Hood, Stephen M. The Lost Papers of Confederate General John Bell Hood. (Savas Beatie: January 2015). 312 pages, 56 illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-61121-182-5. $32.95 (Cloth)
It’s not often that a significant cache of personal papers from a Confederate army commander is found. But that is exactly why the book being reviewed right now exists in the first place. The Lost Papers of Confederate General John Bell Hood makes available a collection of more than 250 letters, images, keepsakes and other items which belonged to Confederate General John Bell Hood, and many of these documents were utilized while Hood wrote his memoirs, Advance and Retreat. What we thought we knew about John Bell Hood due to the popular narrative is shown to be less than correct. And please, please, stop saying John Bell Hood was addicted to laudanum during the 1864 Tennessee Campaign. It isn’t true.
Author Stephen Hood, a “collateral descendant” of General John Bell Hood, has published before on the Confederate General. His book John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General is, while a bit heavy handed in places, an excellent new book (review here) which has generated a lot of discussion. Hood methodically finds the origin of various “common knowledge” tidbits about John Bell Hood, tracking them down and then shedding light on their validity and how they’ve been used and abused down the years. It’s a fascinating book that is equal parts historiography and history. Hood even used some of the documents which appear in The Lost Papers of Confederate General John Bell Hood in order to make some of his points. The author was a past member of the Board of Directors of the Blue and Gray Education Society, and a past president of the Board of Directors of Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans.
Now, let’s get back to the meat of this book. Three generations of his family carefully preserved the papers long after they were thought to have been destroyed shortly after Hood’s death in New Orleans on August 30, 1879. This is a major, major find. Atlanta Campaign and Western Theater expert Richard M. McMurry wrote the Foreword, making clear how important this collection is to a nuanced understanding of John Bell Hood. The book isn’t a typical narrative, as you probably already suspected given the subject matter. And the items are not arranged chronologically, because many of them were produced post-war and discussed very different topics. Instead, the editor grouped things by major subject in a way that made sense, and succeeds in that regard. Publisher Savas Beatie is to be commended for allowing Sam Hood to publish images of much material in the collection, material which is being seen by the vast majority of us for the very first time. Stephen Hood also collected other letters and documents from his personal collection and the collections of others to help publish as much unpublished Hood information as possible for the benefit of future historians.
It’s important when reviewing a book of this kind to clearly list out the contents for people. Nothing drives me bonkers more quickly than to read a review of a Civil War book containing some sort of collection without the reviewer explicitly stating what is contained. After a thoughtful listing of every primary source document found in the book in the order they appear along with the date they were created, thirteen chapters and an appendix appear:
- Hood’s Early Life and Early Military Career
- Detailed Medical Reports on Hood’s Gettysburg and Chickamauga Wounds by Dr. John T. Darby
- Hood’s Promotions
- The Atlanta Campaign
- Cassville Controversies
- Confederate Western Strategy After Atlanta Campaign
- 1864 Tennessee Campaign
- Troop Strength in the Army of Tennessee
- The Wigfall Letters
- Letters Between Hood and His Wife Anna
- Miscellaneous Letters
- The Credibility of Advance and Retreat, Hood’s Memoirs
- Hood’s Orphans
- Appendix: Laudanum, Legends, and Lore
Certain chapters above are more interesting than controversial. To me, some of the strongest evidence in favor of Hood and his memoirs includes chapters 2, 7, and 8, but your mileage may vary.
The intent of this review is not to give away everything in the book, but let’s take a look at chapter 2 as but one example of how this new material places John Bell Hood in a better light once and for all. The laudanum myth which insinuates Hood was drunk and/or high at the battles of Spring Hill and Franklin, already debunked in several places, gets its final deathblow here. Hood’s medical director Dr. John t> Darby carefully nursed him back to health after his grievous leg wound at Chickamauga, the leg being amputated at the hip. Darby seems to have been ahead of his time, carefully measuring and increasing/decreasing morphine doses as need by Hood to get some rest in the early touch and go days where Hood’s survival was in doubt. As you read Darby’s daily medical entries, you see in one case where Hood himself refused morphine, and later where Darby slowly and deliberately decreased the doses, finally cutting off its use when it was no longer needed and the general was on the full road to recovery.
The chapter on Hood’s memoirs, Advance and Retreat, also proved a fascinating read. Hood detractors after the war and ever since have roundly criticized these last public words of General Hood as delusional, self-serving, and an attack on rival Joseph Johnston. The same authors Stephen Hood criticizes in John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General are some of the leading critics of Hood’s memoirs. But Stephen Hood utilizes the Official Records and this collection of “lost” John Bell Hood papers to show that Hood’s memoirs are based on the facts as he knew them. Stephen Hood points out that the general wrote this memoir prior to the publication of the Official Records, and therefore had to rely on letters written by others and his own recollections. Hood makes a case that Hood’s memoirs, rather than being fanciful, were based solidly on the information Hood had meticulously gathered in the postwar years, using portions of his papers reproduced in this book and comparing them to the written pages of Advance and Retreat. Joe Johnston, for instance, was seen to have falsified how many men he lost in the first phase of the Atlanta campaign from Rocky Face Ridge to the gates of the city itself. Hood estimated 20,000-25,000 men were casualties under Johnston’s backward slide, a figure scoffed at by many. Johnston claimed losses of less than 10,000. Hood’s personal papers have information which seems to more closely back Hood’s number. This is one example of many. It was my favorite portion of the book, and was like an extra bonus chapter of John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General. A caveat needs to be added, though. This chapter is pretty narrow in scope, using only items found in this book. The author’s conclusion that Hood’s memoirs were always based on facts and never contradict the Official Records is one I’d like to see explored in further detail.
I’d love to comment more on the Spring Hill controversy and I’d be remiss not to mention it at all, but I’ll leave that chapter for readers to discover on their own. It suffices to say that one or two specific, named individuals were seen as blameworthy by people in positions of authority in the Army of Tennessee for the Spring Hill affair, one of the greatest what-ifs for late war Confederate hopes.
The footnotes in this book provide even more value than they would in a standard Civil War battle or campaign study. Stephen Hood makes an effort to provide a brief biography of every correspondent and person mentioned in these primary source materials. It immediately helps readers better understand the significance of some of these letters. The bibliography was unexpectedly large for a book of this nature. Most of the books and resources mentioned show up in the footnotes, introductions to material, and the chapter on Advance and Retreat.
The Lost Papers of Confederate General John Bell Hood is an exciting and major find. Anyone writing on subjects involving John Bell Hood have a large new addition to the source literature and cannot afford to ignore these papers’ subject matter, including the very real ways in which they change the “standard” John Bell Hood narrative laid forth by Thomas Connelly, Wiley Sword, and others. Anyone interested in the Civil War Western Theater, especially the Atlanta Campaign and the 1864 Tennessee Campaign, will want to own this book. Those who enjoy reading first-hand accounts will also find this a useful addition to their library. And finally, if you think you know all that needs to be known about John Bell Hood and the Civil War, I challenge you to read this book and John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General without changing your mind on at least some topics. Buy this book. It’s one of the most important Civil War primary source finds in my lifetime, and I’m glad I own a copy.