Hooker was born in Hadley, Massachusetts, on November 13, 1814, the son of Joseph Hooker, an unsuccessful businessman, and Mary Seymour. His great-grandfather, Joseph Hooker, fought in the French and Indian War (1755–1763), and his grandfather, also of the same name, was a captain in the Continental army during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). After attending the Hopkins Academy in Hadley, Hooker was graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1837, finishing twenty-ninth in a class of fifty and carrying with him a record of excessive demerits and a penchant for criticizing fellow cadets. (The future Union general John Sedgwick and Confederate general Jubal A. Early were classmates of Hooker's.) After a stint in the artillery during the Second Seminole War (1835–1842) in Florida, he returned to West Point in 1841 as adjutant.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Hooker was a bachelor with a reputation for drinking, gambling, womanizing, and hotheadedness. (It should be noted, however, that the slang word "hooker," meaning prostitute, predates the general.) He got along with neither the army's general-in-chief, Winfield Scott, nor his successor, Henry W. Halleck. For a commission, he was forced to approach U.S. president Abraham Lincoln directly. After the First Battle of Manassas (1861), in which Union forces were routed, he told Lincoln that he was "a damned sight better general than any you had on that field." Hooker was soon appointed brigadier general and assigned to the defenses of Washington, D.C.
Road to Command
Often opinionated, boastful, and quick to disparage other officers, Hooker led the Center Grand Division at Fredericksburg in December in a disastrous frontal assault on Marye's Heights. He criticized the action beforehand and explained his eventual suspension of the attack by saying that "I had lost as many men as my orders required me to lose." Those orders had come from Burnside, whom he also criticized and who tried to have Hooker sacked before being sacked himself. Hooker, a lifelong Democrat, even lashed out at the president and his Republican administration, labeling them as "imbecile[s]" and "played out." He was said to have called for a dictator—"the sooner the better"—and when Lincoln presented him the command of the Army of the Potomac, the president included a stern rebuff: "Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I ask of you now is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship."
Hooker immediately reorganized the army, consolidated the cavalry into an effective fighting branch, instituted the use of corps insignias, cut down on desertions, issued regular furloughs, established more effective and accurate intelligence gathering, and improved supplies and rations. These measures increased morale among the men and faith in him as senior officer. By the spring of 1863, with 135,000 men, Hooker claimed to have created "the finest Army on the Planet" and let it be known: "May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none."
On May 2, however, Lee divided his army again, sending Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's Second Corps around the Union right flank, a surprise attack that put the Union Eleventh Corps, under Oliver O. Howard, in full flight. Hooker fell back into a defensive shell, and on May 3 a cannon shot struck his headquarters, leaving him with a severe concussion. After Sedgwick failed to engage effectively, and when Stoneman's cavalry had failed in its mission, Hooker retreated back across the Rappahannock on May 6. Casualties were heavy on both sides (approximately 17,000 for the Union and 13,000 for the Confederacy), and the defeat handed Lee the initiative, which he followed north all the way to Gettysburg.
After Chancellorsville, the leadership of the Army of the Potomac was again in turmoil. Hooker blamed the defeat on Stoneman, Sedgwick, and Howard, while his subordinates largely pointed their fingers at him. Union troops, meanwhile, were puzzled. Why retreat when they had fought so hard and so well? Many historians have since suggested that Hooker lost his nerve—that he even admitted as much himself—although the historian Stephen W. Sears, in particular, has called that claim a myth.
Regardless, Lincoln resolved to keep the general in command, but when Hooker requested troops from Harpers Ferry to reinforce his army as Lee advanced toward Pennsylvania, Lincoln and Halleck refused. As a result, he asked to be relieved, and on June 28, 1863, just three days before Gettysburg, George G. Meade assumed command of the Army of the Potomac. (Meade was promptly granted permission to take the troops from Harpers Ferry.)
When Howard—Hooker's less-senior subordinate at Chancellorsville—received promotion over Hooker to command the Army of Tennessee, Hooker bristled at the perceived injustice, commenting that he served in "an army in which rank and service are ignored." Once again, he asked to be relieved, thus ending his field service. Hooker acted as a departmental commander in the Midwest until the end of the war, after which he took command of the Department of the East. On October 3, 1865, he married Olivia Groesbeck, sister of a former Democratic congressman from Cincinnati, Ohio. On October 15, 1868, Hooker was partially paralyzed from a stroke, which finally forced his retirement. He died October 31, 1879, in Garden City, New York.
November 13, 1814 - Joseph Hooker is born in Hadley, Massachusetts.
1833 - Joseph Hooker enters the Unites States Military Academy at West Point.
1837 - Joseph Hooker is graduated from the Unites States Military Academy at West Point, twenty-ninth in a class of fifty.
1846–1848 - Joseph Hooker serves with distinction in the Mexican War.
February 21, 1853 - Joseph Hooker leaves the army to become a farmer in California.
August 6, 1861 - Joseph Hooker receives an appointment as a brigadier general of volunteers.
December 13, 1862 - Joseph Hooker commands the Center Grand Division at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
November 24, 1863 - Joseph Hooker wins a victory at the Battle of Lookout Mountain.
July 1864 - Joseph Hooker asks to be relieved from field service in the Union army after being passed over for promotion. He serves as a departmental commander through the end of the war.
October 15, 1868 - Joseph Hooker retires from the army after suffering a stroke.
October 31, 1879 - Joseph Hooker dies in Garden City, New York, and is buried in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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First published: January 26, 2009 | Last modified: March 23, 2014
Contributed by Patrick A. Schroeder, who is the historian at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, and has written or edited and published more than twenty Civil War–related titles. Among the works he has authored are Thirty Myths About Lee's Surrender; More Myths About Lee's Surrender; The Confederate Cemetery At Appomattox; The Pennsylvania Bucktails: A Photographic History of the 42nd, 149th, 150th Pennsylvania Regiments; and We Came To Fight: The History of the 5th New York Veteran Volunteer Infantry, Duryee's Zouaves, 1863–1865.