Letter to Hooker

This is a syndicated post from The American Catholic. [Read the original article...]

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 time keeping straight the various commanders of the Army of the Potomac, this song, which may be viewed here, might help.)

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Donald R. McClarey (1546 Posts)


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