Joe Hooker takes command, and Maine boys notice, part II

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)

The arrival of Joe Hooker at Army of the Potomac headquarters in late January 1863 stirred interest, trepidation, and many questions. Within weeks he instituted morale-building improvements that restored the army’s elan.

“Never was the magic influence of a single man more clearly shown than when Hooker assumed command,” said Capt. Charles P. Mattocks of the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment. “When I first saw General Hooker I looked upon him with that blind and enthusiastic admiration which a youthful soldier is apt to have for his superior.”

Directing his horse’s nostrils into many Army of the Potomac nooks and crannies, Hooker learned about the poor food, the low morale, that “desertions were occurring at the rate of several hundred a day,” according to Mattocks.

Sacking a few generals, Hooker dissolved Ambrose Burnside’s three grand divisions and restored the individual Army corps to independent status. Combining all cavalry regiments into a mounted corps, he tasked his troopers with probing and raiding enemy lines like J.E.B. Stuart’s gray-clad riders did so well.

Some Maine soldiers compared Hooker to George Brinton McClellan, who had led the Army of the Potomac into the Chickahominy swamps in spring 1862 and out again that summer. Writing the Portland Daily Press from “Camp near White Oak Church” on Feb. 4, 1863, a 5th Maine Infantry soldier with the pseudonym “Ellery” qualified that “I am not a blind worshipper of McClellan. In my view he is neither a Napoleon, nor a Wellington.”

Ellery let the Daily Press’s editor know exactly what Hooker was up against. Referring to McClellan, Ellery stated, “I look upon him, as do nine-tenths of the army, as the personation (sic) of military excellence, and of all our leaders, best calculated to bring this war to a successful and glorious termination.”

McClellan had passed up two opportunities to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia during the Peninsula Campaign and at Antietam. Why he should be given a third chance to blow such an assignment, Ellery did not explain.

But at least Ellery was realistic. As reported “in the Northern papers,” the idea that the Army of the Potomac “will not fight under any general but McClellan is simply ridiculous,” he wrote.

“They will fight under Hooker, as they did under Burnside, with a purpose higher than the aggrandizement of a favorite general,” Ellery stressed.

Hooker ordered the food rations increased, furloughs granted to deserving veterans, and discipline tightened.The food was especially appreciated.

Serving as cook for his unit, a Confederate re-enactor stirs a stew that he is preparing for supper at the Confederate camps set up for a recent re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. Food was often foremost on the minds of soldiers, no matter the uniform they wore. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

“Since Gen. Hooker’s advent, we have been beter (sic) supplied with rations than ever before,” the pseudonymic 12th Maine Infantry soldier “Typo” wrote the Portland Daily Press on Feb. 24, 1863. “We are now furnished with four rations per week of either soft bread or flour, two rations of potatoes, and one of onions or potatoes.

“This is an agreeable change in our diet, as we have for a long time subsisted on … salt pork and hard tack,” Typo commented.

Via his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Hooker initiated a badge-based morale booster. To each corps went a particular emblem. First Corps received the circle, II Corps got a three-leafed clover, III Corps a diamond, IV Corps a triangle, V Corps the Maltese cross, and VI Corps the Greek cross. Each division within a corps got a distinctive color: red for the 1st Division, white for the 2nd, and blue for the 3rd.

The men sewed onto their kepis or blouses the respective corps badges and divisional colors. Elijah Walker and his 4th Maine survivors and Charles Mattocks and John Haley of the 17th Maine sported red diamonds identifying the regiments as belonging to the 1st Division, III Corps. As members of the 1st Division of V Corps, Joshua L. Chamberlain and the 20th Maine boys sewed on red Maltese crosses, and over in I Corps, Charles Tilden and the shot-up 16th Maine lads now wore white circles as members of the 2nd Division.

The corps badges generated pride in soldiers morally devastated by the terrible casualties of Fredericksburg, shabby treatment by too many general officers, and the gooey vicissitudes of the January 1863 “Mud March.”

Between the vegetables, real meat, and “soft bread” now filling their bellies, soldiers drilled almost incessantly at the regimental and brigade level. Winter vanished at the spring equinox; the veterans sensed that the Hooker-honed army would soon fight.

Source: Letter from the Fifth Maine, Portland Daily Press, Thursday, Feb. 12, 1863; Letter from the Rappahannock, Portland Daily Press, Tuesday, Feb. 24, 1863

Read the first of this two-part post at:

http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com/2018/04/11/maine-boys-notice-when-joe-hooker-takes-command-part-i/

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He would love to hear 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.