[Editorial note: Since I wrote this piece, I’ve seen a good refutation of the ‘printer’s typo’ hypothesis. Edward S. Alexander, a cartographer and public historian, recently wrote an article for Emerging Civil War that does a good job tracing the sobriquet “Fighting Joe Hooker” to Gen. Joseph Hooker’s performance during the Peninsula and Maryland campaigns. Alexander quotes sources that emphasize Hooker’s popularity among his soldiers.]
For some time, I thought it was curious that Maj Gen Joseph Hooker, one-time commander of the Union Army of the Potomac was known as “Fighting Joe Hooker,” even though he was perhaps best known for his defeat and retreat from Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Chancellorsville. All the same, up to that time, Hooker had a reputation as an aggressive fighter. He has his defenders, some of whom have pointed out that he suffered a concussion at Chancellorsville and might have been disoriented, affecting his judgment.
However, I was interested to read in one account that his nickname “Fighting Joe” actually might have come about because of a typographical error, rather than any reputation for aggressiveness on the field.
In the 1910 book The Campaign of Chancellorsville: A Strategic and Tactical Study, retired U.S. Army Maj John Bigelow quotes Sidney V. Lowell, who was working as proofreader for the New York Courier and Enquirer at the time Hooker was appointed division commander during the Fredericksburg campaign. The typesetters had been working late into the night setting up dispatches from reporters with the Union Army. One report was already locked up and ready for printing, when Lowell noticed something:
It was a continuation of the report of the fighting in which General Hooker’s Corps had been so gravely involved. At the top was written “Fighting — Joe Hooker.” I knew that this was so written to indicate that it should be added to what we had had before. The compositor (typesetter) who had set it up (put it in type) had known nothing about the previous matter, however, and had set it out as a heading, “FIGHTING JOE HOOKER.”
I rapidly considered what to do; as if it were yesterday I can remember the responsibility I felt and how the thing struck me. Well, I said to myself, it makes a good heading — let it go. I fully realized that if a few other proof-readers beside myself acted as I did it would mean that Hooker would thenceforth live and die as “Fighting Joe Hooker.” Some did and some did not, but enough did as I did to do the business.[Page 6]
Hooker himself was not altogether pleased with this sobriquet. Reportedly, he commented:
People will think I am a highwayman or a bandit.
[Battles and leaders of the Civil War, Vol 3. R.U. Johnson and C.C. Buel, 1884. Page 217]
ARB — 11 Sept 2020