The ups and downs of war
As the American Civil War progressed, the problem of finding competent leaders for the Union Army took some odd turns. In peacetime, seniority often prevailed but, as it turned out, sometimes seniority didn’t necessarily mean combat competence. So, as the war progressed, age became less important than other abilities.
A century and a half ago this year, Philip Sheridan was put in charge of Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, with orders to clear out the Confederates and keep the valley’s drops from being used to feed the rebels.
One of the generals serving under Sheridan in the valley had graduated from the military academy at West Point in 1831 —and that was the year Sheridan was born.
Another figure with an unusual career during the war was Joseph Hooker, who carried the nickname “Fighting Joe.” Wounded in the Battle of Antietam, where he commanded a corps, he became commander of the Army of the Potomac until after his withdrawal of Union forces after the Battle of Chancellorsville, when Stonewall Jackson’s flank attack crumpled up one wing of his army.
Not long after that, U.S. Grant was trying to relieve the siege of Chattanooga in Tennessee, and Hooker was dispatched by train with a group from the Army of the Potomac.
He was in charge of the fighting at Lookout Mountain (the so-called “Battle Above the Clouds”) and that was not only successful, but performed relatively independently of Grant and Sherman, who were concentrating elsewhere.
When Sherman began his campaign through Georgia to take Atlanta, Hooker commanded a corps in the Army of the Tennessee, whose commanding general was J.B. McPherson. As the former commander of the whole Army of the Potomac, it must have given Hooker an odd feeling to be serving under a commander who was 14 years younger and 15 years behind him at West Point.
There were some personality differences as well. In the various actions during the drive toward Atlanta, Hooker had a tendency to boast about his part in such actions. That didn’t sit well with Sherman, who didn’t approve of such things and at one point, told Hooker as much. An observer at the time said that make Hooker “go into a tremendous sulk.”
Finally, the Union forces reached Atlanta and surrounded it. At that point, McPherson was killed by a Confederate sniper. As the senior general under McPherson, Hooker seems to have expected that he would be given command of the Army McPherson had been in charge of. But, instead, after consulting with some of the other leaders, Sherman appointed O.O. Howard to that position.
Hooker was not only annoyed at being overlooked. He was particularly upset that Howard got the job, because Howard had been in charge of the wing that Jackson had crumpled in the Battle of Chancellorsville, leading to Hooker’s retreat. At least, Hooker blamed Howard for that particular incident, though not everyone agreed.
In any event, Hooker asked to be relieved of duty, which Sherman seems to have granted with a certain amount of relief. Hooker spent the rest of the war in non-combat duty, and after retirement from the Army, lived as a civilian on Long Island until his death in 1879. His career is a good illustration of the ups and downs that sometimes took place in military life during the Civil War.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.