Joseph Hooker and the Problem of Politics in the Military

General Joseph HookerGeneral Joseph Hooker

In the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial, the bicentennial of Union General Joseph Hooker’s birth on November 13 hardly seems worthy of much celebration. Hooker is remembered mainly for losing at Chancellorsville, which some military historians consider Robert E. Lee’s most brilliant battle, and for his renown as a ladies’ man contributing to the English language. While the term hookers was around long before its alleged namesake, Hooker’s military career provides a window through which to observe Lincoln’s leadership and occasional lack of it, and his problems in dealing with military politics in his quest for the right commander.

A West Point graduate, “Fighting Joe” Hooker distinguished himself for bravery on the staffs of Generals Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor during the Mexican-American War. But Hooker found trouble, or it found him. During that war, Hooker backed another general who claimed credit for Scott’s victories. When Scott accused the general of insubordination and court-martialed him, Hooker testified on the general’s behalf, and Scott neither forgave nor forgot. After the war, when the army sent him to California, Hooker reportedly drank too much, overindulged in womanizing, and borrowed money from two other officers assigned there, Henry Halleck and William T. Sherman. He never paid them back; they neither forgave nor forgot, either.

Hooker resigned from the army and found himself unable to get reinstated to fight in the Civil War until he wrote directly to Lincoln, who saw to his appointment as a brigadier general of volunteers. Hooker served in the Army of the Potomac – bravely, but not happily or loyally. He criticized Lincoln’s administration as too slow-moving and complained that the country needed a dictator. Hooker shared Lincoln’s displeasure with army head General George McClellan’s caution, declaring, “He is not only not a soldier, but he does not know what soldiership is.” He was no happier when Lincoln replaced McClellan after Antietam with Ambrose Burnside. Hooker criticized Burnside for ordering him to engage in doomed assaults at Fredericksburg in December 1862. After that battle, and a failed attempt the following month to march through deep mud to Richmond, Burnside demanded that Lincoln fire Hooker and other insubordinate commanders or he would resign. Instead, Lincoln removed Burnside.

But who would replace him? In seeking commanders, Lincoln looked for men who had won battles. A veteran and inveterate politician, skilled at managing and even manipulating those around him, Lincoln had no fears of surrounding himself with critics. Given his limited experience and the criticism he faced, previous reputations meant little to him: Lincoln’s support for Grant made clear that he valued results over rumors, even the ones that surrounded Hooker and prompted one officer to describe Hooker’s headquarters as a corps commander as “a place which no self-respecting man liked to go, and no decent woman could go. It was a combination of barroom and brothel.”

With all of that in mind, Lincoln named Hooker to replace Burnside and handed his new commander a letter. Hooker told a reporter, “That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son. It is a beautiful letter, and, although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.” Lincoln expressed admiration for his bravery and pleasure with his stated desire to avoid partisan politics, but he referred to “some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you.” He said, “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 successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.” He also warned him about some of his behavior under Burnside’s command: “I think… you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer…. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you.” Lincoln proved perceptive.

Hooker did one part of his job well: reorganizing the army. Conditions improved so much that one soldier wrote, “Under Hooker, we began to live.” But Lincoln was wrong about Hooker’s politics: he appointed commanders according to their loyalty rather than their ability.

Hooker also had too much confidence. “May God have mercy on General Lee,” he said, “for I will have none.” He divided what he called “the finest army on the planet” three ways to cut off Lee’s communications and force him to retreat or fight. Hooker seemed surprised when Lee chose the latter at Chancellorsville on May 1, 1863. One of his old officers said of Hooker that he “could play the best game of poker I ever saw until it came to the point where he should go a thousand better, and then he would flunk.” Hooker flunked in another way: a cannonball struck a wooden column he was leaning against and he suffered what seems to have been a concussion, but refused to give up command. The finest army on the planet suffered a humiliating defeat. Lincoln mourned, “My God! My God! What will the country say?”

In the wake of the battle, Lincoln’s warning was realized as Hooker’s subordinates openly criticized him. When Hooker threatened to resign rather than defend Harper’s Ferry against a rebel attack, Lincoln replaced him with one of his quieter corps commanders, George Gordon Meade. Three days later, Meade’s army met Lee’s at Gettysburg.

Hooker’s career was far from over. He proved an able corps commander in the Army of the Cumberland, but resented Grant’s obvious preference for his old comrade Sherman and the selection of General Oliver O. Howard to head the Army of the Tennessee, again displaying a tendency to play politics in the military and to suffer for his previous problems. He remained a subordinate through the end of the war and retired from the army in 1868.

On the bicentennial of his birth, Hooker serves as a reminder of the dangers of military officers playing politics. He is mostly remembered now for misbehavior and as one of the sad list of officers to whom Lincoln turned before finding the right leader in Grant, who also suffered from a dubious reputation at several points in his career. But Grant appears to have understood one of Lincoln’s homely metaphors for describing Hooker: “The hen is the wisest of all the animal creation, because she never cackles until the egg is laid.”

About the Author

Michael Green

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV. In 2015, the University of Nevada Press will publish his Nevada: A History of the Silver State. He also is the author of Lincoln and the Election of 1860 (Southern Illinois University Press) and other works on the nineteenth century and the American West.

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