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Despite an ugly clash of egos at the top, the Union Army’s 20th Corps proved in Georgia that eastern and western troops could find common ground in battle

Although they were fighting to restore sectional harmony and preserve national unity, Union armies were hardly models of harmony and unity themselves. Personal, sectional, and institutional rivalries and conflicts often played a big role in the conduct of operations and the selection of generals for command. This was evident when, in the aftermath of the Union defeat at Chickamauga, Ga., in September 1863, the Lincoln administration transferred the Army of the Potomac’s 11th and 12th Corps from Virginia to Tennessee to assist the Army of the Cumberland, besieged in Chattanooga.

Few organizations in American military history have been as defined by the conflicts within its general officer corps as the Army of the Potomac. That the man assigned overall command of those two corps was Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker could hardly have been cause for optimism for most who hoped cooperation would characterize the troops’ Western Theater adventure. President Abraham Lincoln, however, was immensely gratified that Hooker accepted the assignment after he had relieved the general of command three months earlier. “Whenever trouble arises,” Lincoln told his secretary, John Hay, “I can always rely upon Hooker’s magnanimity.”

Many of Hooker’s fellow officers would have found that a peculiar remark, for few men contributed more to the command tensions that wracked the North’s most prominent army than “Fighting Joe.” Indeed, Hooker’s ability to command this force sent west was due in part to the fact that during his tenure atop the Army of the Potomac he had antagonized most of his corps commanders with his penchant for self-aggrandizement and willingness to intrigue against others in the high command. In fact, few enjoyed worse relations with Hooker than the generals who happened to lead the 11th and 12th Corps in September 1863: Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard and Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum, respectively.

Howard was an 1854 U.S. Military Academy graduate who had returned to West Point to teach mathematics before the war, and whose personal modesty and religious devotion had produced a fitting nickname, “The Christian General.” That such a man would have difficulty stomaching the hyper-masculine Hooker was almost a guarantee. Hooker’s unsavory character and conduct, for instance, had famously led Union Colonel Charles F. Adams Jr. to declare Hooker’s headquarters “a combination of barroom and brothel…a place to which no self-respecting man liked to go, and no decent woman could go.”

To Hooker, Howard “was always a woman among troops. If he was not born in petticoats, he ought to have been, and ought to wear them. He was always taken up with Sunday schools and the temperance cause. Those things are all very good, you know, but have very little to do with commanding [an] army corps.” As if that weren’t enough, Hooker placed much of the blame for his May 1863 defeat at Chancellorsville on Howard—and with some justification, as Howard’s refusal to heed warnings from Hooker’s headquarters and from his own alarmed 11th Corps subordinates enabled the famed May 2 flank attack by Stonewall Jackson’s Corps that did much to unravel Hooker’s plans.

Hooker’s relationship with Slocum was even worse. An 1852 West Point graduate, Slocum earned a reputation for leadership while serving under Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, a friend of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and a potential rival to Hooker. As Hooker climbed the ladder to army command, he pointed at Slocum as an example in arguing to officials in Washington, D.C., that McClellan and other Army of the Potomac generals were too cautious and lacked the sort of fighting spirit Hooker promised to deliver.

Like most of his fellow corps commanders, Slocum was disgusted by Hooker’s scheming and the general’s conduct during the Chancellorsville Campaign. After the devastating defeat, Slocum rallied other ranking generals in an effort to persuade Lincoln to replace Hooker with Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, the army’s 5th Corps commander—failing to see any irony in doing so. In coordination with Maj. Gens. Darius Couch and John Sedgwick, both known McClellan sympathizers, Slocum informed Meade that he was willing to ignore seniority and would readily serve under his command if he were to endorse Slocum’s scheme.

When Meade refused to comply, Slocum refrained from presenting his ruse to Lincoln. Nevertheless, he was immensely pleased when Lincoln decided to replace Hooker with Meade in late June 1863, just prior to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Lincoln and his advisers fully realized when they placed Slocum’s and Howard’s commands under Hooker in September 1863 that the three men were anything but friendly. Howard kept his own counsel as the two corps passed through Washington in September, but Slocum made a point of calling on the president and expressing his displeasure to again find himself under Hooker’s command, even offering his resignation. “[Slocum] seems peevish, irritable, fretful,” one of Lincoln’s pro-Hooker aides wrote in his diary after the meeting. “Hooker does not speak unkindly of him…while he never mentions Hooker but to attack him.”

Wanting to retain both Hooker’s and Slocum’s services, Lincoln informed Army of the Cumberland commander Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans on September 28 that Howard’s and Slocum’s corps were en route, but added: “Unfortunately, the relations between Generals Hooker and Slocum are not such as to promise good, if their present relative positions remain. Therefore let me beg—almost enjoin upon you—that on reaching you, you will make a transposition by which Gen. Slocum with his corps, may pass from under the command of Gen. Hooker.”

After reaching the Union-held railroad town of Stevenson in northeastern Alabama, Hooker wrote to Lincoln suggesting that Slocum be assigned to Missouri. Rosecrans, meanwhile, flatly rejected the notion of a “transposition” that would give Slocum and his forces a place in the Army of the Cumberland, certain that mixing elements from his army with “Potomac troops by placing them under Potomac generals would kindle a flame of jealousy and dislike.” Finally, upon reaching Alabama, Slocum learned that he would be spared service under Hooker and would instead guard the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad with one of his divisions. This left three divisions under Hooker’s direct command—two from Howard’s corps and one from Slocum’s, which proved more than sufficient for Hooker to contribute to the effort to reopen the “Cracker Line” to Chattanooga in October and then to operate commendably at Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and Ringgold, Ga., in November.

All the same, losing command of the Army of the Potomac and being relocated to the Western Theater did not compel Hooker to adjust his attitude toward others. Whatever “magnanimity” he had displayed in Washington seemed to evaporate almost as soon as he reached Stevenson, 40 miles or so from Chattanooga. One observer, in fact, found him “in an unfortunate state of mind…fault finding, criticizing, dissatisfied.

The subsequent accomplishments of Hooker’s command at Chattanooga swelled the general’s ego even further. Hooker couldn’t help but call attention to the success his men enjoyed at Chattanooga compared to the troubled effort of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s command. Sherman’s “attack on the left, after I had taken Lookout…can only be considered in the light of a disaster,” Hooker advised an ally in Lincoln’s Cabinet in December 1863. “Sherman is an active, energetic officer, but in judgment is as infirm as [Maj. Gen. Ambrose] Burnside. He will never be successful.”

In March 1864, however, Sherman was elevated to command of the Military Division of the Mississippi after Grant was named Union Army general in chief. That put both Hooker and Slocum under Sherman’s command—unfortunate for Hooker, of course, but eventually a blessing for Slocum. Sherman’s first service in the war came in Virginia and he spent his first few months as a general officer in the Army of the Potomac under McClellan, which by 1864 left “Uncle Billy” resenting and hating Hooker as much as Hooker resented and hated him.

Sherman also lacked Rosecrans’ qualms over mingling Western Theater and Eastern Theater troops. Consequently, in April 1864, Hooker’s three divisions were consolidated into a single unit, to be known as the 20th Corps, and made part of Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland. Undoubtedly to their mutual relief, as a result of Sherman’s reorganization of his command, Howard was detached from Hooker’s command and given direction of another corps in Thomas’ army. Now without a command, Slocum received orders to head to Mississippi to take command of the District of Vicksburg.

Under Hooker’s lead, the 20th Corps performed admirably as Sherman maneuvered through Georgia against General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army from May to September 1864, forcing Johnston—and then his replacement, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood—into continuous retreats toward Atlanta. According to Union Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams, hard-fought battles at Resaca, New Hope Church, Kolb’s Farm, and Peachtree Creek gave Johnston’s Confederates a taste of “Army of the Potomac fighting.”

“When we came from the Potomac,” Williams declared after Hooker and his men turned in another stellar performance at Kolb’s Farm, “the troops here called us the ‘paper collar troops.’ Now they call us the ‘iron clads.’”

As for Hooker, Williams proclaimed, “the men like him as he is always seen when a fight is on.” Declared another officer, “I have almost “fell in love with ‘Old Joe’.”

Sherman proved immune to Hooker’s charms, as did Hooker to Sherman’s. Throughout the campaign, the two men annoyed and poked at each other in a manner both immature and unseemly, to the point one of Hooker’s division commanders wrote a letter pleading with Hooker to stop doing so in front of others. Hooker, though, believed his performance during the campaign rendered this unnecessary, and that if an opening for army command were to appear he should be the only option.

Sherman disagreed, and Hooker would discover that his take on the matter was mistaken after Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson was killed on July 22 leading his Army of the Tennessee in fighting east of Atlanta. As the senior corps commander among Sherman’s subordinates, and because of his command’s stellar performance thus far in Georgia, Hooker was convinced the moment was his. Howard, however, would be Sherman’s choice.

Sherman had considered political general John Logan, who led McPherson’s army admirably following the Ohioan’s death, before choosing Howard. He did so well aware that Hooker would see this as the deliberate insult intended. Not only had Howard been Hooker’s subordinate and his junior in rank, but the two remained on bad terms because of Chancellorsville. Moreover, in contrast to Hooker’s performance as a tactical commander in northern Georgia, Howard’s had been much less impressive—and included a defeat that Civil War combat veteran and acerbic author Ambrose Bierce later described as “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill.”

When Hooker objected to Howard’s appointment and threatened to resign his command, Sherman could barely conceal his delight. “Hooker is offended, because he thinks he is entitled to the command,” Sherman told Union Army Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, who also despised Hooker. “I must be honest and say he is not qualified or suited to it. He talks of quitting. If General Thomas recommends, I shall not object.”

The evening Sherman sent this note, Hooker’s request for relief of command reached his desk. Sherman promptly asked Thomas for “specific recommendations to fill…vacancies.” Thomas proposed “that Maj. Gen. H.W. Slocum be placed in command of [Hooker’s] corps.” Well aware of Hooker’s and Slocum’s disdain for each other and how Hooker would inevitably view the selection, Sherman quickly agreed with “these nominations” and asked Washington to issue “orders by telegraph that General Slocum may be summoned from Vicksburg.”

After Sherman accepted Hooker’s request to be relieved, President Lincoln appointed the petulant general to command of the Northern Department, comprising Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.

Passed over while Sherman dug the dagger as deep into Hooker as he could was Alpheus Williams, who had temporary experience leading a corps at Antietam and Gettysburg and had led his division notably throughout the campaign in northern Georgia. Unfortunately for Williams, he lacked a West Point pedigree. To Sherman—in part because of bad experiences with political general John A. McClernand, which reinforced his prejudices against amateur generals—this was a black mark against Williams, as it had been with Logan.

Both Howard and Slocum had graduated in the top 10 of their West Point classes, while Hooker, though a West Point graduate himself, owed a great deal of his ascension to high rank by the zeal with which he ingratiated himself with Republicans in the Lincoln administration and on Capitol Hill. Much of Hooker’s success in this was a consequence of his making clear in word and action that he shared their hostility toward those West Point graduates who owed their positions to George McClellan. This animus was evident in the privileged places Hooker gave non-West Pointers Daniel Butterfield and Dan Sickles in the Army of the Potomac during his tenure. Of course, this exacerbated the intense hostility of officers within the Army of the Potomac hierarchy toward Hooker—a hostility that contributed to their being attractive candidates for high command in Sherman’s mind.

Williams finally got another shot at corps command, though. In September, the 20th Corps, with Slocum in charge less than a week, was the first to enter Atlanta when the city fell. Few were more delighted with this than Sherman, who chortled to a friend that Hooker “was a fool” for his unwillingness to set aside his wounded ego. “Had he stayed a couple of weeks he could have marched into Atlanta and claimed all of the honors.”

A few months later, Sherman decided to reorganize his command in preparation for his famed march through Georgia to the Atlantic Coast that commenced in November. Slocum received command of a two-corps formation christened the Army of Georgia, which would control one wing during the March to the Sea. The other wing, also composed of two corps, was Howard’s Army of the Tennessee. With Slocum’s promotion to army command on November 11, Williams assumed direction of the 20th Corps, which he led through the campaign in Georgia and the capture of Savannah.

When Sherman’s command moved north into the Carolinas in early 1865, Slocum and Howard continued to lead their armies, and Williams remained in command of the 20th Corps as part of Slocum’s army. On March 19-21 at Bentonville, N.C., the final major battle Sherman’s command fought, Williams and his men were instrumental in helping Slocum fight off the Confederate attacks.

In April, though, Williams was compelled to surrender command of the corps to Maj. Gen. Joseph Mower. As his dealings with Hooker demonstrated, Sherman was capable of considerable personal pettiness. Williams took the news with a remarkable degree of good grace, even though he wrote his daughter, “This is about the fortieth time that I have been foisted up by seniority only to be let down by rank!” Nevertheless—however unfair it may have been to Williams—the decision to elevate Mower had a sensible rationale. Although he was not a West Point graduate, Mower had been an officer in the Regular Army before the war (“a very pleasant, gentlemanly man of the old army” was how Williams described him) and had forged a respectable record during the Civil War as a division commander—not least at Bentonville, where he delivered a powerful assault on the Confederate left that nearly produced destruction of Johnston’s command.

That Mower had turned in consistently excellent performances on the battlefield, prompting Sherman to call him “the boldest young officer we have,” was the main reason for his promotion. But it was undoubtedly just as important to Sherman that Mower intended to stay in the Army after the war, unlike Williams, who planned to return to civilian life in Michigan. Sherman maintained a deep and enduring commitment to the Regular Army and its institutional development as he began considering postwar America.

During Sherman’s tenure as commanding general of the Army from 1869 to 1883—by far the longest of any postwar officer—he oversaw not only the end of Reconstruction and bloody warfare against American Indians, but also devoted considerable energy to strengthening the institutional maturation of the officer corps. He traveled to Europe to study developments in military affairs, supported Emory Upton’s work on tactical and organizational reform, and established a school of application for cavalry and infantry at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., that would evolve into today’s Command and General Staff College. “I am, in a measure, its parent,” Sherman told school attendees in October 1882, “and we propose to place within your reach, gratuitously, the means to acquire a good education, with soldierly habits, which will fit you to rise to the very summit of your most honorable profession.”

That same year Howard, who had served Sherman so well in his war with “Fighting Joe,” wrapped up his term as superintendent of West Point, the institution that had instilled in him and Sherman the impulse toward
professionalization of the army.

Sadly, Mower wouldn’t be able to fulfill the postwar role Sherman had intended for him upon elevating Mower to corps command during the war. After helping organize the 25th Infantry, an all-Black unit, and temporarily commanding the 5th Military District, encompassing Texas and Louisiana, Mower died of pneumonia in New Orleans in 1870, only 42.

Mower had the opportunity to lead the 20th Corps in the Grand Review of the Armies in Washington on May 23-24, 1865. The Army of the Potomac, led by Meade, paraded the first day; Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee and Army of Georgia the second. Wrote one observer, “Comparisons were naturally instituted between the Eastern and Western armies,” with Sherman’s men “show[ing] perhaps, more of a rough-and-ready aspect and a devil-may-care spirit.”

The command controversies generated when Army of the Potomac troops were incorporated into the Western armies produced a decidedly ironic outcome. The contrast between the North’s Western armies, which conquered thousands of miles and enjoyed an almost unbroken record of success during the war, and its Eastern armies—above all the Army of the Potomac, which experienced four years of frustration before finally compelling Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865—is interesting. Members and partisans of the former readily accepted that the contrast in the Western identity of Sherman’s command was easy to explain—that its accomplishments were validation of a “rough and ready” Western character. That spared these armies the West Point formalism and pedantic preoccupation with form and discipline that was instilled in the Army of the Potomac, to the detriment of its fighting spirit, during its formative years. Of course, partisans of the latter could counter by pointing out that the Western armies that marched through Georgia and achieved their final victories in the Carolinas did so under the direction of Sherman, Howard, and Slocum—three men who first earned their stars in the East. 

Ethan S. Rafuse is professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. His published works include Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War.