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Honors Program Class Hears Story of Lincoln and Gen. Hooker

Students Meet Local Historian at General Denver Dinner Gathering

April 4, 2014

Listening to historian Gary Kersey are, from the left, Abigail Jude, Janae Wicker and Caitlin Schafer.

Listening to historian Gary Kersey are, from the left, Abigail Jude, Janae Wicker and Caitlin Schafer.

Local historian and Abraham Lincoln scholar Gary Kersey spoke of white horses, a young boy fishing in the stormy Potomac and a Civil War general’s clay feet in a presentation to 20 students in Wilmington College’s Honors Program April 2.

Michael Snarr, professor of political science, led the group, which met for dinner at the General Denver and gathers periodically outside the classroom to experience pieces of southwest Ohio’s history, culture or unique experiences.

Kersey, a member of WC’s Class of 1968, spoke of Lincoln’s relationship with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, who the president named to command the Union’s Army of the Potomac during the Civil War.

On April 4, 1863 — almost exactly 151 years ago — Lincoln left the White House with his wife, Mary Todd, and young son, Tad, to review Hooker’s 140,000-troop encampment near Falmouth, Va. Kersey set the scene of Lincoln’s voyage in an early spring snowstorm, first by horse-drawn carriage, then a ship on the Potomac and finally via train.

His detail in telling the story painted a picture of a president wishing to honor one of the Union’s most important armies, his wife enjoying her first outing after a lengthy grieving period for their son, Willie, who died months earlier, and the happy-go-lucky Tad, who fished (successfully) from the ship in spite of the inclement weather.

Lincoln’s demeanor while reviewing the troops impressed Kersey.

(LEFT) Inspecting Gen. Butterfield's telescope are, from the left, Jensen Pierson, Jessie Mass and Caitlin Schafer.

“When officers went by (the reviewing stand), Lincoln saluted with his stovepipe hat on,” he said. “But he removed his hat when the common soldiers went by.”

As Kersey spoke, he passed around for the students to examine artifacts from his collection, including a portable telescope owned by a member of Hooker’s staff, Gen. Daniel Butterfield.

The historian described Hooker as a “brash” commander that bragged he would destroy Robert E. Lee’s army. While “an outstanding regimental commander,” it turned out Hooker got cold feet at the upcoming Battle of Chancellorsville, just weeks after Lincoln’s visit, when he delayed the Union Army’s attack on Lee’s smaller Confederate forces. His timid decision-making is blamed for the Union’s major defeat.

“Hooker got frightened and, when he does attack, it’s too late,” Kersey said, noting Hooker’s army sustained 17,000 casualties (killed, wounded, captured or missing). “Lincoln did not understand why he didn’t attack.”

The president dismissed Hooker just days before the Battle of Gettysburg, the pivotal Union victory in July 1863 that featured essentially the same forces that met at Chancellorsville, Kersey said.

Meanwhile, back at the encampment of the Army of the Potomac, the Lincolns spent several reportedly fulfilling days outside Washington D.C. Word had gotten out to the Confederate forces of the president’s presence so, for Lincoln’s return trip, Butterfield escorted the family from the train to the ship with an increased security detail.

When Butterfield mentioned to Lincoln about rumors of possible snipers along the riverbank, the president asked to view the area across the Potomac with Butterfield’s telescope — the very one the students were inspecting as Kersey spoke.

“Abraham Lincoln held that eyepiece,” he said. “Lincoln looked through that. It’s as good as it gets!”

The Honors Program at Wilmington College is designed to enrich the academic experience of qualified students with honors sections of core courses, interdisciplinary seminars, volunteering and civic engagement, a senior project and various non-credit enrichment activities.