May 022013

Joe Hooker (via Wikimedia Commons)

Joe Hooker gets a bad rap. A typographical error gave him the moniker “Fighting Joe”, a nickname he almost certainly liked more than he claimed to. Among the Army of the Potomac’s leaders he was a rarity – an aggressive man who wanted to come to grips with the enemy. He was the sort of general Abraham Lincoln had been looking for since the war began, and when the machinations of other generals pushed the hapless Ambrose Burnside from command, Fighting Joe (archly referred to as “Mr. F. J. Hooker” by Robert E. Lee) took command.

Hooker was a fighter, but he also had a poor personal reputation. Political and personal mistakes had cost him the trust of many in high command, including Winfield Scott and Henry Halleck. He had a reputation as a gambler and a drunk, and (helped by his bachelor status) a ladies’ man. This last was so widely known that even today the myth that the term “hooker” for prostitute originates from his name is widely believed (in fact the word appeared decades earlier and jokes about this appeared in papers at the time). When Hooker is remembered today it is for drunkenness, debauchery, and incompetence in command.

This reputation disregards the fact that he saved the Army of the Potomac. Burnside handed over an Army that was demoralized due to his bad leadership, poorly provisioned due to corruption and incompetence, and angry due to the increasingly draconian measures taken to stem an ever-rising tide of desertions. Hooker remedied all of these. His reputation for successful and aggressive operations restored the soldiers’ confidence in their commander. He developed new ration requirements and reporting procedures that significantly reduced corruption in the commissary, so that the men regularly had soft bread, as well as vegetables. Under his leadership the men got their pay on time, and he also instituted a system of offering furloughs for performance that improved the army’s readiness while restoring morale.

Hooker also acted to improve the army’s capabilities on a fundamental level. He completely reformed the Bureau of Military Intelligence, eliminating the absurdly inflated reports of enemy numbers that had fed the natural caution of his predecessors. He also insisted that the army develop new approaches for moving rapidly, especially an attempt to minimize or eliminate wagon trains. Simultaneously, he reorganized the army’s cavalry.

Like McClellan had done after the disaster of Second Manassas, Hooker took a demoralized, almost shattered army and put it back together again, restoring morale and instilling a new sense of pride. Yet the futile charges at Fredericksburg took its toll on the general himself. Hooker resolved to fight the next battle defensively, seizing the initiative by maneuver.

On the opposite side of the river, the Army of Northern Virginia was in a somewhat more difficult position. Food and forage were scarce, and as a result, Lee was compelled to send many of the army’s horses to the south, far away from the lines. He also eventually detached Longstreet and most of the First Corps to gather supplies further to the South and pin the Federal armies there. Despite the empty bellies and precarious situation, however, morale in the army was high, bolstered by their many victories and a religious revival.

Hooker decided to make a bold tactical move. Keeping his troops along the Rappahannock in place, he would move the other half of his army east to threaten Lee from the rear. Simultaneously, he would send a huge cavalry force under General George Stoneman to disrupt Lee’s lines of communication and supply. Cut off from Richmond, and confronting a superior force at a tactical disadvantage, Lee would be compelled to either attack, giving Hooker the defensive battle he wanted, or flee, giving Hooker the initiative for further moves on Richmond and an opportunity to destroy the army in detail.

It was a bold plan, and might well have succeeded. Years later, Confederate artillerist E. Porter Alexander, who would figure heavily in its undoing, called Hooker’s strategy the best that any general in the north had employed against Lee. On May 2, 1863, however, the plan unraveled.

The roots of the disaster lay in the strategy itself. Hooker had decided to make his flanking movement with units that had wintered away from the Rappahannock, in a successful attempt to prevent the Rebels from figuring out what he was up to. This decision, however, compelled him to use the XI Corps, the smallest and least experienced Corps in the army. The XI had many German immigrants in its ranks (although they were widely referred to as “Dutchmen” by other soldiers) and had been commanded by a German general named Sigel. His anger at the violation of seniority that Hooker’s promotion entailed, however, meant that he had been removed from command and now the Corps was led by a man it did not trust, O. O. Howard. Knowing that the XI constituted the weak link in his army, Hooker had placed it on his extreme right flank, so that Lee would have to march his army all the way around the main body to attack it.

This may have been a mistake, because the remote position encouraged Howard to dispose his forces in a slovenly manner, with their flank in the air, and not see adequately to his defenses. Doubtless he believed he would not be attacked, which is understandable, but he disregarded Hooker’s direct orders to solidify his position, which was not. With his forces concentrated, and in the line of fire, Howard may have mustered a better effort.

As it turned out, Howard was in the line of fire anyway. On the evening of May 1, after realizing that Hooker had gotten around him, Robert E. Lee had made a bold and almost absurd decision. He would divide his small army in the presence of an enemy with superior numbers and flank them. It’s possible that he originally intended this move as a diversion, a feint to frighten and transfix Hooker, as Lee had controlled so many Union generals before. If so, then Stonewall Jackson one-upped his superior by proposing to flank with essentially his entire Corps, leaving Lee with only a few divisions to hold off the entire Union force at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg (where the VI Corps under Sedgwick had crossed).

Throughout the day on May 2, Jackson carefully moved his Corps around the Union force. He was not entirely unobserved – the III Corps under Sickles attacked the column at one point, but Sickles believed that he had routed a small force that was fleeing when in fact he had only hit the tail end of a marching column that was flanking. Reconnaissance was impossible for Hooker’s army, because the bulk of its cavalry had been detached with Stoneman, and the remaining units were no match for J.E.B. Stuart’s superior horsemen. The thick brush of the Wilderness surrounding Chancellorsville helped to obstruct any view of the enemy force as well. Hooker, meanwhile, was so focused on fighting defensively that he failed to make any serious push against the weak force left with Lee.

Jackson’s route was a roundabout one on narrow roads, and he only got his forces in position after 5 in the evening. Wasting no more time, he ordered an attack as soon as they were aligned.

It was a tremendous success. The XI Corps was completely routed and went running back towards Chancellorsville. Most of the units that had been in position to support them had, ironically, been sent off to help Sickles’ ineffective attack on the tail end of Jackson’s column. The only troops to hand were Hiram Berry’s division of the III Corps. Ordering the men to use their bayonets rather than fire, Hooker and Berry managed to stem the tide. As night fell, they tried to reorganize defenses to stave off an enemy force that had attacked them with complete surprise.

While it was not, perhaps, the high-water mark of the Confederacy, this was certainly the high point of Lee’s and Jackson’s careers. Lee’s audacious decision to divide his forces in the face of superior enemy numbers had resulted in an incredible triumph, rather than the destruction in detail which was to be expected under such circumstances. Jackson’s even bolder choice to take almost his entire Corps on a long flank march and attack on the same day had paid enormous dividends, caving in the Union’s whole right flank. Hooker had stolen a march on the Confederacy’s finest generals, but they had outdone his maneuvering.

Lee would lead the Rebels in further fights, but Jackson’s supreme moment would also be among his last. As he scouted towards enemy lines in the darkness, Jackson was fired upon by his own men, who likely mistook his party for Federal cavalry. The wounds cost him an arm almost immediately, and eventually led to his catching pneumonia. He died a little over a week later.

AP Hill, commanding the Light Division, was also wounded in the attack. In principle, this meant that command of Jackson’s attack wing should go to Brigadier General Robert E. Rodes. He, however, chose to yield command to J.E.B. Stuart, who, although a cavalry commander, held the rank of Major General. New to command, and uncertain of the disposition of his forces, Stuart set about scouting the ground and his own position.

During the night, E. Porter Alexander did the same, realizing as he did so that the dense growth and lack of elevated positions made the Wilderness a very poor area for the artillery of the day. In fact, he spotted only one good firing position the whole night: a clearing called Hazel Grove. Unfortunately, it was held by the Yankees, and their position was so strong he didn’t think the hill could be taken by force. Little did he know that a general’s blunder would soon hand him that dominant artillery position, and in turn the battle itself.

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