A Hooker Encounter (September 29, 1864)

Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker(Library of Congress).

Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker(Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman resumes writing his detailed letters home, providing a wealth of detail about his experiences in the war. Here he describes how during the trip back to rejoin the army he encountered Joe Hooker, Meade’s predecessor as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Following his defeat at Chancellorsville, Hooker had been sent out west, where he served capably as a corps commander under Ulysses S. Grant in the Army of the Tennessee. But Hooker asked to be relieved when Grant promoted Gen. Oliver O. Howard over him following the death of Gen. John McPherson. In his journal entry, Lyman said that Hooker “was shaky about the legs, red in the face and had a boiled eye, like one who had been on a great spree.” Grant had no love for Hooker. In his memoirs he acknowledged that Hooker’s actions at Chattanooga had been “brilliant,” but added, “I nevertheless regarded him as a dangerous man. He was not subordinate to his superiors. He was ambitious to the extent of caring nothing for the rights of others. His disposition was, when engaged in battle, to get detached from the main body of the army and exercise a separate command, gathering to the standard all he could of his juniors.”

Lyman reaches the army just as Grant launched another offensive, with the Army of the James fighting the battles of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights and for Forts Gilmer and Harrison, and the Army of the Potomac stretching out to probe the far left of its line. Interestingly enough, just last week the National Park Service discovered an unexploded shell from the Civil War in the moat around Fort Gilmer. It apparently dated from the battle on September 29, 1864. Confederate defenders may have rolled it into the moat so it would explode among the attacking soldiers of the Union States Colored Troops.

The 6.45 p.m. train, which bore me, on Monday, from the ancient town of Beverly, did arrive in very good season in Boston, where I hired a citizen, in the hack line, to convey me with speed and safety to the Worcester depot. With an eye to speculation the driver took in also a lone female, who looked with a certain alarm on me, doubtful as to whether I might not be in the highway-robbery line. She had evidently been on a sea-shore visit, and bore a small pitcher with a bunch of flowers therein. By a superior activity I got a place in the sleeping-car, for it seems to be the policy to have about half room enough for the sleepy passengers, so that those who don’t get places may look with envy on t’others and determine to be earlier next time. Geo. D____ was along. The canny man had got a good berth, in the middle of the day, and you should have seen his traveller’s fixings: a blanket, a sort of little knapsack, and finally a white handkerchief to tie over his head; “For,” said he, “perhaps the pillows are not very clean.” With martial indifference I took off boots and blouse, got on an upper shelf (not without convulsive kicks), and composed myself to the fitful rest which one gets under such circumstances. There was, as the conductor truthfully observed, “a tremendous grist of children in the car”—of all sizes, indeed, from a little one that publicly partook of its natural nutriment, to youths of some twelve summers. The first object I saw, on wakening in the morning, was an attentive Ma endeavoring to put a hooped skirt under the dress of a small gal, without exhibiting to a curious public the small gal’s legs; which attempt on her part was a lamentable failure. I was glad to get out of the eminently close locomotive dormitory and hop with agility on the horse-car, which landed me, a little before seven a.m., at the Astor House. Here I partook of a dollar and a quarter’s worth of tea and mutton-chop, and stretched my legs by a walk to the Jersey ferry, and there, as our pilgrim fathers would have said, took shipping for the opposite shore. I should not neglect to say that at the Astor I had noticed a tall man, in the three buttons of a Major-General, whom I at once recognized as the original of the many photographs of General Hooker. I was much disappointed in his appearance: red-faced, very, with a lack-lustre eye and an uncertainty of gait and carriage that suggested a used-up man. His mouth also is wanting in character and firmness; though, for all that, he must once have been a very handsome man. He was a passenger for Washington and sat near me. Next me was a worthy minister, with whom I talked; he, I do remember, delivered a prayer at our chapel last winter, at Headquarters. He was like all of that class, patriotic and one-sided, attributing to the Southerners every fiendish passion; in  of which he had accumulated all the horrible accounts of treatment of prisoners, slaves, etc., etc., and had worked himself into a great state. Evening. 10 p.m. I have got to Baltimore and can’t go a step farther; for all day have I been on the Weldon railroad with General Meade, and I must slap to bed, for I am most sleepy, though all right.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 229-31. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.