General Joseph Hooker

Joseph Hooker (1814–1879)

Joseph Hooker was a Union general during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and, for the first half of 1863, commander of the Army of the Potomac. Nicknamed "Fighting Joe," Hooker was a Regular Army veteran with a checkered reputation—rumors of drunkenness dogged him for much of his career—and a talent for political infighting. When he took over the army from Ambrose E. Burnside after the debacle at Fredericksburg (1862), the Army of the Potomac's morale was at an all-time low and desertion an all-time high. He reorganized its forces, virtually halted desertion, established reliable intelligence gathering, and, most important, boosted confidence. He also developed an elaborate plan secretly to flank Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia on the south side of the Rappahannock River, boasting to his army that "certain destruction awaits" the Confederates. At the Battle of Chancellorsville (1863), however, it was Hooker who was famously flanked and eventually forced to retreat. He then became a victim of infighting, and a few days before the Battle of Gettysburg (1863) gave up his command to George G. Meade. MORE...


Early Years

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.

During the Mexican War (1846–1848), Hooker served as chief of staff for five generals, including Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. His gallant conduct at the battles of Monterrey (1846), National Bridge (1847), and Chapultepec (1847) allowed the young officer to finish the war with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He ran afoul of Scott, however, when he testified against him in the court-martial of another general. On February 21, 1853, while serving as the assistant adjutant general of the Pacific Division, Hooker resigned his commission to farm in Sonoma, California. After he failed as a farmer, rumors circulated that he had turned to drinking and gambling. In 1858, Hooker wrote the U.S. secretary of war, John B. Floyd, to obtain a position as a lieutenant colonel, but his request was never acknowledged.

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

Hooker commanded a division during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 and lived up to his sobriquet "Fighting Joe" that summer at Williamsburg, Seven Pines, White Oak Swamp, Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, and Bristoe Station. At the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, he commanded the Army of the Potomac's First Corps and sustained a foot wound during savage fighting on the Union right. He saw as much combat as any other Potomac general that summer and fall, but his nickname, ironically, was the result of a clerical error—a newspaper headline, "Fighting—Joe Hooker," mistakenly lost the dash and was printed as "Fighting Joe Hooker"—and Hooker took offense, complaining that it made him sound like a heads-down general who lacked cunning, skill, or brains.

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."

Some soldiers were skeptical, having seen five commanding generals (including the beloved George B. McClellan twice) come and go in the last year or so, but one Vermonter approved: "I like the appearance of the old hero very much, he is not at all such a looking man as would associate with the name 'Fighting Joe.' He has a smooth pleasing countenance[,] light hair[,] a keen eye, though not so piercing as McClellan. He looks more like a venerate minister of the gospel than a General."

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."


His plan for the Chancellorsville Campaign involved sending Union cavalrymen under George Stoneman behind Lee's lines to cut Confederate communication and supply links. Hooker, meanwhile, would quietly lead the infantry across the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers in an effort to surprise the Confederate left flank in the Wilderness—a tangled and wooded area about ten miles west of Fredericksburg. The attack, on May 1, 1863, was initially successful, in part because Lee's army was divided and spread thin: two divisions were in southeastern Virginia laying siege to supply-rich Suffolk, while troops under Jubal Early were stuck in Fredericksburg, where John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps was threatening.

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.)

Later Years

After Gettysburg, Hooker was transferred west, where he took the Union Eleventh and Twelfth corps to remedy the defeat at Chickamauga (1863) and help lift the siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Once there, Hooker's men assaulted a weak Confederate line and drove it from Lookout Mountain on November 24. (This portion of the larger Battle of Chattanooga, fought November 23–25, 1863, has been dubbed "The Battle Above the Clouds.") Over the next year, Hooker's troops saw further action in William Tecumseh Sherman's Atlanta Campaign.

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.

Time Line

  • November 13, 1814 - Joseph Hooker is born in Hadley, Massachusetts.
  • 1833 - Joseph Hooker enters the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
  • 1837 - Joseph Hooker is graduated from the U.S. 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.
  • May 5, 1862 - Union general Joseph Hooker's division fights well at the Battle of Williamsburg.
  • September 17, 1862 - Joseph Hooker is wounded in the foot at the Battle of Antietam.
  • December 13, 1862 - Joseph Hooker commands the Center Grand Division at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
  • January 26, 1863 - President Abraham Lincoln promotes Joseph Hooker to command of the Army of the Potomac.
  • May 1–4, 1863 - Joseph Hooker is defeated by Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
  • June 27, 1863 - Joseph Hooker is replaced by George G. Meade as leader of the Army of the Potomac.
  • Autumn 1863 - Joseph Hooker leads the Union Eleventh and Twelfth corps west to lift the siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
  • 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 U.S. Army after suffering a stroke.
  • October 31, 1879 - Joseph Hooker dies in Garden City, New York, and is buried in Cincinnati, Ohio.


Further Reading
Hebert, Walter H. Fighting Joe Hooker. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1944.
Sears, Stephen W. Chancellorsville. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Schroeder, P. A. Joseph Hooker (1814–1879). (2014, March 23). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

MLA Citation:
Schroeder, P. A. "Joseph Hooker (1814–1879)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 23 Mar. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

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.