The Army of the Potomac: Hooker Takes Command

January 26, 1863 – Major General Joseph Hooker assumed command of the Federal Army of the Potomac, and he received a stern letter of advice from President Abraham Lincoln.

Nobody in the army seemed surprised about Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s removal and Hooker’s appointment as army commander. Unlike Burnside, Hooker had openly campaigned for the job, and he was as brash as Burnside was modest. As Lincoln predicted, northerners reacted positively to Hooker’s promotion, despite his past insubordination. Lincoln hoped that giving command to Hooker would allow the president to tend to other pressing matters besides the Army of the Potomac.

When Burnside returned to his headquarters to pack and leave, several visitors came to bid him farewell, including Hooker, despite their dislike for each other. Burnside confided to an officer, “There are no pleasant reminiscences for me connected with the Army of the Potomac.” He issued a farewell address to the troops, assuring them that they “under more favorable circumstances would have accomplished great results.” He urged them to be loyal to Hooker, a “brave and skillful general.”

Maj Gen Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Hooker’s promotion, along with the removal of Major Generals Edwin V. Sumner and William B. Franklin, left all three of the army’s Grand Divisions without commanders. On the day that Hooker took command, Lincoln authorized the appointment of Major Generals Darius N. Couch, George G. Meade, and Oliver O. Howard to head the Right, Center, and Left Grand Divisions respectively. Lincoln then summoned Hooker to the White House and handed him a long letter of advice:

“General, I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appears 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 quite satisfied with you.

“I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. 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 Gen. Burnside’s command of the Army, 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 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.

“The government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticizing their commander, and withholding confidences from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.

“And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.”

While most officers in the army felt that Hooker had the fighting spirit needed to destroy the enemy, some doubted his ability to lead such a massive force. Some noted Hooker’s reputation for immorality; Charles Francis Adams, Jr. wrote that Hooker’s headquarters was “a place which no self-respecting man liked to go, and no decent woman could go. It was a combination of barroom and brothel.” Prostitutes became known as “Hooker” girls, or “hookers,” due to their frequent visits to his headquarters.

Couch had no confidence in Hooker’s abilities. William “Baldy” Smith, who had condemned Burnside, also did not trust Hooker. The new commander was described as “inordinately vain,” “entirely unscrupulous,” and a “doubtful chief.” Hooker quickly set about trying to quiet the criticisms by placing Smith at the head of Burnside’s old IX Corps, which was still loyal to Burnside, and detaching it from his command.

In dealing with his superiors, Hooker insisted on bypassing the chain of command and communicating directly with Lincoln. This did not sit well with General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, who already despised Hooker because he had borrowed money from Halleck before the war and never paid it back.

Hooker immediately set about reorganizing the army for a spring offensive. This included improving army discipline, sanitation, ration distribution, and seeing that soldiers received their back pay. Hooker recalled soldiers on furlough and offered amnesty to those absent without leave if they returned voluntarily. He also oversaw the issuance of new uniforms, equipment, and supplies, all of which worked to improve army morale.

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 125; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8712-23, 9308; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 132; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 258; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 101; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 482-83; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 315-16; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 585; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 598-99

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