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Firing Joe Hooker

By Steven Trent Smith
2/23/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

Just days before the Battle of Gettysburg, Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton tasked youthful Colonel James Hardie with telling “Fighting Joe” he was done.

THE BALTIMORE & OHIO RAILROAD LOCOMOTIVE steamed through the night on a special mission to Frederick Md. Its crowded cab held an engineer, a fireman and a young Union officer, Colonel James Hardie. The colonel carried an order that would change the fate of the Army the Potomac: Fire Joe Hooker and replace him in command of the army with George Meade. Neither general had any of, inkling that Hardie was on his way to them. That previous afternoon of June 27, 1863,  Maj. Gen. George Meade’s V Corps marched into the Frederick suburbs. While his men rested, Meade rode off to find his commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. They  had not seen one another for two weeks, and Meade knew little about the situation.

Hooker was aware General Robert E. Lee had moved into south-central Pennsylvania but hadn’t heard much more. Both generals believed Lee’s army was considerably larger than the Army of the Potomac, perhaps by 10,000 or 20,000 men. Hooker  had fretted about this throughout the month of June, and his belief in the enemy’s numerical superiority began to cloud his judgment. In actuality, the situation was just the reverse. The Federals outnumbered their foes by nearly 20,000 infantry and 100 artillery pieces. But no one on the Union side knew or even suspected that.

Consequently, Hooker had been beseeching Washington for reinforcements. And each time, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck had demurred. On Friday, June 26, Hooker asked the general for control of the Union troops based at Harpers Ferry. Again, Halleck turned him down. So the next morning Hooker rode there to reconnoiter the situation for himself. At noon he wired Washington:

I find 10,000 men here, in condition to take the field.  Here they are of no earthly account. They cannot defend a ford of the river. All the public property could have been secured to-night, and the troops marched to where they could have been of some service. Now they are but bait for the rebels.

Not long after that, Maj. Gen. William French, the new commander at the Ferry, received a telegram from Halleck, telling him, “You will not obey any order from Major-General Hooker ordering you to move.” How Hooker reacted when he saw the message is lost to history, but an hour later he sent a second telegram:

My original instructions require me to cover Harper’s Ferry and Washington. I have now imposed upon me, in addition, an enemy in my front of more than my number. I beg to be understood, respectfully, but firmly, that I am unable to comply with this condition with the means at my disposal, and earnestly request that I may at once be relieved from the position I occupy.

Halleck had pushed Hooker to the brink, probably intentionally. Early that evening he sent a short, almost icy, telegram to his subordinate. It said simply that his application for relief had been received, and passed along to the president for “executive action.”

Meade was oblivious to these events as he looked in vain for Hooker among the throngs in Frederick. Disgusted with the lack of discipline among the soldiers, he returned to camp, supped and went to bed.

At about the same time, 45 miles down the Frederick Pike in Washington, D.C., a conference was beginning at the War Department, where Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Halleck and President Abraham Lincoln were meeting to decide Hooker’s future.

It did not help matters that newspaper headlines throughout the Union, but especially in Pennsylvania, screamed in bold type about Lee’s “invasion” of the North. This added another layer of complication to the issue of whether or not Joe Hooker should be relieved.

Washington’s confidence in him had been waning since  the disastrous, demoralizing loss at Chancellorsville in early May. And so the three leaders gathered in Stanton’s office, sensitive to the uproar about the invasion, and in full knowledge that to change commanders in the midst of a campaign was a very risky proposition. The North could not afford to lose another big battle, especially one fought on Northern soil. But they all agreed that Hooker’s removal was necessary.

The list of prospective replacements numbered just one: George Gordon Meade.

With Hooker’s fate sealed, Stanton’s aide, Colonel James Hardie, was called into the office, where the secretary explained the special mission they were entrusting him to complete—to carry the news to both generals at Frederick. A War Department clerk later summarized Stanton’s instructions: “You must find Meade; you must  take him privately to Hooker; you must effect an instant  and absolute transfer of command; you must make Meade  understand what our views are, and you must bring us back assurances that he understands the situation, that he has definite ideas of how to meet its exigencies, and that he intends to be loyal to our general policy.” Hardie balked at first. He knew both generals well. And under  military etiquette the right and proper thing to do would be to see Hooker first, because he was Meade’s superior.  Lincoln told the group that he would take responsibility for any hard feelings that arose between the generals.

The department had ordered a special train to carry the messenger to his destination. At that time Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry was rampaging through the region. In case the Rebels somehow cut the railway line or attacked the train, Hardie was to use his ingenuity to find a way to get to Frederick, come hell or high water. A  packet of orders and passes was handed to him, along with more than sufficient money to buy his way out of most any  trouble that might confront him on his journey. To attract less attention, he wore civilian clothes. The colonel left the War Department late that evening and made his way to the Baltimore & Ohio railroad station, just a couple blocks from the Capitol building.

Who was the Union officer to whom Stanton had assigned this momentous and disagreeable task? James Allen Hardie was born into a well-to-do family in New York City in 1823,  the eldest of eight children. He learned to read by the age of 4, and at 16 won an appointment directly from future  President James Buchanan to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It was at the academy that Hardie had first encountered Joseph Hooker, then an adjutant.

Upon graduating—11th in the 39-man Class of 1843 (and 10 places ahead of classmate Ulysses S. Grant)— Hardie was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant and ordered to join the 1st Artillery Regiment at Houlton,  Maine. But within a year he was back at West Point, teaching “Geography, History, and Ethics.” When war with Mexico was declared in May 1846, Hardie took  command of the 1st New York Volunteers, which soon  shipped out to California. After six months at sea, the unit arrived at San Francisco in the spring of 1847. Shortly  thereafter, the 23-year-old officer was named commander  of the Presidio, the first American so honored. The  following year he was promoted to commandant of the Northern Military District of California. He never did make it into the Mexican War.

In 1849, Hardie returned east to join the 3rd U.S. Artillery in Connecticut, and then at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis (where he counted among his messmates Captain Braxton Bragg and Lieutenants William Tecumseh Sherman and Ambrose Burnside). It was there, also, that Hardie met Margaret Hunter, whom he married in 1851.

That fall Hardie was transferred to Fort Adams, R.I., where, as the 3rd’s adjutant, he got his first taste of staff  life. It was a job he enjoyed, noted his friend, Charles F. Benjamin. “In it Lieutenant Hardie strengthened both his reputation for administrative ability and his liking for staff employments.”

There followed similar assignments: as aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. John Wool in Oregon; and then as adjutant  general of the Department of Oregon. After the Civil War started, Hardie was named as an aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. George McClellan, then commander of the Army of the Potomac, remaining with “Little Mac” through the failed Peninsular and inconclusive Maryland campaigns of 1862. That November, Lincoln replaced McClellan  with Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who requested that his old friend from Jefferson Barracks be assigned to his  staff. During the otherwise disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg, Hardie was cited for distinguishing himself with “intelligence and fidelity.” And as a result, Burnside  requested that the War Department promote his man to brigadier general.

The exigencies of war now intervened into the matter of Hardie’s promotion. In late January 1863, Hooker  replaced Burnside as the head of the Army of the Potomac. It was the new commander’s intention to install Hardie as his judge advocate general (and in fact, his name was published in The New York Times as holding that position). But the War Department needed Hardie’s  organizational skills even more. Persuading Hooker to relinquish him, they assigned Hardie to the adjutant general’s office in Washington.

His new duties brought Hardie into frequent contact with Edwin Stanton, who soon realized Hardie was an officer of special ability. In March 1863, the colonel was  transferred directly to Stanton’s staff. In this role he became a trusted confidant—the gatekeeper for access to  the secretary, a position demanding the utmost diplomacy. It was his job to winnow the “great throngs who constantly besieged the War Office, deciding who might or ought  to see Stanton…from whose shoulders this shrewd and tireless officer of wide education and polished manners  lifted a destructive burden.”

So when a special envoy was required late that June  to carry fateful news to Meade and Hooker, James Allen  Hardie—trustworthy, loyal, discrete—was the obvious choice.

His special train turned out to be a lone steam locomotive, and he probably had to stand on the footplate, sharing the small cab with the engineer and fireman. From Washington, the engine  steamed up toward Baltimore, switching onto the mainline of the B&O at Relay Junction. From there it was two  hours or so to the Frederick City branch, just over the Monocacy River.

On any other night but this, Colonel Hardie might have enjoyed the scenery along the route, illuminated by the nearly full moon. The rails sliced through the rolling hills of Maryland in a continuous serpentine, at times hidden by an occasional tunnel. Sometime after midnight the engine rolled into the small depot at South and Market streets in Frederick. Telling the engineer to wait for him as long as it might take, Hardie detrained and immediately ran into the hordes of carousing soldiers who filled the  streets, jamming the roads leading out of town. After a long search, he finally found a buggy for hire—at an exorbitant rate. He climbed aboard, and he and the driver set off to find Meade’s camp.

Just before 3 a.m. on June 28, Hardie’s wagon pulled  up along the banks of Ballenger’s Creek. V Corps guards challenged him at every step, but waving his passes, he steadfastly made his way to Meade’s tent. General Meade was awakened by the commotion and began to rise from his cot when Colonel Hardie entered. “I’ve come to give you trouble,” he said. The general, still a little sleepy, and astonished by the sudden appearance of a visitor from Washington, at first thought Hardie might be there  to arrest him for some crime or intrigue he might have committed, though he had no idea what that might be. He replied, “My conscience is clear”—a comment that might have puzzled Hardie, but he handed Meade two documents, saying, “Please read these.” Meade pulled on his glasses and, by candlelight, read:

General Order No. 194
War Department
June 27, 1863  
By direction of the President, Major General Joseph  Hooker is relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, and Major General George G. Meade is appointed to the command of that army. By Order of the Secretary of War.

The general then turned to the second paper, a letter of instructions from General-in-Chief Halleck:

Headquarters of the Army, Washington, D.C.,
June 27, 1863
Major General G.G. Meade
Army of the Potomac
General:
You will receive with this the order of the President placing you in command of the Army of the Potomac. Considering the circumstances, no one ever received a more important command; and I cannot doubt that  you will fully justify the confidence which the Government has reposed in you.
You will not be hampered by any minute instructions from these headquarters. Your army is free to act as you may deem proper under the circumstances as they arise. You will, however, keep in view the important fact that the Army of the Potomac is the covering army of Washington, as well as the army of operation against the invading forces of the rebels. You will therefore manœuvre and fight in such a manner as  to cover the Capital and also Baltimore. Should General Lee move upon either of these places, it is expected that you will either anticipate him or arrive with him, so as to give him battle.
All forces within the sphere of your operations will be held subject to your orders.
Harper’s Ferry and its garrison are under your direct orders.
In fine, General, you are intrusted with all the power and authority which the President, the Secretary of War, or the General-in-Chief can confer on you, and you may rely on our full support.
Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
H.W. Halleck,
General-in-Chief

At first Meade protested, expressing to Hardie his conviction that Maj. Gen. John Reynolds should be given the job—that the entire army thought the same thing. Meade did not know that on June 2 Reynolds had had a meeting with the president. Lincoln asked him if he would consider appointment as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Consider it, yes, Reynolds had said, but he had two conditions: that he have a free hand to run the army as he saw proper, and that he would be isolated from the political influences that had gotten McClellan, Burnside, and now  Hooker, into trouble. Lincoln would not agree to those terms, and thus Reynolds was ushered out.

Meade then asked Hardie to wire the war secretary with a request that he be relieved from having to take command. The colonel very firmly explained that Hooker  would be replaced by no one except George Gordon Meade, and that that decision, made in Washington late the night before, was without appeal.

 Finally Meade made clear to his visitor that he was deeply troubled by the manner in which this affair was being handled. In the matter of change of command, Army protocol specified that Hooker should have been  the first officer to be informed of his relief. Hooker would  then have sent for Meade, to tell him face-to-face that he was being promoted to commanding general of the army. Hardie, too, was unhappy about the manner in which it was being handled, but he told Meade that this was exactly the way Washington wanted it. As Stanton had made very clear to him, “the manner was the substance of the matter.” Meade replied, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “I’ve been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to the execution.”9

The colonel then impressed upon the general the need to proceed to Hooker’s headquarters at once, to effect the transfer of command. Meade dressed quickly, putting on his begrimed marching uniform. He exited his tent, ordered his horse, Old Baldy, saddled and directed that one of his aides-de-camp ride with him. That young officer was his son, George. Before they left V Corps headquarters,  the general sent a telegram to Halleck: “The order placing me in command of the army is received. As a soldier I obey it, and to the utmost of my ability will execute it.” Hardie sent one, too: “I have accomplished my mission. Will telegraph again in an hour or two.”

It was about three miles from Ballenger’s Creek to Hooker’s headquarters on the grounds of Prospect Hall. At that hour the air was still humid but cool, and the sky was just beginning to lighten. The trio wound their way through the dozens of camps, now quiet, with soldiers sleeping off the excesses of the night before. Meade was mostly silent during the ride, though he occasionally asked a question of Hardie.

It was daylight when they reached the mansion, where guards directed them to Hooker’s tent. As soon as the general recognized his visitors, he knew why they had come. The previous afternoon he had sent the telegram to Halleck asking to be relieved, and thus the arrival of his visitors should have come as no surprise. But he had hoped that the delay in a response meant the War Department had softened its position—that he might retain his command. As one witness noted, “It was a bitter moment. [Hooker] could not wholly mask the revulsion of feeling.” Meade and Hardie were ushered inside.

The business was begun directly. Not long after, Hooker’s chief-of-staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, was called  into the tent, where the four men discussed the overall strategic and tactical situation. Hooker said Lee’s exact whereabouts were still unknown, though by this time reports had confirmed that the Confederates had crossed  the Potomac and were marching through the Cumberland Valley. Meade asked about the disposition of the Army of the Potomac’s seven infantry corps and the cavalry divisions. When he heard they were spread all over northern Maryland, he became visibly agitated. Hooker then became defensive, and tensions in the tent notched up. The conference lasted until midafternoon.

When Meade left Hooker’s tent, he summoned his son, who had been waiting patiently outside. Of that moment, young George wrote that he “could not fail to observe that the general continued very grave, [but] he also perceived a familiar twinkle of the eye, denoting the anticipation of surprise at information to be imparted, the effect of which [I] was curious to see; and so, when at last he quietly said,  ‘Well George, I am in command of the Army of the Potomac,’ [I] was not, after all, very much surprised.”

Hooker began to pack his things, while the new commanding general’s personal effects were moved up from Ballenger’s Creek. Meade and Hardie went to the adjutant general’s desk in the office tent nearby and began to  craft the order to the troops announcing his assumption of command. To Meade’s annoyance, the colonel would not let him write it the way he wanted. Hardie had to make sure that the document would suit his boss, Secretary Stanton. That afternoon Hardie got off a second telegram to Washington, telling Halleck: “I shall return tonight. I have been waiting for the formal issue of the order before telegraphing. This is now written. I have had a chance to ascertain the state of feeling and internal condition of the army. There is cause for satisfaction with it. The late commander leaves for Baltimore this afternoon.”

Meade’s first order to his army was issued late that day:  

General Orders, No 67.
By direction of the President of the United States, I hereby assume command of the Army of the Potomac.
As a soldier, in obeying this order—an order totally unexpected and unsolicited—I have no promises or pledges to make.
It is with great diffidence that I relieve in the command of this army an eminent and accomplished soldier, whose name must ever appear conspicuous in the history of its achievements; but I rely upon the hearty  support of my comrades in arms to assist me in the discharge of the duties of the important trust which has been confided to me.
George G. Meade
Major General, commanding.

Now came the hard part. Would he “have the capacity to handle successfully a large army,” as he had written to his wife, Margaretta, a few days before? It wasn’t just a single corps of 9,000 men he now had to lead, but 90,000  in eight corps. Add to that eight headstrong major generals to keep in line, as well as the complex logistics of supplying his army with food and ammunition—made all the more difficult because it was on the march. This was  all new to him, so he chose as his chief of staff Daniel Butterfield. Normally the chief of staff departs with his commanding officer, but in this case Butterfield knew so much  about the Army of the Potomac’s operations that retaining him seemed to Meade like a smart move.

The new commander spent most of the remaining day poring over maps of Maryland and Pennsylvania. They were not nearly as detailed as current topographic maps—more artistic and less schematic—and some were downright useless; but Meade’s trained topographer’s  eye let him see in an instant what the ground around and ahead of him was like, and get a sense of what Lee’s intentions might be.

Both armies were now marching toward a collision. Lee knew it. Meade knew it. They were still uncertain where the battle might take place. It wasn’t as if either had stuck his finger on the map, pointed to Gettysburg and said,  “Here is where we shall fight.” But as Wednesday, July  1, 1863, dawned clear and warm, the stage was set for a  historic battle.

By then, Hardie was back in Washington, back at the War Department, back at work managing the crowd of people always asking, begging, pleading for an audience with Stanton—a responsibility he continued to fulfill with aplomb and dignity.

Perhaps as a reward for his services, Hardie was promoted to the Inspector General’s office in 1864, a position  he held until his death in 1876. He may not have had the  illustrious career of some of his West Point contemporaries, but James Hardie did enjoy a meritorious walk of  life—knowing that he had served the United States to the best of his ability, in a job little remarked but of great import to his nation.

 

Steven Trent Smith is an Emmy-award winning TV photojournalist with a passion for military history. Author of two books about the submarine war in the Pacific, The Rescue and Wolf Pack, he is a frequent contributor to World War II Magazine and Military History Quarterly.

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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