Commanding a Mighty Large Elephant

As Major-General Joseph Hooker took command of the Federal Army of the Potomac at Falmouth, Virginia, he inherited a force consisting of three grand divisions with no generals to command them. Hooker had been promoted, and Major-Generals Edwin V. Sumner and William B. Franklin had been transferred. President Abraham Lincoln therefore authorized the following changes:

  • The Left Grand Division, formerly Franklin’s, would be led by Major-General Oliver O. Howard.
  • The Center Grand Division, formerly Hooker’s, would be led by Major-General George G. Meade.
  • The Right Grand Division, formerly Sumner’s, would be led by Major-General Darius N. Couch.

Lincoln then summoned Hooker to the White House on the 27th to discuss further changes.

The Washington defenses, commanded by Major-General Samuel P. Heintzelman, were part of the Army of the Potomac. But Heintzelman objected to serving under Hooker because Hooker’s “whole reputation was gained under my command” during the Peninsula campaign the previous year. It was therefore decided to detach Heintzelman’s command from the Potomac army, which worked well for Hooker because it relieved him of the burden of worrying about the capital’s safety.

Major-General William F. “Baldy” Smith had served under Franklin and was considered by Hooker as the “evil genius” behind the revolt against Burnside. Smith was reassigned to command Burnside’s old Ninth Corps, which was still loyal to Burnside, and detached it from Hooker’s army. With the organizational changes agreed upon, Lincoln sent Hooker back to Falmouth with a long letter of advice:

Maj Gen Joseph Hooker | Image Credit:

“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 believed that Hooker had the necessary fighting spirit, some doubted his ability to lead such a large, demoralized force. He was described as “inordinately vain,” “entirely unscrupulous,” and a “doubtful chief.” He also had a 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.

In dealing with his superiors, Lincoln allowed Hooker to bypass Halleck due to past animosity between the men. Hooker claimed that Halleck had conducted “schemes of avarice and plunder” by billing Hooker’s friends for nonexistent work when Halleck was working on land claims in California before the war. Halleck claimed that Hooker had borrowed money from him and never paid him back.

Hooker was taking over an army that, according to a soldier in the 24th New Jersey, “at no period in its history were the troops more disheartened or less hopeful of achieving success.” A New York Herald correspondent reported from Falmouth, “Evil days have befallen us, and no one seems at hand to deliver us. God grant that the Army of the Potomac may not continue to degenerate until its power of resuscitation is wholly lost.”

Some believed that Hooker could revive the army’s fortunes, but many shared the assessment of a soldier in the 3rd Michigan: “We all feel that General Hooker will be like the poor man that won the elephant at the raffle. After he got the animal he did not know what to do with him. So with fighting Joseph. He is now in command of a mighty large elephant, and it will remain to be seen if he knows what to do with him.”

When he returned to headquarters, Hooker’s first order of business was to crack down on the mass desertions plaguing the army. By month’s end, there were 25,363 men absent without leave, though not all were true deserters. Many had been medically discharged from hospitals, and military inefficiency most likely resulted in others being inadvertently discharged.

Hooker informed Provost Marshal Marsena Patrick, “The practice of permitting any person to move about through the lines of the Army, without scrutiny and examination, must be stopped.” Picket duty was increased to monitor not only enemy movements but potential deserters. Hooker ordered each regiment to submit a list of names and descriptions of men missing from their roles, and northern authorities were offered bounties to return these men to the ranks. Patrols on the Potomac River and the approaches to Washington were also put in place.

Hooker then set about reorganizing the army for a spring offensive. This included improving 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 gradually improve army morale.


  • Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1952.
  • Sears, Stephen W., Chancellorsville. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 1996.
  • Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.

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