One hundred and fifty years ago today, Major General Ambrose Burnside met with President Lincoln at the White House. Burnside presented the commander-in-chief with an order for the dismissal of four generals from the Army of the Potomac and the relieving of six others from active duty, most of whom had been sharply and openly critical of Burnside’s ability to command. Either they must go or he, Burnside, must go, but things could not continue as they were.
A few of the generals were sent packing, but the man who Burnside most wanted dismissed was Major General Joseph Hooker. Hooker’s criticism of Burnside had been the loudest and sharpest of all. President Lincoln made a most difficult and pivotal decision. He relieved Burnside and promoted Hooker to the command of the Army of the Potomac.
The new commander was without a commission at the start of the war, but he finally was made a brigadier general of volunteers. He fought his commands bravely during the Peninsula Campaign, at Second Manassas, South Mountain, and Antietam. At Fredericksburg, he commanded two corps that fought valiantly, but in vain. Lincoln knew Hooker was a fighter, but he also had strong reservations about the man Joseph Hooker, which the president made abundantly clear in the following famous letter he wrote to Hooker:
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,