October 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 6
He told Lincoln he was better than any other officer on the field at Bull Run and got the Army’s top job. He built a beaten force into a proud one and stole a march on Robert E. Lee with it. He was twenty-four hours away from winning the Civil War. Then he fell apart.
“He sat in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of—triumph; and as I looked upon him in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, and confidence in his army had won, 1 thought that it must have been from such a scene that men in ancient times rose to the dignity of gods.”
What a concept. Magnificent, isn’t it? Artillery blasts are shaking the earth as masses of smoke- and powder-blackened Confederates fire at the fleeing enemy, and Robert E. Lee, on Traveller, rides into the clearing where the Chancellorsville mansion flames. An immediate common impulse possesses his men, and one long, great cheer rises unbroken over the roar of battle. Even the wounded on the ground shout. What Lee’s biographer Douglas Southall Freeman will call the supreme moment of his subject’s life has arrived. Looking on is Lee’s aide Col. Charles Marshall, who decades in the future will suggest to his young relative George C. Marshall that he try for Virginia Military Institute and an officer’s life.
“Rose to the dignity of gods,” Marshall wrote. But of course, Lee was not a god and indeed would have thought it idolatrous that anyone even saw him as godlike. Yet Colonel Marshall was on the right track and struck the correct note. For what Lee did at Chancellorsville was miraculous, magical, almost unearthly.
That he victoriously achieved great and unimaginable things means by definition that he faced great odds and won from someone holding all the high cards, who was what in horse racing is called odds-on, a very heavy favorite. Couldn’t lose. But … “You never can tell what makes a general,” Ulysses S. Grant said. “Our war, and all wars, are surprises in that respect.” Going to war is like opening the door to an unknown room, noted Adolf Hitler, quite correctly. One can never be sure of what’s in it. Nor in the general who goes to the battle. “Nowhere do events correspond less to men’s expectations than in war,” said Rome’s Livy.
Of the fact that Lee, the almost unbettable long shot, wins against a sure favorite, “biographers, strategists, and psychiatrists,” says the most recent chronicler of the Battle of Chancellorsville, “have spent more than a century wondering why.”
That Lee is the winner means someone is the loser, and of those who know the loser’s name probably 99 percent think he lent it to a term descriptive of a certain type of woman. But they are wrong despite the belief of one contemporary that his headquarters resembled a brothel. The usage predates by decades the rise to eminence of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.
Hooker was born in 1814 in Hadley, Massachusetts, the son of an unprosperous father and dominating mother. His best subject in school was public speaking. His mother suggested that he go to West Point; it was free. There he did middling work. Back home for furloughs he became known in town as the Beautiful Cadet, for he was extremely handsome, graceful, elegant, athletic, with a thick mane of blond hair. When he left the Point, a female admirer said that with his ruddy face, blue uniform coat, and white trousers he epitomized the American flag. Commissioned into the artillery, he fought Indians in Florida and served with minor distinction in various posts. When war with Mexico came, he blossomed and did brilliantly, was brevetted three times for gallantry in action, stormed Chapultepec. In Mexico City he was known among the señoritas as the Handsome Captain.
The withdrawal of United States troops found him shipped to California, where he resigned the Army and bought a 550-acre farm near Sonoma. He grew cordwood with indifferent success, drank, and gambled. When he got bored with farming, he sold his place, built roads, fooled around with politics, drilled the local militia. The outbreak of the Civil War found him without the price of transportation east, but a friend staked him, sending him off with money in his pocket and a well-stocked liquor cabinet for the long trip. He arrived in time to witness the Union rout of the war’s first battle. Someone took him in to see Lincoln, and he said, “Mr. President, I was at Bull Run the other day, and it is no vanity in me to say I am a damned sight better general than any you had on that field.” Lincoln looked at an extraordinarily handsome and decisive-seeming man with a great record in Mexico and told people that here was someone who seemed to know what he was talking about and appeared perfectly able to make good his words. Hooker got a brigadier generalship.
In the Seven Days he did marvelously, while feeling contempt for George McClellan’s extreme caution. Richmond could have and should have been taken, he declared, saying of the Army of the Potomac commander, “He is not only not a soldier, but he does not know what soldiership is.” (Hooker was always a critic and always had a sharp tongue. “He is a damned coward,” he said of Gen. Franz Sigel, “and has an irresistible instinct to run, and manifests it on all occasions.”) During the long retreat from the gates of the Confederate capital Hooker’s defensive work was outstanding, and he made the Rebels pay for every forward step they took. “In every engagement he seemed always to know what to do and when to do it,” Gen. James Rusling wrote. It was said that where Hooker was, there the fighting was thickest. He was given a second star and made major general, the highest rank the United States Army then possessed.
At Antietam he was aggressive and inspiring, and after he went down with a wound, McClellan wrote him that had he not been put out of commission the Rebel army would have been destroyed. He picked up a nickname that stuck to him always although he always disliked it: “People will think I am a highwayman or bandit.” It derived from a newspaper typesetter’s mistake. What had been intended was the headline FIGHTING—JOK HOOKER , but the dashes were omitted.
As Fighting Joe, recovering from his wound in a Washington hospital, he held court for politicians and impressed them all. When Ambrose Burnside was given the Army of the Potomac, replacing McClellan, Hooker was named one of his corps commanders. He did not greatly admire his new leader and even less his plans to assault Lee at Fredericksburg. They were “preposterous,” he said. He could not comprehend how Marye’s Heights had been selected above all other places for attack, and when Burnside got his men across the Rappahannock after suffering severe losses in the crossing, Hooker was seen to be right. Anyone who today visits Fredericksburg and stands looking down from above the town will immediately understand why the waiting Confederates told one another that a chicken could not live on the slopes once their guns opened up. But Burnside flung his troops forward. “Oh, great God! See how our men, our poor fellows, are falling!” cried Maj. Gen. Darius Couch. It was murder, not war.
Wave after wave was cut down. The long hill up to Marye’s Heights turned blue with Union dead. Burnside persisted. Hooker went to him and pleaded for an end to orders to do the impossible, but Burnside had lost his head, wildly saying he would lead the soldiers himself against the stone wall and sunken road where only death awaited. Dissuaded from doing so, he continued ordering men forward. After night fell, Rebels came down seeking new clothes, and in the morning the field was literally white with bodies. One could have walked up from the river to the heights, it was said, without ever touching earth.
After that Burnside tried a flank attack, but the roads were found impassable, and his movement bogged down in what was called the Mud March. It was futility itself, humiliating. He had never wanted command of the army and had correctly said he was unworthy of the position, but it was another matter to learn that Hooker, his subordinate, held him to be “this wretch” of “blundering sacrifice,” “madness,” and “follies.” Burnside drew up an order dismissing Hooker from all future service for being “guilty of unjust and unnecessary criticisms” and for “habitually speaking in disparaging terms.” Hooker was, the order concluded, “unfit to hold an important commission during a crisis like the present.”
And if, Burnside’s aides asked, Hooker disregarded the order or even raised a mutiny against it? Then he would “swing before sundown,” Burnside replied. But in actuality he had no authority to issue such an order of dismissal, and so, unpublished, it was laid before the President. Lincoln’s response was to send Burnside elsewhere and to give the Army of the Potomac to Fighting Joe. The move surprised no one. “Ever since the battle of Antietam,” said the New York Tribune , “Hooker has been looked upon as the inevitable General.”
Along with the command of the Union’s main force, Lincoln offered a letter: “I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside’s command of the Army you have taken counsel with your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country. … I have heard, in such way as to believe it, 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. …
“And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward and give us victories.”
“That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son,” Hooker said. It was January of 1863. He put the army into winter quarters and prepared for the spring campaign.
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:
The leading columns crossed over the Rapidan, the Rappahannock’s subsidiary, and swept into and through and to the outskirts of what for generations had been called The Wilderness, a roughly hundred-mile-square patch where once iron ore had been smelted with the forests cut down for fuel. The vanished tall trees were replaced by a tangle of laurel bushes and brambles and low, stunted thickets of bristly scrub oak. To get through the undergrowth, a man had often to turn sideways. Visibility was rarely even a hundred feet. It was of the most vital necessity to get out of this gloomy morass, and the big guns were hurried forward along thin trails to open ground. Never before had the Army of the Potomac been so well positioned, never up in such strength and style, never better situated to destroy the Confederacy. For months Fighting Joe had said he would take Lee’s force in his grasp and crush it like that —and he would close his hand firmly. The Army of Northern Virginia, he had said, was his “meat and drink.” Now it seemed so. The men felt it was so. There was, wrote Gen. Daniel Sickles, “irrepressible enthusiasm of the troops for Major General Hooker, which was evidenced in hearty and prolonged cheers.”
Headquarters in The Wilderness would be the Chancellor family’s house, a large brick mansion in one of the area’s few clearings. It and its outbuildings constituted the town of Chancellorsville. It was eleven miles west of Fredericksburg. Hooker had with him some seventy-five thousand men, which number, combined with the forty thousand or so with Sedgwick and the seventeen thousand cavalry rampaging about, meant he was superior to Lee by a ratio of two to one. In addition, he had the Rebel chieftain sandwiched in. His artillery was far superior, and his supplies vastly greater. They had him, said the officers, cavorting about the Chancellor house and laughing and slapping one another on the back. “All was couleur de rose !” wrote a Union general. The enlisted men agreed. When General Couch, second in command, rode into Chancellorsville, he found “hilarity pervading the camps; the soldiers, while chopping wood and lighting fires, were singing merry songs and indulging in peppery jokes.” It seemed to Couch that night, April 30, that “General Hooker had ninety chances in his favor to ten against him.” Hooker said, “Eighty chances in a hundred to win.”
In front was the Rebel army, whose leaders were uncertain where the main blow would be from—Stonewall Jackson thought it would come from Sedgwick—and behind were masses of cattle herded along to provide meat for the drive upon and occupation of Richmond, and high in the air sailed the Union observation balloons. Fighting Joe issued a proclamation to his troops: “Our enemy must either ingloriously fly, or … give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.” He told a reporter: “The rebel army is the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac. They may as well pack up their haversacks and make for Richmond.”
When daylight of May 1 came, the forward units prepared to move upon Lee. But no orders came down from headquarters. The morning wore on. Then the Yankees saw they wouldn’t have to go seek the Rebels, for the Rebels were there. Lee had decided that it was Hooker to his west, not Sedgwick to his south, who constituted the main threat. Some ten thousand Confederates arrived on Hooker’s front, with others strung out on the Fredericksburg road. They attacked. (Early in the war the Confederate artilleryman E. Porter Alexander asked Col. Joseph Ives, who knew Lee, if the man possessed audacity, and Ives said, “Alexander, his very name might be Audacity!”)
The troops potted away at one another, the Union lines backing off in some cases and in others pushing the Confederates away and then giving chase. To the Yankee officers on the scene the situation seemed eminently handleable. They were dealing with hardly more than enemy skirmishers in a relatively minor battle of encounter, a meeting engagement, against a vastly outnumbered and outgunned foe. Behind them, they knew, were overwhelming resources of men and equipment. They held a commanding and favorable position on high, clear ground, from which, once they brushed aside the Rebel threat, they could surge forward and take Fredericksburg, take Richmond, end the war.
There then arrived that incomprehensible moment understood neither then nor now. Messengers came from Hooker at the Chancellor house. They bore orders from the major general commanding. Pull back. Withdraw. Retreat.
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.
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.
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.
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.”