On Jan. 26, 1863, President Lincoln replaced Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. The president selected Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, a proven leader and fighter who, since 1861, had risen from commanding a brigade, a division and a corps to leading a wing of the army. While on the Virginia Peninsula he earned the nickname of “Fighting Joe” and suffered a wound at Antietam.
The army Hooker inherited was in shambles. Morale had plummeted since Fredericksburg in December and reached its lowest point after January’s failed “Mud March.” Men deserted in droves, and poor food served as an unfortunate norm. Discipline suffered. Before Hooker took the Army of the Potomac out for a campaign, he needed to ignite the spirit and increase its fighting prowess.
It would not be an easy task, but Hooker proved an effective leader and implemented a successful about-face in the Army of the Potomac.
First and foremost Hooker needed to control the matter of desertions. An army could not function with depleted ranks. Officers tightened up picket lines around camps, patrols increased along the Potomac River, and the names and physical descriptions of deserters were sent to Northern states to help in apprehending the missing soldiers. Hooker even authorized the searching of packages coming to camp to assure they did not contain civilian clothes. Within two weeks of assuming command, Hooker boldly wrote that “desertions from this army are now at an end, or nearly so.” This tightening of security was complemented with a couple of incentives.
Lincoln issued a proclamation in March that all soldiers absent without leave would receive amnesty if they returned to camp by April 1. The only penalty would be the loss of pay for the time absent. The amnesty extended to those already in custody. Men flocked back to the ranks.
Hooker also permitted furloughs back home. The excitement of an opportunity to see family and friends raised the spirits, and men eagerly waited for their names to be selected. Second Vermont Lt. Chester Leach believed the “granting of furloughs has done much good.” Another Vermont officer witnessed a “better feeling among the men.”
Priority two lay in food. It is said “an army travels on its stomach,” but food is just as vital while in camp as men grumble more often. Hard crackers and salt pork supplemented with dried vegetables failed to boost spirits.
Hooker immediately ordered the issuance of soft bread four times a week. Morale jumped at the news. The general continued, requiring men to receive fresh potatoes, onions or cabbages twice a week. Morale further increased.
The new commander then went after the food preparers. He demanded that small cooking messes be eliminated while in camp and each company have its own cook. Diets became more regular.
Such details drew accolades. One New Yorker wrote that Hooker’s soft bread order “reaches us in a tender spot.”
With the combination of better foodstuffs and improved cooking, medical staffs observed a decrease in the sick lists. Doctors also oversaw better hygiene procedures.
The Army of the Potomac grew healthier.
With desertions under control and edible rations being issued, Hooker focused on pride — and it came about in an interesting fashion.
During the Peninsula Campaign, Gen. Phil Kearny issued to the men of his division simple diamonds made of red flannel. Affix them to your hats, he told the soldiers, and he would easily be able to spot his troops in battle and on the march. Even after Kearny’s death at Chantilly in September 1862, his men continued to wear their badges, not only in their general’s memory but also as badges of honor.
The Army of the Potomac chief of staff, Daniel Butterfield, asked Hooker to take the “Kearny patch” idea one step further — provide each army corps with its own badge. Butterfield selected the symbols. Men of the I Corps were a disk; the II, a trefoil; the III, a diamond; the V, a Maltese cross; and the VI, a Greek cross; with a crescent for the XI Corps and a star for the XII. Not only would the men wear the emblems, but all corps vehicles and specially designed flags would as well.
To further assist in identification, each division in a corps also had specific colors; red, white, blue and green. With simple pieces of fabric, Hooker created esprit de corps.
As yet another aid in boosting spirits, the army commander authorized that each regiment had the option to inscribe battle names upon its colors.
In a matter of months Hooker changed the face of the Army of the Potomac. Bad morale disappeared; the soldiers had high confidence in themselves and their fighting ability. Capt. William B. Reynolds of the 6th Vermont proclaimed the Army of the Potomac “a command to be proud of.”
Joe Hooker completed a major overhaul with great success.
Donald Wickman is an author and historian who lives in Rutland.
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