Fighting Joe Hooker and the Hooker Brigade
The Sonoma League for Historical Preservation re-opened its headquarters house on June 6, 2009
The Sonoma League for Historical Preservation re-opened its headquarters house on June 6, 2009, after a major facelift and repairs by the volunteer organization during the previous six months.
It was also re-named the Gen. Joseph Hooker House instead of the name, the Vasquez House, adopted 35 years ago.
Joseph Hooker, an 1837 graduate of West Point, distinguished himself as a young officer in both major battles on Mexican soil - Monterrey and Vera Cruz - receiving three commendations for gallantry and coolness in action. After being tapped by several generals for leading staff positions and a rank of lieutenant colonel, in 1848 he was appointed adjutant general to the U.S. Army's Pacific Command which had just been headquartered in Sonoma. Only 34-years-old and one of the few clean-shaven American officers, he was popular with the local senoritas.
During the five years Hooker spent as an Army officer in Sonoma, he purchased land on First Street West, and ordered construction of his house. Because he had criticized the crusty Army Chief of Staff Gen. Winfield Scott in testimony on behalf of a fellow officer in a court martial, Hooker was blocked from further promotion. When the Army withdrew from Sonoma in 1853, Hooker resigned from the service. He busied himself with ranching, land development and a campaign for the state legislature, in which he was defeated by a candidate from Santa Rosa. Frustrated and bored, he was a frequent customer of the Blue Wing tavern, and developed a reputation as a drinker, then a common affliction of military officers in peacetime, witness U.S. Grant.
Hooker still had an itch for the military life. While living in Sonoma as a civilian he accepted an appointment as a colonel in the California State Militia. He conducted the militia's first encampment which convened in Yuba County. As the Civil War loomed, he applied for a commission at his old rank of lieutenant colonel, but was turned down. When the war actually started, Hooker paid his way to Washington, D.C., and wrote directly to President Lincoln. In August, 1861, he was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers and stationed in Washington, D.C., assigned to train men for the Army of the Potomac.
Soon given a command of troops, he established a reputation as a bold leader in several engagements, an officer who took good care of his men but who, in moments of inactivity, had a fondness for alcohol. Personally directing an army corps at Antietam, the bloodiest clash of the war, Hooker was wounded. After President Lincoln experimented with several generals to head the main body of troops, the Army of the Potomac suffered several defeats during the fall of 1862. On Jan. 26, 1863, the President gave the command to Hooker, whose nick-name "Fighting Joe" was the result of a typographical error. A newspaper dispatch sent from the front read: "Fighting - Joe Hooker Attacks Rebels," but when it was set in type the dash was left out so the newspaper headline was: "Fighting Joe Hooker Attacks Rebels," and it stuck. Joe disliked the name "fighting" since he said it made him sound like "a highwayman or a bandit."
Hooker, by then a major general, shaped up the organization, established furlough rotation, better food provisions, medical stations and sanitary facilities, all measures which greatly improved morale. Militarily there was sharper officer training, and he combined cavalry and infantry units. Nevertheless a critic like cavalry officer Charles Francis Adams, Jr. of the presidential Adams family, complained that Joe's headquarters was like a combination "bar-room and brothel." Some of his troops sang: "Marching along, Joe Hooker's our leader, he takes his whiskey strong." Despite denying he drank too much, upon taking this high command, Hooker publicly swore off liquor.
But Fighting Joe's biggest problem was his mouth. He openly criticized fellow generals, both superiors and colleagues, blaming them for failures, which garnered him a collection of enemies, officers who did not want him in their outfits, or looked forward to his defeat. When he was quoted in The New York Times saying that "Nothing would go right until we had a dictator," Lincoln wryly wrote to the general: "Only those generals who gain success can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship."
He devised an elegant plan to outflank the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. However, following initial successes, at a crucial juncture Hooker lost his nerve after suffering a concussion when an enemy cannon ball caused a porch roof to collapse on his head. Outside the town of Chancellorsville, Va., instead of continuing the attack Hooker paused and let Lee seize the initiative. The rebels attacked Fighting Joe's flanks and forced the Union army to retreat. While he was preparing his troops for the Battle of Gettysburg, he got into an argument with the high command and, in a moment of anger, offered his resignation which was unexpectedly accepted.
Given various field commands, Hooker led his men through several successful battles, but he was always subordinate to men like U. S. Grant in the victory at Chattanooga, Tenn., and William Tecumseh Sherman in the capture of Atlanta, Ga. At the end of the war, he was placed in command of the Army in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, outside the area of combat. In Cincinnati, he met and married Olivia Groesbeck, sister of Congressman William Groesbeck, who would be one of the counsel defending Andrew Johnson in the President's impeachment trial in 1867.
Oh, yes, the legend that his name is immortalized as the source of the sobriquet "hooker" for prostitute. That developed either because Hooker tried to control the "camp followers" in the neighborhood of his troops, or was overly tolerant of their presence around his headquarters. In either case the women became known as "Hooker's girls" or facetiously as "Hooker's brigade," which later became just plain "hooker."
Fighting Joe Hooker retired as a major general, and a few years later suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. He died on Halloween in 1879, at age 65, in New York state and was buried in his new hometown of Cincinnati. An equestrian statue of Fighting Joe stands on the statehouse grounds in Boston, Mass., the state of his birth.
When he left Sonoma, Hooker's house was sold to a couple, Catherine and Pedro Vasquez, who lived there until 1901. Located on property owned by the publishers of The Sonoma Index-Tribune, in 1974, Robert and Jean Lynch donated the house to the League for Historic Preservation and moved it to the El Paseo courtyard on First Street East. At the time the league gave it the name Vasquez House, to avoid any remarks about houses and hookers. With the name change, the fighting general and historic character gets his due.