May 7, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck arrived at Aquia Creek to meet with Major General Joseph Hooker regarding the Army of the Potomac’s latest defeat.
The president had arranged for a steamer to take him to Hooker’s headquarters after learning the extent of the Federal defeat at Chancellorsville. Lincoln and Halleck debarked on the morning of the 7th and took a special train to Falmouth, where they met with Hooker to discuss current and future operations.
Lincoln expressed relief to find that the “troops are none the worse for the campaign,” as evidenced by generally high morale and few desertions. He also said he was “agreeably surprised with the situation.” Lincoln did not assign blame for the defeat, but, knowing the indignation the defeat would cause throughout the North, he urged Hooker to begin a new offensive as soon as possible.
The meeting lasted just a few hours, after which Lincoln and Halleck left for Washington. As he left, Lincoln handed Hooker a letter:
“If possible I would be very glad of another movement early enough to give us some benefit from the fact of the enemies communications being broken, but neither for this reason or any other, do I wish anything done in desperation or rashness. If you have (a plan), prosecute it without interference from me. If you have not, please inform me, so that I, incompetent as I may be, can try and assist in the formation of some plan for the army.”
Lincoln told newspaper reporters at Falmouth that he was returning to Washington with “his confidence in Gen. Hooker and his army unshaken.” When a correspondent asked him if he would remove Hooker from command, Lincoln said that because he had stuck with George B. McClellan “a number of times, he saw no reason why he should not try General Hooker twice.”
Hooker responded the same day, writing:
“If in the first effort we failed, it was not for want of strength or conduct of the small number of troops actually engaged, but from a cause which could not be foreseen (i.e., the Confederate flank attack on May 2), and could not be provided against. As to the best time for renewing our advance upon the enemy, I can only decide after an opportunity has been afforded to learn the feeling of the troops. I have decided in my own mind the plan to be adopted in our next effort, if it should be your wish to have one made. It will be one in which the operations of all the corps… will be within my personal supervision.”
As the Federals returned to their old camps at Falmouth and resumed the daily routines of army life, northern newspapers spread blame among nearly everybody for the Chancellorsville debacle. Hooker reported that his present force totaled 136,704 officers and men, but many problems within the army delayed his plans to start another offensive.
From the White House, Lincoln responded with skepticism that Hooker could launch another offensive so quickly. He wrote that he would allow Hooker to stay put for now but would not object to Hooker putting the army in motion once more.
Lincoln then shifted focus to another concern: Hooker’s attitude. This bothered the president because it reflected a “cool, clear, and satisfied” air that refused to acknowledge responsibility for failure or willingness to learn from mistakes. Lincoln guessed that this attitude led to many of Hooker’s subordinates no longer wanting to serve under him.
Major General Darius N. Couch, Hooker’s second-in-command, was so disgusted by Hooker’s performance at Chancellorsville that he demanded to be transferred out of the army, away from Hooker. He joined with Major General Henry W. Slocum to urge Lincoln to replace Hooker with Major General George G. Meade. Major General John F. Reynolds had met with Lincoln at the White House and also recommended that Meade take Hooker’s place.
When Meade learned this, he told Lincoln he had no ambition to command the army, but he joined with Major General John Sedgwick in quietly expressing dissatisfaction with Hooker’s leadership. Only three of Hooker’s corps commanders–Major Generals Oliver O. Howard, George Stoneman, and Daniel Sickles–supported Hooker, but Hooker alienated Stoneman and Howard by asserting that they were the most responsible for the defeat.
Lincoln warned Hooker that “some of your corps and Division Commanders are not giving you their entire confidence.” This brought back memories of Hooker blatantly undermining Ambrose E. Burnside five months ago when Burnside commanded the army. Rather than fire back, Hooker left it up to Lincoln to decide what to do about it.
Lincoln rejected the calls to remove Hooker, saying that he was “not disposed to throw away a gun because it missed fire once,” but instead “would pick the lock and try it again.” But he did approve Couch’s transfer, with Major General Winfield Scott Hancock taking over Couch’s II Corps. Major General Alfred Pleasonton also took over for Stoneman as cavalry corps commander.
Lincoln then met with Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to discuss Hooker’s fate. They agreed that the atmosphere was too politically charged to remove Hooker at this time, but if Hooker submitted his resignation some time in the future, they would accept.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 14-16, 34; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18962; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 282-84; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9275, 9318; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 300; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 520-21; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 350, 353, 356-57