The Rebirth of the Army of the Potomac (part one)

Part one of a series.


Union Major General Joseph Hooker
Union Major General Joseph Hooker

“By direction of the President of the United States, the commanding general this day transfers the command of this army to Maj. Gen Joseph Hooker…give to the brave and skillful general who has so long been identified with your organization, and who is now to command you, your full and cordial support and co-operation, and you will deserve success,” wrote Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside on January 26, 1863.[1] It was Burnside’s farewell address to the army he headed for the last seventy-seven days. He did not write the words to support his nemesis, rather he wrote the words out of duty to the men who served under him and to his country. Burnside even went so far as to ask newspaperman Henry J. Raymond, of the New York Times, not to mention his Special Orders Number 8, in which he called for the dismissal of Hooker from service to the Republic (as well as the dismissal of a number of other malcontents). Nor did he speak ill of his successor, for he feared that both would weaken public confidence in the new commander of the Army of the Potomac.[2]  For all that could be said about Ambrose E. Burnside, he, unlike his detractors, tried to stick to the high road.

While Burnside prepared to take the high road out of the Army of the Potomac, Hooker was in Washington making the rounds and essentially taking a victory lap. Hooker could have asked for little more. He survived the storm that was a major command shake up in the Army of the Potomac and seemingly came out on the other end scot-free. President Lincoln may have seemed like a humble country bumpkin to some, though, in reality, he was a calculating politician.[3] To the surprise of Joe Hooker, Lincoln penned a letter to his new army commander; in it he laid out the fact that he had confidence in Hooker, but he also knew the role he played in Burnside’s ultimate downfall.

“General: I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appears to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you.” Lincoln began. He went on to say that,

“I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which of course, I like…You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think during General Burnside’s command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer…I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticizing their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you…And now beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward ad give us victories.”[4]

Joe Hooker had much to do before he could give Lincoln the victories he so desperately desired.

President Abraham Lincoln.
President Abraham Lincoln.

Riding high because of his recent promotion, Hooker shook off the letter from Lincoln saying that “That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son. It is a beautiful letter, and, although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.”[5]

Still, bringing Lincoln that victory for the republic would be much easier said than done. Lincoln’s war effort had gone poorly since the ascension of Gen. Robert E. Lee in the wars Eastern Theater. Union victories at Fort Donelson, Fort Henry, Pea Ridge, Shiloh, Corinth, New Orleans, Island Number 10, and Fort Pulaski gave way to losses in the Valley Campaign, Seven Days, Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Chickasaw Bayou, and Fredericksburg. The bulk of the Federal losses came in the Eastern Theater, whose proximity to major northern news outlets magnified each loss tenfold. Even the late year Federal victories at the battles of Perryville, Antietam, and Stones River felt hollow. “I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or my country forsakes me,” declared Lincoln.

The October 8, 1862 battle of Perryville could have been a massive Federal victory. The Confederate Army of Tennessee was outnumbered and essentially maneuvering in enemy territory. Through tenacious fighting and poor Union leadership, the Confederates were able to lessen the impact of the Federal victory. Although the battle gave control of Kentucky to the Federals for the rest of the war, the Federal champion of the battle, Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell did not have the killer instinct, and allowed his adversary to retreat into Tennessee, “despite [having] good opportunities,” to strike his adversary in retreat.[6]  Two months later that same Confederate Army was doing battle again, and Buell was without a job.

At Stones River, the army that Buell allowed to flee Kentucky arrived anew, fought hard for three days, and battered the Federal Army of the Cumberland so badly that it could not actively campaign for the next six months.  Lincoln tried to see the silver lining, he wrote to the Federal victor at Stones River, Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, saying that “you gave us a hard victory which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely had lived over.”[7]

In the end though, it was the battle of Fredericksburg that cast a pall over the winter 1862-63 for the Federals. The loss at the December 1862 battle was on an epic scale. Looking down from Stafford and Marye’s Heights, both sides had a panoramic view of the battle. A brief Federal breakthrough at Prospect Hill gave way to the futile human wave style action of Marye’s Heights. In the end 13,353 Union soldiers fell.

Fredericksburg was in ruins—“a continuous charnel house,” a newspaper correspondent wrote. “Death, nothing but death everywhere; great masses of bodies tossed out of the churches as the sufferers expired; layers of corpses stretched in the balconies of houses as though taking a siesta. In one yard a surgeon’s block for operating was still standing, and, more appalling to look at even than the bodies of the dead, piles of arms and legs, amputated as soon as their owners had been carried off the field, were heaped in a corner. There were said to be houses literally crammed with the dead . . . .”

In the weeks following the battle a number of Burnside’s subordinates called for his removal. He had lost the confidence of the army, as well as that of the President. By the first month of 1863, Lincoln’s principal army was a broken machine of war. Morale reached a dangerously low point, especially after the failed “Mud March.” One Federal officer groused, “The Army of the Potomac is no more an army. It’s patriotism has oozed out through the pores opened by the imbecility of its leaders, and the fatigues and disappointments of fruitless campaigns.”

Seven months earlier the army had been at the gates of Richmond, but it had been out marched and out fought time and again by the Army of Northern Virginia. Morale was low, the command staff was in upheaval, and the supply system was being poorly managed. It fell upon the shoulders of Joe Hooker, a 48 year old native of Hadley, Massachusetts to right the ship.


[1] Official Record of the War of the Rebellion Vol. 21, 1005. The full letter written by Burnside is known as General Orders Number 9. In this order he owned up to the fact that “The short time that he [Burnside] has directed your movements has not been fruitful of victory, or any advancement of our lines, but it has again demonstrated an amount of courage, patience, and endurance that under more favorable circumstances would have accomplished great results.”

[2] William Marvel, Burnside (Chapel Hill, NC., The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 214-217.

[3] McClellan had told his wife in 1861 that “I never in my life met anyone so full of anecdote as our friend Abraham-he is never at a loss for a story apropos of any known subject of incident.” George McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, dated October 16, 1861. Stephen W. Sears, ed. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence 1860-1865 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992), 107.

[4] Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Joseph Hooker, January 26, 1863, OR 25, pt. 2, 4.; Paul M. Angle, Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Major General Joseph Hooker Dated January 26, 1863: A Facsimile Reproduction of the Letter with Explanatory Text by Paul M. Angle (Chicago, IL.: Caxton Club, 1942), 2-4. Lincoln also covered the fact that Hooker was calling for a dictator for the country. Lincoln told Hooker that “I have heard, in such a way as believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”

[5] Warren W. Hassler, Jr., Commanders of the Army of the Potomac (Baton Rouge, LA.: Louisiana State University Press, 1962), 132.; J. Cutler Andrews, The North Reports the Civil War (Pittsburgh, PA.: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985), 343. Hooker told newspaperman Noah Brooks that “After I have got to Richmond, I shall give the letter to you to have published.” See Andrews, The North Reports the Civil War, 343.

[6] James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 273, 313.

[7] Abraham Lincoln, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ.: Rutgers University Press, 1953-1955), Vol. VI, 39, 424.

5 Responses to The Rebirth of the Army of the Potomac (part one)

  1. Hooker doesn’t get enough credit for revamping and improving the Army of the Potomac after the debacle of Fredericksburg, much like McClellan did after Bull Run I. (I am sure Kris will go into this in detail in Part Two of his post.)

    But Hooker had the same problem many other competent, and even brilliant, corps commanders on both sides had. It was Murphy’s Law at work – people rise to the level of their own incompetence.

    Hooker, like Burnside, was a decent corps commander but was a disaster as an army commander. Longstreet was another prime example, a brilliant corps commander who failed miserably as an independent army commander during his 1863 campaign to retake Knoxville, TN.

      1. Miriam:
        You’re right. Murphy’s Law is: If something can go wrong, it will.

    1. I agree Bob. Hooker rebuilt that army in many ways. He did a great job re-inspiring it after the loss of their beloved Little Mac and the debacle at Fredericksburg. While he failed at Chancellorsville he revitalized the army. His post-Chancellorsville machinations were his undoing in many ways and overshadowed the good that he and his staff did prior to the start of the Cville Campaign.

  2. One pattern that I have noticed during my research for my medically based Masters thesis is the connection between a general’s success on the field and his overall success in camp, including caring for his men and providing them daily as well as emergency/battlefield care. Buell is an excellent example of “what not to do,” and his decisions left his men almost totally uncared-for. His results seem all to obvious.

    General Hooker, however, is an exception to this. As Mr. Ruth pointed out above, he did indeed “revamp and improve” the A of P. Once again medical care was a priority, and the army’s overall morale shows this improvement. Dr. Letterman’s medical units were good to go at Chancellorsville, which makes Hooker’s breakdown in command even more disappointing.

    If only we had known more about traumatic brain injury then . . .

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