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.

*****

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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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

mitch werksman December 10, 2013 at 9:10 am

II have read the book and have found it an interesting comment on Hood’s ability as a commander.i am far from being an expert on Hood but this book also has me thinking.i am curious to see the newly discovered papers of John Bell Hood.I have also beensearching for comments by Wiley Sword since this book really goes after his historical work and research.

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Robert Webb December 10, 2013 at 10:43 am

My take on the thing is, and always has been having read the letter some years ago, that Lee was against a change in command of the AOT at such a time, but not against Hood specifically. He also emphasises that he doesn’t have all the pertinent information.

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Mike Gottert December 10, 2013 at 11:23 am

It seems that Lee’s regret regarding the telegram from Davis concerns the necessity of relieving Johnston, and not with the idea of Hood replacing him. He then notes his fighting qualities and expresses his doubts as to other qualities, persumedly regarding his ability to command an army. This seems to be a neutral opinion.

The letter seems to confirm that Lee is distressed by the need to remove Johnston rather than the idea of replacing him with Hood. He points out Hood’s battlefield qualities, but notes his carelessness off the field. While this probably applies to his administrative skills, Lee doesn’t explain his meaning and may be referring to other personal habits of Hood’s. Lee then notes that he has not observed Hood when he has had full command, inferring that therefore he cannot give an honest opinion. Lee again notes Hood’s good qualities, while indicating that Hardee has more experience. This seems to be a neutral opinion as well, Lee points out Hood’s positive qualities while noting possible deficiencies and offhandedly recommending someone else for the position.

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.

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jackie martin December 10, 2013 at 11:59 am

My comment is probably lengthy, BUT. . .As was usual in many of Lee’s communications, including field orders, there was an apparent ambiguity, and especially in the FIELD, this would result in confusion and chaos, often leading to bad results (several of these instances in Peninsula Campaign–Malvern Hill, Savages’s Station, etc.; even Gettysburg). Lee was a big proponent of trusting his generals implicitly, leaving his “loose orders” left to their discretion as to how to conduct the battle. That, obviously, resulted in many varied interpretations on the generals’ part, resulting in lack of cohesion in strategy.
These telegrams regarding Hood were no different. The shorter “gram” shows neither endorsement nor negation of Hood, but there WAS a hint of doubt on Hood’s ability. BOTH telegrams show Lee’s dubiousness regarding Hood’s leadership skills ON THE FIELD, not to mention his “recklessness” off.
In summation, (finally), I think Lee was again letting the final decision to Davis’ discretion. You have to “read between the lines” with Lee’s correspondence. He preferred Johnston and/or Hardee for the daunting task of leading the AOT, but would not say outright NO or YEA in the support of Hood’s ascension to this leadership—a loose neutrality!!

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John Foskett December 10, 2013 at 4:51 pm

I haven’t yet come to a conclusion with respect to your questions. As I have posted elsewhere, however, I find the author’s toting up of “positive” and “negative” comments to be borderline silly as a method for deriving a conclusion. The “negative” attribute is fairly significant as it pertains to army command. The “positive” attributes are less so at that level than at brigade/division/corps level. And all of that must be read in the context of Lee’s style of communicating. Frankly, when I first saw that letter a good ways back, I took it as lukewarm, at best, regarding JBH’s fitness for high command. But then I didn’t have a calculator handy.

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Ned B. December 10, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Really interesting. I am new to this topic so this is the first time I have read these messages from Lee. While he does praise Hood’s battlefield talent, many of the “qualities necessary” for army command relate to what happens off the battlefield. And Lee is “doubtful” about these other qualities and refers to Hood as “careless” off the battlefield. That Lee points out that Hardee has more experience suggests to me that Lee has reservations about Hood’s experience. This is hardly an endorsement of Hood for army command.

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Brett Schulte December 10, 2013 at 10:08 pm

All, since we’ve got another post scheduled to go out tomorrow morning at TOCWOC, I’ll weigh in now so as not to get lost in the shuffle.

First, thank you all for the responses. It wasn’t quite the slam dunk against Hood’s view that I thought it might be.

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.

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, for Lee this was about as negative as he got.

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. 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. The other 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. 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.

Reply

Pat Young December 11, 2013 at 11:47 am

Thank you for your kind words concerning my review. The discussion with Mr. Hood in the Amazon comments section was interesting for me as well.

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Brett Schulte December 11, 2013 at 1:28 pm

You’re welcome Pat. I’m hoping to do something similar to the above for other areas of the book as well, some of which I think the author did a great job of convincing me.

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Ben December 11, 2013 at 5:55 pm

I judge the telegram negative overall. I find the letter neutral. I find the writer, as always, maddeningly ambivalent.

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Brett Schulte December 11, 2013 at 6:36 pm

Thanks Ben. I share all of those sentiments.

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Joshism December 11, 2013 at 7:06 pm

I completely agree with Ben’s comment.

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Joshism December 11, 2013 at 7:08 pm

An anachronistic comparison came to mind in regards to the first telegram’s comment that “Hood is a bold fighter. I am doubtful as to other qualities necessary.”

“Should we draft this player to be our starting quarterback?”
“He has a cannon for an arm, but I am doubtful as to the other qualities necessary.”

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Brett Schulte December 11, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Great point. I think most people would read that take as a decision not to want to draft that QB.

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James F. Epperson December 14, 2013 at 8:15 pm

I am late to this party—sorry.

With all due respect to the author, both communications read like he is trying to tell Davis that Hodd is an outstanding small unit (brigade/division) commander, but he (Lee) has no basis for judging his abilities at higher command, which sounds like a bit of a negative suggestion. Your mileage may vary. ;-)

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Brett Schulte December 15, 2013 at 9:50 am

Jim,

That’s a good point and one I hadn’t considered. We are specifically talking about army command here. Hood had done great things for Lee as a Brigade/Division commander. With that in mind, that is about as lukewarm a “recommendation” as you’re likely to read from Lee.

Brett

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Bruce klem December 18, 2013 at 3:34 pm

I have just finished Sword’s book, which I bought at the Franklin site last summer. I read reviews after reading the book and in particular looked to the 1 & 2 star items to attempt to determine the feeling against Sword’s description of Hood’s abilities. As a former commander of troops, however a unit no matter the size, performs is a direct responisibility of it’s commander. While from my reading the AofT had a large chore in front of it, regardless of who was in charge. As an Army it did not have a sterling rep, which developed over Bragg and Johnston. I question some of Sword’s comments as facts, but overall most of it’s short comings in the Campaign seem to all stem from lack of leadership at the time needed. Stopping short of the turnpike, supervising the overall attack at Spring Hill, two examples. But in looking at Lee’s letter, based on my experience, he seems disappointed to Johnston’s relief and while supportive of Hood’s combat abilities I think subtlely points to his lack of planning ability on a large scale, Corps/Army, especially when he says Hardee has more experience. This I think in the personnel arena is not a strong endorsement of Hood to command the Army, but Lee does not want to rain on Davis’ choice directly. Seems typical of Lee when a negative comment was to be made.

I am anxious to read Hood’s new book and Jacobson to increase my knowledge on this campaign.

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