Maine boys notice when Joe Hooker takes command, part I

On January 20, 1863, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside (below) marched the Army of the Potomac west to cross the Rappahannock River and outflank the Army of Northern Virginia upriver from Fredericksburg, Va. Cold rain soon pounded the wretched Union boys, and Burnside’s grand attack dissolved into the “Mud March,” which almost destroyed his army. (Library of Congress)

Despite all the immorality-related baggage (drinking, carousing with prostitutes, etc.) historically associated with him, Joseph Hooker helped save the Union in winter 1863.

Abraham Lincoln could have done worse than replace Ambrose Burnside with Hooker, at least in the months prior to Chancellorsville.

In the regimental camps sprinkled across Stafford County opposite Fredericksburg, morale all but collapsed that midwinter. The ill-fated Mud March had almost extinguished the army’s raison d’etre, at least among the weary survivors of Fredericksburg.

Soaked, sullen, and angry, men tromped to their supposedly abandoned campgrounds and, like the 5th Maine Infantry boys returning to their camp near White Oak Church, bailed out flooded “houses (holes) … which required a pretty hot fire to dry” once the runoff was drained from the camp sites, said 1st Lt. George W. Bicknell, the regiment’s adjutant.

The news that Joe Hooker had replaced Burnside on January 26 did little initially to boost morale. Two days later, “a furious snow-storm” that “was a regular down-easter” swirled around the Union camps for 24 hours, deposited a foot of snow amidst “intensely cold” temperatures, and blew away.

Then “the sun came out warm and genial,” the snow melted, and Virginia “resumed dripping with mud,” Bicknell muttered.

Fueled by the “piques and quarrels” erupting among “the higher officers,” the collective soldierly attitude turned sour in the camps, said Capt. Charles P. Mattocks, a Bowdoin College graduate who had studied under Professor Joshua F. Chamberlain. Men and officers “had become disheartened and discouraged by the frequent changes in commanders and the unsatisfactory results of their own brave fighting.”

He sensed that “a bright flame of enthusiasm was fast dwindling into a flickering torch.

“Patriotism, discipline, and fidelity to the government were all that prevented the army from disintegrating and becoming useless as a means of suppressing the rebellion,” Mattocks believed.

Named as commander of the Army of the Potomac in late January 1863, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker took immediate steps to improve the dietary and living conditions of the enlisted men. Maine soldiers noticed the difference. (Library of Congress)

For many Union soldiers camped opposite Fredericksburg, the pallid winter sun stirred the desire to flee the colors. The 5th Maine of Lt. Col. Clark S. Edwards held together as “desertions seemed to be the order of the day” elsewhere in the Army of the Potomac, Bicknell said. “Courts-martial were in full blast, meting out justice or injustice to military offenders.”

Amidst the Mud March, “while it was yet dark” on Thursday, January 22, two 17th Maine veterans “were seized with a thirsty fit,” noted Pvt. John W. Haley of Co. I and Saco. The men skipped away to find water (which surrounded them in the flooded Rappahannock River lowlands) “and failed to put in an appearance that day or night.

“It is conjectured that they know of some spring in Her Majesty’s dominions [Canada],” Haley said.

“The number of deserters are increasing fearfully,” a Boston Herald correspondent reported. “There is no doubt that as the men are paid off, those who are ‘sick and tired’ of the service will do as they threatened — skedaddle.”

Slipping from their camps after dark, the deserters found “numerous loopholes” in the Union lines and often encountered local civilians only too willing “to exchange seedy citizens’ clothes” for army uniforms, the reporter wrote.

Referring to the “fearful demoralization” affecting too many soldiers, he noted the shared belief of privates “that a soldier is not to blame for desertion.”

More than battlefield losses and poor food caused men to consider deserting. Bicknell attended a few courts-martial involving apprehended deserters. Often a soldier would introduce in his defense “letters received from home … bearing the tale” of suffering families and lonely wives and children.

Such news from home affected “the soldier’s mind,” Bicknell admitted. “In fits of desperation” too many soldiers headed north, only to be caught and shipped south for trial.

Bicknell read many letters from deserters’ families. Although some states, cities, and towns raised funds to support “soldiers’ families … in many instances, they were actually permitted to suffer for the necessities of life,” he realized. “It was enough to make one’s blood boil to know how soldiers’ families in some States were neglected.”

Perhaps reflecting the influence of Joe Hooker, courts-martial “generally” proved merciful to men drawn home by tales of woe, Bicknell said. Reducing a desertion charge to “absence, without leave,” the military judges assessed such soldiers a small fine — and diametrically condemned to death men caught fleeing to Confederate lines or providing the enemy with “information injurious to our cause.”

By midwinter, Maine boys were noticing some improvements since Joe Hooker took over.

Next week: Maine boys notice when Joe Hooker takes command — part II

Read the conclusion of this two-part post at:

http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com/2018/04/18/joe-hooker-takes-command-and-maine-boys-notice-part-ii/

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.