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Hooker, Josephlocked

(13 November 1814–31 October 1879)
  • Albert Castel

Joseph Hooker.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-B8172-6385).

Hooker, Joseph (13 November 1814–31 October 1879), soldier, was born in Hadley, Massachusetts, the son of Joseph Hooker, a businessman, and Mary Seymour. He received his basic education at Hopkins Academy in Hadley and in 1833 was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated four years later. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the artillery, during the next nine years he served in Florida, at various posts in the Northeast, and as adjutant at West Point, rising to the rank of first lieutenant. During the Mexican War (1846–1848) he performed so superbly both as a staff and combat officer that he received three brevet promotions, the final one to lieutenant colonel. No other northern commander of the coming Civil War emerged from the Mexican conflict with a better record or higher reputation than Hooker.

In 1849 Hooker, whose regular rank now was captain, assumed the post of adjutant general of the Pacific Division, headquartered in Sonoma, California. Finding his duties dull, prices pushed up by the gold rush, and his salary inadequate, he began gambling for big stakes, evidently with small success, and drinking heavily. In 1851 he applied for and received a two-year leave of absence, and then in 1853 he resigned from the army. For the next seven years Hooker engaged in ranching and various business enterprises along the West Coast, dabbled in California politics, and frequently borrowed money but paid his debts less frequently.

In the late spring of 1861, following the outbreak of the Civil War, Hooker traveled by steamer to the East to seek a military command. Thanks to the backing of Oregon senator Edward D. Baker and following an interview with President Abraham Lincoln, he obtained on 31 July 1861 a brigadier general’s commission in the volunteer service with an assignment to head a brigade in the army being assembled at Washington, D.C., by Major General George B. McClellan. Hooker thus began his climb up the ladder of command, one that he confidently predicted would end with his reaching the highest rung.

Throughout the rest of 1861 and well into 1862 Hooker had no opportunity to advance his ambitions, as all was “quiet along the Potomac.” Finally, in April 1862, McClellan began his Peninsular campaign—a slow, cautious movement from Fortress Monroe toward the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. At Williamsburg on 5 May, Hooker, now leading a division, made a rash attack that produced severe losses and provoked a Confederate counterthrust that nearly drove his division from the field. Nevertheless northern newspapers hailed the engagement as a victory and began calling Hooker “Fighting Joe.” During the remainder of the Peninsular campaign, which ended with the Seven Days’ battles (25 June–1 July) and McClellan’s retreat, Hooker did much better, notably at White Oak Swamp and Malvern Hill, and won promotion to major general of volunteers. Transferred along with most of McClellan’s army to the command of Major General John Pope in northern Virginia, Hooker again performed well at Bristoe Station (27 Aug.) and at Second Manassas (Second Bull Run, 29–30 Aug.), earning the corps command to which he was assigned on 5 September. Twelve days later, once more serving under McClellan, Hooker opened the battle of Antietam with a ferocious assault by his corps upon the Confederate left that almost surely would have led to the defeat of Robert E. Lee’s army had it been supported by other Federal units. Hooker, who was wounded in the foot, received more public acclaim and a brigadier general’s commission in the regular army.

Early in November 1862 Lincoln, exasperated by McClellan’s “slows,” replaced him as commander of the Army of the Potomac with Major General Ambrose Burnside, but not until after he had considered Hooker for the post. Burnside organized the army into three Grand Divisions of two corps each, one of which, the Center Grand Division, he assigned to Hooker. At Fredericksburg, Virginia, on 13 December 1862, Hooker participated in Burnside’s blundering and bloody assault on the impregnable Confederate position, losing (in his caustic words) “as many men as my orders required me to lose” (Hebert, p. 159). The Fredericksburg debacle, which was followed by the fiasco of the “Mud March,” resulted in Lincoln on 25 January 1863 relieving Burnside and appointing Hooker in his stead. Although Lincoln had some misgivings about Hooker, arising from loose talk at his headquarters about the need for a “dictator,” he was the logical choice: no other general in the East of appropriate rank had a comparable combat record.

Hooker spent the next three months reorganizing, rebuilding, and restoring the morale of the Army of the Potomac. Then late in April he launched a campaign designed to smash Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Taking advantage of his great superiority in numbers—he had 135,000 troops opposed to Lee’s 60,000—he used part of his army to pin down the Confederates at Fredericksburg while he led the main portion around Lee’s left flank with the object of getting into his rear, which he did on 30 April when his advance reached Chancellorsville. The following day, however, he encountered unexpected resistance from an enemy force of unknown size, whereupon he halted and went over to the defensive. Hooker thus surrendered the initiative to Lee, who on 2 May sent Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson with 28,000 men to strike the exposed Union right flank, a mission that Jackson accomplished with devastating success. Even so, the Federals still heavily outnumbered the Confederates, held a strong position, and could have continued the battle with excellent prospects of victory, something several of Hooker’s generals urged him to do. Instead he retreated; although his army had not been defeated, he had been. As he later admitted, “For once I lost confidence in Hooker” (Hebert, p. 199).

Lincoln also lost confidence in Hooker, or at least in his ability to cope with an antagonist such as Lee. Consequently Hooker met with so much interference from Washington in his efforts to counter Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania that on 27 June 1863 he resigned as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln, however, still believed that Hooker was a capable combat leader and therefore, following the defeat of Major General William S. Rosecrans’s army at Chickamauga, Georgia (19–20 Sept. 1863), he placed Hooker in command of two corps (XI and XII) from the Army of the Potomac that were sent to reinforce Rosecrans at Chattanooga, Tennessee. On 24–25 November Hooker, now serving under Ulysses S. Grant, who had taken command of all Union troops at Chattanooga, captured Lookout Mountain and then moved against the Confederate left on Missionary Ridge, an advance that contributed significantly to the Union victory. Although Grant unfairly disparaged Hooker’s role in the battle of Chattanooga, Hooker regained some of the prestige he lost at Chancellorsville and hoped to win more laurels and perhaps restoration to a high command in the forthcoming campaign against Atlanta.

It was not to be. William T. Sherman, commander of the Union forces in the Atlanta campaign (May–Sept. 1864), detested Hooker, who made no attempt to conceal his contempt for Sherman. Therefore, despite the fact that Hooker’s corps (the XX, formed by a consolidation of the XI and XII corps) both suffered and inflicted more casualties than any other corps in Sherman’s army, Sherman consistently ignored Hooker’s successes and constantly criticized him for alleged failures. The final straw, insofar as Hooker was concerned, fell on 26 July 1864 when Sherman named Major General Oliver Otis Howard to replace Major General James B. McPherson, killed four days before, as permanent commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Not only was Howard far junior to Hooker in age and rank, but Hooker also blamed him, not without just cause, for the routing of the Union left flank, which Howard had commanded, at Chancellorsville. At once Hooker asked to be relieved from duty with “an army in which rank and service are ignored.” Sherman gladly accepted his request.

Hooker spent the remaining months of the war as head of the Northern Department (Mich., Ohio, Ind., Ill.) and then with the coming of peace commanded the Department of the East, headquartered in New York City. In 1865 he married Olivia Groesbeck, a member of a wealthy Cincinnati family, but soon suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. They had no children. In 1868 his wife died, leaving him financially independent, whereupon he resigned from the army, having achieved the regular rank of major general, and moved to Garden City, New York. During the final decade of his life he traveled extensively, attended veterans reunions, and occasionally lashed out at old enemies; to the end he remained “Fighting Joe.” He died in Garden City.

Hooker was tall, well proportioned, and strikingly handsome. Beneath his imposing physical presence, however, were serious flaws of character. His chief flaws were conceit, lack of tact and discretion, and an overweening and not altogether scrupulous ambition. According to one oft-quoted source, Hooker’s headquarters while he commanded the Army of the Potomac “was a combination of bar-room and brothel” (Hebert, p. 180), but although he was fond of the bottle there is no firm evidence that drinking impaired his performance in the field. While it is extremely unlikely that he remained celibate until his marriage at the age of fifty, there is no truth in the allegation that his sexual activities led to the term “hooker” becoming a synonym for prostitute.

As to Hooker’s military abilities, two conclusions would seem to be justified. First, he had few equals and perhaps no superior among Union generals as commander of a corps or any force he could personally supervise and inspire. Second, he was deficient, as revealed at Chancellorsville, in those qualities of mind and temperament needed to lead a large army in a successful offensive campaign against a foe as redoubtable as Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. But, then, the only northern general who ever did so was Grant, and it took him a year and 100,000 casualties to do it. Thus it is quite possible that if Hooker had gone against any Confederate army commander other than Lee, he would have garnered the glory he sought. His failure at Chancellorsville basically was his own fault, but it also can be said that he was unfortunate in his opponent.


Manuscript letters of a personal nature by and to Hooker are few and mostly in private collections. His military reports and correspondence are readily available in the appropriate volumes of The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (128 vols., 1880–1901), and his testimony concerning various campaigns and battles in the East is in the Reports of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (37th and 38th Cong., 1863–1865). Unfortunately he did not file a report on the Atlanta campaign nor did he write his memoirs; what he might have said about Sherman and certain other high-ranking Union generals would have made for lively reading. Walter H. Hebert, Fighting Joe Hooker (1944) is a full-fledged biography; its bibliography and notes provide a good guide to primary sources pertaining to Hooker’s career. The amount of historical literature dealing with the Chancellorsville campaign, the decisive event in that career, is enormous, with the best studies being John Bigelow, Jr., Chancellorsville (1910), and Ernest B. Furgurson, Chancellorsville 1863 (1992). The best accounts of Hooker’s role in the other eastern campaigns of 1861–1863 are in Kenneth P. Williams, Lincoln Finds a General (5 vols., 1949–1959), and Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1951) and Glory Road (1952). For Hooker’s part in the battle of Chattanooga and the Atlanta campaign, see, respectively, Wiley Sword, Mountains Touched with Fire: Chattanooga Besieged, 1863 (1995), and Albert Castel, Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (1992). Castel exposes the slanderous treatment of Hooker in Sherman’s Memoirs (1886) in “Prevaricating through Georgia: Sherman’s Memoirs as a Source on the Atlanta Campaign,” Civil War History 40 (1994): 48–71.