The Destruction Of Fighting Joe Hooker

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Jeb Stuart took over from Stonewall Jackson on the far flank. That offered possibilities. What did a lifelong cavalryman know about infantry tactics? But Jeb with the banjo player who always accompanied him went about singing, “Old Joe Hooker, won’t you come out The Wilderness, out The Wilderness?” to the tune of “Old Dan Tucker.” Hooker did not come out. Worse, he contracted his lines even more, giving up while under no pressure at all a vital clearing where his artillery had a powerful position. Into the vacuum swarmed the Rebels under Stuart and those from along the Fredericksburg road under Lee. Joined together, they held Hooker rimmed in with his back to the Rappahannock. More appeals to Sedgwick went out.

On the third day of the battle, May 3, Rebel artillery found the veranda of the Chancellor house. A portico pillar came down to strike Hooker. He was unconscious for five minutes before being gotten up. His side was badly bruised and gave him great pain. People wondered if he should give up the command, but the doctors did not suggest it, and he did not offer it himself. At times he lay huddled in a blanket on the floor. Sedgwick at Fredericksburg did what he could, battling on even terms with the Confederates there, but the great force based on Chancellorsville did nothing. At midnight on May 4 Hooker assembled his corps commanders. “It was seen by the most casual observer that he had made up his mind to retreat,” Couch remembered. He asked his subordinates to consider the matter and withdrew from them.

They decided they did not want to throw in the towel, believing that by a spirited advance the day could yet be saved. Then he told them he was ordering it. They would run for the Rappahannock. “What was the use of calling us together at this time of night when he intended to retreat anyhow?” Gen. John Reynolds asked. The Yankee army made for the river.

They got across and cut loose the pontoons behind them. In Washington the newspaperman Noah Brooks, a friend of the President, saw the White House reaction. “The sight of his face and figure was frightful,” Brooks wrote of Lincoln. “He seemed stricken with death. Almost tottering to a chair, he sat down. His face was of the same color as the wall behind him—not pale, not even sallow, but gray, like ashes.” Secretary of War Stanton for a time was fearful that Lincoln would commit suicide.

For a few weeks Lee rested and refitted his army and then headed north. Hooker trailed along in parallel course, avoiding all contact. Now that the Rebels were away, he told Lincoln, he could take Richmond. Lincoln told him that Lee’s army, not Richmond, was his objective point. The Rebel columns stretched out for many miles on the thin roads, and Lincoln wrote: “The animal must be very slim somewhere. Could you not break him?”

But Hooker could not—could not even try. He resigned the command of the Army of the Potomac, and on three days’ notice George Meade had to conduct the Battle of Gettysburg. Hooker asked if he could have his old division back for the fight, but Meade would not have him. After that he was sent out to Grant in the West and he did very well in a subordinate position, as he did later under Sherman at Atlanta. He left the army after the war and died in 1879. Years later a statue of him was erected high on Boston’s Beacon Hill. There were those who questioned its construction. “Never since it was there placed have I passed the front of the State House without feeling a sense of wrong and insult at the presence, opposite the head of Park Street, of the equestrian statue of Hooker,” wrote Charles Francis Adams, Jr. “That statue I look upon as an opprobrium cast upon every genuine Massachusetts man who served in the Civil War.” But there he is on Colonel, both with head slightly turned, looking into space, Fighting Joe’s face sternly set, serious and heroic.

So, what happened to Hooker at Chancellorsville? How could it happen? He was a highly experienced officer doing what he’d been trained to do in a position he delighted to hold. This matter he faced was, after all, his stock-in-trade. He knew this stuff. It was within logical possibility, even probability, that he would end the Civil War two years early, be the savior of the Union, succeed Lincoln as President, have his statue not only under questionable circumstances in Boston but in every Northern city of the United States.