Hood, Stephen M. John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General (Savas Beatie, 2013). 384 pages, illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography. ISBN: 978-1-61121-140-5 $32.95 (Hardcover). Note: Also available in Kindle format.
Note: The author, Stephen Hood, is nicknamed “Sam” Hood, as was General John Bell Hood. For purposes of clarity, this review will never use the nickname “Sam” to avoid potential confusion.
John Bell Hood has been given an unfair reputation by 20th Century historians that in some cases borders on the bizarre. From the persistent claims of Hood’s laudanum use, to one author’s insistence that he fathered eleven children to prove his virility even in a crippled state, to Hood’s supposed bloodlust, this West Pointer has been thrown through the mud and back so many times he’s no longer recognizable. Stephen Hood, a distant relative of General John Bell Hood, has worked for many years to track down sources for these criticisms (when there are any sources) and then look at them in context and with a critical eye. The result is John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, an eye opening look at how small leaps of logic were latched onto and repeated through the years to warp the memory of a Confederate combat leader.
Author Stephen Hood has been active in this fight for many years. He weighed in on Eric Jacobson’s book, For Cause & for Country: A Study of the Affair at Spring Hill and the Battle of Franklin, in many locations, including TOCWOC. Hood is in charge of the johnbellhood.org web site, where many of the ideas in his book originally took shape in one form or another. Hood has in the past served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Blue and Gray Education Society as well as President of the Board of Directors of Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans.
In the Foreword, the author makes it very clear this book isn’t meant to be a biography and it isn’t meant to be balanced. He follows through on this statement. Stephen Hood claims that four books written in the 1900’s are primarily responsible for damaging John Bell Hood’s reputation unfairly:
- Hood’s Tennessee Campaign by Thomas Hay (1929)
- The Army of Tennessee by Stanley Horn (1941)
- Autumn of Glory by Thomas Connelly (1971)
- Embrace an Angry Wind by Wiley Sword (1992)
Time and time again, the widely “known” arguments against Hood, his laudanum use, his bloodlust, his denunciation of his troops as cowards, his preference for frontal attacks, are closely examined to track down where they originated. More often than not, the answer lies in one of the four books above. To make matters worse, many of these original claims are poorly sourced leaps of logic. And as a final insult, the authors above and others who used them as sources embellished the original “source” even more until Hood is a completely different man.
Those still with me might think I consider this book a completely convincing argument. In some cases that is true, including but not necessarily limited to these major arguments:
- There is no primary evidence of John Bell Hood ever abusing laudanum or alcohol. An early Ewell biographer made the laudanum claim with no backing data, yet does not make the same claim against Ewell himself. This is especially odd given that Ewell had an even more painful leg injury than Hood. Others picked up on that supposition and piled on until it has become cemented as “fact” by modern day Civil War buffs. This meme grew so powerful that a recent board game on Franklin has a die roll to determine how Hood is going to act on a given turn due to his laudanum addiction. In fact, General Hood was given morphine in carefully measured amounts after losing his leg by a surgeon who carefully noted these amounts day by day until Hood no longer needed the drug to sleep comfortably. Those notes are in Hood’s recently discovered personal papers. The way authors have embellished this myth is disgraceful. Even Hood’s sworn enemies like General Cheatham never accused Hood of being a drug addict or a drunk after the war, either publicly or in any letters found to date.
- Characterizations of Hood’s Tennessee Campaign accuse Hood of all sorts of things, including orders to attack at Franklin to punish his men and teach them a lesson. Hood meticulously sorts through the campaign and finds sources for all of these allegations. He questions the sources, and in many cases the points he brings up are good ones. He lays out a pretty convincing case for why Hood had very little choice but to attack at Franklin on November 30, 1864, and that Northern commanders facing him actually wrote publicly and privately that he had no choice if he wanted to win the campaign. He also covers old yarns such as “Hood was angry at Franklin” and “Cleburne’s Division was sent to the hottest portion of the field to be punished for Spring Hill.”
- Attacks on Hood’s character for being too aggressive, a gambler, and being insensitive to the death of his soldiers, among others, are examined in detail. In each of the cases above, the author either lays out why the sources for these allegations should be doubted or provides primary evidence which directly refutes these charges. His efforts are more successful than not. For instance, as regards his military ability, John Bell Hood’s recently discovered personal papers include personal letters of recommendation for promotion from “Stonewall” Jackson and James Longstreet.
- There is no primary source evidence of Hood being drunk, addicted, or sleepy on the night of November 29, 1864 at Spring Hill, a night where he and his army had a chance to trap Schofield’s Union army and capture large portions of it. ALL of these slurs occurred by writers in the 20th Century with no evidence to back their accusations. Stephen Hood takes an in depth look at Spring Hill and instead comes to the very plausible conclusion that Corps commander Frank Cheatham and division commander John C. Brown failed that night rather than Hood.
With that said, Hood does seem to protest too much in some cases:
- Hood’s claims that Robert E. Lee “supported” General Hood for army command doesn’t hold up. At best, Lee was lukewarm or undecided as far as Hood’s suitability for independent command goes.
- Stephen Hood repeatedly makes claims, and I am paraphrasing here, that no one ever wrote that Hood <insert slur here>. Hood cannot make this statement in good faith because he cannot prove it to be true. It’s a minor irritant, but it detracts from the book. If he had written something like “after years and years of extensive research, I can find no evidence that anyone wrote <insert slur here>”, it would have resonated more with those of us who came into this book with healthy skepticism due to the author’s relationship to the general.
- While Stephen Hood’s defense of General John Bell Hood against the claim that he called his men “cowards” seems legitimate enough, reading Hood’s own words shows he didn’t have faith in their ability to attack at multiple points from Atlanta to Nashville. Stephen Hood points out that others in the AoT shared Hood’s opinion and that none other than Generals Lee and Sherman had similar doubts about their own commands at various points in the war. While all true, the areas of the book dealing with how Hood felt about his men seem lacking in some way. I may be mistaken, but it seems that only Thomas Connelly accused Hood of calling his soldiers cowards. Most others only state that Hood “doubted the valor of his troops”, to use Stephen Hood’s own words. It seems he did at some points, and there is nothing wrong with that.
- Some of the more minor issues in the book probably should have been left out. For instance, Stephen Hood claims that Joe Johnston’s performance in the Atlanta Campaign was generally approved by everyone on the Confederate side. That’s a pretty sweeping generalization to make. In any major army, you are going to find those both opposed to and for a given leader, no matter his performance. The Cassville controversy, where Hood had been slammed for NOT attacking (he can’t win, can he?), seems to have simmered in recent years as Atlanta Campaign scholars agree Hood did the right thing based on the information he had at hand.
- Stephen Hood makes the dubious claim that John Bell Hood ordered only one frontal assault in his career as an independent commander, at Franklin. I would argue that he ordered at least three in his six major battles as commander of the Army of Tennessee. The author writes that Peachtree Creek was not meant to be a frontal assault. I disagree. It was meant to be a frontal assault, but against an unprepared enemy crossing a creek. The Battle of Atlanta a few days later did start as a flank attack, but portions of the Confederate line did assault breastworks frontally, and Hood was in charge. Stephen Hood absolves John Bell Hood of the blame for frontal assaults at Ezra Church and Jonesboro, stating the general was not on those fields. I admittedly do not know enough about Ezra Church to argue the point, and the author does seem to have a point at Jonesboro. Given the desperate situation, the Confederates had to do everything they could to prevent Atlanta from falling. Franklin was of course a frontal assault, and although the Confederates made a strategic advance on Nashville, they fought on the tactical defensive in the battle that followed. This is one of those arguments that no neutral party is going to 100% agree with.
Hood saves much of his commentary for Wiley Sword, and with good reason. That author’s Embrace an Angry Wind, published in 1992 about the 1864 Tennessee Campaign, is filled with many of the questionable claims about John Bell Hood covered in Stephen Hood’s new book. For a few examples, take a look at a lengthy blog entry I published back in 2006 which compared/contrasted how Wiley Sword and Eric Jacobson looked at the Battle of Franklin. It becomes apparent that Sword quite often used information from Hay, Connelly and Horn in his book, never bothering to check their sources and embellishing already questionable claims. Though Stephen Hood never makes this claim in his book, I would argue that Sword’s book has done more to damage the reputation of John Bell Hood than every other source combined. Stephen Hood provides numerous cases where authors have used Sword’s more questionable claims in modern works focusing in some way on the Tennessee Campaign and the units involved. As Stephen Hood slowly unveils legitimate questions about Sword’s research time and time again, one begins to wonder what Sword’s goal was. Everyone makes mistakes. Let’s be clear. But the evidence seems to show that, if given the choice, Sword almost always picked the source which was the most negative to General Hood and ran with it, adding his own embellishments to the story. The ultimate example of this is Sword’s fanciful take on how Sally “Buck” Preston, Hood’s on-again, off-again fiancé back in Richmond, had a massive hold on every decision the man made during the campaign. In Embrace an Angry Wind, Sword discusses Buck Preston more often than three Confederate generals who were killed in the 1864 Tennessee Campaign!
John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General is an important new book that forces anyone with an open mind to begin reassessing what they think they know about John Bell Hood. Dubious origins and continued embellishment have created a version of John Bell Hood which never existed, and this version is the “standard” version of the man today. While some of the claims are overdone, this should not detract from some of the very valid points made about the use/misuse of sources without carefully evaluating these sources for their credibility and for agendas. Anyone interested in the late war Western Theater will find this a fine addition to their library. Those interested in historiography of the Civil War will find the book fascinating. Ties to General John Bell Hood aside, author Stephen Hood has produced a thought-provoking new book which should be judged by what is written. For any skeptics out there, it’s worth a purchase to form your own opinion on its merits, or lack thereof.