Sherman’s Prescience on Hooker

I came across a letter the other day from “Uncle Billy” Sherman to his wife, written on this date in 1863. Grant was preparing for his move across the Mississippi for what would become his overland campaign against Vicksburg, but in the east, the Army of the Potomac was also getting ready for its own spring campaign. Among the other items he discussed with his wife, Sherman shared some thoughts about the eastern army’s commander that proved amazingly prescient:

April 17, 1863
Letter to Ellen from “Camp Opposite Vicksburg”

Knowing the very common clay out of which many of our new Generals are made, I have trembled at any shifting of Commanders, until the Army feels assured that a change is necessary. I know Hooker well, and tremble to think of his handling 100,000 men in the presence of Lee. I don’t think Lee will attack Hooker in position because he will doubt if it will pay. But let Hooker once advance or move laterally and I fear the result.

And of course, we all know how the battle of Chancellorsville turned out. Fought May 1-4, 1863, Hooker did indeed advance (after a lateral move, as it happened), and Lee turned around and hit him hard—hard enough for Hooker to lose his nerve. The soldiers in the Federal army didn’t necessarily beaten, but Lee beat the only person who mattered, the Federal commander.

Hooker may or may not have been “very common clay,” but his feet sure turned out to be.

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13 Responses to Sherman’s Prescience on Hooker

  1. I am always impressed at Sherman’s prescience. He gave an astonishing statement to one of his teachers, David French Boyd, at the Louisiana military academy where Sherman was the head, in the end of December 1860. Sherman laid out in detail exactly what would happen to the South if they chose secession. It all played out as Sherman predicted.

  2. Dan Hurley says:

    Like to read an objective book on Hooker. I find his movements at Chancellorsville one of the best plans of the war. Sending Stoneman off likely was a serious flaw aside from not recognizing Jackson’s intentions. Any recommendations?

    • Ryan Quint says:

      There’s only been a few books written as a biographical approach to Joseph Hooker. The most accessible is Walter Hebert’s “Fighting Joe Hooker.” The most detailed, though harder to find is Jack Ballard’s doctoral thesis “General Joseph Hooker: A New Biography.” Ballard’s dissertation is nearly 1,500 pages long– if there’s something you ever wanted to know about Hooker, it’s in there.

      • Dan says:

        Appreciate the book info Ryan. Like to find Mr. Ballard’s book. Regretfully, Mr. Ballard passed away in 2019 barely into his 60s.

  3. John Pryor says:

    Sorry, but this is the same tactical genius who kept assuring Grant the nearest rebels were at Corinth, screwed up an assault at Haynes Bluff, and would go onto other glories at Tunnel Hill. I tend to agree with those who see the actions of Hooker the result of a severe concussion.

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      This is added merely to explain “how Sherman could have formed his viewpoint.”
      Joseph Hooker was a First classman when W.T. Sherman was a Fourth classman (plebe) at West Point; and with the Class of 1837 responsible for “training” the plebe Class of 1840, Sherman’s impression may have been generated from one year of close observation. Also, Sherman and Henry Halleck were close friends, spending significant time together in California; and Halleck was Class of 1839. Halleck and Hooker were in the California Militia together late 1850s… “Shared impressions” expressed by Halleck and Sherman while exchanging gossip could have led to a firming of W.T. Sherman’s views… of not just Hooker, but other Academy alumni.

  4. scott s. says:

    I’m curious as to the basis of Sherman’s “knowing Hooker well”? I also agree that the operational plan that led to Chancellorsville was sound. I fault Stoneman for not following the commander’s intent (but it could also be that Hooker didn’t provide sufficient guidance). It also seems to me Meade could have used his own initiative but as a new corps commander maybe he didn’t trust himself.

  5. Jim Gannon says:

    We sometimes lose sight of the fact that early in the war all the civil war commanders were by necessity new at their jobs. Even those with combat leadership experience from the Mexican War had earned that experience at much lower ranks, with a much narrower breath of responsibility. Long term success went to those who learned from their mistakes and kept forging ahead without flinching.

  6. Taylor says:

    Grant had an opinion about Joseph Hooker. From Grant’s memoirs:
    “Of Hooker I saw but little during the war. I had known him very well before, however. Where I did see him, at Chattanooga, his achievement in bringing his command around the point of Lookout Mountain and into the Chattanooga Valley was brilliant. I nevertheless regarded him as a dangerous man. He was not subordinate to his superiors. He was ambitious to the extent of caring nothing for the rights of others. His disposition was, when engaged in battle, to get detached from the main body of the army and exercise a separate command, gathering to his standard all he could of his juniors.”

  7. Lyle Smith says:

    I feel like this too harsh on Joe Hooker. The Confederates did about kill him and that came as quite a shock, and must have affected his decision making thereafter.

    Before that though, he probably should have allowed his lead Corps to keep pushing through the Wilderness towards Fredericksburg, to close communications with Sedgwick and put Lee into more of a vise.

    • Katy Berman says:

      I was wondering about that blow to the head. Did Hooker entirely lose his nerve or was his injury more of a factor than I’ve considered?

  8. Taylor says:

    I read that he was “knocked senseless”. A concussion can seriously affect a person in many ways. He was apparently recovered enough to direct the Union army competently in its pursuit and screening of Lee’s army as it moved north toward Pennsylvania though. Also, the changes he made to the organization, administration and supplying of the Army of the Potomac prior to Chancellorsville are generally regarded as excellent. We will never know what he would have done at Gettysburg, or whether he would have even fought there.

  9. Is there evidence in letters or memoirs of what Sherman thought when Hooker was put under his command for the Atlanta Campaign?

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