The Campaign of Chancellorsville

We protest against oft-repeated statements that “Fighting Joe Hooker,”
while one of the bravest and ablest division commanders in the army,
was possibly equal to handling a corps, but proved a failure as an
independent commander. Assigned to the Army of the Potomac in January,
1863, after the disaster at Fredericksburg and the failure of oft-
repeated campaigns, our army demoralized by defeat, desertions, and
dissensions, Gen. Hooker re-organized his forces, stopped desertions,
brought back to their colors thousands of absentees, and in three months
revived confidence, re-established discipline, and enabled his army to
take the field unsurpassed in loyalty, courage, and efficiency, as was
shown at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. We say Chancellorsville
because, although not a victory for us, the campaign _inflicted on the
enemy losses at least equal to our own_; and we say also Gettysburg
because that victory was won by the army Hooker had re-organized,
and led with such matchless skill from Falmouth to the eve of the battle.

Whatever ambition he may have had to command armies, it did not prevent
his cheerfully serving his country under junior officers, giving them
faithful support, and his record shows no instance of his removal from
command by his superiors.

Here in his native State, amid the homes of so many of his old brigade,
the survivors of the Third Army Corps, all witnesses of his genius,
valor, and devotion to duty, indorse his record as a soldier, as a
gentleman, and as a patriot, and sincerely believe that history will
assign to Major-Gen. Joseph Hooker a place among the greatest commanders
of the late civil war.

The italics are mine. “One of the most noted tactical victories of
modern times,” applied to Chancellorsville, is refreshing. Equally so
is the exultant claim that “we inflicted on the enemy losses at least
equal to our own.” The infliction of loss on the enemy has always been
understood by military men to be an incident rather than the object of

The following reply in “The Boston Herald” of April 11, 1886, explains


In the call for the meeting of the Third Corps Gettysburg Re-union
Association, held at Music Hall on Fast Day, was the following clause:–

“Loyalty to the memory of our beloved commander, Major-Gen. Joseph
Hooker, makes it a duty, on this occasion, to protest against unjust and
uncalled-for criticisms on his military record as commander of the Army
of the Potomac.”

It having been intimated to me by some old brother officers of the Third
Corps, that my late Lowell lecture on Chancellorsville was the occasion
of this proposed protest, I wrote to the chairman of the committee which
called the meeting, asking for an opportunity to reply to this protest,
within such bounds as even-handedness and the purposes of the meeting
would allow. The committee answered that it could not see the propriety
of turning the occasion into a public debate, and referred me to the
press. I do not object to their decision, made, no doubt, upon what
appeared to them sufficient grounds; but as the occasion was turned into
a public debate–one-sided, to be sure–I ask you for space, to reply in
your valued columns.

As an old Third-Corps man, I attended the meeting at Music Hall.
The treasurer did not object to selling me a ticket to the dinner.
I expected to hear some new facts about Hooker and Chancellorsville.
I expected to hear some new deductions from old facts. I do not
consider myself beyond making an occasional lapse even in a carefully
prepared piece of work, and am always open to correction. But, to my
surprise (with the exception of a conjecture that Lee’s object in his
march into Pennsylvania was to wreck the anthracite-coal industry),
there was not one single fact or statement laid before the meeting,
or the company at dinner, which has not already been, in its minutest
details, canvassed and argued at a length covering hundreds of pages in
the volumes on Chancellorsville, by Hotchkiss and Allen, Swinton, Bates,
the Comte de Paris, Doubleday, and myself, not to speak of numberless
and valuable brochures by others. The bulk of the time devoted to
talking on this occasion was used in denunciation of the wretch–in
other words, myself–who alleged that Joseph Hooker was drunk at
Chancellorsville, or at any other time. This denunciation began with a
devout curse in the chaplain’s prayer, culminated in a set of fierce
resolutions, and ended with the last after-dinner speech.

One thing particularly struck me. There was no one, of all who spoke,
who began to say as many things in favor of Joseph Hooker as I for years
have done; and not in fleeting words, but printed chapters. There was
plenty of eulogy, in nine-tenths of which I joined with all my heart.
But it was of the soldiers’-talk order,–cheering and honest and loyal,
appealing to the sentiments rather than the intelligence. What I have
said of Hooker has been solid praise of his soldierly worth, shown to be
borne out by the facts. Barring, in all I say, the five fighting days
at Chancellorsville, I have yet to find the man who has publicly,
and in print, eulogized Hooker as I have done; and no one among the
veterans gathered together Fast Day applauded with more sincerity than I,
all the tributes to his memory. For though, as some one remarked,
it is true that I “fought mit Sigel,” and decamped from Chancellorsville
with the Eleventh Corps; it is also true that I passed through the fiery
ordeal of the Seven Days, and fought my way across the railroad-cutting
at Manassas, side by side with Joseph Hooker, under the gallant
leadership of that other hero Philip Kearney. It was very evident that
but few of the speakers, as well as auditors, had themselves heard or
read what I actually said. The result of “coaching” for the occasion by
some wire-puller was painfully apparent. Let us see what was said.
I give the entire paragraph from my Lowell lecture:–

“It has been surmised that Hooker, during this campaign, was
incapacitated by a habit of which, at times, he had been the victim.
There is, rather, evidence that he was prostrated by too much
abstemiousness, when a reasonable use of stimulants might have kept his
nervous system at its normal tension. It was certainly not the use of
alcohol, during this time, which lay at the root of his indecision.”

If that is an accusation that Hooker was then drunk, if it does not
rather lean toward an exculpation from the charge of drunkenness,
then I can neither write nor read the English language. As is well
known, the question of Hooker’s sudden and unaccountable loss of power,
during the fighting half of this campaign, coupled with the question of
drunkenness, has been bandied to and fro for years. The mention alone
of Chancellorsville has been enough, ever since that day, to provoke a
query on this very subject, among civilians and soldiers alike. In a
lecture on the subject, I deemed it judicious to lay this ghost as well
as might be. Had I believed that Hooker was intoxicated at
Chancellorsville, I should not have been deterred by the fear of
opposition from saying so. Hooker’s over-anxious friends have now
turned into a public scandal what was generally understood as an
exoneration, by intentionally distorting what was said into an
implication that Hooker was so besotted as to be incapable of command.
What I have written of his marching the army to this field and to the
field of Gettysburg is a full answer to such unnecessary perversion.
Let these would-be friends of Hooker remember that this calumny is of
their own making, not mine. I am as sorry for it, as they ought to be.
If the contempt expressed in the resolutions they passed had been silent,
instead of boisterous, Hooker’s memory would have suffered far less

Gens. Sickles and Butterfield are doubtless good witnesses, though they
sedulously refrained from any testimony on the subject, contenting
themselves with declamation. But they are not the only good witnesses.
After the loss of a leg at Gettysburg, I was ordered to duty in the War
Department, where I served in charge of one or other bureau for seven
years. I have heard this Hooker question discussed in all its bearings,
in the office of the Secretary of War or Adjutant-General, by nearly
every leading officer of the army, hundreds of whom had known Hooker
from West Point up. I have had abundant opportunity of forming an
opinion, and I have expressed it. Let him who garbles its meaning,
bear the blame.

This action by many veterans of the Third Corps–even though procured by
design from their thoughtless and open soldier’s nature–is, however,
much more sweeping and important. To the world at large it is a general
condemnation of every thing which can be said in criticism of Hooker.
It will reach far and wide, and in this light I desire to say what I do.
The resolutions passed at the meeting explicitly protest against the
statement that Hooker proved a failure as an independent commander.
This needs notice at greater length than the question of sobriety or
drunkenness. Few have studied the details of the campaign of
Chancellorsville as carefully as I; but one other author has spread the
facts so fully before the reading public. No part of my recent
criticism before the Lowell Institute was new. It was embodied at much
greater length four years ago, in my “History of Chancellorsville;”
the reception of which volume by press, public, and soldiers, has been
its own best excuse. Gen. Hooker, though making no report, has put on
record his explanation of this campaign. Before the Committee on the
Conduct of the War, he stated his views as follows: “I may say here,
the battle of Chancellorsville has been associated with the battle of
Fredericksburg, and has been called a disaster. My whole loss in the
battle of Chancellorsville was a little over seventeen thousand. . . .
In my opinion, there is nothing to regret in regard to Chancellorsville,
except to accomplish all I moved to accomplish. The troops lost no
honor, except one corps, and we lost no more men than the enemy; but
expectation was high, the army in splendid condition, and greater
results were expected from it. When I returned from Chancellorsville,
I felt that I had fought no battle; in fact, I had more men than I could
use, and I fought no general battle, for the reason that I could not get
my men in position to do so.”

To speak thus of a passage of arms lasting a week and costing seventeen
thousand men is, to say the least, abnormal.

In trying to shift the onus of failure from his own shoulders he said:
“Some of our corps commanders, and also officers of other rank, appear
to be unwilling to go into a fight. . . . So far as my experience
extends, there are in all armies officers more valiant after the fight
than while it is pending, and when a truthful history of the Rebellion
shall be written, it will be found that the Army of the Potomac is not
an exception.”

This slur is cast upon men like Reynolds, Meade, Couch, Sedgwick, Slocum,
Howard, Hancock, Humphreys, Sykes, Warren, Birney, Whipple, Wright,
Griffin, and many others equally gallant. To call it ungenerous,
is a mild phrase. It certainly does open the door to unsparing
criticism. Hooker also concisely stated his military rule of action:
“Throughout the Rebellion I have acted on the principle that if I had as
large a force as the enemy, I had no apprehensions of the result of an
encounter.” And in his initial orders to Stoneman, in opening the
campaign, came the true ring of the always gallant corps commander,
“Let your watchword be ‘Fight!’ and let all your orders be, ‘Fight,
fight, fight!'”

I might here say that the only attempt, on Fast Day, to exculpate Hooker
for the disaster of Chancellorsville was not of an order which can be
answered. When one speaker asks, “If Gen. Hooker tells us that it was
wise to withdraw across the river, is not that enough for you and me,
my comrades?” I can only say that history is not so easily satisfied.
To another speaker, who states that when Hooker had planted himself in
Lee’s flank by crossing the river, Lee ought, by all the rules of war,
to have retreated, but when he didn’t he upset all Hooker’s
calculations; that when Jackson made his “extra hazardous” march around
Hooker’s flank, he ought, by all rules of war, to have been destroyed,
but when he was not he upset all Hooker’s calculations, and that
therefore Hooker was forced to retreat,–it is quite beyond my ability
to reply. When Gen. Sickles throws the blame upon Howard for the defeat
of the Eleventh Corps, by reading the 9.30 A.M. order, without saying
one word about Hooker’s actions, change of plans, and despatches from
that hour till the attack at 6 P.M., he makes any thinking man question
seriously the sincerity of what he calls history. When Gen. Butterfield
indulges in innuendoes against Gen. Meade, whose chief of staff he was,
and insults his memory in the effort to exculpate the Third Corps from a
charge no one has ever made, or thought of making, against it, the
fair-minded can only wonder why he goes out of his way to call any one
to task for criticising Hooker. Not one word was spoken on Fast Day
which does not find its full and entire answer in the already published
works on Chancellorsville. It was all a mere re-hash, and poorly cooked
at that. To rely on the four reasons given by the Committee on the
Conduct of the War as a purgation of Hooker from responsibility for our
defeat at Chancellorsville, simply deserves no notice. It is all of a
piece with the discussion of the Third-Corps fight at Gettysburg on July
2. No one ever doubted that the Third Corps fought, as they always did,
like heroes that day. What has been alleged is merely that Sickles did
not occupy and protect Little Round Top, as he would have done if he had
had the military coup d’oeil.

Now, I desire to compare with Hooker’s recorded words, and the
utterances of Fast Day, the actual performance, and see what “loyalty to
Hooker,” as voted in Music Hall, means. Chancellorsville bristles with
points of criticism, and there are some few points of possible
disagreement. Of the latter the principal ones upon which Hooker’s
formal apologists rely, are the destruction of the Eleventh Corps
through Howard’s alleged carelessness, and the failure of Sedgwick to
perform the herculean task assigned to him in coming to Hooker’s
support. Allowing, for the moment, that Howard and Sedgwick were
entirely at fault, and eliminating these two questions entirely from the
issue, let us see what Hooker himself did, bearing in mind that he has
officially acknowledged that he knew, substantially, the number of Lee’s
army, and bearing also in mind that the following are facts which can be
disputed only by denying the truth and accuracy of all the reports,
Federal and Confederate, taken as a body; and these happen to dovetail
into each other in one so consistent whole, that they leave to the
careful student none but entirely insignificant items open to doubt.

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