Letter to Hooker

Joe Hooker

One hundred and fifty years ago last Saturday, President Abraham Lincoln sent what is doubtless the most unusual letter ever sent by an American president to an American general:

Executive Mansion Washington, January 26, 1863

Major General Hooker: General.

I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside’s command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of it’s ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.

And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.

Yours very truly

A. Lincoln

Hooker responded to the letter positively.  He told a reporter:  “That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son. It is a beautiful letter, and, although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.”

The letter now is merely a Civil War footnote, but the danger of a military dictatorship being set up in the North during the Civil War was a factor that Lincoln could not ignore.  Talk about the possible necessity of a dictator was not restricted to Hooker.  McClellan while he was in command mentioned the possibility of him assuming a dictatorship several times in letters to his wife. “I have commenced receiving letters from the North urging me to march on Washington & assume the Govt!!”  McClellan rejected the possibility each time in these letters, but they are illustrative of the type of loose talk about dictatorship that was not uncommon in the Union Army when the War was going badly.  Our history could have taken a very dark turn indeed during the Civil War and the letter from Lincoln to Hooker is an indication of one of those dark turns that we were ultimately spared.

(If any of our readers are having a hard time keeping straight the various commanders of the Army of the Potomac, this song, which may be viewed here, might help.)

14 Responses to Letter to Hooker

  • The current President gives different letters and different orders to his generals. Supposedly he is now making as a litmus test for promotion the question of whether or not a military leader would fire on American citizens (according to Jim Garrow on Facebook).

    http://www.teaparty.org/obama-asks-military-leaders-if-they-will-fire-on-us-citizens-19039/

    Is that true? If so, then we face not a military dictatorship but a malevolent tyrant who is disarming American citizens and will use force to shove his ways down our throats. It won’t be pink fascism any longer, but the bloody red Nazism that the unborn already suffer. But maybe I am a pessimist.

  • “(according to Jim Garrow on Facebook).”

    Color me unimpressed Paul by a hearsay statement from a Nobel Peace Prize “nominee”. (Anyone can be nominated for a Nobel Prize by anyone. I could nominate you today for a Nobel Prize and you would be an official Nobel Prize nominee.) Jim Garrow has a history as a flake.
    The more accurate criticism of Obama as commander in chief is that he has sacrificed military effectiveness to the Gods of Political Correctness in regard to homosexuals in the military and now this ludicrous move to put women into the Combat Arms. You can bet that military leaders are being promoted to high rank now on the basis of their willingness to support these policies rather than on the basis of their military competence.

  • Thank you for the correction, Donald. I knew nothing about Jim Garrow. The internet is a cesspool, especially Facebook, and it’s hard to know what’s real and credible and what isn’t if one isn’t an expert in the subject field.

  • The internet is a great resource for spreading both truth and lies. Distinguishing between the two is often not a simple task.

  • So you’re saying the first Letter from a sitting president to a Hooker was from Abe Lincoln and NOT Bill Clinton?

  • There were a lot of people in the north looking for a man on a white horse. Whatever else his flaws, it is to McClellan’s very great credit that he dismissed such talk, and tried to win the Presidency the old fashioned way.

    Hooker was a fine corps commander, but my, did Marse Robert ever take up rent-free residence in his head.

  • Ha, Lincoln would surely recognize the lust for dictatorship, having so so firmly flirted with it himself by his various actions in contravention of the constitution.

    I know, I know, the ends justified the means.

  • You can bet that military leaders are being promoted to high rank now on the basis of their willingness to support these policies rather than on the basis of their military competence.

    Scary!

  • “Ha, Lincoln would surely recognize the lust for dictatorship, having so so firmly flirted with it himself by his various actions in contravention of the constitution.”

    Tom I defy you to find anything done by Lincoln to preserve the Union that Davis did not do to destroy it. I also defy you to find anything that Lincoln did that was not supported by a majority of Congress. Lincoln of course went before the people in 1864 and was reelected resoundingly. “Dictators” should be made of sterner stuff.

  • The only thing that Lincoln did that was remotely dictatorial was suspend the writ of habeas corpus. The problem for the neoconfederates is that a) this is permitted by the Constitution during times of rebellion, and b) this was an act approved by Congress.

  • Don, if you haven’t read it, David Williams’ “Bitterly Divided” is an eye-opener with respect to how much the Richmond regime was hated by the “plain folk” of the South. Provost marshals were to wartime Dixie what slave-catchers were to the antebellum North.

  • It sounds interesting Dale. There were plenty of whites who grumbled about a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. As a whole the white population remained pretty loyal to the Confederacy but the lost cause mythology of a unified white South behind the Confederacy was never true and became less true as the War became increasingly grim for the South.

  • If Lincoln had sufficient competent generals at the beginning of the War, it would have ended much sooner.

  • Generalship in the West for the Union was suffient unto the task from 1862. The War in the East was another matter and Grant just barely filled the bill against Lee.

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