forty-thousand-man corps under John Sedgwick, whose crossing had awakened Lee, took up position. Here was the left wing. Hooker aimed to get the Rebels in a vise, to put Lee between a hammer and anvil, sweep him up against Sedgwick, and crush him. Suffering hardly a casualty with his main force, and with but minimal losses to his diversionary one, the Union commander took away Lee’s advantage of holding a river line. He had stolen a march, out-generaled his opponent in a classic move that an observing British authority compared to the crossings of Hannibal over the Rhône, Napoleon over the Po and Danube, Wellington over the Douro and Adour. What Hooker had done was said to exactly emulate and equal the performance of Alexander the Great at Jhelum.

He pushed his men on. They sang: