150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville
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Chancellorsville: Was Hooker drunk?

Series archive

Date published: Sat, 12/14/2002

Part 41 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

"JOE HOOKER is our leader," ran a popular pre-Chancel- lorsville ditty, "he takes his whisky strong." After the campaign, the pervasive question in the Union army, and throughout the North, became whether Joe Hooker had been taking his whisky too strong in the midst of military operations.

The question persists today, an undercurrent in consideration of "Chancellorsville: Was Hooker drunk all weekend?" Maybe he was.

Strong drink had caused Joe Hooker difficulties during his antebellum posting to California, though he never sank into the besotted state that afflicted U.S. Grant in that locale. The problems that forced Hooker out of the army on the West Coast centered less on bibulousness than on greed. While stationed near Sonoma, Hooker had lined his pockets by buying goods from local merchants then selling them to himself as an army officer at huge markups (a $5 stove for $75, for one instance). That unsavory practice prompted formal Congressional action to clarify acceptable ethics.

Rumors of heavy drinking lingered more pungently in Hooker's reputation than the memory of illicit profiteering in the regular army. Mid-19th-century Americans displayed an odd ambivalence about drinking. As the soldiers' fond ditty suggests, a capacity for holding liquor fit popular notions of manliness and leadership. On the other hand, the stern piety of many other Americans eagerly attributed any of life's failures or unhappiness to drunkenness. Unfounded allegations of inebriation plagued leaders on both sides when they met with reverses. Such charges arose steadily, for example, during Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early's 1864 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, entirely without basis.

The officer corps of the Army of the Potomac did not, by and large, hold Joe Hooker in high personal esteem. Most of them refused, nonetheless, to join the chorus of criticism suggesting that strong drink had affected his judgment during the campaign. Hooker's chief of staff, Daniel Butterfield (who was not present on the battlefield), actually testified before a Congressional committee that he never had seen Hooker under the influence of alcohol--anywhere or ever. That blanket assertion surely was dishonest.

Hooker's performance on the battlefield elicited hearty scorn from Gen. Darius N. Couch, but the corps commander defended Hooker from charges of being drunk during that May weekend, using a reverse twist. Writing after the war, Couch forwarded a theory that became almost conventional wisdom--that Hooker's problem lay not in drinking, but in unaccustomed temperance. "I have always stated," Couch declared, "that he probably abstained from the use of ardent spirits when it would have been far better for him to have continued in his usual habit in that respect." Bottled courage, in other words, would have been better than no courage at all.

The Unfamiliarity-of-Sobriety theorem suited many observers who knew Hooker's customary habits (few but Butterfield would attempt to deny those), but shrank from accusing him of drunkenness in actual command. Gen. Carl Schurz, a division commander in the 11th Corps, told a historian "that Hooker had either drank too much, & was only half conscious, or had not drunk enough to make his mind act normally." Mustering the determination to remain sober in the face of a major battle, and only discovering too late the uncertain novelty of that situation, seemed to high-ranking observers to be a useful explanation that did not overtly libel the army commander.

Soldiers of lesser rank contributed an impressive array of testimony that bluntly suggests that the army commander had in fact fallen prey to booze in May 1863. Col. Clark S. Edwards of the 5th Maine wrote succinctly that Hooker had been "beastly drunk," and "not fit to command a corporal's guard, much less an army." In a letter dated May 9, Capt. Francis A. Donaldson of the 118th Pennsylvania wrote emphatically that he in person saw Hooker "guzzling (I can call it by no other name) wineand I saw him incapacitated for command by reason of strong drink."

A foreign observer serving on Hooker's staff, in a May 3 diary entry full of vivid battle details susceptible to verification, described without comment how the general was "more excited than usual; he stands up tall and straight, puts another chew of tobacco in his mouth, swallows another glass of whiskey." Another staff member, later promoted to corps commander, wrote to a friend that Hooker "closed his room and locked it" on the night of May 1, and "everyone was anxious about it."

A military bureaucrat in Washington recalled that Dan Butterfield--in a spirit directly opposite to his testimony before Congress--twitted the staffer for being "responsible for Chancellorsville." The Washington officer's responsibility, Butterfield declared, was having sent to Hooker a case of brandy that arrived at army headquarters on the morning of May 2.

Washington A. Roebling became one of America's most famous engineers after the war, when he built the Brooklyn Bridge. In 1863 Roebling was serving as an engineer at army headquarters. "Hooker got drunk," the engineer wrote years later, and no one "could rouse him until late next morning." To temper the stricture, Roebling suggested that because Hooker had been "completely exhausted," the general "naturally took a bracer, but it was too much."

At cavalry headquarters, bare hours after the army had re-crossed the Rappahannock, Capt. George A. Custer wrote to Gen. George B. McClellan about Hooker's alleged drinking. One month later, Custer would become a 23-year-old general; 13 years after that he would become one of the most famous corpses in American military history (a result that elicited no sympathy in the Virginian regions he had burned and vandalized in 1864). On May 6, 1863, Capt. Custer summarized the Chancellorsville campaign for his former chief. What had ruined Hooker, the cavalryman reported, was "a wound he received from a projectile which requires a cork to be drawn before it is serviceable."

Robert G. Carter fought at Chancellorsville with the 22nd Massachusetts. He remained in the postwar army and won the Medal of Honor in a battle on the Brazos River in Texas in 1871. In a published memoir, Carter insisted "that Hooker was so much under the influence of liquor as to be totally unable to command." In marginalia scribbled on the pages of an early history of the battle, Carter waxed emphatic: "an over drunken brainprolonged debauchso drunk that he was incapableDrunk!!!"

"Those of us who constantly passed his tent, the flaps of which were back," Carter wrote, "saw him lying drunk." A Michigan man posted "within ten rods" of Hooker's headquarters wrote in similar vein, "Iknow him to be a whiskey 'bloat.'"

Whatever the truth of the case, the army came to accept the drunken verdict against the general. A Wisconsin soldier who came under Hooker's command in 1864 in the western theater told his family in a letter that his commander "is almost a drunkard." Veterans who had come from Virginia with Hooker "say that he lost the battle of Chancellorsville by being grossly intoxicated."

Historian Frederic Bancroft wrote a half-century after the battle: "the greatest puzzle about Chancellorsville is, what was the matter with Hooker?Rumor said that he was drunk, & circumstantial evidence is very strong in the untrustworthy old dame's support."

Was Old Dame Rumor trustworthy in this instance? Maybe, perhaps even probably; but too many conflicting witnesses cloud the question to make a definitive answer possible.

Next week: Chancellorsville in retrospect

ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years. He is the author of 14 books; the most recent, "The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy," was published in February by Louisiana State University Press.