Pope, Burnside, Hooker … The Ranking Game

Most histories of the Civil War pass over the names of John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, and Joseph Hooker rather quickly, and primarily as failed army commanders in Virginia. Yet each man must have achieved something in order to be considered for army command, and in all three cases the general enjoyed a rather good relationship with Abraham Lincoln.

Which one do you think was the most competent? The most successful? The most underrated? Why?

18 thoughts on “Pope, Burnside, Hooker … The Ranking Game

  1. Patrick Young July 23, 2013 / 8:21 am

    Hooker was probably the most competent as army commander. His reorganization of the Army of the Potomac after Fredericksburg and his innovations in military intelligence and communications were institutionally important.

    • jfepperson July 23, 2013 / 11:32 am

      Good point regarding Hooker’s organizational reforms—I simply had forgotten about them. While I think Hooker was worse than Pope on the braggadocio scale, this does force me to re-think my assessments below.

    • Bryn Monnery July 23, 2013 / 12:42 pm

      Whilst Fishel asserts a superior intelligence organisation, he then proceeds to contradict this with actual figures. The numbers the BMI gaave Meade for Lee’s strength at Gettyburg are about 50% too high for example:

      “If the enemy is concentrated to the right of Gettysburg, that point would not, at first glance, seem to be a proper strategic point of concentration for this army. If the enemy is concentrating in front of Gettysburg, or to the left of it, the general is not sufficiently well informed of the nature of the country to judge of its character either for an offensive or defensive position. The number of the enemy are estimated at about 92,000 infantry, with 270 pieces of artillery, and his cavalry from six to eight thousand*. Our numbers ought to equal it, and with the arrival of General French’s command, which should get up to-morrow, exceed it, if not too much weakened by straggling and fatigue.” (Meade letters, page 387)

      In signals, Hooker created a disaster by allowing the Military Telegraph to take over the Beardslees from the signals corps. They never used them and so signals lag actually increased.

      * The BMI had not detected the attachment of Imboden etc., and later upped this to 12,000 cavalry present.

  2. Michael Confoy July 23, 2013 / 8:32 am

    Hooker was always a decent corps commander both in the east and west. Burnside was a fair corps commander but had no backbone when it came to the Battle of the Crater for example. Pope should have only been allowed command against Native Americans.

    • Rob Baker July 23, 2013 / 9:21 pm

      I’d say Patrick Cleburne would disagree with you (Ringgold Gap)

  3. jfepperson July 23, 2013 / 8:51 am

    *Very* interesting question. It is easier to discuss their flaws: Burnside lacked confidence and flexibility, Pope and Hooker had too much confidence and were brash braggarts at times.

    I think Pope was the overall best commander, but it could be argued that Burnside was the most successful (because of North Carolina and Knoxville). I also think Burnside is the most under-rated, because his successes in NC and TN are overlooked, as well as the fact that Hooker used Burnside’s idea for the Chancellorsville Campaign. Plus Burnside pushed the mine idea at Petersburg.

    Pope might have developed better if he had been a subordinate long enough to learn to curb his ego. Hooker obviously was a lost cause in that regard.

  4. Bert July 23, 2013 / 10:17 am

    All three are great examples of the Peter Principle, so we do have to look deeper for an answer of who was better except for that one time they blew it at their highest level of command. Have to go with Hooker. He performed well as a Corps commander before and after his stint as Commanding General of the AotP. Even there, Chancellorsville might still have gone the other way if not for a lot of luck sent Lee’s way.

  5. Bryn Monnery July 23, 2013 / 12:45 pm

    Of the three I’d choose Hooker. None was a stellar army commander, but he was a solid subordinate if his stirring is excused.

  6. SF Walker July 23, 2013 / 2:04 pm

    I have to go with Hooker on this one as well. He wasn’t that bad a field officer; he was just a terrible personality to deal with. I wouldn’t have given him an army command, but as Bert mentioned, he was a pretty capable corps commander.

  7. Kyle July 23, 2013 / 6:15 pm

    It’s useful to remember the role that army politics played in the removal of each of these commanders. Had Pope not been so offensive towards AotP officers, or had Hooker been on better terms with his subordinates (and Halleck), their careers in Virginia might have lasted much longer. Much is made of their defeats at Lee’s hand, but little attention paid to the obstacles, often within their own armies, with which they had to contend.

    Hooker seems to me to have been the most competent and the most successful, and his reorganization of the AotP’s artillery arm after Chancellorsville indicates how quickly he was able to learn from his mistakes.

  8. TF Smith July 23, 2013 / 8:10 pm

    A. Command competency at the army level:
    1. Hooker
    2. Pope
    3. Burnside

    B. The most sucessful (as a general officer, commanding at the divisional, corps, and/or army level):
    1. Hooker
    2. Burnside
    3. Pope

    C. The most under-rated (as a military commander):
    1. Pope
    2. Burnside
    3. Hooker

    A. is probably consensus, I think; on B, I think Burnside deserves more credit than Pope for his service after his army level failure; C. is basically me playing semantics – but if A and B are consensus, then by definition, C has to be Pope.

    To give Pope some credit, his organization of the Army of the Mississippi as a “light” force for amphibious/riverine is evidence of some ability, and his command at Island Number 10 was certainly sucessful. Given the situation he was placed in with the Army of Virginia – and with Sigel, Banks, and McDowell as his subordinates – I don’t know if another “Westerner” would have done significantly better with it at Cedar Mountain and the initial phases of 2nd Manassas.

    As others have said, I think all three were capable as divisional and/or corps commanders; army level was too much for all three, although Hooker came closest to being able to handle it.

    My .2 cents

  9. TF Smith July 23, 2013 / 8:10 pm

    How about McDowell?

  10. Rob Baker July 23, 2013 / 9:22 pm

    Competent in what regard? I agree with the notions that Hooker did a great job of organization and intelligence, but his battle performance is lack luster.

    • Al Mackey July 24, 2013 / 9:17 am

      Hooker did pretty well in combat as both a division commander and a corps commander. His performance in combat as an army commander suffered greatly after he received his concussion.

      He’s probably the best of the three listed above.

      Pope was probably out of his element in Virginia. One has to believe there was more to him than that.

  11. John Foskett July 24, 2013 / 6:55 am

    Ironically, taking up on the points made about Hooker pro and con above, he looks a lot like McClellan at the top level. At levels below that he was clearly superior to the other two, although a backstabbing knucklehead.. Kudos to Burnside for an amphibious victory in NC against the C Team and for basically hanging on at Fort Sanders but the rest of his record is a cipher. Same with Pope – Island No. 10 was nice and all, but hardly a big accomplishment and the rest was failure.

  12. Lyle Smith July 24, 2013 / 9:48 am

    1. Hooker – re-organized the AoP, tough General, coulda-shoulda at Chancellorsville

    2. Pope – aggressive and mean like Sherman, but not as respectful of his adversaries though

    3. Burnside – he may be the most successful of the three on a paper and may be better than the other two… but lacks that self-confidence.

  13. Ned B July 26, 2013 / 1:31 pm

    Burnside was the more successful of the 3 — NC in 62, TN in 63, and still commanding a corps in the field after Hooker quit.

    Pope is probably the more under rated since his reputation has become defined by August 1862 and his marginalization after that limited any possible success.

    I place great value in the ability of a commander to work well with others, to abide by the command structure and to do the best with the circumstances even if he doesn’t like them. With respect to these issues, Hooker was the worst of the 3, Burnside the best of the 3.

  14. Michael Confoy July 26, 2013 / 8:53 pm

    But only one has his statue in front of the Massachusetts State House!

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