The Bawdy Hooker Takes Command

January 27, 1863 (Tuesday)

The Union Army of the Potomac had been through hell since the Autumn of 1862. They were knocked reeling by the Battle of Antietam, and infuriated by the sacking of General McClellan. When Ambrose Burnside took over, he led them down the Rappahannock River, but his efforts led to a waiting game. The following Battle of Fredericksburg was seen by most as a pointless bloodbath.

In the month that followed, their morale had plummeted with the temperatures, and again they waited for Burnside to do something. When he did, it cost him his job. The army wasn’t so much elated with Burnside’s removal as they were numb to it. The rank and file were getting all too used to the seemingly constant change of commanders.

When they learned that General Joseph Hooker was their new commander, however, it gave them a bit of hope. They knew his reputation as “Fighting Joe,” and hoped he might be the one to lead them to victory.

The same could not be said for the officers who would now have to serve directly under Hooker. They had little doubt that he could fight, but they questioned his ability to whip the army into fighting shape. Since McClellan, all such organization was sapped.

General George Meade, whose name had come up to replace Burnside, felt this way. He believed Hooker, whom he had known since their days at West Point, to be a good soldier, but he questioned his ability to lead such a huge army.

Some focused upon his less-than-moral character. He was known to be a hard drinker and lover of ladies with a similar moral character. While prostitutes did not get the moniker “hooker” from the General (it pre-dated the Civil War by several decades), Joe Hooker certainly brought it into more common usage. Before long, his headquarters would be described as “a combination of barroom and brothel.”

General Darius Couch, commanding the II Corps, believed Lincoln made a grave error in appointing Hooker to anything. “Baldy” Smith, who had done everything in his power to slander Burnside, remarked that “Hooker would start out to make a spoon and by spoiling a horn,” a strange colloquialism from a time when spoons were apparently made out of horns. At any rate, Baldy Smith didn’t trust him. One officer described him as “inordinately vain” and “entirely unscrupulous.” Another called him a “doubtful chief.”

We haven’t had a map in a while, so how about this one?

Those who knew Hooker saw first hand that he was not one to beg away from a fight. That said, artillery officer, Charles Wainwright, wondered if his new General was indeed a tactician. He also observed that Hooker’s main weakness was for women, not whiskey – though he imbibed freely in both.

Things were quick to change under the Hooker regime. On this date, he went to Washington and met with Lincoln, causing quite a stir along the way. General Samuel Heintzelman, commander of the troops in Washington, spoke loudest. He had commanded the III Corps, in which Hooker led a division, and thought it improper that he now serve under his old subordinate.

Heintzelman’s troops were technically part of the Army of the Potomac. They were not allowed to leave the capital, but were still subject to Hooker’s commands. This protestation was very welcomed by Hooker. He had no desire at all to be tied to Washington. The Army of the Potomac, he believed, needed to be free from always having to guard the capital from the Rebels. Now, he could act on his own (albeit with 62,000 fewer men).

But there was another problem. Under General Burnside, the officers, including Hooker, had revolted. Now that he was in command, he wanted to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. General William Franklin was the instigator of the revolt, but he, along with General Edwin Sumner, was gone thanks to Burnside’s final request. Hooker was lonely at the top and that’s just how he liked it.

See ya, Baldy!

The problem, however, wasn’t a rival officer, but an entire corps. The IX Corps had been Burnside’s from its inception. He had raised it, fought with it on the Carolina Coast, come up to the Peninsula with it, and led it at Second Manassas, South Mountain, and Antietam. They, like his amazing facial hair, were inseparable from Ambrose Burnside. He was as much a part of them as they were of him. And so, they too had to go.

Killing two birds with one stone, Hooker decided to place Baldy Smith at its head. It would take awhile for these things to come to pass, but they were already set in stone.

The final problem was one between Hooker and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. They openly despised each other. During the meeting with Lincoln, he asked the President to figuratively stand between them; to act as an errand boy for two Federal officers who refused to get along. Wishing all the petty arguments and rivalries to simply go away so he could fight the war, Lincoln agreed. He would do whatever it took to attain victory. If Hooker was the man and this is what Hooker required, so be it.1



  1. Sources: Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert; Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War by Thomas P. Lowry. []
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