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The Yankees prepare an onslaught

March 23, 2002 1:47 am

Part 3 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

THE MUD MARCH finished Gen. Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Gingerly, uneasily, President Abraham Lincoln gave the job to Gen. Joseph Hooker. "Fighting Joe," the newspapers called Hooker.

Although that aggressive nom de guerre had arisen from a broken headline, not from some moment of military epiphany, Hooker had indeed crafted a solid record as a subordinate general. He carried an oversized load of unattractive baggage, however, from his prewar career and especially from Burnside's final weeks.

In California in the 1850s, Joe Hooker had drunk far more than he should. He also engaged in commercial dealings so shady, while selling private goods to his own U.S. Army unit, that an act of Congress resulted, aimed at forestalling further double-dealing.

Hooker's surname did not, it must be added, serve as the etymology of the slang word for prostitutes, as so often has been alleged. The usage originated a decade before Joe Hooker's rise to prominence. He was, though, that sort of fellow. An officer in the army was quoted as saying that Hooker's headquarters "was a place no self-respecting man liked to go
and no woman could go. It was a combination of barroom and brothel."

During the period just after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Hooker spoke openly of the need for a dictator. The editor of The New York Times, who was present with the army, heard that Fighting Joe had denounced "the President and Government at Washington as imbecile and 'played out.'" Hooker saw the need for "a dictator, and the sooner the better," and obviously stood ready to fill that alluring office himself.

Nonetheless, President Lincoln, ever the pragmatist, recognized that Hooker, in Lincoln's words, was "stronger with the country to-day than any other man." As so often happens in human affairs, form outweighed substance.

In a frank letter, perhaps the most amazing ever written by a chief executive to a military officer, Lincoln counseled the flawed man he had chosen to assume the vital command of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln called Hooker "a brave and skilful soldier," but bluntly accused him of doing "a great wrong to the country" in disloyally thwarting Burnside at every turn.

The president knew that Hooker had been insisting "that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator." In the famous letter's most memorable passage, Lincoln calmly declared: "Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship."

During the three months before the Chancellorsville campaign opened, Hooker brought an invigorating new broom to the Federal army. He cleaned out slothful and inept staff functionaries and logisticians, who had failed to keep the men fed, supplied, and paid, despite the North's vast resources. In an era of casually shoddy staff work, Hooker inaugurated the first rigorous staff system on either side.

Some of his initiatives proved to be counterproductive, such as insisting that his brilliant chief of artillery, Gen. Henry J. Hunt, must become a sort of bureaucrat instead of a field leader. Hunt would be missed on the battlefield.

Most of Hooker's efforts, however, succeeded admirably. He supplanted the existing nonchalance about intelligence concerning enemy strengths and intentions with a thoroughly-in-earnest bureau dedicated to such work. Although Fredericksburg had been enthusiastically Confederate from the war's outset (in a formal resolution, after suffering under Northerners, the City Council declared "We hate the Yankee with an undying hate"), Hooker's agents found a few area residents willing to take money for information. The leading among them was a man named Silver, who lived between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and took Northern silver to report on what he called "the rebble armey."

The Army of the Potomac warmed to Hooker enthusiastically. Food fits into every human's hierarchy, and simply supplying decent rations impressed soldiers unaccustomed to an efficient commissariat. Two maxims launched by Napoleon Bonaparte observe an eternal military truth: "An army marches on its stomach"; and, "Biscuits make war possible." Well-fed Northerners began to chant a ditty applauding their new commander: "Joe Hooker is our leader, he takes his whiskey strong"

Hooker not only had the army running more smoothly than usual; he also concocted a splendid plan of maneuver to gain an advantage over Lee. The auguries looked promising for the North's most important army as spring bloomed in 1863.

President Lincoln dropped in on the Army of the Potomac in April to see what had been wrought by the general who hoped to become dictator. The president and his wife and son floated down the Potomac to Aquia Landing on April 5 and a special train then conveyed them across a snowy landscape to Stafford Heights.

There, over several days, Lincoln reviewed the troops in endless columns that stretched beyond view--"the grandest sight I ever saw," one of the presidential party thought.

Confederate soldiers crowded the heights around Fredericksburg to look in on the panoply, which lay within reach of their long-range, but silent, artillery pieces. The horse provided for the president did not have enough height to balance Lincoln's long legs, and some of the soldiers thought he looked awkward as a result.

In private conversations with the president, Joe Hooker displayed a warmly cooperative attitude that struck observers as a pleasing change from what they had seen in earlier army commanders. Fighting Joe also exuded boundless confidence. When Lincoln said something about "If you get to Richmond," Hooker interrupted him: "There is no 'if'I am going straight to Richmond if I live."

The president offered his general some sound advice, based on the immensely disproportionate strengths of the two nations, and matured by experience with armies used too sparingly: "in your next fight, put in all of your men."

Lincoln headed back up the Potomac on April 10, with cause for unaccustomed optimism. Less than four weeks later, Joe Hooker was a beaten man, his army nowhere near Richmond, and he had not put in all of his men.

Next week: Lee prepares for battle

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