Joseph Hooker

Introduction

Joseph Hooker (1814-1879) was a career U.S. military officer who served as a major general and commander of the Union Army of the Potomac during the Civil War (1861-65). Hooker entered the Civil War in 1861 as a brigadier general and gained a reputation as a reliable combat commander during the Peninsula Campaign and the Battle of Antietam. After the Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Hooker succeeded General Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac in early 1863. Hooker was beloved by his men for his morale-boosting improvements in food rations and medical care, but a surprising defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville led to his resignation in June 1863 just days before the Battle of Gettysburg. Hooker later served in the war’s Western Theater during the Chattanooga and Atlanta campaigns in 1864, and ended the Civil War as a departmental commander in Ohio. He died in 1879 at the age of 74.

  • Contents

The grandson of a Revolutionary War captain, Joseph Hooker was born in Hadley, Massachusetts, on November 13, 1814. Hooker’s early education took place at Hopkins Academy in Massachusetts, and he went on to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, ranking 29th out of 50 in his class upon graduation in 1837.

Hooker’s first field experience came in Florida during the Second Seminole War (1835-42). He later participated in the Mexican-American War (1846-48) as a staff officer, serving under the likes of famed General Winfield Scott and future U.S. President Zachary Taylor. A highly capable soldier, Hooker earned numerous accolades for bravery and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, he served as assistant adjutant general of the Pacific Division in California.

Hooker resigned from the military in 1853 and settled in Sonoma, California, to pursue a career as a farmer and timber merchant. For the next several years he struggled to earn a living and—outside of a failed run for local political office—was known to devote much of his time to drinking and gambling. In 1858 he made an attempt to rejoin the military, but a request for a position as a lieutenant colonel was ignored by the War Department.

Hooker lived in relative obscurity in California and Oregon until the outbreak of the Civil War offered him a chance to return to the field. In August 1861 he was commissioned as a brigadier general and began service with General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in Washington, D.C.

Hooker saw his first major combat in the spring of 1862 during McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, an attempt to land the Union army on the Virginia coast and move on the Confederate capital of Richmond. Hooker displayed a natural confidence in command, serving with distinction during the Battle of Williamsburg and the subsequent Seven Days Battles and earning a promotion to major general of volunteers.

Hooker assumed a corps command in the Army of the Potomac in September 1862 after the Second Battle of Bull Run. He first led his corps during the Union victory at the Battle of South Mountain, and his units later spearheaded the first Union assault during the stalemate at the Battle of Antietam.

By late 1862 Hooker had assumed command of a grand division under General Ambrose Burnside. In December Hooker’s units sustained heavy casualties in the devastating Union defeat at Fredericksburg, in which a firmly entrenched Confederate force repelled repeated assaults by the Army of the Potomac. Hooker had recognized the futility of the attacks, and in the aftermath of the defeat he was so critical of Burnside’s tactics that Burnside attempted to remove him from command. Instead it was Burnside who was relieved from duty, and in January 1863 President Abraham Lincoln selected Hooker as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac.

After taking command, Hooker immediately went about reorganizing the Army of the Potomac. He arranged for amnesty for deserters and cleaned up corruption among officers. He also raised morale by improving medical aid, rations and furlough lengths. While these changes earned Hooker a reputation as a capable field administrator, his supposed history of hard living—in particular rumors that he drank on the job—also persisted.

By the spring of 1863 Hooker’s reorganized army was 115,000 strong. In April he moved across the Rappahannock River into Virginia, reportedly telling the media, “The rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac.”

In May 1863 Hooker’s Army of the Potomac met Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Despite having a significant numerical advantage, Hooker was hesitant to engage and ordered his men to fall back during the battle’s early stages. Lee seized on this opportunity by dividing his army in half and flanking the right side of Hooker’s forces in a daring surprise attack. Under heavy pressure, Hooker elected not to counterattack and instead ordered a retreat back across the Rappahannock River in order to shield Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

Hooker’s leadership and reputation came under considerable scrutiny after his defeat in his first major battle by a force half the size of his own. In June 1863 he offered his resignation to President Lincoln. General George Meade would succeed Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac only days before the Battle of Gettysburg.

After being relieved of his command, Hooker was transferred to the Western Theater in Tennessee along with the XI and XII Corps of the Army of the Potomac. In November 1863 Hooker worked to revive his reputation by executing an aggressive assault that drove Confederate forces off Lookout Mountain and helped end a siege on Union forces in Chattanooga. Hooker went on to serve under General William T. Sherman during the Atlanta Campaign in mid-1864. The two generals were constantly at odds, and when Sherman passed him over for a promotion, Hooker protested by asking to be relieved from duty. He officially left the field in the summer of 1864. In September 1864 Lincoln placed him in charge of the Northern Department, a command that encompassed the states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. Hooker would spend the rest of the war working in an administrative capacity in Cincinnati.

After Robert E. Lee’s surrender in 1865, Hooker was transferred to command of the Department of the East, which encompassed New York, New Jersey and New England. In September 1865 he married Olivia Groesbeck, sister of an Ohio congressman, but their marriage ended three years later when she died in 1868. That same year, Hooker retired from the military. His own health had declined significantly in the years after the war, and two strokes eventually left him partially paralyzed. He died in Garden City, Long Island, in 1879 at the age of 74.

Article Details:

Joseph Hooker

  • Author

    History.com Staff

  • Website Name

    History.com

  • Year Published

    2009

  • Title

    Joseph Hooker

  • URL

    http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/joseph-hooker

  • Access Date

    July 28, 2014

  • Publisher

    A+E Networks