Captain Rufus M. Hooker of the 8th Illinois and Connection to Robert E. Lee

Recently, our newest volunteers Rich Becker has been doing new forensic and historical research on the site of Camp Kane. This Fall Rich will be hosting a three part series here at the Museum on using forensic science and how it can be applied to historical photographs to identify original locations of a site.

While conducting research for his presentation on Camp Kane, Rich located and subsequently confirmed information of historical significance, and appears to be relatively unknown. The information compiled is in regards to, Rufus M. Hooker, who mustered into the 8th Illinois Cavalry on September 1st, 1861 as a Captain in St. Charles, IL. Hooker was subsequently the first blood drawn by Confederate General Robert E. Lee when he was killed at the Battle of Mechanicsville on June 26th, 1862.

Rufus M. Hooker was born around 1826, in New York. In September of 1861, while living in Crystal Lake, IL, (1) Hooker ventured to St. Charles and on September 10th, 1861, he mustered into the 8th Illinois Cavalry Unit, assigned to Company H, commanded by Col. John Farnsworth. The unit trained at Camp Kane until the 14th of October 1861, when they left St. Charles (2).

Line Drawing of Camp Kane, St. Charles History Museum Collection.

Line Drawing of Camp Kane, St. Charles History Museum Collection.

Map of the  Peninsula Campaign  up to the  Battle of Seven Pines .  Drawn by Hal Jespersen in Adobe Illustrator CS5. Graphic source file is available at    http://cwmaps.com/

Map of the Peninsula Campaign up to the Battle of Seven Pines. Drawn by Hal Jespersen in Adobe Illustrator CS5. Graphic source file is available at http://cwmaps.com/

In the spring of 1862, Union Gen. George McClellan began the Peninsula Campaign, the first major Union offensive in the eastern theatre, subsequently moving up the Virginia Peninsula toward Richmond. On March 31st, the Commander of the Confederate forces in the East, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, was severely wounded at the battle of Seven Pines.

To fill the vacancy left by Johnston, Jefferson Davis appointed Gen. Robert E. Lee to command. Lee immediately renamed the force “The Army of Northern Virginia” and spent the next three weeks fortifying Richmond. Lee, in his first offensive movement, then sparked the 7 Days Battles that shifted public opinion of the war and inspired Lincoln’s decision to emancipate the slaves.

Battle of Beaver Dam Creek,  Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Battle of Beaver Dam Creek, Courtesy of the National Park Service.

On June 26th, 1862, Lee ordered most of his army north, including divisions led by A.P. Hill, D.H. Hill, and James Longstreet, as well as “Stonewall” Jackson, to advance on Mechanicsville with plans to attack the Union north flank.

Early the same morning, while stationed near Mechanicsville, VA, Federal Major Dustin rode out with Captain Hooker and Company H beyond their videttes, along the road to Hanover Courthouse. After a half a mile, they came to a large plantation. Entering a gateway, they rode through an open field, then a small belt of woods, where they came in sight of a farmhouse.

Photograph from the main eastern theater of war, the Peninsular Campaign, May-August 1862.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

Photograph from the main eastern theater of war, the Peninsular Campaign, May-August 1862. Courtesy Library of Congress.

After a quick reconnaissance, they turned back to ride toward the road on the same path they had entered. By this time, the advance guard of the Rebels, carrying out Robert E. Lee’s first offensive orders, had taken a position beyond the entry gate to the plantation on the opposite side of the road. The guard produced a volley of musketry, about a dozen shots, at the Union soldiers. A ball from this volley struck Captain Hooker, entering his body, near the pit of his stomach. Due to the Rebel advance pressing them from the road, a circuitous route of retreat had to be made to rejoin the Union forces (3).

Captain Hooker clung to his horse as it galloped from the Confederates, but after a half a mile, his strength failed him, and he could ride no more. Major Dustin assisted him in dismounting, helping him to a small pine grove. Major Dustin knew that the information of the Rebel advance was imperative to pass on, telling Captain Hooker that he must leave him. Captain Hooker, knowing his wound to be fatal, pleaded with Major Dustin to stay with him, yet circumstance required the Major to leave.

“Oh Major,” he cried, “I would not leave you if you were in my place.”

Dustin promised to send help for him if possible and galloped toward the Union line. Upon arriving, a line of skirmishers was sent out to retrieve Captain Hooker, but the effort had to be abandoned because of the rapid enemy advance. Hooker died of his wound, and “Thus it will be seen that the Eighth Illinois Calvary received the first fire, shed the first blood, and made the first mortal sacrifice in the memorable seven days’ fight and retreat from before Richmond.”(3)

Robert E. Lee, (1807–1870), Courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Virginia.

Robert E. Lee, (1807–1870), Courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Virginia.

Based on these accounts and information it is reasonable to deduce that the first blood shed by Robert E. Lee as General of the Army of Northern Virginia was that of Captain Rufus M. Hooker, Company H, 8th Illinois Cavalry on June 26th, 1862. Today marks the 157th anniversary of this event.

-Rich Becker, St. Charles History Museum Research Volunteer

(1) Civil War Pension application by widow Sabra L. Hooker, 24 May 1864

(2) 8th Illinois Cavalry Camp Kane Provision Returns Table, 1861-1865

(3) Hard, Abner History of the 8th Illinois Calvary Regiment Illinois Volunteers During the Great Rebellion, pp

135-136