Joseph Hooker was a better conniver and carouser than army commander, but he was a solid Corps commander.
He’d been to West Point (class of 1837) and served in the artillery and on the staff in Mexico. He won three brevets but also mixed in politics with his superiors, testifying against Winfield Scott in a Court of Inquiry. He took two years of leave (procedures were looser in those days, but was also a way for tempers to cool) and then resigned to make money in California, farming and speculating in land.
When the Civil War broke out he became a colonel in the California Militia, but it didn’t take him long to drop that and come east to see what he could find. He watched the first battle of Manassas as a civilian, and felt that he could do better. He wrote to Lincoln saying as much and was made a Brigadier General of Volunteers (the Regular Army wasn’t so keen to have him back). He commanded first a brigade, then a division as the Army of the Potomac trained around Washington, and he stayed at the head of his division as McClellan undertook the Peninsular Campaign. In the siege of Yorktown he took good care of his men (he always looked out for the men in the ranks, a point in his favor), then did particularly well at Williamsburg. Neither of these actions need have been fought if McClellan had been bolder, but it takes nothing away from Hooker that he did well in unnecessary battles. He was promoted to Major General (still of the Volunteers) for his work at Williamsburg.
He fought at Seven Pines, then through the Seven Days Battles, even regaining some laurels for McClellan’s humiliated army by recapturing Malvern Hill after the Army of the Potomac had evacuated it. He was given his nickname by a journalists or telegraphers slip in a report; there was fighting, and there was Joe Hooker, but there wasn’t really a Fighting Joe.
His division was transferred back to Washington, then around to serve with John Pope, and so he ended up fighting at Second Manassas. He may have had ideas about what went wrong the first time, but he wasn’t able to improve the result on the replay. Still, he’d done well. With the problems the Army of the Potomac had, Hooker was one of the brighter spots, and he was promoted to command the I Corps just in time for Lee’s invasion of Maryland. He led his men at South Mountain, then in the early morning attack at Antietam, where he was soon wounded.
He was only out of action for six weeks, and put in charge of the V Corps for a week before Burnside (the new commander of the Army of the Potomac) reorganized it into three two-Corps ‘Grand Divisions’. Hooker was given the Center Grand Division, which saw little action at Fredericksburg and none during the Mud March.
When Burnside was dropped, Hooker replaced him. Lincoln had confidence in Hooker’s fighting skills, but qualms about his leadership overall. Hooker had never backed off his criticism of his superiors, never stopped writing to politicians to let them know other people’s shortcomings. Lincoln chided him about this, and didn’t think much of Hooker’s support for a military dictatorship in wartime. Critics within the army (and there were many; if Hooker showed concern for the enlisted men, he was hard on his subordinate officers) were quick to point out the drinking and loose women around his headquarters, reports that circulated freely among the political circles that Hooker had entered via his letters.
Hooker actually stopped drinking when he began the spring 1863 campaign against Lee. His plan was excellent; he pinned Lee’s depleted forces (Longstreet was detached to southeastern Virginia) at Fredericksburg, then moved the bulk of his troops around to the open west flank. But he made some mistakes: he’d sent his cavalry away on a futile raid and couldn’t scout the Confederate position; he misjudged Lee and expected him to withdraw once he flank was turned. Lee was far more aggressive than that, and checked Hooker’s leading formation. Hooker then sat still, not really forming a defensive line and certainly not attacking Lee. This gave Lee the intitiative, and he sent Jackson on a sweeping flank march that brought him onto the open Union flank. The XI Corps crumpled in a few minutes, earning themselves the nickname of the Flying Dutchmen (there were many German immigrants in the Corps) and only dark prevented a deeper Confederate advance. Hooker never took charge of the battle on May 2 either; he withdrew his forces from a dominating hill, allowing the Confederate batteries to take a position from which they could pound at will. One of their shot actually hit the porch-pillar that Hooker was leaning against, and he was stunned for the rest of the day. That was the charitable explanation of his conduct; his enemies could smirk that he should have kept on drinking.
He extracted the Army of the Potomac from Lee’s grasp and led it back northwards, after yet another defeat. He stayed in command until someone was chosen to replace him – George Meade, appointed just days before Gettysburg. Actually Hooker resigned, picking a fight with Lincoln over control of the Harper’s Ferry garrison. Lincoln was happy to have the fight, since it was the perfect excuse to remove Hooker.
Unlike so many unsuccessful generals he was not retired nor put out to grass in a backwater command. After a few months on the shelf, he was sent with two Corps from the Army of the Potomac to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland, besieged at Chattanooga after the catastrophe at Chickamauga. He fought well in opening a supply line to the forces trapped in the city and was important in the taking of Lookout Mountain. Grant, however, played up Sherman’s role in the fighting. There was little Hooker could do: the politicians in whom he always confided were paying him less attention.
Over the winter of 1863-64 he received the Thanks of Congress for not botching the opening of the Gettysburg Campaign. His command was also reduced, with the amalgamation of the two weak Corps to form one strong one. Under Sherman’s leadership he fought down through north Georgia and around Atlanta. Just before Atlanta fell he was passed over for command of the Army of the Tennessee: McPherson had been killed and Howard (who had commanded the Flying Dutchmen at Chancellorsville) was chosen over Hooker.
This was too much. He asked for a transfer, and got it. He finished the war in charge of the Northern Department, overseeing various issues in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan.
Content provided by:
Eicher, John H. & David J. Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2001.
Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue - Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton
Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.