The Army of the Potomac: Meade Replaces Hooker

June 27, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln accepted Major General Joseph Hooker’s resignation, daringly replacing an army commander during an enemy invasion.

Federal Major General Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: Sonofthesouth.net

There had been bad blood between Hooker and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck since before the war, and now the men disagreed over how to employ the Federal garrisons at Harpers Ferry and Maryland Heights against the Confederates’ northern advance. Hooker wanted to evacuate these garrisons and use the 10,000 men to pursue the Confederates. Halleck (and Lincoln) wanted the troops to stay put in the hopes that their presence might divide General Robert E. Lee’s army as it did during last year’s Maryland campaign.

After Hooker sent a message pleading his case on the 27th, he ordered Major General William French, commanding at Harpers Ferry, to evacuate. When the order reached Washington, Halleck wired French, “Pay no attention to General Hooker’s orders.” Enraged, Hooker confided in a fellow officer who asked if a battle was coming soon: “Yes, but I shall not fight the battle. Halleck’s dispatch severs my connection with the Army of the Potomac.”

Hooker telegraphed Halleck at 1 p.m.:

“My original instructions require me to cover Harper’s Ferry and Washington. I have now imposed upon me, in addition, an enemy in my front of more than my number. I beg to be understood, respectfully, but firmly, that I am unable to comply with this condition with the means at my disposal, and earnestly request that I may at once be relieved from the position I occupy.”

Hooker may not have expected his superiors to actually remove him from command during this time of crisis. Halleck replied at 8 p.m., “As you were appointed to this command by the President, I have no power to relieve you. Your dispatch has been duly referred for Executive action.” By that time, Lincoln had already decided to grant Hooker’s request.

Lincoln and the high command had always been unimpressed with Hooker due to his overconfidence. This was made even worse by his embarrassing defeat at Chancellorsville, and now his inability to stop Lee’s invasion. Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Halleck had agreed after Chancellorsville that while it may be politically damaging to fire Hooker, they would quickly accept his resignation if he ever offered it.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

In choosing a suitable replacement for Hooker, Lincoln ignored pleas to reinstate the still-popular George B. McClellan. Instead, Lincoln chose Major General George G. Meade, commanding V Corps. Meade was a well respected professional officer who had been part of all the army’s campaigns since the first Battle of Bull Run. He was not very well known by troops outside his corps, but past defeats had taught many of the men to be indifferent toward whoever commanded them.

Two corps commanders outranked him (John F. Reynolds and John Sedgwick), but they had both rejected past offers to command the army. Stanton noted that Meade had no real enemies, “and as a Pennsylvanian, he has patriotism enough to draw out all the latent energies of his nature.” Lincoln added, “And will fight well on his own dunghill.” Changing army commanders while a major confrontation loomed was an extraordinary gamble.

Colonel James A. Hardie of the War Department was assigned to deliver the orders to Hooker and Meade. He left Washington at 7:30 p.m., a half-hour before Halleck deflected Hooker’s request to resign. He arrived at Meade’s headquarters outside Frederick at 3 a.m. and woke the commander. When Hardie said, “I’m afraid I’ve come to make trouble for you,” Meade thought he was being arrested. Hardie handed him the order instead:

“You will receive with this the order of the President placing you in command of the Army of the Potomac… Your army is free to act as you may deem proper under the circumstances as they arise… Harpers Ferry and its garrison are under your direct orders.”

Having command of Harpers Ferry was something the administration had denied Hooker. When Meade considered turning it down, Hardie said that he was ordered, not asked, to take command. Meade said, “Well, I’ve been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to execution.” Major General George Sykes took Meade’s place as V Corps commander.

Meade and Hardie next went to Hooker’s headquarters to inform him that he had been removed. Hooker took the news well and courteously made way for the new commander after issuing a final order praising the army. But he did not have any plans to share with Meade, leaving the new commander scrambling to figure out what his army should do to stop Lee.

The Federal army consisted of over 100,000 men spread out on both sides of the Potomac, with most men on the Maryland side around Frederick. Scouts accurately informed Meade that he faced a Confederate army of 80,000 men, spread out between Chambersburg and Carlisle in Pennsylvania. Meade quickly developed a plan of action and sent it Washington at 4:45 p.m.:

“I propose to move this army tomorrow in the direction of York. I must move toward the Susquehanna, keeping Washington and Baltimore well covered, and if the enemy is checked in his attempt to cross the Susquehanna, or if he turns toward Baltimore, give him battle.”

This plan canceled Hooker’s strategy of threatening Lee’s supply lines to the west. Meade issued orders that night to “be ready to march at daylight tomorrow.”

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 34-35; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 297; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9419-29; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 446, 450-52, 454; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 317; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 372; 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. 652-53; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 598-99, 739

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One thought on “The Army of the Potomac: Meade Replaces Hooker

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