In answering the question earlier about the possibility of a President establishing a Dictatorship, I posted an excerpt from a letter that President Abraham Lincoln sent to the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker.
When Lincoln wrote this letter, he was frustrated by the fact that “Fighting Joe” wasn’t fighting so hard. Like the two Generals who had preceded Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac — George B. McClellan and Ambrose Burnside — Hooker showed some reluctance in pursuing Confederate forces and engaging them in large-scale battles. President Lincoln was bothered further by General Hooker’s tendency to be somewhat outspoken and controversial in his comments and actions, particularly in undermining General Burnside during Burnside’s command, and telling a reporter from the New York Times that “Nothing will go right until we have a dictator, and the sooner the better.”
Here is the full text of the extraordinary letter that President Lincoln wrote to General Hooker after appointing him as the commanding General of the Army of the Potomac:
Washington, January 26, 1863
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 skillful 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 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
While some Generals (such as George B. McClellan) would be (and were) deeply offended and sensitive to such a blunt, candid letter which clearly revealed the President’s personal feelings about the General’s strengths, weaknesses, and proposed mission, General Hooker found himself admiring Lincoln even more after receiving this letter. Hooker later 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.”
Whether inspired by Lincoln’s letter or not, Hooker did improve the condition of the Army of the Potomac, raising morale, building better camps, securing supply lines, enhancing sanitation, strengthening enlistment efforts and lowering desertion rates. In battle, Hooker’s success was mixed; his troops were routed by Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville, which allowed Lee to invade the North and set up a showdown at Gettysburg. Just days prior to Gettysburg, President Lincoln sacked General Hooker and replaced him with George Meade.
Despite his demotion and reassignment, Hooker continued to deeply respect President Lincoln. After Lincoln was assassinated, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton placed General Hooker in charge of some of Lincoln’s funeral ceremonies. Hooker had the honor of leading the last of Lincoln’s funeral processions, which led to the late President’s burial in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois.