Tuesday, January 26, 2016

New Englander Joseph Hooker

Today marks another important Civil War anniversary for a son of New England. On January 26. 1863, Joseph Hooker of Hadley, Massachusetts, became commander of the Army of the Potomac. He succeeded Ambrose Burnside, born in Indiana but better known as the Rhode Island manufacturer of the Burnside Carbine. Burnside failed as an arms manufacturer and he also failed with the Army of the Potomac. The disaster at Fredericksburg in December 1862 led to Burnside’s replacement by Hooker.

Joseph Hooker descended from two famous names of early New England and, by extension, of Colonial America. He was probably distantly related (most likely through common ancestors in England) to Rev. Thomas Hooker, the founder of Hartford, Connecticut, and one of the earliest settlers of that state. The general was more closely related through his mother Mary Seymour to Thomas Seymour, one of Connecticut’s governors during the 1850s. That relationship was not particularly close, and that was probably a good thing for Joseph Hooker’s reputation, particularly in the latter part of the war. Thomas Seymour thought that there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with slavery (not an unique attitude in pre-war New England) and once the war started he was just one tiny step short of being a Connecticut Copperhead.

Gen. Joseph Hooker
Thomas Seymour thought enough of himself to run for governor in 1863 against Lincoln loyalist William Buckingham and, after failing there, to try to take the Democratic nomination for President away from George McClellan in 1864, failing there as well.

Joseph Hooker didn’t last long at the head of the Army of the Potomac. He was outmaneuvered by Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville three months after he took command and Chancellorsville proved to be an expensive defeat for his army. Hooker was replaced in the east but regained much of his reputation at Lookout Mountain and Chattanooga. He spent very little time in New England after the war, dividing his postwar years between Cincinnati and New York.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Connecticut's Confederate

Today marks the 110th anniversary of the death of Connecticut's own Confederate general, Joseph Wheeler. The cavalry commander had a somewhat mixed reputation in the Confederacy, having performed admirably at Chicamauga and during the defense of Atlanta but earning the wrath of civilians in Georgia and the Carolinas for the poor behavior of his troopers while unsuccessfully resisting William T. Sherman's March to the Sea in 1865.

Wheeler was born in Georgia and, when war came, decided he was a southerner, but he came from two hundred years of New England farmers, seamen, and businessmen and spent most of his formative years in Derby, Connecticut. Through his mother he was related to Revolutionary War hero General William Hull, War of 1812 hero Commodore Isaac Hull, and, more distantly, to Union Civil War hero Admiral Andrew Hull Foote.

Wheeler's family moved back to Connecticut within a few years of his birth in 1836 He became an orphan at the age of 12, moving in with relatives in Derby. His wealthy aunts enrolled him at Cheshire Academy in nearby Cheshire, Connecticut, the alma mater of many of his Hull relatives as well as of Gideon Welles, who became Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy. Wheeler was living with Connecticut relatives in New York City when he applied to West Point.

After the war Joe Wheeler he served a number of terms as a member of congress from Alabama and became renowned for his conciliatory politics. In 1898 he was made a major general of volunteers in the U.S. Army in the Spanish-American War and the subsequent Philippine Insurrection. He was one of a very small number of men to serve as officers in both the Confederate and United States armies in that order. He died in 1906 in New York.

Derby is well enough convinced that Joseph Wheeler belongs to the Housatonic Valley town that Wheeler was chosen to be among the original inductees into the city's Hall of Fame in 2007, along with Isaac Hull and David Humphreys, aide-de-camp to George Washington. Joe Wheeler's parents are buried right across the street from Humphrey's still-standing house.