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Hooker and Lincoln
The spring of 1863 found the Civil War rumbling into its third year.
Union efforts in the Western theater were prospering, with the columns under the relentless, cigar-smoking Ulysses S. Grant maneuvering for a stranglehold on Fortress Vicksburg, key to control of the Mississippi River, of great strategic importance to the contest.
In the East, however, the picture was different. Early in May, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia climaxed a generally triumphant career against the Union's Army of the Potomac with a win at Chancellorsville, halting an advance on Richmond, the Confederate capital, about fifty miles to the south. The feat was of special note because it was achieved with less than half the Federal numbers.
At the battle's end, the two armies settled back into their old camps on opposite sides of Virginia's southeasterly flowing Rappahannock River, the Federals on the north bank at Falmouth and the Confederates on the south bank at Fredericksburg.
The Union general who instigated Chancellorsville, forty-four-year-old Joseph Hooker, a tall, statuesque, blue-eyed New Englander known as "Fighting Joe," tried to rationalize his defeat. Adding to Hooker's humiliation was that he had preceded his advance across the river with the boast: "My plans are perfect and when I start to carry them out, may God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none."
Hooker's plans were almost as good as he claimed, but when he started to carry them out heshowed General Lee mercy in abundance by losing his confidence. He withered under a counterattack, which included a daring flanking maneuver, and he retreated without even giving full battle.
It was all very strange. Joe Hooker was a West Pointer with a fine combat record going back to the war with Mexico, 1846-1848. In the present conflict he had shown uncommon skill and courage as a leader on the regimental, divisional, and corps levels. His organizational and training work as commander of the Army of the Potomac, begun in January 1863, had been outstanding. Performance was greatly improved, and morale rose. The pessimism occasioned by too many defeats was replaced by high optimism. Hooker convinced the men they comprised "the finest army on the planet."
Personally, the general's splendid appearance was coupled with an amiable down-to-earth style, and he was cheered enthusiastically wherever he rode.
It was true that Hooker had a reputation for heavy drinking, but he probably drank less than was believed. He seems to have had a low tolerance for alcohol.
There was no denying, however, that the general was an indiscreet talker. He entertained newspaper reporters with unflattering estimates of other officers, and with criticism of the authorities in Washington. Once he went so far as to say he thought the nation needed a dictator, and he indicated he might be available for the job. But there was a lot of rash talk assailing the air at that time, and no one took Hooker very seriously.
His soldiers drilled with bands playing and voices raised in song. A favorite ditty included these lines:
"For God and our country we're marching along.
Joe Hooker is our leader; he takes his whiskey strong."
The whole bright new order of things was shattered at Chancellorsville. Here the troops learned, at the price of a sea of their blood, that Hooker's talents did not extend to the handling of a large army in the field.
Chancellorsville, one soldier averred, was a campaign the general "opened as with a thunderbolt from the hand of Mars, and ended as impotently as an infant who has not yet learned to grasp its rattle."
In Washington, President Abraham Lincoln lamented, "My God, my God, what will the country say?"
Actually, the country did not protest as loudly as might have been expected. Hooker received a generally tolerant treatment among the war correspondents, who had been impressed by his preparational achievements, and who now glossed over his rationalizations.
These were ingenious enough. The failure was based on circumstances "not to be foreseen or prevented by human sagacity or resource." In withdrawing from the field after making only a partial effort, the troops had shown great confidence in themselves. "On fighting at a disadvantage we would have been recreant to our trust.... The Army of the Potomac will give or decline battle whenever its interest or honor may demand." There was special satisfaction in the fact that when the army returned across the river "not a rebel ventured to follow."
The heart of every officer and soldier, Hooker asserted, should be swelling with pride. "We have ... surprised the enemy in his entrenchments; and ... we have inflicted heavier blows than we have received."
The newsmen supported Hooker with statements like this: "Another such success to the rebels would be a terrible disaster. They cannot long stand such an expenditure of blood."
Casualties—in killed, wounded, captured, and missing—were about 17,000 for Hooker and 13,000 for Lee. But in relative terms Lee, with the smaller army, had the greater damage.
Joe Hooker had been President Lincoln's personal choice for top commander in the East after four other generals—Irvin McDowell, George McClellan, John Pope, and Ambrose Burnside—had been tested and had failed to measure up. Now Hooker had followed suit. Lincoln, nevertheless, did not hasten to replace him. There was no surefire replacement available.
It was the same old story for the President. To people who cried, "Abraham Lincoln, give us a man!" he could only say, "I can't make a general."
This lack of leadership in the North was a curious thing. The South had found competent leaders at once. The North, with the war more than two years old, was still groping.
The three generals who would settle the conflict at last—Ulysses Grant, William T. Sherman, and Philip H. Sheridan, all serving in the West—were still molding their reputations. People had not yet stopped worrying about Grant's drinking, and some still wondered about Sherman's strange brush with mental illness in 1861. Phil Sheridan's image as a hero was affected by his size. He had the heart of a gamecock, but he looked more like a bantam rooster.
The strongest figure in the army's command structure at this time was the commander-in-chief himself. But Lincoln's only military service dated back to 1832, when he was a twenty-three-year-old volunteer in the brief Black Hawk Indian War. For him, the conflict involved mostly a lot of drilling and marching. The closest he came to combat was to help bury some of the scalped victims of a skirmish.
In his present job, with so many of his generals letting him down, Lincoln had taken to studying strategy and tactics, and he was developing some first-rate ideas on how the war should be conducted.
But he was loath to condemn his unsuccessful generals for the way they had fought their battles. "I do not know that I could have given any different orders had I been with them myself. I have not fully made up my mind how I should behave when minié balls [common usage for minié balls] were whistling, and those great oblong shells shrieking in my ear. I might run away."
If ever a person was right for a job, it was Abraham Lincoln, the man who "bound the nation and unbound the slave."
Not that his greatness was evident from the start. A patchily educated farm youth, he managed to make his way into the law profession and into politics. He served in the Illinois legislature, won a term in the House of Representatives, but failed when he tried for the Senate. His strength was that he became known for integrity, for logical thinking, and for incisive speaking.
Lincoln got his chance at the national presidency because his views on the slavery issue appealed to the newly formed Republican Party. He was not an abolitionist. His approach was not radical. He argued, in essence, that if Congress would act to keep slavery within its original boundaries as the nation expanded, the practice would eventually die through a lack of growth. The South would have plenty of time to adjust to the change.
Most Southerners wanted none of this, and Lincoln was given such labels as The Illinois Ape and The Original Gorilla.
Nearly six-feet-four-inches tall and signally rawboned, he had long hands and feet, a sallow rough-hewn face, and coarse black hair. He was awkward both in posture and in movement.
Lincoln campaigned as The Illinois Rail-Splitter, which made him seem a man of the people, though some wondered how such a talent qualified him to run the nation.
His election precipitated secession. The states began going out even before he was inaugurated. When he took office on March 4, 1861, at the age of fifty-two, he assumed a far heavier burden than any other incoming President in American history. But from that day on, as a period historian said later, "he controlled the helm of the Ship of State with marvellous wisdom and steadiness."
This was not to say that his course was always approved. He had plenty of critics, especially among newspaper people. Keeping his equanimity required that he ignore, in so far as he could, this battery of faultfinders.
"If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how—the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."
Lincoln's great Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, went against his original views on how the slavery problem should be handled. He was thinking politically then. The proclamation was a war measure, one urgently needed. It infused new strength into a faltering Northern effort, at the same time undermining the rebellion's foundations.
Lincoln was totally committed to saving the Union. During crises, he skipped meals and got little sleep. He took on a weary, haggard look. Fortunately, he had a strong constitution. He had a tendency toward melancholy, but this was balanced by a sense of humor. He seems to have remembered almost every amusing story he ever heard, and he used these freely in his conversation. He also enjoyed quoting Shakespeare, which he could do at length. This represented one of his few aspirations to higher culture.
The President was not without personal problems. At the end of his first year in office, a young son, Willie, died of typhoid fever. The blow nearly crushed Lincoln, but the funeral was barely over before he was back at work.
The New York Evening Post reported: "Mr. Lincoln ... is again ... spending, not infrequently, eighteen out of the twenty-four hours upon the affairs of the nation."
Thereafter Lincoln drew even closer to his other small son, Thomas, whom he called Tad, shortened from Tadpole. Tad spent much of his time playing in his father's office, even while the country's business was being transacted. Lincoln's eldest son, Robert Todd, was a student at Harvard at this time.
The President's wife, Mary Todd, was a high-strung woman on her way to serious mental problems. She was jealously proud of her position as first lady, and was not above throwing a tantrum in public if she felt she was being slighted. On such occasions, the extent of Lincoln's reproof was for him to say, "Now, Mother; now, Mother."
The President's chief concern in May 1863 was Joe Hooker, who had to be counseled as he weighed new courses of action. Hooker was hoping to make another attempt to capture Richmond. Lincoln believed—and correctly—that the primary aim of the Army of the Potomac should not be to take the Confederate capital but to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia.
|1||Hooker and Lincoln||1|
|2||Lee and Jackson||11|
|3||Stuart at His Zenith||29|
|5||Villain on a White Horse||69|
|6||The Troopers Clash Again||90|
|7||Early Visits Gettysburg||110|
|8||A Weekend of Telling Events||128|
|9||Buford Makes a Decision||144|
|10||The Battle Opens||158|
|11||Lee's Afternoon Offensive||176|
|12||Meade Reaches the Field||193|
|13||Longstreet's Role Begins||203|
|14||Fury at Dusk||224|
|15||Movements Toward a Climax||240|