1863: “I Have Not Believed You Had Any Chance To Effect Anything Till Now”

(Private)

Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C.

June 16, 1863

My dear General: I send you this by the hand of Captain Dahlgren. Your desptach[sp] of 11:30 A.M. today is received. When you say I have long been aware that you do not enjoy the confidence of the major-general commanding, you state the case much too strongly.

You do not lack his confidence in any degree to do you harm. On seeing him, after telegraphing you this morning, I found him more nearly agreeing with you than I was myself. Surely you do not mean to understand that I am withholding my confidence from you when I happen to express an opinion (certainly never discourteously) differing from one of your own.

I believe Halleck is dissatisfied with you to this extent only, that he know that you write and telegraph (“report,” as he calls it) to me. I think he is wrong to find fault with this; but I do not think he withholds any support from you on account of it. If you and he would use the same frankness to one another, and to me, that I use to both of you, there would be no difficulty. I need and must have the professional skill of both, and yet these suspicions tend to deprive me of both.

I believe you are aware that since you took command of the army I have not believed you had any chance to effect anything till now. As it looks to me, Lee’s now returning toward Harper’s Ferry give you back the chance I thought McClellan had lost last fall. Quite possibly I was wrong both then and now; but, in the great responsibility resting upon me, I cannot be entirely silent. Now, all I ask is that you will be in such a mood that we can get into our action the best cordial judgement of yourself and General Halleck, with my poor mite added, if indeed he and you shall think it entitled to any consideration at all.

Yours as ever,

[A. Lincoln]

President Abraham Lincoln to General Joseph Hooker, June 16, 1863.

Joseph Hooker & The Gettysburg Campaign

Joseph Hooker would not be the commanding general of the Union Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, but he was the leader at the beginning of the campaign. Some of the lead Confederate troops started their advance north for the Gettysburg Campaign on June 3; it wasn’t until June 14 that Hooker started moving his soldiers.

This letter from Lincoln tried to reassure the commanding general that General Henry Halleck (general-in-chief of Union armies) wasn’t angry with him. Clearly, the communication triangle between the president and the two generals wasn’t especially strong. Hooker had lost the Battle of Chancellorsville and seemed to think Halleck was “against” him, creating a series of correspondence and lack of trust. Joe Hooker faced additional problems; his actions at Chancellorsville, character, and lack of leadership caused his subordinate generals to express doubts about his generalship, creating further quiet disputes and mistrust at headquarters.

In less than ten days, Hooker – angry about a dispute over troops at Harpers Ferry – offered Halleck and the president his resignation. Much to his surprise, they accepted it. On June 28, Hooker was out of command and the Army of the Potomac had a new commander, George Meade.

“Till Now”

When Lincoln penned this private letter, though, he didn’t know how little time Hooker had left as commander. He still tried to encourage a military victory from “Fighting Joe.” Lincoln admitted he wasn’t sure about a real opportunity of battlefield success until now in the campaign.

With Lee’s army heading north, Lincoln planned a strategic trap – one that George McClellan had failed to execute the previous year. From Lincoln’s perspective a real opportunity for victory and a decisive battle lay ahead, if Hooker could just get the army moving and follow up on the possible advantages.

Historical Musings

Lack of communication and trust at headquarters and with Washington officials caused a debacle for General Hooker. Sure, his personality, habits, and leadership difficulties didn’t help the situation, but other commanders in history faced equal difficulties and managed to pull through. This letter also suggests Hooker used Lincoln as a communication “go-between” between Hooker and Halleck since he was convinced Halleck didn’t like him, showing a lack of communication skills.

The lesson from all this? Talk through the issues directly with person involved. Build trust with those around you. (Hooker’s subordinate generals were also sending letters and “reports” to Lincoln). Exhibit leadership character qualities. Communication, communication, communication.

Could this historical situation have been avoided? Maybe. But ultimately, Hooker was not the general to hold the ridges at Gettysburg; he didn’t have the confidence of his officers which might have created a different outcome to that battle.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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