Joseph Hooker, 1814-1879

Joseph Hooker was an able but controversial Union general during the American Civil War. Despite his many achievements, he will always be remembered as one of Robert E. Lee's victims, suffering the heavy defeat at Chancellorsville that allowed Lee to launch the invasion of Pennsylvania that ended at Gettysburg.

Hooker attended West Point from 1833 to 1837, graduating 29th out of 50 in his class. Like many Civil War generals, he first met many of his civil war comrades and opponents at West Point. His year contained Bragg, Pemberton and Early, all of whom reached high rank in the Confederate army, and Sedgwick for the Union.

Before the civil war he served in Florida, on the Canadian border, as adjutant of West Point and as adjutant of the 1st Artillery. During the Mexican War he served as a staff officer for a series of generals, including General Gideon Johnson Pillow. He distinguished himself in action, winning brevet promotions to captain, major and finally lieutenant-colonel. However, his close association with General Pillow was to cause a serious rift with General Winfield Scott, the American commander in Mexico. Pillow had written anonymous letters to the New Orleans Delta claiming that he was actually responsible for Scott’s victories. When the authorship of these letters was discovered, Pillow was arrested, and returned to Washington for trial, where he was falsely acquitted. Hooker had given evidence to support Pillow.

In the post war period he added General Halleck to his list of enemies. He resigned from the army in 1853 and moved to the west, where he tried farming in California (to 1858), before moving on to become superintendent of military roads in Oregon in 1858-59. Finally he became a Colonel in the California militia in 1859-61. Halleck was already prominent in California society, having helped to write the new state's constitution. Halleck was now a major-general in the Militia. It was during this period that the two men first clashed.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, he made his way to Washington. His offer of service was accepted one month after the siege of Fort Sumter. At first his offer was ignored, but in the aftermath of the First Battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861), he was appointed brigadier-general of volunteers, backdated to 18 May, and given a command in the force defending Washington.

Hooker commanded a division during the Peninsula campaign of 1862. Here he began to gain a reputation as a fine Divisional commander. At the Battle of Williamsburg he was at the front of his division, and played a crucial role in the Union success in that battle. His division suffered the vast majority of the Union casualties at Williamsburg (337 out of 468 dead, 908 out of 1442 wounded and 330 out of 373 missing, 70% of the total). After the battle he gained a promotion to major-general of volunteers, and a nickname – ‘Fighting Joe’ .

His reputation continued to rise throughout the rest of the Peninsula campaign, and even after the disaster at Second Bull Run. In the aftermath of that battle he was promoted to command of the First Corps in the Army of the Potomac. It was in that capacity that he took part in the campaign that ended at Antietam. His corps was heavily involved in the fighting at South Mountain, where a small Confederate force held back two Federal army corps for almost an entire day.

Hooker’s corps fought on the Federal right at Antietam. In theory, he was under the direct command of General Burnside, but Burnside was with his other corps, on the left of the battle. The right wing thus lacked any coordinating leadership. The battle was characterised by a series of disjointed Federal attacks, many of which came close to achieving success, but all of which failed to do so.  Late in the day he was badly injured, and had to leave the field, but by then the chance to win a decisive victory had probably already passed.

Hooker returned in time to take part in Burnside’s disastrous Fredericksburg campaign. Burnside had not wanted to take command of the Army of the Potomac when Lincoln finally decided to replace General McClellan, but had eventually agreed to take the job, possibly to prevent it going to Hooker. Despite this, Hooker was promoted to brigadier-general in the regular army, and given command of one of Burnside’s new ‘Grand Divisions’ (two army corps combined under a single commander. Something similar had been attempted by McClellan at Antietam, when Burnside had had command of two corps).

Burnside’s grand offensive ended in disaster at Fredericksburg. The campaign had begun well. Two corps moved quickly to Fredericksburg, but their pontoon bridges moved more slowly. By the time Burnside was ready to cross the river, Lee had arrived and was dug in. Burnside decided to launch an attack straight at the Confederate lines. None of his corps commanders were happy with the plan, On 13 December 1862 they were proved correct. The attack at Fredericksburg was a disaster, achieving nothing.

In the aftermath of the battle, the relationship between Burnside and his senior officers seems to have broken down. The army as a whole had lost confidence in his ability to lead them to success. After another attempted campaign early in 1863 bogged down in the Virginia mud, Burnside decided that he needed to remove several of his senior officers. Unsurprisingly, Hooker was amongst them. On 23 January Burnside wrote a command removing Hooker from his command, but instead of issuing it, he took it to Washington, and presented it to President Lincoln as an ultimatum – approve the order, or remove me from command. Lincoln chose to remove Burnside, sending him west to command the Department of the Ohio.

Hooker was now promoted to command the Army of the Potomac. At first he was a great success. Morale rose, desertions fell, and the army recovered much of the confidence it had lost at Fredericksburg. He reorganised the army, creating a dedicated cavalry corps, and removing Burnside’s ‘Grand Divisions’. Hooker was characteristically confident, informing Lincoln that it was matter of when he would reach Richmond, not whether he would.

Hooker came up with what was probably the best plan yet developed to defeat Lee. It was based around the effective use of Hooker’s massive numerical advantage. He would split the army in three. One part would remain at Fredericksburg, hopefully pinning Lee down while the rest of the army moved west. If Lee did detect the main movement and follow it, then the detachment at Fredericksburg would be strong enough to attack whatever force Lee left behind. Meanwhile, the bulk of the army would move upstream along the Rappahannock River, hopefully outflanking Lee.

All began well. Although Lee was not fooled by Hooker’s movement, the Union army was able to get across the Rappahannock, and by 30 April had reached Chancellorsville. Lee was faced by 40,000 men in front of him at Fredericksburg and 70,000 men across the river to his left. The next day things started to go wrong. When it became clear that Lee was advancing towards him with most of his army, Hooker simply lost his nerve. Instead of advancing to attack Lee in open ground, Hooker retreated into the Wilderness around Chancellorsville, and prepared to fight a defensive battle. 

Having thrown away all the advantages that his plan and superior numbers had given him, Hooker’s men did at least fight a determined battle in the tangled undergrowth of the Wilderness. Despite this, they were clearly beaten by Lee’s much smaller army. Hooker’s grand plan had come to an inglorious end. Lee did suffer two serious blows at Chancellorsville. The most famous was the death of Stonewall Jackson, his most able lieutenant. Jackson was shot by his own troops in the confusion, and died of his wounds several days later. Perhaps more significantly, even in defeat the Army of the Potomac had inflicted heavy casualties on Lee’s men. Federal losses were 1,575 dead, 9,594 wound and 5919 missing and captured, for a total of 17,287. Confederate losses were 1,665 dead, 9,081 wounded and 1,708 missing or captured, for a total of 12,462. Too many victories like Chancellorsville would destroy Lee’s army.

Hooker remained in command of the Army of the Potomac for most of the Gettysburg campaign. Despite the defeat at Chancellorsville, the Army of the Potomac was not notably disorganised or demoralised, much to Lee’s eventual discomfort. Hooker handled the start of the pursuit of Lee with some skill, protecting Washington and Baltimore, while quickly closing on Lee. Ironically, the small garrison of Harper’s Ferry once again appeared on the stage. Lee’s decision to attack in the previous year had derailed his invasion of Maryland in 1862. Now Hooker’s desire to have control of the same garrison was to end his time in command of the Army of the Potomac. When his demand was refused, Hooker resigned. On 28 June he was replaced by General Meade. Three days later, on 1 July, Meade found himself in command on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Despite the awful timing of his resignation, Hooker’s career was not over. A crisis was rapidly developing around Chattanooga, where General Rosecrans was making slow but vulnerable progress towards the city. On 19-20 September, having captured Chattanooga, he was defeated at Chickamauga. Even before this he had been calling for reinforcements. The Eleventh and Twelfth Corps were detached from the Army of the Potomac and on 24 September 1863 left their camps on the Rappahannock River under the command of Joseph Hooker.

That force played an important role in U.S. Grant’s relief of Chattanooga. On 24 November 1863 they fought the Battle of Lookout Mountain, also known as the Battle above the Clouds because of the unusual weather. This marked the beginning of Grant’s counterattack, completed the next day at Missionary Ridge. Hooker did not play a major role in that battle, having been delayed on the march from Lookout Mountain.

1864 saw Hooker back in the role he was probably best suited too, commanding the Twentieth corps in General Sherman’s advance towards Atlanta (created by combining the Eleventh and Twelfth). In that capacity he served well, receiving a battlefield commendation and a mention in dispatches after the battle of Peach Tree Creek. However, he seems to have agitating for more senior command for much of the expedition. Sherman’s force was divided into three armies under Generals Thomas, Schofield and McPherson. Hooker’s corps was part of General Thomas’s army. However, both Schofield and McPherson complained that Hooker had a tendency to move his corps away from his own superior, and towards them. In theory he outranked both men, and so if a battle developed while he was close by could claim command on the battlefield.

Whatever the truth of these claims, the result was that Sherman was not entirely at ease with Hooker. When McPherson was killed during the Battle of Atlanta (22 July 1864), Hooker expected to replace him. He was indeed the most senior of the available officers, but that was not important to Sherman. According to Sherman’s autobiography, Hooker was not even considered for the role, which went to Major-General O. O. Howard. Hooker promptly handed in his resignation, which was equally promptly accepted.

This finally ended Hooker’s active career, although not his army career. In September 1864 he was appointed to command the Northern Department, with headquarters at Cincinnati, Ohio. After the civil war, he commanded the Department of the East (from July 1865), and then the Department of the Lakes (from 1866-68). Increasing infirmity finally forced him to retire from the army in 1868. The same year had seen the death of his wife of two years, Olivia Groesbeck.

Hooker divided his contemporaries. General Pope considered him to be one of the best corps commanders in the army. For General Couch he had many fine qualities as an officer, but not the weight of character required to command the Army of the Potomac. Couch had had plenty of opportunities to observe Hooker in action with that army. Even when appointing him to command the Army of the Potomac, President Lincoln had some doubts, going as far as outlining them to Hooker in his letter of appointment! His main concern was that Hooker’s ambition had led him to undermine Burnside. Chancellorsville proved that Hooker was not capable of holding the highest command, but his own ambition meant that he was not content to serve in the capacity for which he was best suited, that of the dashing corps commander.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (10 February 2007), Joseph Hooker, 1814-1879,

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