Did Lee Endorse Hood as an Army Commander in July 1864?

by Brett Schulte on December 10, 2013 · 17 comments

After the recent kerfluffle over a review of Sam Hood’s new book John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General (also available via Kindle), I decided to read it myself and review it carefully.  That review will be the subject of a different blog post.

Today, I want to discuss the first half of Chapter 2 of Sam Hood’s book with TOCWOC readers, and I want your opinion on whether or not Lee was supporting, or not supporting, Hood for army command.  This portion of the book takes historians to task for claiming that “Robert E. Lee advised Jefferson Davis against the appointment of John Bell Hood to command the Army of Tennessee.”  He goes on to say “this is patently untrue.”1  The author then chastises Clifford Dowdey, Albert Castel, Thomas Hay, and Wiley Sword for using a short telegram and a longer letter Lee wrote to Davis as the basis for their claim.

I want to reproduce the telegram and letter Lee wrote to Davis so readers can form an opinion based on these primary sources.  First, the telegram, sent by Lee to Davis on July 12, 1864 in response to Davis telling Lee a command change was needed in the Army of Tennessee and asking for Lee’s opinion of Hood:

Telegram of today received.  I regret the fact stated.  It is a bad time to release the commander of an army situated as that of Tennessee.  We may lose Atlanta and the army too.  Hood is a bold fighter.  I am doubtful as to other qualities necessary.2

Second, take a look at the full letter Lee penned later that same detail with some more detail:

I am distressed at the intelligence conveyed in your telegram of today.  It is a grievous thing to change commander of an army situated as is that of the Tennessee.  Still if necessary it ought to be done.  I know nothing of the necessity.  I had hoped that Johnston was strong enough to deliver battle.  We risk much to save Alabama, Mobile, and communication with the Trans Mississippi.  It would be better to concentrate all the cavalry in Mississippi and Tennessee on Sherman’s communications.  We had better therefore hazard that communication to retain the country.  Hood is a good fighter, very industrious on the battlefield, careless off, and I have had no opportunity of judging his action, when the whole responsibility rested upon him.  I have a high opinion of his gallantry, earnestness and zeal.  General Hardee has more experience in managing an army.  May God give you wisdom to decide in this momentous matter.3

Contrary to statements made by the historians mentioned earlier, author Sam Hood goes on to interpret this letter as Lee “seem[ing] to endorse Hood, making five positive comments and one negative about his former subordinate.”4

Now that you’ve read the basic argument, I have several questions for you, TOCWOC readers:

  • Was Lee positive, neutral, or negative regarding Hood in his telegram of July 12, 1864?
  • Was Lee positive, neutral, or negative regarding Hood in his longer letter of July 12, 1864?
  • Was Lee positive, neutral, or negative regarding Hood when you take the two together?
  • Did Lee endorse Hood as the new commander of the Army of Tennessee?
  • Did Lee oppose Hood as the new commander of the Army of Tennessee?
  • Did Lee neither endorse nor oppose Hood as the new commander of the Army of Tennessee?

I have my own answers to these questions already, but I don’t want to state them here.  I do have a reason for asking these questions of you the reader and I’ll get to those in the comments section and as an update to this post.  So far, six chapters in, the book has made me think, which is always a good thing.

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UPDATE: I’ve added a portion of my comment from below here to the main post, as promised.

Mike’s comments come the closest to my initial thoughts as I read through the chapter:

“Taking the two items together, Lee seems to have been neutral in his opinion of Hood as army commander. He does not endorse Hood as the new commander of the AoT, but neither does he oppose him.”

I’m not sure how Stephen Hood comes to the conclusion that Lee is somehow endorsing Hood based on these two documents.

After the Civil War Monitor dustup, I read what I thought was a pretty good review of the book by Patrick Young at Amazon. He gave the book three stars, but he seemed to enjoy many portions of it. This particular issue was debated by the author and reviewer, and I found myself agreeing with the reviewer more than the author.

Therefore, when I went to read this chapter, I read carefully to see if Stephen Hood convinced me that Lee was positive towards JBH. He failed to convince me in this case. In fact, as some of you have noted, as far as Lee goes this was about as negative as he got, so he was tough to read sometimes. I noted then and as I read the chapter that this little exercise would make for a good blog post where readers could look at the primary sources and chime in with their thoughts.

With that said, I’ve been very, very carefully reading the book slowly, taking notes along the way, and keeping a “scorecard” of sorts to see which items the author convinces me on, which I’m neutral on, and which he fails to convince me on. Seven chapters in, and he has convinced me on many points, but has also failed in a few, including this one. I’ll get into more depth in my review, but he hits a home run when he discusses how the Army of Tennessee’s soldiers felt after the change of command at Atlanta in 1864. It’s pretty clear from the primary evidence he presents that many men were really upset that Johnston had been replaced, NOT upset with Hood as the replacement. I realize that someone can cherry pick a few letters and diary entries to make almost any case about an army during the Civil War, but Hood does a good job refuting some of the historians who claimed the AoT was upset with the choice of Hood as commander. It’s a good distinction to make, and some historians haven’t done so. Another home run is when Hood challenges the assertion by Wiley Sword and others that Hood’s 1864 Tennessee Campaign plan was unrealistic and that the Confederate government didn’t tacitly endorse said plan. He has letters written from Beauregard and Davis proving they did indeed endorse the plan as the only choice available. Desperate times call for desperate measures, after all. One other point he made, about no Confederate commander really doing anything good after Hood took command in July 1864, rings true. Hood failed in two major campaigns in 1864, but who succeeded in the last nine months of the war on the Confederate side? Lee and Early certainly didn’t. Neither did Johnston in North Carolina or Hardee at Savannah. It was too late.

In fact, I may choose to forego a review altogether and instead opt for my “scorecard” approach. After all, the author clearly states in the book, as has been noted elsewhere, that he is simply bringing up all of the ways Hood has been slandered (or thought to be slandered) and trying to defend him. It might make sense to “grade” the book on what kind of a defense he put up, (nearly) point by point.

I think this is an important new book, and I’m looking forward to the new book Sam Hood is editing of John Bell Hood’s papers.

Notes:

  1. Hood, Stephen M. (2013) John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General. California: Savas Beatie, 11.
  2. Cifford Dowdey and Louis Manarin. (1961) The Wartime Papers of Robert E. Lee. New York: Da Capo Press, 821.
  3. Cifford Dowdey and Louis Manarin. (1961) The Wartime Papers of Robert E. Lee. New York: Da Capo Press, 821, 822.
  4. Hood, Stephen M. (2013) John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General. California: Savas Beatie, 13

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