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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About Christopher Coleman

I am an author, lecturer, and sometime instructor. My interests span a variety of subjects, including Southern tales of the supernatural, American history and folklore, military history in general, as well as archaeology, anthropology, plus various and sundry things that go bump in the night. I currently have six books in print: Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Dixie Spirits, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a factual history of some more esoteric--and hitherto overlooked--aspects the sixteenth President. My book is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published in hardcover by the University of Tennessee Press and chronicling the wartime experiences of young Ambrose Bierce, noted American author. Bierce has been called many things by many people, but idealist, hero and patriot are terms that should be added to the list after reading this book. I am currently at work on several projects, some dealing with the American experience but also several fiction and non-fiction works looking into the Age of Arthur.
This entry was posted in Ambrose Bierce, Atlanta, Battle of Franklin, Battle of Springhill, Chickamauga, Civil War Historians, Civil War History, Civil War Leaders, General George Thomas, General John Bell Hood, Nashville, The American Civil War, The Army of Cumberland, The Army of Tennessee, The Battle of Nashville, Ulysses S. Grant and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to John Bell Hood: Eminent Confederate

  1. samhood says:

    Mr. Coleman,

    I am surprised that you interpreted my reply to your Want of a Nail article as drawing my “ire” and that I share “the gift of invective” with Ambrose Bierce. When I read this article and those references I worried if perhaps I had said something rude or belligerent in my earlier comments. I went back and read what I wrote and, personally, find it rather benign; it certainly didn’t imply any “egregious” conduct on your part. I stated that it seemed you had been too heavily influenced by the earlier writings of Thomas Connelly and Wiley Sword. No offense was intended, although I admit that the responsibility to be understood clearly is that of the writer, not the reader. So please accept my apologies.

    My book is intended to be a study of the historiography and literature on JB Hood, and how it has evolved from the early part of the 20th century to present. I researched many of the common assertions made about Hood (by Connelly, Sword and others,) and tried to establish the existence and validity of the sources, and the accuracy of the paraphrasing, which as you know can often be misleading. I found the relationship between much of what has been written about Hood and reality not always closely related.

    Again sir, no offense intended. I admit I was not so delicate in what I intended to say, and provided no detail to support my criticism.

    (Might I add that your self-described “little blog” is much more impressive than many of the bigger ones I occasionally view.)

    Respectfully,

    S.M. Hood

    • Dear Mr. Hood, Thank you for your latest communication (below). As I have mentioned in more public platforms, not having read your book (or your forthcoming publication of the Hood paper) I reserve final judgment of both Hood and your criticisms of other historians. However, having followed some of the debate in the media, I cannot help but have been influenced by it. While your original comment on my post was not rude, its tone could be interpreted as, shall we say, aggressive. I do pride myself as not slavishly following what others have written, especially when it comes to controversial topics–of which the Civil War has quite a few. In the course of my researches I have read a number of secondary works on the major campaigns in the west. However, that being said, when there is a consensus among historians, it is very easy to accept received opinion as established fact, which I think has been the case with Hood.

      To be honest, for the last several years the focus of my research has been in regard to the Army of the Cumberland and particularly the military career of Ambrose Bierce. While the Confederate leadership of the Army of Tennessee was involved in such has been less central to such research. You are far better versed in that subject than I. The debate you have started on Hood’s legacy has already caused me to reassess the received opinion regarding Hood and the Autumn Campaign. As I have already noted, there were several points in the campaign when the outcome could easily have been far different and Hood hailed as victor. While I doubt he could have actually taken fortress Nashville, had Hood destroyed, or even damaged, Schofield’s army, I believe the modern view of Hood would have been far far different. The Lincoln administration certainly took the threat from Hood’s army quite seriously.

      Thanks again for the comments. I think General Hood will always remain a controversial figure, but your historiography will hopefully balance the debate. It may even lead to a major reassessment by future historians. Only time will tell. In any case, best wishes in your present and future endeavors.

      Sincerely,

      Chris Coleman

      • samhood says:

        Fair enough Chris. Thanks for accepting my apology and further explaining yourself. As I said, it is the responsibility of the writer to be clearly understood (both tone and content) by the reader and I failed in my initial comment on your article. My bad.

        One final clarification. Although Ambrose Bierce did indeed attend my alma mater Kentucky Military Institute, he only lasted one year while, remarkably, somehow I managed to graduate!

      • Thanks. Bierce’s brief sojourn at KMI is one of those tantalizing mysteries I wish I had been able to solve; unfortunately the old Kentucky campus was subject to several fires over the years and it is my understanding that all early records of the school are lacking. I did manage t glean some circumstantial evidence from contemporary newspapers, but I’m afraid no smoking gun. Although he only attended one year I believe it was influential on the young Bierce’s development. I’m afraid KMI has never gotten its due respect in Civil War annals that more famous Southern military schools such as VMI and the Citadel have. Quite a number of generals on both sides attended in before the War. The pre-war school had a strong emphasis on “engineering” which may explain his later aptitude for surveying and map-making.

        Also, thanks for the heads up on Dr. Lowry. I had to go back and look up Dr. Lowry’s scandal; fortunately I am not relying on him as a Lincoln scholar and his book on sex and the Civil War is free of fabrication to the best of knowledge; I only used it for general background on events in wartime Nashville anyhow.

        Your caution about making sure to get facts/footnotes correct is well taken. I have to confess that even before this present discussion I had almost made an embarrassing error regarding the “all lion none of the fox” comment attributed to Lee. In one or another blog (I forget which) you had debunked that old saw and in checking your assertion found that you were indeed quite correct. It was a minor point insofar as my book goes, but any such error reflects ill on the general narrative. Hopefully I have eliminated all such glitches in my documentation. It had come to become accepted as Lee’s own saying, which goes to show how easy it is to assume something is established fact when it is not!

        Sincerely,

        Chris Coleman

      • samhood says:

        Chris, I know that there have been two books written on the history of KMI: one in the 1950s I believe, and the other in the 70s. Not sure of the titles, but the last name of the authors are Stevens and Young. I will try to track down copies for you. Please email me at samhood52@aol.com so we won’t bore your readers with this stuff:^)

  2. Pingback: Good Friday: The Day Lincoln Died | The Late Unpleasantness: A Civil War Blog

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