The Destruction Of Fighting Joe Hooker

PrintPrintEmailEmail
 

Yet none of these things happened. Some blamed Hooker’s recent teetotaling for his loss of swagger. General Couch noted that “he abstained … when it would have been far better for him to continue in his usual habit.” Other people believed he was a coward pure and simple. “When a general has done his very best and is defeated fairly and squarely, he is entitled to a nervous collapse,” wrote Washington Roebling, who carried the incredible withdrawal order to General Slocum and was threatened with being shot for having done so. “But when a man breaks down before the battle has even begun, he does not deserve the name of soldier.” Was Joe Hooker a coward? It certainly didn’t seem so when he sat Colonel unflinchingly at the Seven Days and Antietam with Confederate bullets singing all about him. But what exactly is cowardice, or its opposite? In his Anatomy of Courage Lord Moran, Churchill’s physician, discusses what he learned on this subject during service as a frontline medical officer in the First World War and during his travels with the prime minister in the Second. What it comes down to, he says, is that every soldier, of every rank, has a bank account. It is bravery that is on deposit there. Sometimes the capital is slowly paid out bit by bit. Sometimes there is a tremendous withdrawal and almost all is taken out in a sudden draft that can threaten to close the account.

What was involved with Hooker’s collapse was far more complex than mere lack of bravery. Involved were the dynamics of sending soldiers into battle. That has to do with ordering up death. Enormous stress attends, and great unavoidable uncertainties. The matter has to do with character, and character in an officer, said the great Prussian strategist Schlieffen, is the first thing. Did Burnside show character at Fredericksburg as he continued to push men up against Marye’s Heights when to do so was clearly a hopeless endeavor? It hardly seems so. Hooker’s reversal of Burnside’s spendthrift actions is seen in his refusal to up the ante even a little despite holding all the high cards. He just couldn’t get himself to push the chips into the pile.

Unable to climax his great effort, unable or unwilling to deliver the knockout punch, he dismally failed and shuffled off the stage. The Union got somebody else. (And the somebody else imitated him to a certain degree at Gettysburg. After repelling Lee, Meade failed to follow up. Told that an order to advance would utterly crush the retreating Rebels, Meade hesitated. He would have gone through them like a knife through cheese, said Lee’s artillery commander E. Porter Alexander, but Meade sat. Lincoln pleaded with him, and his response was to submit his resignation, which Lincoln refused to accept, and he hesitated some more, and Lee got away.)

History went on. Hooker was remembered at all, as the star of an inexplicable and incomprehensible play. His failure, wrote Francis Fisher Browne in 1914, was “much discussed but never satisfactorily explained.” They’re still trying to figure it out, wrote Ernest B. Furgurson in 1992.

“Doubleday,” Hooker said to Gen. Abner Doubleday as the two rode toward Gettysburg from the Chancellorsville debacle, “I was not hurt by a shell and I was not drunk. For once I lost confidence in Hooker, and that is all there was to it.” “In war,” Karl von Clausewitz wrote long before warm weather came and the blossoms showed along the Rappahannock in 1863, “everything is simple, but the simple is very difficult.”