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Lee’s Greatest Victory
During three days in May 1863, the Confederate leader took astonishing risks to win one of the most skillfully conducted battles in history. But the cost turned out to be too steep.
March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
The ability of Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson never showed itself more vividly than during three days of battle in May 1863 around a rustic crossroads called Chancellorsville. At the battle’s denouement, which might be considered the highest tide of the Confederacy, the two Virginians capped a reversal of fortunes as dramatic as any recorded in more than three centuries of American military affairs.
Joseph Hooker had stolen a march on Lee as completely as anyone did during the entire war.
During the last day of April the Federal commander Joseph Hooker had stolen a march on Lee as completely as anyone did during the entire war. In an amazing strategic initiative Hooker took his army far around Lee’s left, across two rivers, and into an admirable position around Chancellorsville. His fellow general George G. Meade, a saturnine man and no admirer of Joseph Hooker when in the sunniest of moods, exclaimed jubilantly on April 30: “Hurrah for old Joe! We’re on Lee’s flank and he doesn’t know it.”
The army with which Joe Hooker stole his march on Lee was a tough, veteran aggregation that had suffered from ill use at the hands of a series of inadequate leaders. Most recently Ambrose E. Burnside had butchered more than twelve thousand of his brave men in a hopeless attack near Fredericksburg the preceding December. Earlier the Army of the Potomac had endured mishandling from a boastful bully named John Pope, whose tenure in command was numbered in days, not in months, and the brilliant but timid George B. McClellan had led the same regiments to the brink of victory—but never quite over the threshold—on famous fields in Virginia and Maryland.
General Hooker’s rise to high rank during the war grew from a blend of training at West Point and experience in Mexico, with more than a tincture of political maneuvering. Bravery under fire in the 1862 campaigns won the general a name for valor and the nickname Fighting Joe. (According to some accounts the catchy name was coined by accident when two newspaper headlines—THE FIGHTING and JOEHOOKER—overlapped in some fashion.) Hooker had shamelessly schemed against Burnside, motivated in part by a wholesome distaste for Burnside’s ineptitude but also by a powerful degree of personal ambition.
Abraham Lincoln concluded in January 1863 that Burnside must go and reluctantly identified Hooker as the officer to inherit the mantle. In a patient and appropriately famous letter the President bluntly informed Hooker that he was appointing him despite the “great wrong to the country” inherent in his behavior toward Burnside. “I have heard, in such way as to believe it,” Lincoln continued, “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.”
During the three months between Hooker’s appointment and the onset of the campaigning season, Lincoln must have been very much gratified by the accomplishments of his new commander. A contemporary wrote that Hooker when young was a “very expert” baseball player, who could “take a ball from almost in front of the bat, so eager, active and dexterous were his movements.” When applied to military administration, that same controlled zeal made the Army of the Potomac a much improved military implement. Joe Hooker ironed ineptitude and indolence out of the medical services, flogged quartermaster and commissary functions into a fine pitch of efficiency, revitalized the cavalry arm, and inaugurated an intelligence-gathering system far ahead of its time in that staff-poor era. The soldiers noticed the changes and took heart from them.
The men also relished their new commander’s reputation as a profane, hard-drinking sort of fellow. “Our leader is Joe Hooker, he takes his whiskey strong,” they sang in admiration of one of the general’s two most widely mooted social traits. The other rumored trait resulted in a persistent tradition that remains in circulation to this day. General Hooker’s campaign to tighten up the Army of the Potomac extended to controlling the prostitution that flourished on its fringes. Supposedly the general’s name somehow became an appellation for the quarry of the overworked provost detachments enforcing his order. Joe Hooker’s own reputation as a womanizer fed the story conveniently. Firm evidence that the etymology of the word hooker ante-dates 1863 by more than a decade has done little to check the legend.
Hooker’s ranking subordinates by and large did not share the enthusiasm of the men in the ranks. The officer corps of the Old Army was a generally conservative body, both politically and morally. One immediate subordinate, the intensely pious O. O. Howard, doubtless felt particularly uneasy about Hooker, and Hooker reciprocated. Soon after the war he told an interviewer that Howard was “a good deal more” qualified to “command a prayer meeting” than an army corps. “He was always a woman among troops,” said Hooker. “If he was not born in petticoats, he ought to have been, and ought to wear them. He was always taken up with Sunday Schools and the temperance cause.”