Fighting Joe Hooker: History & Facts

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
Joseph Hooker (1814-1879) is one of the more famous Union generals of the American Civil War. Most notably, he led the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville, a resounding Confederate victory.

The Civil War's Eastern Theater saw some of the war's most famous battles. It featured the Union Army of the Potomac, the most famous Federal army of the war, fighting against the famed Confederate General Robert E. Lee. During that time, several different officers led the Army of the Potomac, only to be relieved after being bested by Lee. One of those men was Joseph Hooker. Let's learn more about this fascinating Union officer.

Rise to Command

Joseph Hooker's pre-war credentials were similar to many of his fellow officers in the American Civil War. He was a cadet at West Point, graduating in the class of 1837. In the 1840s, he served in the Mexican War, and was awarded for his bravery. Also similar to other notable Civil War generals, Hooker left the army before the Civil War; in 1853 he resigned to try his hand at business, land development, farming, and politics. Hooker was largely unsuccessful, and when war broke out in 1861, he quickly rejoined the U.S. Army.

Because of his prior military service and training, Hooker became a Brigadier General in 1861. He was a part of the Army of the Potomac, the grand force built by Major General George McClellan. In the spring of 1862, McClellan moved the army to the Virginia Peninsula in an attempt to attack and capture Richmond, the Confederate capital. During the Peninsula Campaign, Hooker distinguished himself on several occasions. He was an aggressive officer, leading a division in the Third Corps, Army of the Potomac. Because of fierce counter-attacks by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, as well as McClellan's caution, the Peninsula Campaign resulted in failure for Federal forces. As the campaign ended, Hooker's corps, along with other portions of McClellan's army, was sent to a new army being formed under John Pope in Northern Virginia, named the Army of Virginia. Yet, after Pope was thoroughly defeated at the Battle of Second Manassas, McClellan was back in charge.

In early September 1862, Robert E. Lee took his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland, invading northern territory for the first time. McClellan soon led the reorganized Army of the Potomac into the Maryland Campaign; at the start of this operation, Hooker rose to command the First Corps, Army of the Potomac. He led this force at the Battle of Antietam, where he was wounded in the foot. Hooker's men suffered heavy losses in this Union victory, which was the bloodiest single battle in American history. The battle ended Lee's invasion of Maryland in September 1862. After Antietam, Hooker continued leading his corps at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where Major General Ambrose Burnside led Union forces into a crushing defeat. In January 1863, Lincoln's frustrations led him to remove Burnside, placing Hooker in command of the Army of the Potomac.

Major General Joseph Hooker, Library of Congress
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Commander of the Army

By this time, Joseph Hooker had acquired the nickname 'Fighting Joe' Hooker, which was, ironically enough, the result of a typo in a newspaper. Originally, the paper was supposed to be formatted with a hyphen between 'Fighting' and 'Joe', representing a break or pause between the two words. Typo or not, the name stuck, and it fit Hooker well. He was an aggressive commander who had a knack for boosting the fighting spirit of his troops. Soon after taking his new post, Hooker set about reorganizing and strengthening the army, restoring the morale and strength of the men. He created a separate cavalry corps, which he planned on utilizing in his upcoming campaign. Several high-ranking officers disliked Hooker, and thus there was also turnover in several top command positions.

Chancellorsville

As the weather warmed, Hooker was ready to fight. He devised a plan to destroy Lee's army, which was still at Fredericksburg. After sending cavalry behind enemy lines to disrupt supplies and communication, Hooker would use part of his army to keep Lee at Fredericksburg while taking the rest on a long flanking movement to hit the Confederates in the rear. While tactically sound, things did not go according to this plan.

First, the cavalry excursion ended up being a disaster. It ultimately deprived Hooker of cavalry which he could have used to monitor Lee more thoroughly. More importantly, when Hooker tried to flank Lee's army, the Confederates were prepared. Lee left a small force at Fredericksburg and took the rest of his army to the town of Chancellorsville. After learning of Lee's movements, Hooker awaited a Confederate attack. In one of the most audacious moves of the war, Lee sent Lieutenant General 'Stonewall' Jackson on a flanking march, catching Hooker's army off guard. Jackson was wounded by friendly fire in the process (he died on May 10, a devastating loss for the Confederates) but his attack was crucial to Confederate success.

Map showing the Union retreat from Chancellorsville on May 5 and 6, 1863
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