May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
William Tecumseh Sherman. The Pooh-Bahs of generalship persist in ranking him behind only Grant (or ahead of him) in the pantheon of Union commanders. Yet in fact, when it came to the battlefield, Sherman was not that much of a commander. Measure a general by fighting ability, and he slips well down the list. Early in the war, in Kentucky and Missouri, he outdistanced even McClellan in describing the vast enemy hosts assembling against him. At Shiloh he failed to take precautions against surprise attack and was therefore shamefully surprised. When set against a determined opponent, as at Chickasaw Bluffs above Vicksburg in December 1862, or at Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga in November 1863, he went nowhere. On his famous march against Atlanta, facing a greatly outmanned opponent, he admitted to Grant, “My operation has been rather cautious than bold.”
Whether Confederate Joseph E. Johnston’s Fabian tactics might have saved Atlanta from Sherman, or at least fatefullv delayed its capture until after the 1864 presidential election, was a question rendered moot when Jefferson Davis replaced Johnston with John Bell Hood, a general known to his troops as Wooden Head. Hood made three quick, doomed attacks against the powerful Union forces, and Atlanta was Sherman’s. That he might have taken—ought to have taken—Atlanta and Hood’s army seems not to have occurred to him. Sherman’s celebrated, highly destructive March to the Sea, and his subsequent highly destructive march north through the Carolinas, were hardly a test of generalship; the opposition was scarcely even token. As a raider and as a military theoretician Sherman deserves high ranking indeed. (He was also a master of the sound bite, before that term was invented—“War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it”—and thereby a favorite of historians.) But as a general of the battlefield, he is considerably overrated.
Joseph Hooker. “Fighting Joe” Hooker fully deserved his nickname. Leading a division during the Seven Days and at Second Bull Run, leading a corps at Antietam and a grand division at Fredericksburg, he compiled a fighting record unmatched by any other general in the lankee Army of the Potomac. He breathed life into that moribund army when he took command of it in January 1863. Joe Hooker had ideas. As an army administrator he was better even than McClellan, and as good a morale builder. He gave his cavalry an organization that finally allowed it to meet the enemy on even terms. He instituted the first effective intelligence-gathering apparatus in any Civil War army. He even brought reform to the North’s errant press corps by requiring correspondents to put bylines on their reporting.) He also had ideas for an 1860s battlefield increasingly dominated by the rifled musket and the rifled cannon.
Hooker’s fresh ideas came together at Chancellorsville, where, alas for his reputation, he went down to defeat. That defeat can now be traced more to sheer happenstance, to the blundering of his lieutenants, and to his wounding at a crucial moment in the fighting than to a collapse of his generalship. Hooker has long been scorned by historians because of rumors (unfounded) of drunkenness and because of the allegation (equally unfounded) that he confessed a loss of nerve under fire at Chancellorsville. On the eve of Gettysburg, Fighting Joe lost his army command through the conniving of a high command revolt led by Generals Slocum and Couch, mediocrities who would never merit being called “Fighting Henry” and “Fighting Darius.” There is every reason to think Joe Hooker would have fought Gettysburg at least as well as Meade, and every reason to think he would not have let Lee escape to Virginia afterward.
Lincoln said he would not throw away a gun just because it misfired once, and sent Hooker to the Western theater. There he performed with high competence as a corps commander, winning honors at Lookout Mountain at Chattanooga and doing much of Sherman’s fighting for him during the march on Atlanta. Joe Hooker never bothered to conceal his ambition and he talked too much and too loudly, but he liked to say that the army would always find room for a fighting general. He did not reckon with Sherman’s enmity. Declaring Hooker’s noisy presence disruptive, Sherman found an insulting way to drive him out by promoting a hack general over his head. Someone once called Joe Hooker the fightingest general the Army of the Potomac ever had, and that is a fair enough judgment.