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  Name:  Joseph Hooker
  Born:  November 13, 1814
  Died:  October 31, 1879

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Hooker, Joseph (November 13, 1814—October 31, 1879)

Joseph Hooker was a career soldier who served as a Union general during the Civil War, including as commander of the Army of the Potomac (January–June 1863).  He is perhaps most remembered for his defeat at Chancellorsville in early May 1863.

Joseph Hooker was born on November 13, 1814, in Hadley, Massachusetts, the fifth in a line of Joseph Hookers dating back 125 years.  His mother was Mary Seymour Hooker and his father, the fourth Joseph Hooker, was a businessman who struggled financially.  Young Joe worked at odd jobs to help support the family and attended Hopkins Academy in Hadley.  In 1833, at the age of 18, he won appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.  In 1837, he graduated 29 out of a class of 50, and on July 1 was granted the rank of second lieutenant in the 1st Artillery and sent to participate in the Seminole War in Florida.  After the hostilities concluded, his company was transferred in July 1838 to police the Canadian border in Vermont and then Maine.  That November he was promoted to first lieutenant.  On July 1, 1839, he returned to the U.S. Military Academy to serve in the administrative post of adjutant for three months before being recalled to Maine, where he fulfilled the same position for his regiment. 

As tensions rose with Mexico over Texas, the 1st Artillery was transferred in September 1845 to Pensacola, Florida, and Hooker took on the duty of assistant adjutant general for the 1st Military Department of the Western Division.  In July 1846, two months into the U.S.–Mexican War, he was appointed brigade commissary on the staff of General Persifor F. Smith, and later served under Generals Benjamin Butler and Gideon Pillow.  During the War with Mexico, Hooker acquired a stellar record and reputation.  Besides performing excellent administrative work, he also saw action and was brevetted three times for bravery—to the rank of captain after Monterrey (September 1846), major after National Bridge (August 1847), and lieutenant colonel after Chapultepec (September 1847). 

Following the Mexican War, Hooker was assigned in September 1848 to be adjutant general for the 6th Military Department (Illinois, Iowa, and parts of Missouri and Wisconsin).  That November he was named adjutant general for the Pacific Division, and assumed the position in early 1849.  Unchallenged by his duties, he began drinking and gambling heavily.  In 1851, he was approved for a two–year leave of absence and moved to a ranch in Sonoma County, California.  At the end of his leave, he resigned from the army on February 21, 1853.  That summer, he ran for the state assembly as a Democrat, but lost in a runoff election.  Unsuccessful at farming, he sold his ranch and in the spring of 1858 moved to Oregon, where he had been appointed superintendent of military roads.  He returned to California early the next year to become a colonel in the state militia, but then went back to Oregon a few months later.  In 1860, he affiliated with the Stephen Douglas wing of the Democratic Party.

At the onset of the Civil War, Hooker had no hesitancy in giving his loyalty to the Union.  With the endorsement of Senator Edward Baker of Oregon, he was nominated by President Abraham Lincoln to be brigadier general.  The commission was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on August 3, 1861, and signed on August 6, but predated May 17.  He was assigned to help defend Washington, D. C., first as a brigade commander for the Division of the Potomac (August–October 3, 1861) and then as a division commander for the Army of the Potomac. 

On March 13, 1862, Hooker was named to command the 2nd Division, 3rd Corps, of the Army of the Potomac, and in April began serving in General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign (March–July 1862).  On May 5 at Williamsburg, Virginia, site of the first major battle of the campaign, Hooker’s attack on Fort Magruder was unsuccessful, but he was nevertheless promoted to major general.  His performance improved in other battles of the Peninsula Campaign and afterward.  By the early fall (not after Williamsburg as often told) he had been designated “Fighting Joe” by the Union press. 

Hooker served briefly (September 6–12, 1862) as commander of the 3rd Corps, Army of Virginia, before being transferred back into McClellan’s Army of the Potomac to lead the 1st Corps.  At Antietam on September 17, Hooker spearheaded a strong attack on Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s left flank, but it failed to gain sufficient support from other Union forces.  In the deadliest day in American military history, Hooker was shot in the foot and carried from the field.  The Confederates were pushed back into Virginia and Hooker received praise in the press and a promotion to brigadier general (September 20).

After considering Hooker to replace McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac, President Lincoln appointed General Ambrose Burnside to the position.  Hooker was named commander of the Army of the Potomac’s 5th Corps on November 10, 1862, before being tapped six days later to lead its new Center Grand Division as reorganized by Burnside.  At the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13 the larger Union force lost to Lee’s Confederates and suffered more than twice as many casualties.  Burnside and his subordinate generals blamed each other for the debacle, and tensions then exacerbated during the aborted “Mud March” of January 20–23, 1863.  Five days later, Lincoln replaced Burnside with Hooker, while admonishing the latter for his criticism of the former.

Hooker dedicated three months to reorganizing and strengthening the Army of the Potomac before leading a third of his 135,000 men on a turning movement to the rear of Lee’s 60,000–man Army of Northern Virginia.  Receiving exaggerated reports of enemy strength, Hooker settled into a defensive position at Chancellorsville on April 30, 1863, allowing Lee to seize the initiative.  Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson led a successful attack on the Union’s right flank on May 2, but was mortally wounded by his own men that night while on a reconnaissance mission.  As the Confederates attacked again on May 3 and 4, Hooker remained on the defensive.  Although urged by subordinates to attack and still in good position to do so, Hooker ordered a general retreat on May 5. 

The Union defeat at Chancellorsville undermined President Lincoln’s confidence in Hooker.  As Lee advanced northward into Pennsylvania in late June 1863, Hooker became irritated by what he perceived as administrative interference in his plans.  After General–in–chief Henry Halleck rescinded Hooker’s order for the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry to join his force, Hooker resigned as commander of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863, just days before the Battle of Gettysburg.  He was replaced by General George Meade.

On September 25, 1863, Hooker was given command of the Army of the Potomac’s 11th and 12th Corps, which were on their way to Tennessee to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland, which had just been defeated at the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia.  Hooker’s aggressive spirit resurfaced during the Battle of Chattanooga on November 23–25, when he led his men to take Lookout Mountain and contributed to the capture of Missionary Ridge.  His role in the Union victory, however, was downplayed by his superior officer, General Ulysses S. Grant. 

On April 14, 1864, Hooker was given command of the 20th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland, which under his leadership both inflicted and suffered the highest numbers of casualties during the first half of the Atlanta Campaign.  Again his superior officer, General William T. Sherman, gave him little credit and much criticism.  On July 26, after being passed over to head the Army of the Tennessee, Hooker requested and was relieved of his command two days later.

On October 1, 1864, Hooker was reassigned to Cincinnati as commander of the Northern Department (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois).  There, he met and the next year married Olivia Groesbeck, sister of former Democratic congressman William Groesbeck (later, one of the counsel at President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial).  The couple had no children.  On July 8, 1865, three months after the Civil War ended, Hooker was transferred to New York City to head the Department of the East, and a year later (August 23, 1866) to Detroit as commander of the Department of the Lakes.  In 1868, a stroke forced his retirement at the rank of major general, and his wife died that October.  He moved to Garden City on Long Island, New York, and began traveling for leisure.  He died in Garden City on October 31, 1879, and was buried in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Sources consulted:

Albert Castel, “Hooker, Joseph,” American National Biography Online;–00359.html; “Brigadier–General Hook, Wounded at the Battle of Antietam,” New York Illustrated News, October 18, 1862, p. 380; “Brig.–Gen. Joseph Hooker,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 12, 1862, p. 247; Brigadier–General Hooker,” Harper’s Weekly, July 5, 1862, p. 421; Stewart Sifakis, “Joseph Hooker,” Who Was Who in the Civil War, reprinted online at “Home of the American Civil War,”; W. A. G., “Hooker, Joseph,” Dictionary of American Biography, pp. 196–198; and Walter H. Herbert, Fighting Joe Hooker (Lincoln, Nebraska:  University of Nebraska Press, 1999).


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