American Civil War: Major General Joseph Hooker

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Joseph Hooker." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/major-general-joseph-hooker-2360584. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, September 7). American Civil War: Major General Joseph Hooker. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/major-general-joseph-hooker-2360584 Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Joseph Hooker." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/major-general-joseph-hooker-2360584 (accessed September 23, 2017).
Joseph Hooker during the Civil War
Major General Joseph Hooker. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Born November 13, 1814, at Hadley, MA, Joseph Hooker was the son of local store owner Joseph Hooker and Mary Seymour Hooker. Raised locally, his family came from old New England stock and his grandfather had served as a captain during the American Revolution. After receiving his early education at Hopkins Academy, he decided to pursue a military career. With the assistance of his mother and his teacher, Hooker was able to gain the attention of Representative George Grennell who provided an appointment to the United State Military Academy.

Arriving at West Point in 1833, Hooker's classmates included Braxton Bragg, Jubal A. Early, John Sedgwick, and John C. Pemberton. Advancing through the curriculum, he proved an average student and graduated four years later ranked 29th in a class of 50. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 1st US Artillery, he was sent to Florida to fight in the Second Seminole War. While there, the regiment took part in several minor engagements and had to endure challenges from the climate and environment.

Mexico

With the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Hooker was assigned to the staff of Brigadier General Zachary Taylor. Taking part in the invasion of northeast Mexico, he received a brevet promotion to captain for his performance at the Battle of Monterrey. Transferred to the army of Major General Winfield Scott, he took part in the siege of Veracruz and the campaign against Mexico City.

Again serving as a staff officer, he consistently displayed coolness under fire. In the course of the advance he received additional brevet promotions to major and lieutenant colonel. A handsome young officer, Hooker began to develop a reputation as a ladies' man while in Mexico and was often referred to as the "Handsome Captain" by the locals.

Between the Wars

In the months after the war, Hooker had a falling out with Scott. This was the result of Hooker supporting Major General Gideon Pillow against Scott at the former's court-martial. The case saw Pillow accused of insubordination following refusal to revise exaggerated after-action reports and then sending letters to the New Orleans Delta. As Scott was the US Army's senior general, Hooker's actions had long-term negative consequences for his career and he left the service in 1853. Settling in Sonoma, CA, he began working as a developer and farmer. Overseeing 550-acre farm, Hooker grew cordwood with limited success.

Increasingly unhappy with these pursuits, Hooker turned to drinking and gambling. He also tried his hand at politics but was defeated in an attempt to run for the state legislature. Tired of civilian life, Hooker applied to Secretary of War John B. Floyd in 1858 and asked to be reinstated as a lieutenant colonel. This request was denied and his military activities were limited to a colonelcy in the California militia. An outlet for his military aspirations, he oversaw its first encampment in Yuba County.

The Civil War Begins

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Hooker found himself lacking the money to travel east.

Staked by a friend, he made the trip and immediately offered his services to the Union. His initial efforts were rebuffed and he was forced to watch the First Battle of Bull Run as a spectator. In the wake of the defeat, he wrote an impassioned letter to President Abraham Lincoln and was appointed as a brigadier general of volunteers in August 1861.

Quickly moving from brigade to division command, he aided Major General George B. McClellan in organizing the new Army of the Potomac. With the beginning of the Peninsula Campaign in early 1862, he commanded the 2nd Division, III Corps. Advancing up the Peninsula, Hooker's division took part in the Siege of Yorktown in April and May. During the siege, he earned a reputation for looking after his men and seeing to their welfare. Performing well at the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, Hooker was promoted to major general effective that date though he felt slighted by his superior's after action report.

 

Fighting Joe

It was during his time on the Peninsula that Hooker earned the nickname "Fighting Joe." Disliked by Hooker who thought it made him sound like a common bandit, the name was the result of typographical error in a Northern newspaper. Despite the Union reverses during the Seven Days Battles in June and July, Hooker continued shine on the battlefield. Transferred north to Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia, his men took part in the Union defeat at Second Manassas in late August.

On September 6, he was given command of III Corps, which was redesignated I Corps six days later. As General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia moved north into Maryland, it was pursued by Union troops under McClellan. Hooker first led his corps in battle on September 14 when it fought well at South Mountain. Three days later, his men opened the fighting at the Battle of Antietam and engaged Confederate troops under Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. In the course of the fighting, Hooker was wounded in the foot and had to be taken from the field.

Recovering from his wound, he returned to the army to find that Major General Ambrose Burnside had replaced McClellan. Given command of a "Grand Division" consisting of III and V Corps, his men took heavy losses that December at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Long a vocal critic of his superiors, Hooker relentlessly attacked Burnside in the press and in the wake of the latter's failed Mud March in January 1863 these intensified. Though Burnside intended to remove his adversary, he was prevented from doing so when he himself was relieved by Lincoln on January 26.

In Command

To replace Burnside, Lincoln turned to Hooker due to his reputation for aggressive fighting and chose to overlook the general's history of outspokenness and hard living. Assuming command of the Army of the Potomac, Hooker worked tirelessly to improve the conditions for his men and improve morale. These were largely successful and he was well-liked by his soldiers.

Hooker's plan for the spring called for a large-scale cavalry raid to disrupt the Confederate supply lines while he took the army on a sweeping flanking march to strike Lee's position at Fredericksburg in the rear.

While the cavalry raid was largely a failure, Hooker succeeded in surprising Lee and gained an early advantage in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Though successful, Hooker began to lose his nerve as the battle continued and assumed an increasingly defensive posture. Taken in the flank by an audacious attack by Jackson on May 2, Hooker was forced back. The next day, at the height of the fighting, he was injured when the pillar he was leaning against was struck by a cannonball. Initially knocked unconscious, he was incapacitated most of the day but refused to cede command.

Recovering, he was compelled to retreat back across the Rappahannock River. Having defeated Hooker, Lee began moving north to invade Pennsylvania. Directed to screen Washington and Baltimore, Hooker followed though he first suggested a strike on Richmond. Moving north, he got into a dispute over defensive arrangements at Harpers Ferry with Washington and impulsively offered his resignation in protest. Having increasingly lost confidence in Hooker, Lincoln accepted and appointed Major General George G. Meade to replace him. Meade would lead the army to victory at Gettysburg a few days later.

Goes West

In the wake of Gettysburg, Hooker was transferred west to the Army of the Cumberland along with the XI and XII Corps. Serving under Major General Ulysses S. Grant, he quickly regained his reputation as an effective commander at the Battle of Chattanooga. During these operations his men won the Battle of Lookout Mountain on November 23 and took part in the larger fighting two days later. In April 1864, XI and XII Corps were consolidated into XX Corps under Hooker's command.

Serving in the Army of the Cumberland, XX Corps performed well during Major General William T. Sherman's drive against Atlanta. On July 22, the commander of the Army of the Tennessee, Major General James McPherson, was killed at the Battle of Atlanta and replaced by Major General Oliver O. Howard. This incensed Hooker as he was senior and blamed Howard for the defeat at Chancellorsville. Appeals to Sherman were in vain and Hooker asked to be relieved. Departing Georgia, he was given command of the Northern Department for the remainder of the war.

Later Life

Following the war, Hooker remained in the army. He retired in 1868 as a major general after suffering a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. After spending much of his retired life around New York City, he died on October 31, 1879, while visiting Garden City, NY. He was buried at Spring Grove Cemetery in his wife's, Olivia Groesbeck, hometown of Cincinnati, OH. Though known for his hard drinking and wild lifestyle, the magnitude of Hooker's personal escapades is a subject of much debate among his biographers.