The Destruction Of Fighting Joe Hooker

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But that was unthinkable, impossible, Gen. Darius Couch and Gen. Gouverneur Warren agreed. It would be absolute madness. They sent a messenger back to Hooker. The men returned in half an hour saying it was confirmed that the front units must run back into The Wilderness. That would mean giving up the freedom of offensive maneuver gained by the brilliant early moves; it meant losing all weighted momentum, forward thrust, and initiative in favor of penning up the army in a cramped prison; it guaranteed complete ruination of the men’s morale. Such an order, Warren said to Couch, could not be complied with. They must disobey it.

 

When the order reached Gen. Henry Slocum, he refused to believe it. “You are a damned liar!” he said to Hooker’s messenger, the Washington Augustus Roebling of later Brooklyn Bridge fame. “Nobody but a crazy man would give such an order when we have victory in sight! I shall go and see General Hooker myself, and if I find out that you have spoken falsely, you shall be shot on my return.”

Within an hour or so he was back, and scowling at Roebling, he ordered a turnaround. The others did the same. Generals Meade, Hancock, Sykes, Couch, and Warren all were equally stunned and in complete disagreement with what Hooker was doing, but they could not disobey. Watching the columns of retreating men, Couch remembered, an “observer required no wizard to tell him that the high expectations which had animated them only a few hours ago had given place to disappointment.” He went to Hooker, who before had been “all vigor, energy, and activity.” Now he found a man to whose spirit something terrible had happened. Ghastly depression had seized him, deepest melancholy. He seemed in a crumpled trance, helpless, lethargic, entirely demoralized. “It’s all right, Couch,” he said. “I’ve got Lee just where I want him.”

It was simply appalling that he could permit himself to say such a thing, Couch wrote—“too much.” Couch left. “I retired from his presence with the belief that my commanding general was a whipped man.”

From the horrified bewilderment of the generals there seeped down past the colonels and captains to the corporals and privates the knowledge that something was terribly wrong. All that night and into the following day the Army of the Potomac imitated its leader, huddling into itself in stunned disablement and waiting for a blow to fall. During the afternoon clouds of dust were seen on the horizon, and Hooker permitted himself to say that perhaps Lee was running. But the despondent and wavering air did not leave him, nor the careworn and anxious look on his face. It didn’t seem like Lee, he said. Hooker stayed within his own lines, not venturing to go out and check.

Lee was not running. Outnumbered twice over, he had split his army into three segments, breaking wholesale all rules of war. A portion was held at Fredericksburg to restrain Sedgwick, a portion stayed on the outskirts of The Wilderness that Hooker had vacated, and a third portion under Stonewall Jackson made a forced march by circular route to hit Hooker on his far flank to the west. As dusk arrived on the evening of May 2, when the Union forces there were preparing dinner, animals—rabbits, deer—began bounding out of the woods. The Federals were wondering what it meant when the answer burst upon them. Jackson’s men came roaring out. It was they who had raised the clouds of dust. Almost as one man the right wing of Hooker’s army turned and ran. Muskets were left behind, and the big guns, pointed the wrong way, also.

For the first time Fighting Joe came alive. He mounted his white horse, Colonel, and put himself at the head of his old division and managed to stall the enemy move. His groupings were shaken and out of balance, but the situation yet offered great opportunities. He had a massive, cohesive force between two segments of a force that had been smaller than his even when united, and each was open to annihilation. In addition, the opponents on his western flank had lost their leader, for Stonewall Jackson was down, hit by shots that would prove mortal. So Hooker had the possibility yet to snatch victory from the Confederates.

Hooker had turned from the hound into the hare, and now the hare went to cover.

But it was beyond him. Dazed stupefaction possessed him, collapsed listlessness. Urged to mount an attack that would crush Lee’s depleted force on the Chancellorsville-Fredericksburg road—it would take half an hour, an hour at most, General Sickles thought —he declined even to try, saying he could not conjure up soldiers and ammunition. Plenty of both were readily available. He had turned from the hound into the hare, and the hare went to cover.

He sent order after order to Sedgwick to come with his one corps and save his commander’s six. It was pitiful, the appeal to Sedgwick, pathetic. And irrational. To get to him, Sedgwick would have to get over the entrenched Confederate force at Fredericksburg even before taking on the Rebels on The Wilderness outskirts. Hooker sat immobile. It was as if Lee were writing his lines and moving, or declining to move, his pieces on the chessboard.