John Bell Hood: Eminent Confederate

General John Bell Hood, controversial commander of the Army of Tennessee
General John Bell Hood, controversial commander of the Army of Tennessee

CONTROVERSY, n. A battle in which spittle or ink replaces the injurious cannon-ball and the inconsiderate bayonet.  Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary.

There are many controversial individuals who fought in the Civil War on both sides of the conflict, just as there are battles and campaigns which have been argued and debated over almost continuously for the last century and a half.  In the beginning, it was the veterans themselves who argued over these issues.  Then, in attempting to make sense of the war, historians since then have frequently come to conclusions based on their reading of the evidence and also make certain assumptions that they infer from those facts.  Just as frequently, other historians have taken issue with them.  This is nothing new.

For example, in my recent book revealing the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s life and career, my researches into the archives turned up a number of documents which contravene the accepted narratives about the Sixteenth President; I have also found that some well known published eyewitness accounts have been used selectively by previous writers to impose their views on the great man’s life and career.  So yes, that sort of thing goes on all the time; but Civil War researchers can honestly come to radically different conclusions using essentially the same sources.  Much depends on how much weight one gives to certain statements over others and how much weight one gives to the testimony of one witness over another.  That’s how the writing of history works.

Stephen “Sam” Hood, a relative of General John Bell Hood, has just published John Bell Hood: the Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General.  His publisher’s promotional copy says that “the shocking revelations in John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General will forever change our perceptions of Hood as both a man and a general, and those who set out to shape his legacy.”

Perhaps; we shall see.  Sam Hood’s book analyzes other historian’s work on his forebear and not only finds them wanting, but consciously false.  I prefer to reserve judgment on both sides of the controversy, not only until I read his book, but also until the cache of new Hood documents is published and analyzed by the Civil War community as a whole.

For some reason, my little blog attracted the attention of Mr. Hood and also his ire.  More specifically, a short article about the Autumn Campaign earned his condemnation.  The reader is invited to re-read it; I recently reposted it, along with his comment about it.  While one would hope one’s scribblings would be met with praise, the fact that he thought my minor posting was worthy of his attention is a compliment of sorts, even if it is a left-handed one.

The study of the Civil War is chock full of controversies, some of which began even before the firing stopped.  In the process of researching and writing my 80,000 (or so) word book on Ambrose Bierce and the Army of the Cumberland, I weigh in on several such issues, especially since in his postwar writings Bierce saw fit to wade deeply into those controversies.  Shiloh and Chickamauga were two particularly contentious battles in this regard, with recriminations on both sides.  Of course, most of Bierce’s venom was reserved for Federal commanders, not Confederates.

Coincidently, Mr. Hood and Ambrose Bierce do share some things in common: both share a gift for invective and both are alumni of the Kentucky Military Institute.  When Bierce went there in the 1850’s it was a place where gentlemen learned to become officers and officers learned to become gentlemen.  In Bierce’s case I’m afraid, he learned neither; but he did end up becoming a damn fine soldier.

General John Bell Hood was no stranger to controversy, even during his own lifetime.  In the postwar era, Hood crossed swords in print with several of his former officers.  Even enlisted men sometimes expressed bitter opinions about their former commander in chief.

Carter House lit by thousands of candles to symbolize the thousand of soldiers who died unnecessarily that terrible night in November, 1864
Carter House lit by thousands of candles to symbolize the thousand of soldiers who died unnecessarily that terrible night in November, 1864

Modern historians have weighed in on Hood on a number of occasions as well, especially with regard to his actions and decisions during the Autumn Campaign of 1864.  From his public pronouncements and also his comment on my minor posting, I gather that Sam Hood believes that those who do not agree with his conclusions regarding his ancestor are not only a shoddy historians but in many cases are also willfully malicious and deliberately slandering his spotless forebear.  Again, having only read one chapter out of many in his book, I do not feel competent to say whether he is right or wrong in the many criticisms expressed in his book.  Moreover, I have many other fish to fry regarding the Late Unpleasantness; however, his book is definitely on my to-do list to read and looks to become one of those must-have books for Civil War enthusiasts.

As to my short piece on the campaign, Mr. Hood says that “there are numerous assertions in your article that have no historical evidence” and that I am merely repeating “opinions of later authors such as Thomas Connolly and Wiley Sword.”  Well, in researching my book on Ambrose Bierce and the Army of the Cumberland I did read several secondary works on the battles and campaigns of the western theatre, including the Autumn Campaign.  But I also delved deeply into many primary sources, including archival material, newspaper accounts, the Official Record (both online and the hard copy in the TSLA), as well as postwar articles and memoirs and, of course, Ambrose Bierce’s own writings on the subject.  So while I do consult secondary works when researching the Civil War (or any other period) I do not simply regurgitate some other author’s opinions.

While I suppose Mr. Hood’s criticism of my short article is mild compared to the barrage he has aimed at Wiley Sword and others, I do take his criticism seriously and went back over the article to see if there were specific errors of fact (versus opinion) which required correction.  Although I am perfectly willing to correct errors as such, and am also willing to change my opinions as new information comes to light, I could not detect any egregious errors in my short piece, “For Want of a Nail.”  Blog postings, as a rule, tend to be short, general in nature and not footnoted.  Even magazine articles, where there is more room to discuss a topic, tend not be footnoted; scholarly journals and books are usually the proper place for both in depth discussion and documentation.

Battle of Springhill, where confusion reigned on the Confederate side and the Federals miraculously escaped the trap
Battle of Springhill, where confusion reigned on the Confederate side and the Federals miraculously escaped the trap

In summarizing the Autumn Campaign in a few paragraphs, I touch lightly on a number of contentious issues that have swirled about that tragic last effort of the Confederacy: the “Springhill Affair,” the “Miracle of Springhill” (so called by the Union troops), the Battle of Franklin, and the Battle of Nashville.  In such a short space I, of course, engage in broad generalizations and touch on the issues without resolving them.  One is free to take issue with how I characterize them: whole books could—and have—been written about them without resolving anything.

When I wrote the article, I actually thought I was being rather generous to Hood.  The very title of the posting, “For Want of a Nail” implies that John Bell Hood came very close to victory, that had a few key factors been different, his campaign might have been crowned with success at least to some degree.  This view is widely at variance with the dominant view of the Autumn Campaign by most historians.

Based on my readings to date and lectures on the subject I have hitherto attended, the consensus seems to be that even had Hood beaten Schofield, the Union superiority in men and materiel was such that the Federals would still have prevailed.  This, however, was not the attitude of General Grant or the administration in Washington, who were quite concerned about Hood and kept badgering Thomas to attack before the “Rock of Chickamauga” was ready.  Grant was literally on the verge of leaving for Nashville to relieve Thomas and take personal command until he heard the news that “Old Slow Trot” had achieved an overwhelming victory.  So no, I don’t think Federal success was a foregone conclusion.

Battle of Franklin: Opdycke's Brigade repulse the Confederate Breakthrough at Franklin, by Don Troiani.
Battle of Franklin: Opdycke’s Brigade repulse the Confederate Breakthrough at Franklin, by Don Troiani.

Those who have read Mr. Hood’s pronouncements on the Autumn Campaign will also note one issue my article left out: the question of whether General Hood was using alcohol and/or drugs during the campaign.  Several historians have previously suggested it and Sam Hood is particularly vehement in his condemnation of their very mention of it.  He asserts that there is no explicit written evidence that Hood partook of either alcohol, morphine or similar substances during the campaign and I think on this score we must agree with Mr. Hood.  There is nothing solid in print nor do we know of any eyewitnesses who went on the record to say so.  Point conceded.

However, let me add that, even if it could be proved that Hood used such substances, that does not mean he was either “drunkard” or “drug addict,” as his publishers blog accuses others of characterizing Hood.  John Bell Hood had his leg amputated up to the hip at Gettysburg and suffered a shattered arm at Chickamauga—both very severe and painful wounds, and even a year later he would still have been in a great deal of pain.  Moreover, during the Autumn Campaign Hood was in the saddle for long hours, which undoubtedly placed a great deal of additional strain and pain on him.  Alcohol and opiates were virtually the only pain killers available to doctors during the Civil War and both were dispensed freely by army surgeons, when available, to soldiers.  In raising this issue, we need to recognize that the issue of alcohol and drug use during the war is a much broader issue than simply a personal attack on one controversial commander. Moreover, Hood is not the only Confederate general whom historians have suggested may have used opiates—a similar claim has been made against Braxton Bragg, and for similar reasons.  Then too, we have the ongoing controversy about General Grant’s recreational use of alcohol.
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General Hood lost a leg at Gettysburg and his arm was shattered at Chickamauga (shown).  He was still suffering the effects of those wounds a year later.  Engraving by Frank Vizetelly
General Hood lost a leg at Gettysburg and his arm was shattered at Chickamauga (shown). He was still suffering the effects of those wounds a year later. Engraving by Frank Vizetelly

So no, there is no concrete evidence that Hood used pain killers during the Autumn Campaign: but if he did, what of it?  If anything, if used properly as medicine, such pain killers may have actually allowed him to think more clearly, not less, by being free of the intense suffering he surely experienced!

Now, in my brief essay, I did engage in one piece of hyperbole which perhaps requires correction.  In making the point that there were better strategies available to Hood than a direct frontal assault against prepared defenses over wide open fields I say that, “everyone in the Army of Tennessee knew it was folly–all except General Hood.”  No doubt there were some soldiers in Hood’s army who thought it a glorious thing to hurl themselves across cleared fields with no cover for two miles within full sight of well prepared enemy, dug in and waiting, who were in any case, merely a rearguard.  How many thought it a good idea—or not—is impossible to quantify, as so many of them died in the attempt.  But there were many who survived that battle and the campaign who did have a low opinion of their commander in chief and were not shy about expressing it in writing in later years.

Perhaps it would best to provide a sampler of some of those views, unfiltered by any historian’s spin on them, with the understanding that, even among eyewitnesses, their viewpoints are also subjective and far from unanimous:

On the Battle of Springhill:  “Why Stanley was not immediately effaced is still a matter of controversy.  Hood, who was early on the ground, declared that he gave the needful orders and tried vainly to enforce them; Cheatham, in command of his leading corps, that he did not.  Doubtless the dispute is still being carried on between these chieftains from their beds of asphodel and moly in Elysium.”  Ambrose Bierce, “What Happens Along a Road.”

“Here {Springhill} as at Atlanta, Hood, sought to shift the responsibility for his failure upon a subordinate.”                                                                                                                        “But a commander who is personally with the head of column in such a movement and upon the field, has the means of enforcing his orders by direct commands to the division.” General Jacob D. Cox (commanding the Union troops during the Battle of Franklin), The March to the Sea—Franklin & Nashville, (Campaigns of the Civil War, volume X), (1882, reprinted Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2002), 79-80.

“The idea of a commanding general reaching his objective point, that required prompt and immediate action and skillful tactics, to turn away and go to bed surpasses the understanding. The truth is Hood had been outgeneraled, and Stanley with the Federal troops got to Spring Hill before Hood did. What information Hood received of the enemy, when he reached the pike, if any, no one will ever know. Why did he not in person form his line of battle and attack the enemy at Spring Hill ?”  General Samuel  G. French, Two Wars: An Autobiography, (Nashville: Confederate Veteran, 1901),  292.

On Hood’s mental state on the morning of the Battle of Franklin:  “General Hood is mad about the enemy getting away last night, and he is going to charge the blame of it on somebody.  He is as wrathy as a rattlesnake this morning, striking at everything.  As he passed along to the front a while ago, he rode up to me and said ‘Gen. Brown, in the movement to-day I wish you to bear in mind this military principle : That when a pursuing army comes up with a retreating enemy, he must be immediately attacked. If you have a brigade in front as advance guard, order its commander to attack the enemy as soon as he comes up with him ; if you have a regiment in advance, and it comes up with the enemy, give the colonel orders to attack him; if there is but a company in advance, and it overtakes the entire Yankee army, order the captain to attack it forthwith ; and if anything blocks the road in front of you to-day, don’t stop a minute, but turn out into the fields or woods, and move on to the front.’”  Henry M Field, Bright Skies and Dark Shadows (NY: Scribners, 1890), 219.

Captain John W. Lavender, Company F, 4th Arkansas Inf., Battle of Franklin:  “This Great and Distructive Battle was the least called for and most useless Sacrifice of men of any that was Fought in the Middle or Department of Tennessee. As Every Priveet Soldier Saw afterwards, a slight Flank Movement would have Forced the Enemy out of their works without loosing a man. Our Ranks was So Badly Reduced and seing it Brought on by such useless Reckless Generalship Caused Grate Dissatisfaction in our Ranks. … They Could see the serious mistakes made that cost our army such serious loss and no material to recruit from. They could all see that the time was near that our Strength would be exhausted.”  The War Memoirs of Captain John W. Lavender, C.S.A., edited by Ted R. Worley. (Pine Bluff, AR: The Southern Press, 1956).

Captain Foster, 24th Texas Cavalry (dismounted) Granville’s Brigade, Cleburne’s Division after Franklin:                                                                               “Gen. Hood has betrayed us. This is not the kind of fighting he promised us at Tuscumbia and Florence, Ala., when we started into Tennessee. This was not a ‘fight with equal numbers and choice of the ground’ by no means.”                                                                     “The wails and cries of widows and orphans made at Franklin … will heat up the fires of the bottomless pit to burn the soul of Gen. J.B. Hood for Murdering their husbands and fathers. … It can’t be called anything else but cold blooded murder.”                                  Capt. Samuel T. Foster (Edited by Norman D. Brown), One of Cleburne’s Command. The Civil War Reminiscences and Diary of Capt. Samuel T. Foster, Granbury’s Texas Brigade, CSA, (Austin TX: U. of TX Press, 1980).

Carnton cemetery where most of the Confederate dead from the Battle of Franklin were buried.
Carnton cemetery where most of the Confederate dead from the Battle of Franklin were buried.
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For Want of a Nail: The Autumn Campaign of 1864 (revisited)

General John Bell Hood.  On September 30, when he learned that Schofield's army had escaped in the night, Hood was reported to be "wrathy as a snake."
General John Bell Hood. On September 30, when he learned that Schofield’s army had escaped in the night, Hood was reported to be “wrathy as a snake.”

Since a previous post has recently come in for some criticism by an expert on the subject, I am reposting it here, along with the comment; then in my next post I will address the criticism.  In the meantime, I invite other readers to also comment on it as well.  Mr. Stephen Hood has recently published a new biography of General John Bell Hood which promises to be a major revision of the accepted views of the general’s leadership with the Army of Tennessee.

On November 30, 1864, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, The Battle of Franklin, was fought a few miles south of Nashville, Tennessee.  Although the Battle of Nashville followed a few weeks later, Franklin was in fact the Confederacy’s last hurrah, when they still had a glimmer of hope of turning the war around.  To understand what happened, however, we need to go back a few weeks, when Confederate General John Bell Hood finally moved to invade Tennessee.

Hood hoped to take Nashville, destroy the Union Army there and force General Sherman to turn around and chase after him; after that, who knew–Louisville, the Ohio Valley and beyond.  Perhaps under a brilliant tactician like Stonewall Jackson, this grand strategy might have had a chance of succeeding.  But Hood was no Stonewall and Lee’s right arm had died at Chancellorsville.  After much delay and disorganization, Hood began to move North.

Sherman, however, refused to play Hood’s game and gave responsibility for stopping him to General George Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland.  Thomas was in fact one of the South’s greatest generals–save for the fact that he sided with the Union.  A Virginian by birth, he chose his nation over his state and fought ably and well throughout the war.  But Thomas needed time to gather his troops together behind Fortress Nashville, with its multiple forts and redoubts.  In turn, Thomas turned to General Schofield to not only gather two corps to his command and also to hold back Hood as long as possible.

General John Schofield, commander of Union forces at Franklin and a former classmate of General Hood.
General John Schofield, commander of Union forces at Franklin and a former classmate of General Hood.

It is not generally appreciated to this day the difficulty under which General Schofield labored.  Hood was nothing if not aggressive and he saw in Schofield’s small army an opportunity to defeat the Yankees piecemeal.  Schofield, for his part, had to both keep from being cut off and yet hold Hood back as long as possible–no easy task.  Gathering the IV and XXIII Corps near Pulaski, Tennessee, Schofield first raced to beat Hood to Columbia, Tennessee on the north side of the Duck River.  For several days he entrenched there as Hood brought his army up and then sought to outflank Schofield and cut off his line of retreat.  Even after his position had become untenable, Thomas continued to urge Schofield to hold onto the bridgehead over the Duck River at Columbia.

Davis' Ford across the Duck River, where Hood's army crossed, outflanking Schofield's army.
Davis’ Ford across the Duck River, where Hood’s army crossed, outflanking Schofield’s army.

As Hood crossed the Duck River upstream of Schofield, the Union general dispatched a lone brigade to “observe” Hood.  Ambrose Bierce was with there with Post’s brigade, observing that day: “As a member of Colonel Post’s staff, I was naturally favored with a good view of the performance…a right pretty spectacle it would have been to one whom it did not concern.” In fact it did concern Bierce and the rest of Post’s brigade quite a bit as they were too small a force to prevent Hood’s crossing and could easily have been overwhelmed.  Watching the Confederate army march past them was nerve-racking, “but the unending column of gray and steel gave us no more attention than if we had been a crowd of farmer-folk.”

Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce, taken some time in 1863 or 1864.  Bierce fought in nearly every major battle in the Western Theatre and was eyewitness to both the Battles of Franklin and Nashville.
Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce, taken some time in 1863 or 1864. Bierce fought in nearly every major battle in the Western Theatre and was eyewitness to both the Battles of Franklin and Nashville.

Apparently, it was also unnerving for Hood to see the Yankees watching his army cross over the Duck River, so he dispatched a large part of his force to guard his left flank while the remainder of the army marched straight on to Springhill, which lay along the main road north.  Schofield’s rear guard was still holding Columbia even as his advance guard raced to Springhill to keep Hood from cutting them off.  It was a very near thing and Schofield’s force just barely beat off the repeated Rebel attacks on November 29.  Had Hood not diverted part of his force to guard his flank, it is likely that the outcome of the battle at Springhill might have been different.

Even though Schofield’s force repulsed Hood’s advance guard, by nightfall the entire Rebel army was sitting astride the road to Nashville.  On the morrow, Hood fully believed he would either destroy the Yankee army or force it to surrender.  But something strange happened; the next morning Hood awoke to find the Yankees had disappeared in the night!  Furious, Hood fumed and fussed and cursed and blamed everyone but himself.

Marching north in hot pursuit, Hood had but one idea in his mind: attack!  By late on the afternoon of November 30, The Army of Tennessee was lined up as on a parade–all except for their artillery train and cavalry.  As he got the bulk of his force across the Harpeth River north of Franklin, Schofield’s rear-guard dug in south of the city.  Schofield gave his rear guard orders to withdraw by six pm if they were not attacked.  Around 4:30 pm the Confederates attacked the entrenched rear-guard.

By the fall of 1864, the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Cumberland were the best of enemies.  They had fought one another from Kentucky to Georgia and back again and each army full well knew the measure of the other.  Both sides knew better than to launch a frontal assault against an entrenched foe.  The Federals had learned that lesson well at Kennesaw Mountain earlier in the year.  But Hood ordered his army to march across a barren plain in full sight of a well entrenched enemy.  Everyone in the Army of Tennessee knew it was folly–all except General Hood, their commander.

Over these open fields the Confederates marched against the well entrenched Yankees of Schofield's army.  According to tradition, some of the soldiers recited stanzas from the Charge of the Light Brigade--"Someone had blundered."
Over these open fields the Confederates marched against the well entrenched Yankees of Schofield’s army. According to tradition, some of the soldiers recited stanzas from the Charge of the Light Brigade–“Someone had blundered.”

Actually, Schofield feared the Rebel cavalry fording the Harpeth River and cutting off his line of retreat far more than an infantry frontal assault.  But Hood could think of but one thing: attack the enemy to his front.   All subtlety of maneuver or outflanking tactics were lost on Hood.  In the end the Battle of Franklin was as bloody as it was unnecessary; Hood could have destroyed Schofield had he trusted his cavalry to do its job.  Yet, due to the gallantry of his officers and men, the initial assault on the Union line came very near to succeeding.  However, by nine that night, thousands were dead on both sides; the Yankees could afford to lose them; Hood could not.  He lost five of his best generals and some twenty regimental commanders, plus thousands of others killed or maimed.

The Battle of Franklin, September 30, 1864, as imagined by Kurz and Allison printmakers.
The Battle of Franklin, September 30, 1864, as imagined by Kurz and Allison printmakers.

Although Hood was in possession of the battlefield of Franklin, yet still it could be counted a defeat for him.  But the man who defeated General Hood was not his old West Point schoolmate Schofield; it was Hood who defeated Hood.

Grant in the field late in the war.  Although most historians do not believe that Hood had a credible chance of capturing Nashville, Grant and the rest of the Lincoln administration were gravely concerned at the possibility.  Grant badgered Thomas to attack and was on the verge of replacing him when news of his triumph at Nashville arrived.
Grant in the field late in the war. Although most historians do not believe that Hood had a credible chance of capturing Nashville, Grant and the rest of the Lincoln administration were gravely concerned at the possibility. Grant badgered Thomas to attack and was on the verge of replacing him when news of his triumph at Nashville arrived.

Mr. Coleman is author of two books relating to the Civil War currently in print; his next book will deal with Ambrose Bierce’s wartime experiences as a soldier in the Army of the Cumberland.

Recent comment by Mr. Stephen Hood:
Submitted on 2013/09/10 at 5:04 pm

Mr. Coleman,

My name is Sam Hood, and as my name implies, I am a relative of Gen. John Bell Hood, but not a direct descendent, rather, a second cousin. I have written a book titled “John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General” (Savas Beatie 2013). There are numerous assertions in your article that have no historical evidence; you seem to be repeating eloquently expressed opinions of later authors such as Thomas Connelly and Wiley Sword. My book is heavily footnoted (approx. 1,000) and I provide mostly primary sources. You might find it interesting and informative.

My publisher provides readers an entire chapter (Battle of Nashville) free on the http://www.savasbeatie.com web site. Although the chapter is not on Franklin, you can get a feel for how the rest of the book is researched and written.

Respectfully,

Sam