General Hooker’s Sweet Bella Hay

General Hooker

Following the Union Army’s embarrassing defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, Joseph Hooker was appointed brigadier general and ordered to defend Washington, D.C., from further Confederate incursions. Wasting no time, Hooker quickly established a large encampment just outside the city, where he first commanded a brigade, then a division, as part of the effort to organize and train the new Army of the Potomac, under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan.

Hooker quickly brought spirit, discipline, and sanitation to the demoralized divisions he now commanded. That’s not to say that his soldiers were well-mannered saints. Quite the contrary, in their off-duty hours, his forces found endless mischief in nearly every part of the city―gambling, drinking, fighting, and womanizing.

A Prostitution Problem

A stickler for discipline, “Little Mac” ordered Hooker to commandeer control of his unruly men. Gen. Hooker, who also had a proclivity to partake in many of the same off-duty “recreations” as his men, believed the driving force behind their mischief was the plethora of bordellos operating throughout the city. Hooker believed that if he solved the prostitute problem, his men’s deplorable behavior would improve.

But Hooker was also a pragmatist. He knew it would be impossible to eliminate prostitution―it was already too firmly established in the hearts and loins of his men; he simply needed to contain it so he could better manage the troops. To do so, he ordered the military police to herd the city’s prostitutes into an area south of Pennsylvania Avenue that had become a disreputable slum known as Murder Bay―the home to an extensive criminal underclass and numerous brothels. The prostitutes that refused to relocate were subsequently loaded onto the waiting, and aptly named, steamboat Idahoe and shipped off to Loveladies, New Jersey.

Steamboat Idahoe
An illustration depicting the Union steamer Idahoe powering north to New York, where its depraved cargo would be offloaded onto waiting trains bound for Loveladies, New Jersey.

Hooker’s Division

Hooker’s attention to organization and discipline worked perfectly. In short order, so many prostitutes took up residence in Murder Bay to serve the growing needs of the Army of the Potomac that the area became known as “Hooker’s Division.” And the band of prostitutes that followed his division were derisively referred to as “General Hooker’s Army” or simply “Hooker’s Brigade.”

Hooker's Brigade
Several of Hooker’s ‘soldiers’ standing alongside the “Hooker’s Brigade” wagon train.

Hooker’s actions quickly transformed the General’s reputation―and his last name―into a mythological figure of sorts. The prevalence of the Hooker legend is at least partly responsible for the popularity of the term ‘hooker’ as a euphemism for ‘prostitute.’ But what history often overlooks, is the story of Gen. Hooker’s love affair with a notorious madam, who also happened to be an agent of the Confederacy.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Forgotten Brigade of the Civil War

The Haystack

Unbeknownst to Maj. Gen. McClellan during his time in Washington, Gen. Hooker was a frequent guest at a large house known as The Haystack, kept by Madam Bella Hay. The house, located on the northwest corner of Murder Bay, housed prostitutes and contained a large, lower-class gambling den known to almost every soldier.

Several ‘women of the night’ make a rare daylight appearance, as they stand alongside many patrons of Madam Bella Hay’s brothel, The Haystack.

In the fog of night, the house was draped with dense aromas of sweat and outhouses, the stench of the Washington Canal, and the odors of the fish market at 15th and B Streets. The putrid smells all combined to offend the senses of any person of gentle breeding; except those of Gen. Hooker and his men.

Madam Bella Hay

The brothel was run by Madam Bella Hay, a woman with a history of providing female companions to the prominent men that frequented Washington. But to a select few, Hay was also known for her loyalty to the Confederacy. Her Southern sympathies were noted by those with similar views in Washington, and she was recruited as a Confederate spy during the first weeks of the war.

Her recruiter was U.S. Army captain, turned Confederate, Thomas Jordan, who had set up a pro-Southern spy network in Washington. He supplied her with a 23-symbol cipher for encoding messages and remained her handler for the Confederate Secret Service throughout the war.

Portrait of Bella Hay, c.1860

Her mission was simple: (1) gather intelligence on pending troop movements, and (2), cripple the Union Army through the transmission of venereal diseases – a use of biological warfare that was well ahead of its time.

The Madam’s Trap

Known for his acid tongue, his arrogance and high-handedness, manifested in part by drinking, gambling, and womanizing, Gen. Hooker quickly became Madam Hay’s primary target in her quest to demoralize and cripple the Union Army.

To attract the General to The Haystack, Madam Hay hired an organ grinder and his pet monkey to provide music for a rendition of the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” performed by the Madam herself and attended by a large crowd of appreciative soldiers…and their beloved General. 

The performance quickly got out of hand and created such a racket that the police were called. The Madam, the organ grinder, and the monkey were all arrested and brought before the magistrate (in a little-known historical side note, the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925 was actually pre-dated by a different “monkey trial” involving a real monkey – who got off on the technicality of…being a monkey). To say that Madam Hay’s performance caught the attention of Gen. Hooker is an understatement. He was downright smitten by her beauty, seductiveness, and boldness. As he had boldly followed the call of the trumpet into battle, he now boldly followed the call of the strumpet – into bed.

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A Debilitating Love Affair

Their relationship blossomed, with Gen. Hooker spending many nights in the Madam’s chambers, located in the upper room of The Haystack often called the “Hayloft.” It was there, in that dimly lit room, where Hooker first hatched the plan to order the city’s prostitutes to Murder Bay where they would fall under Madam Hay’s purview.

Joseph Hooker
The love-smitten Hooker, pictured sitting on Bella Hay’s lap, wasn’t one to hide his affection for the Madam.

During their nights together, Madam Hay massaged critical military intelligence from the love-stricken and loose-lipped General. Known as a braggart, the General openly boasted of his promotion as the undisputed leader of the Army of the Potomac and his well-laid plans for the spring and summer campaigns of 1863.

Knowledge in hand, Bella Hay disseminated the General’s plans through cipher to her handler (strictly a professional term), Thomas Jordan; who in turn relayed the information to General Robert E. Lee.

Anticipating a major Union offensive to commence at the end of April, Jordan directed the Madam on April 1st to accelerate the spread of VD throughout the Union Army stationed in and around D.C. In turn, Madam Hay quickly deployed thousands of VD-stricken prostitutes throughout Murder Bay, putting them to work in her network of brothels with such fanciful names as Fort Sumter, The Ironclad, Harlotsville, Minie´ Ball Manor, The Drawn Saber, The Flag Pole, Headquarters, The Flank Attack, The Ambush, the Devil’s Own, The Rear Guard, and the Blue Goose.

April 1st, for some years after the war, was informally commemorated throughout the South as VD-Day.

The ‘public women’ packed a devastating cocktail of disease and infirmity, knocking out or severely debilitating an untold number of Yankees. Union soldier S. M. Butts, for example, wrote home to his wife in 1863 that though health in his regiment was good, they were dealing with a certain kind of disease:

I feel a delicacy in spelling them out to you as you are a female person but I reckon you can’t blush over the little things during these trying times. It is the Pocks [syphilis] and the Clap [gonorrhea].”

Civil War Hospital
Civil War Hospital catering to the needs of men stricken with the Pocks and the Clap.

Hooker’s Demise

The ensuing Battle of Chancellorsville has been called “Lee’s perfect battle” because of his ability to vanquish a much larger foe through audacious tactics. However, Lee’s success is as much attributable to Hooker’s failures as it is Lee’s tactics. In the days leading up to battle, Gen. Hooker was stricken with fatigue, muscle aches, and a severe headache. Sores in and around his mouth left him unable to communicate orders clearly, and frankly reluctant to be seen outside of his tent. Rumors quickly swirled around camp; Hooker had a bad case of the Pocks.  

Unfortunately, remedies provided by Hooker’s surgeon (the surgeon’s journal shows he administered the patent elixir ‘Dr. J. Moore’s Essence of Life’) proved ineffective. But despite his obvious incapacitation, he refused appeals to turn over temporary command of the army to his second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch. Several of his subordinate generals, including Couch and Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, openly questioned Hooker’s command decisions and his physical health. Couch was so disgusted by the General’s blistered lips and overall physical appearance that he refused to ever serve under Hooker again. Political winds blew strongly in the following weeks as generals maneuvered to overthrow Hooker or to position themselves if Lincoln decided to make a change of commander.

RELATED ARTICLE: Civil War in Vivid Color

A month later, Hooker found himself in a dispute with Army headquarters over the status of another “Hooker’s Division” camped just outside Harpers Ferry. In anger, or suffering from delirium, he impulsively offered his resignation in protest, which was quickly accepted by Lincoln and General-in-chief Henry W. Halleck.

Hooker’s Legacy

General Hooker’s legacy was sealed. His potential for greatness had been derailed by his arrogance, indiscretion, hard-living lifestyle, and debilitating outbreaks of mouth sores. Although he went on to fight with distinction during the Battle of Lookout Mountain and throughout much of the Atlanta Campaign, he did so hampered by a disease-riddled mind and body.

Gen. Joseph Hooker pictured shortly after the Battle of Chancellorsville. The sores in and around his mouth left him unable to communicate orders clearly during the most climatic moments of battle.

While Hooker eventually married Olivia Groesbeck, sister of Congressman William S. Groesbeck, he never forgot (or completely healed from) his liaison with his dear Madam Bella Hay. In every regard, Hooker died a broken man in 1879.

Cleopatra of the Clap

Hailed as the Cleopatra of the Clap, Princess of the Pocks, Duchess of the Drip, and the (less colorful but more societally acceptable) Belle of the Shenandoah, Bella Hay continued operating her prostitution empire long after the war ended. While the iconic Haystack was forced to close following General Hooker’s departure to the Shenandoah, she opened up new, more sophisticated brothels such as Hay’s Private Residence for Ladies and the Velvet Cottage by the Sea. While on a speaking tour in 1899, in which she delivered dramatic lectures of her life as a Confederate spy and madam, Bella Hay died of a heart attack―where she was found, appropriately, in bed, the site of so much of her life’s work.

While the word “hooker” predates the Civil War, General Joseph Hooker’s reputation of consorting with prostitutes made it part of our everyday nomenclature, much the same way that the legacy of Madam Bella Hay lives on whenever someone enjoys a “roll in the hay.” Although he valiantly fought for and defended his country, his penchant for women of dubious character sits like a cold sore that won’t quit on the lip of his legacy. And while there were doubtless many ‘hookers’ to feel the amorous embrace of General Joseph Hooker,  there was only one who won his heart – and destroyed his army –  Madam Bella Hay.

… April 1st, 2019…

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