Reform and Resentment in the Army of the Potomac

The men of Major-General Joseph Hooker’s Federal Army of the Potomac were now back in their camps at Falmouth, on the Rappahannock River in Virginia. Pennsylvania Lieutenant Francis Donaldson described the state of the army: “The men are morose, sullen, dissatisfied, disappointed, and mortified. We are a good deal discouraged because we feel that we should not have lost the battle (of Chancellorsville). I don’t see how we can hope to succeed if we are not better handled.”

“But at the same time,” Donaldson continued, “it must be confessed we are a remarkable army. I doubt very much if any other could have sustained two such tremendous disasters at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and held together as we are doing. Why, do you know that not withstanding our discouragements we are now fast recovering and could make a big fight today if we had someone to inspire us with confidence?” Donaldson noted the fact that although the Federals lost at Chancellorsville, they had inflicted serious damage on the Confederates: “The enemy must have been badly crippled or else they would have followed up their success.”

Another Federal soldier wrote, “Gen. Hooker has the confidence of the troops. The Army feel that he will do his duty and that in the hour of the greatest danger he will do all in his power, even by his presence, to protect it, and help us out.” However, the soldier lamented, “I wish he was a man of prayer.”

The troops’ confidence in Hooker was not shared by the top commanders in the army. Brigadier-General John Gibbon wrote, “No one whose opinion is worth anything has now any confidence in Genl. H. and the Presdt. has been told so, but whether a change will be made or not, it is difficult to say.” Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Fifth Corps, wrote his wife:

“General Hooker has disappointed all his friends by failing to show his fighting qualities at the pinch. He was more cautious and took to digging quicker than even McClellan, thus proving that a man may talk very big when he has no responsibility, but that it is quite a different thing, acting when you are responsible and talking when others are. Who would have believed a few days ago that Hooker would withdraw his army, in opposition to the opinion of a majority of his corps commanders?”

Speculation went beyond just the Potomac army. Major-General Samuel P. Heintzelman, commanding the Washington defenses, wrote, “All sorts of rumors of changes in the command of the Army of the Potomac, and who shall command it.”

Nevertheless, Hooker quickly got back to work planning a new offensive. He recognized that his decentralization of the artillery had contributed to the Chancellorsville defeat. He therefore consulted with the army’s artillery chief, Brigadier-General Henry Hunt, and issued General Orders Number 28, which assigned one brigade of artillery to each of the seven army corps.

Then, less than a week after the army returned to Falmouth, Hooker wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, “I know that you are impatient, and I know that I am, but my impatience must not be indulged at the expense of dearest interests. I hope to be able to commence my movement to-morrow, but this must not be spoken of to any one.” Lincoln, alarmed by Hooker’s eagerness to renew the fighting so fast, asked him to “come up and see me this evening.”

Hooker met with Lincoln at the White House on the night of May 13. As Hooker explained, “My marching force of infantry is cut down to about 80,000, while I have artillery for an army of more than double that number.” This was partly due to the expiration of thousands of volunteer enlistments. The Conscription Act passed in March was expected to encourage more volunteering, but it would take some time to implement. Hooker concluded that the army needed “partial reorganization.”

Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Hooker | Image Credit:

After Hooker left, Lincoln reviewed his notes from the meeting and wrote Hooker that he would probably gain nothing “by an early renewal of the attempt to cross the Rappahannock.” Lincoln asserted that he would be satisfied if Hooker could “do no more, for a time, than to keep the enemy at bay.” The president then expressed his concern about the growing number of complaints against Hooker by several top commanders in the Potomac army.

Word had gotten to Hooker that Pennsylvanians Meade and Major-General John F. Reynolds (commanding the First Corps) had laid out all of Hooker’s mistakes at Chancellorsville to Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin. Curtin then took this information to Washington and told key Lincoln administration officials that Hooker no longer had the confidence of his subordinates. Hooker confronted Meade about this, and one of Meade’s staff officers said that Meade “damned Hooker very freely.” The staffer left the room so that he would not have to be called as a witness to a court-martial. Hooker was ultimately satisfied that Meade had not said anything behind his back that he had not already said to him directly.

But Hooker still had some allies in the top command. On May 16, it was reported in the New York Herald that Major-General Daniel Sickles, commanding the Third Corps, “has been closeted for two hours” with Lincoln at the White House. Being loyal to Hooker, Sickles most likely vouched for his leadership. But if so, it was unnecessary, as Lincoln had no intention of removing Hooker from command at that time. Hooker’s performance in the next campaign would determine whether he stayed or went.


  • Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.
  • Sears, Stephen W., Gettysburg. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company (Kindle Edition), 2003.
  • 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.
  • Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.

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