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Hooker's appointment and removal.

by Charles F. Benjamin.1
When, after the Mud March2 that succeeded the disaster of Fredericksburg, General Burnside, in a fit of humiliation, telegraphed to Washington requesting, for the second time, to be relieved, the question of his successor was already being considered as a probability. Though stung by the loud call that went up for McClellan from the army that had twice met disaster after parting with him, the cabinet were not shaken in the conclusion that McClellan must not be restored, for the jocund Seward, equally with the patient Lincoln, drew the line at a military dictatorship, such as would be virtu ally implied by a second restoration, under such pressure. But while firm, the authorities were circumspect, and concluded that it would not be prudent to increase the tension between themselves and a possible praetorian camp by sending an outsider to take the command from Burnside. Subject to this conclusion, General Halleck and Secretary Stanton favored the transfer of Rosecrans, for whom McClellan might be expected to say a good word to supplement his inherent strength as a repeatedly victorious commander; but it was then thought injudicious to put another Western man in command.

The choice being narrowed to the Army of the Potomac, a process of exclusion began. Franklin was under a cloud [see note, p. 216] and was considered out of the question; Sumner had many qualifications, but his age and growing feebleness were beyond remedy; Couch was a possible second, and still more likely third choice; and, briefly, the selection was found to lie among Hooker, Reynolds, and Meade.3 The first-named had a strong popular lead, but General Halleck, backed by the Secretary of War, contended that there were reasons of an imperative character why he should not be intrusted with an independent command of so high a degree of responsibility. Stress was laid upon the fact that in the dispositions for the attack on Marye's Heights, General Burnside, who at that time could have had no valid motive for jealousy [240] of Hooker, had intrusted him with no important part, although he was present on the field and of equal rank with Sumner and Franklin, to whom the active duties of the battle were assigned. President Lincoln apparently yielded to the views of those in charge of the military department of affairs, and thereupon Halleck confidentially inquired of Reynolds if he was prepared to accept the command. Reynolds replied that he expected to obey all lawful orders coming to his hands, but as the communication seemed to imply the p ossession of an option in himself, he deemed it his duty to say frankly that he could not accept the command in a voluntary sense, unless a liberty of action should be guaranteed to him considerably beyond any which he had reason to expect. He was thereupon dropped, and the choice further and finally restricted to Hooker and Meade, with the chances a hundred to one in favor of the latter by reason of the fixed conviction of the Secretary of War that the former ought not to be chosen in any contingency. Stanton knew that there were two Hookers in the same man. He knew one as an excellent officer, mentally strong, clever and tireless, and charming (almost magnetic) in address. It was the other Hooker on whom he wished to take no chances.

Hooker and Meade were in camp, attending to such military duties as the lull of action gave occasion for, neither having taste nor talent for intrigue, each aware that “something” was afoot, but both supposing that the ferment concerned Hooker and Reynolds, and, possibly, some third man beyond the lines of the army. But there were men about Hooker who believed in, and hoped to rise with him, and who, at all events, could afford to take the chances of success or failure with him; and these men were rich in personal and external resources of the kinds needed for the combination of political, financial, and social forces to a common end. By their exertions, such influences had been busy for Hooker ever since the recent battle, greatly aided by the unselfish labor of earnest men who believed that Hooker's military reputation (the pugnacious disposition implied in his popular cognomen of “Fighting Joe” ) and his freedom from suspicion of undue attachment to the fortunes of General McClellan, pointed him out as the man for the occasion by the unerring processes of natural selection. The attitude and character of the Secretary of War, however, justified nothing but despair until connection was made with a powerful faction which had for its object the elevation of Mr. Chase to the Presidency at the end of Mr. Lincoln's term. Making every allowance for the strength and availability of Mr. Chase, as against Mr. Lincoln or any other civilian candidate, his friends did not conceal from themselves that the general who should conquer the rebellion would have the disposal of the next Presidency, and they were on the lookout for the right military alliance when they came into communication with Hooker's friends and received their assurances that, if it should be his good fortune to bring the war to a successful close, nothing could possibly induce him to accept other than military honors in recognition of his services. General Hooker thereupon became the candidate of Mr. Chase's friends. Hooker probably knew of these dickerings. Certainly Stanton did, through a friend in Chase's own circle.

As soon as Burnside's tenure of the command had become a question rather of hours than of days, new efforts were made to win over the Secretary of War, but necessarily without avail, be-cause, apart from any personal considerations that may have had place in his mind, he had certain convictions on the subject of a kind that strong men never abandon when once formed. At this critical moment the needed impulse in the direction of Hooker was supplied by a person of commanding influence in the councils of the Administration, and Mr. Lincoln directed the appointment to be made. [See Lincoln's letter to Hooker, p. 216.]

Mr. Stanton's first conclusion was that he should resign; his second, that duty to his chief and the public forbade his doing so; his third, that Hooker must be loyally supported so long as there was the least chance of his doing anything with the army placed in his keeping. This latter resolution he faithfully kept, and General Hooker, who soon had occasion to know the facts connected with his appointment, was both surprised and touched by the generous conduct of his lately implacable opponent.

Mr. Chase found his situation as sponsor for the new commander embarrassing. As a member of the cabinet he could freely express his views with reference to any military question coming up for cabinet discussion, and upon any matter introduced to him by the President he had fair opportunity of making a desired impression; but further than this he could not directly go without disclosing a personal interest inconsistent with his place and duty. Yet the circumstances connected with the appointment of Hooker made it imperatively necessary that the influence of Mr. Chase should be exerted in respect of matters that could not for-mally come to him for consideration, although, on the other hand, they could not safely be intrusted wholly to the keeping of a suspicious and probably hostile War Department. Fortunately for the perplexed statesman, the influence that had proved sovereign when the balance had hung in suspense between Hooker and Meade was safely and wholly at his service, and, being again resorted to, provided a modus vivendi so long as one was needed. Out of all these anomalies a correspondence resulted between Mr. Chase and General Hooker, the publication of which is historically indispensable to the saying of the final word on the leading events of Mr. Lincoln's administration.

When General Hooker telegraphed to Washington that he had brought his army back to the north side of the river, because he could not find room for it to fight at Chancellorsville, President Lincoln grasped General Halleck and started for the front post-haste. He would likewise have taken the Secretary of War, in his anxiety, but for the obvious indelicacy of the latter's appearance before Hooker at such a moment. Mr. Lincoln went back to Washington that night, enjoining upon Halleck to remain till he knew “everything.” Halleck [241] was a keen lawyer, and the reluctant generals and staff-officers had but poor success in stopping any — where short of the whole truth. When he got back to his post, a conference of the President and Secretary of War with himself was held at the War Department, whereat it was concluded that both the check at Chancellorsville and the retreat were inexcusable, and that Hooker must not be in-trusted with the conduct of another battle. Halleek had brought a message from Hooker to the effect that as he had never sought the command, he could resign it without embarrassment, and would be only too happy if, in the new arrangement, he could have the command of his old division and so keep in active service.

The friends of Mr. Chase considered that the fortunes of their leader were too much bound up with Hooker to permit of the latter's ignominious removal and, although the President had learned much that he did not dream of at the time he parted company with the War Department in the matter of appointing a successor to Burnside, the Treasury faction had grown so powerful that he could not consent to a rupture with it, and a temporizing policy was adopted all around, which General Couch, commander of the Second Corps, all unconsciously, nearly spoiled by contemptuously refusing to serve any longer under Hooker, despite an abject appeal to him by Hooker not to leave the army.4

General Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania broke up the nearly intolerable situation, and Hooker's diligent and skillful management of his army rapidly brought matters back to the hopeful state they were in before the late battle.5 But Mr. Stanton was determined that the deliberate decision of the council of war, held after Halleck's return from the front, should not be set aside, and he was now the master of the situation. Hooker was so full of hope and energy that severe measures had to be resorted to in order to wring from him that tender of resignation deemed to be necessary to enable his supporters at Washington to keep on outward terms with the Administration. When it did come, the impending battle was evidently so close at hand that the Secretary of War was seized with the fear that, either by accident or design, the change of command to General Meade would not be effected in time to avoid the very contingen cy aimed at by the change. At the last moment, the President too became alarmed, and there was another conference at the Department to settle the means of insuring the transfer.

Duplicate copies of the President's order, changing the command, were made, authenticated by the signature of the adjutant-general and addressed, severally, to Generals Hooker and Meade. General James A. Hardie, chief of the staff of the Secretary of War, and a personal friend of both the officers concerned, was then called into the conference room and directed to start at once for Frederick City and, without disclosing his presence or business, make his way to General Meade and give him to understand that the order for him to assume the command of the army immediately was intended to be as unquestionable and peremptory as any that a soldier could receive. He was then, as the representative of the President, to [242]

Major-General George G. Meade. From a photograph.

take General Meade to the headquarters of General Hooker and transfer the command from the latter to the former. General Hardie manifested some reluctance to doing his appointed task in the prescribed manner, but Mr. Stanton sententiously remarked that in this case the manner was of the substance of the matter, to which Mr. Lincoln added that he would take the responsibility upon himself for any wound to the feelings of the two generals, or of the bearer of the order. General Hardie was supplied with passes and orders to facilitate his progress, and with money to buy his way through to his destination if delayed or obstructed on the road. If compelled by the imminency of capture by Stuart's raiders to destroy his papers, and he could still make his way through, he was to deliver verbally the order for the changing of the command and supervise its execution.

General Hardie, in civilian's dress, reached Frederick in safety, and by diligent inquiry ascertained the whereabouts of General Meade's headquarters, several miles from town. By some oversight at headquarters, no governor or provost-marshal had been appointed for the town, and the streets and all the roads leading to the camps were thronged with boisterous soldiers, more or less filled with Maryland whisky, and many of them ripe for rudeness or mischief. By liberal use of money he at last obtained a buggy and a driver who knew the roads; but his progress through straggling parties of soldiers and trains of wagons was so slow, and he was so often obliged to appeal to officers to secure passage and safety from one stage to another, that the night was far spent when he reached General Meade's headquarters and, after some wrangling, penetrated to his tent. [243]

Meade was asleep, and when awakened was confounded by the sight of an officer from the War Department standing over him. He afterward said that, in his semi-stupor, his first thought was that he was to be taken to Washington in arrest, though no reason occurred to him why he should be. When he realized the state of affairs he became much agitated, protesting against being placed in command of an army that was looking toward Reynolds as the successor, if Hooker should be displaced; referring to the personal friendship be-tween Reynolds and himself, which would make the President's order an instrument of injustice to both; urging the heaviness of the responsibility so suddenly placed upon him in presence of the enemy and when he was totally ignorant of the positions and dispositions of the army he was to take in charge; and strenuously objecting to the requirement that he should go to Hooker's Headquarters to take over the command without being sent for by the commanding general, as McClellan had sent for Burnside6 and Burnside for Hooker. Meade proposed to Hardie that he should telegraph to Stanton to be relieved from taking the command, but Hardie told him that in the council it had been assumed that he would wish to be excused, that he would prefer Reynolds first and anybody else but himself afterward, and that he might even deem it too late to displace Hooker; but that, notwithstanding, it had been determined that Hooker should be relieved, and by Meade alone, and that it should be done immediately upon Hardie's arrival. It was a mental relief to the stern Secretary of War, when General Meade's spontaneous utterances were reported to him, to note that he had uttered no protest against Hooker's being relieved of the command, even in what might almost be called the presence of the enemy. This silence on the part of a man so regardless of himself, so regardful of others, Mr. Stanton accepted as being, in itself, his complete vindication.

After taking General Hardie's opinion, as a professional soldier, that he had no lawful discretion to vary from the orders given, horses and an escort were ordered out and the party proceeded to general headquarters, some miles distant.7 Hardie undertook to break the news to Hooker, who did not need to be told anything after seeing who his visitors were. It was a bitter moment to all, for Hooker had construed favorably the delay in responding to his tender of resignation, and could not wholly mask the revulsion of feeling. General Butterfield, the chief of staff, between whom and General Meade much coldness existed, was called in, and the four officers set themselves earnestly to work to do the state some service by honestly transferring the command and all that could help to make it available for good. During the interview Meade unguardedly expressed himself as shocked at the scattered condition of the army, and Hooker retorted with feeling. Tension was somewhat eased by Meade's insisting upon being regarded as a guest at headquarters while General Hooker was present, and by his requesting General Butterfield, upon public grounds, not to exercise his privilege of withdrawing with his chief; but Hooker's chagrin and Meade's overstrung nerves made the lengthy but indispensable conference rather trying to the whole party.

When Reynolds heard the news, he dressed him-self with scrupulous care and, handsomely attended, rode to headquarters to pay his respects to the new commander. Meade, who looked like a wagon-master in the marching clothes he had hurriedly slipped on when awakened in his tent, understood the motive of the act, and after the exchange of salutations all around, he took Reynolds by the arm, and, leading him aside, told him how surprising, imperative, and unwelcome were the orders he had received; how much he would have preferred the choice to have fallen on Reynolds; how anxious he had been to see Reynolds and tell him these things, and how helpless he should hold himself to be did he not feel that Reynolds would give him the earnest support that he would have given to Reynolds in a like situation. Reynolds answered that, in his opinion, the command had fallen where it belonged, that he was glad that such a weight of responsibility had not come upon him, and that Meade might count upon the best support he could give him. Meade then communicated to Reynolds all that he had learned from Hooker and Butterfield concerning the movements and positions of the two armies, and hastily concerted with him a plan of cooperation which resulted in the fighting of the battle of Gettysburg upon ground selected by Reynolds.

During the afternoon the consultations were ended, and, with the aid of the representative of the War Department, the two generals drew up the orders that were to announce formally the change of command. In the evening, standing in front of the commanding general's tent, General Hooker took leave of the officers, soldiers, and civilians attached to headquarters, and, amid many a “God bless you, General!” got into the spring wagon that was to convey him and General Hardie to the railroad station, the former en route to Baltimore, the latter to Washington. When all was ready for the start, the throng about the vehicle respectfully drew back as Meade approached with uncovered head; the two men took each other by the hand, some words passed between them in a low tone, the wagon moved off, and Meade walked silently into the tent just vacated by his predecessor. [244]

Union cavalry Soouting in front of the Confederate advance.

1 The writer of this paper occupied responsible and confidential positions at the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac and in the War Department.--editors.

2 In his official report of the Rappahannock campaign, General Burnside says: “I made four distinct attempts, between November 9th, 1862, and January 25th, 1863. The first failed for want of pontoons; the second was the battle of Fredericksburg; the third was stopped by the President; and the fourth was defeated by the elements or other causes. After the last attempt to move I was, on January 25th, 1863, relieved of the command of the Army of the Potomac.” The fourth attempt mentioned by General Burnside has passed into history as the “Mud march.” The plan was to move Franklin's two corps, or the Left Grand Division, to Banks's Ford, where Franklin was to cross and seize the heights on the river road north of the Orange Turnpike. Franklin was to be supported by Hooker and Sumner, with the Center and Right Grand Divisions. Franklin and Hooker marched from their camps and bivouacked near Banks's Ford on January 20th; but a rain storm set in that evening making the roads impassable for pontoon wagons, and after several attempts to haul the boats to the river by hand the movement was abandoned. The artillery and wagons became mired, and the army, with all of its necessary material, was in fact foot-fast in the soft, clayey soil that abounds in that region. In a dejected mood the army splashed back to its old camps around Falmouth. See also p. 118.--editors.

3 I have been told recently, on hearsay testimony, that Sedgwick was sounded and said he ought not to be appointed because he was a McClellan man. I never heard that Sedgwick was ever proposed as successor to Burnside, and I cannot believe it, knowing the limited though warm regard of Secretary Stanton for him. Stanton always spoke of Sedgwick as a brave, thorough-going soldier, who staid in camp, gave Washington a wide berth, and did not intrigue against his superiors; but I never heard him attribute to Sedgwick such high qualities for a great command as he imputed to some other officers of that army.--C. F. B.

4 General F. A. Walker says in his “History of the Second army Corps” (pp. 253-255):

“ One of the results of the Chancellorsville campaign was a change in the command of the Second Corps. General Couch had felt outraged in every nerve and fiber of his being by the conduct of General Hooker from the 1st to the 5th of May. . . .

Not that General Couch was alone in this feeling, which was shared by nearly all the commanders of the army; hutat once his nature as a man and his position as the senior corps commander made him peculiarly the spokesman in the representations and remonstrances addressed to General Hooker, . . . and when consulted by President Lincoln on the 22d of May he advised that General Meade should be placed in command, stating that he himself would have great pleasure in serving under that officer, though senior to him. To the suggestion of his own succession to the command General Couch returned a firm and sincere negative. . . .

In this spirit [having lost confidence in Hooker], with pain inexpressible, General Couch asked to be relieved from further service with the Army of the Potomac.


5 On the 5th of June General Hooker sent to the President a long dispatch, to which Mr. Lincoln replied on the same day. These communications throw an interesting light on Hooker's relations with the Administration. After stating his suspicion that Lee was about to undertake an aggressive movement, Hooker says:

As I am liable to be called on to make a movement with the utmost promptitude, I desire that I may be informed as early as practicable of the views of the Government concerning this army. Under instructions from the major-general commanding the army, dated January 31st, I am instructed to ‘keep in view always the importance of covering Washington and Harper's Ferry, either directly or by so operating as to be able to punish any force of the enemy sent against them.’ In the event the enemy should move, as I almost anticipate he will, the head of his column will probably be headed toward the Potomac, via Gordonsville or Culpeper, while the rear will rest on Fredericksburg. After giving the subject my best reflection, I am of opinion that it is my duty to pitch into his rear, although in so doing the head of his column may reach Warrenton before I can return. Will it be within the spirit of my instructions to do so? In view of these contemplated movements of the enemy, I cannot too forcibly impress upon the mind of His Excellency, the President, the necessity of having one commander for all of the troops whose operations can have an influence on those of Lee's army. Under the present system, all independent commanders are in ignorance of the movements of the others; at q least such is my situation. I trust that I may not be considered in the way to this arrangement, as it is a position I do not desire, and only suggest it, as I feel the necessity for concert as well as vigorous action. It is necessary for me to say this much that my motives may not be misunderstood. Joseph Hooker, Major-General.

President Lincoln's reply is as follows:

Washington, June 5th, 1863, 4 P. M.--Major-General Hooker: Yours of to-day was received an hour ago. So much of professional military skill is requisite to answer it that I have turned the task over to General Halleck. He promises to perform it with his utmost care. I have but one idea which I think worth suggesting to you, and that is, in case you find Lee coming to the north of the Rappahannock, I would by no means cross to the south of it. If he should leave a rear force at Fredericksburg, tempting you to fall upon it, it would fight in intrenchments and have you at disadvantage, and so, man for man, worst you at that point, while his main force would in some way be getting an advantage of you northward. In one word, I would not take any risk of being entangled upon the river, like an ox jumped half over a fence, and liable to be torn by dogs front and rear without a fair chance to gore one way or kick the other. If Lee would come to my side of the river, I would keep on the same side and fight him or act on the defense, according as might be my estimate of his strength relatively to my own. But these are mere suggestions, which I desire to be controlled by the judgment of yourself and General Halleck. A. Lincoln.”--editors.

6 Meade was mistaken in thinking that McClellan had sent for Burnside when the command was turned over to him.--C. F. B.

7 Hardie told me that Meade at last said, half playfully, “Well, I've been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to execution.”--C. F. B.

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