In Defense of John Bell Hood

John B. Hood

Yellow-haired Hood with his wounds and his empty sleeve,

Leading his Texans,

a Viking shape of a man,

With the thrust and lack of craft of a berserk sword,

All lion, none of the fox.             

When he supersedes Joe Johnston, he is lost, and his army with him,

But he could lead forlorn hopes with the ghost of Ney.

His big boned Texans follow him into the mist.

Who follows them?

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

Few Civil War generals get as bad a historical trouncing as John Bell Hood.  A talented regimental, division and corps commander, his tenure as commander of the Army of Tennessee is regarded as a disaster, with Hood being depicted as a reckless head on fighter who threw away any chance of victory by losing Atlanta and then leading his army to near annihilation during the Franklin-Nashville campaign.  I have largely accepted that historical verdict, but a new book, John Bell Hood, The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of a Confederate General, gives me pause.

Stephen M. “Sam” Hood, a distant relative of the general, does a masterful job of defending Hood from sloppy historical accounts.  For example, the quote from John Brown’s Body about Hood being all of the lion and none of the fox has often been falsely attributed to Robert E. Lee.  Among many other historical howlers that have made their way into historical accounts is that Hood, due to his injuries, was a laudanum addict.  Stephen Hood demonstrates that there is no contemporary evidence to substantiate this.  Stephen Hood does a service in this book, not just to General Hood, but also to Civil War scholarship.  Too many supposed factoids about the War, firmly ensconced in secondary sources, are mere fables, and John Bell Hood,  The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of a Confederate General is an unsettling book length demonstration of how these myths need to be dispelled.

I still think that much legitimate criticism can be directed at Hood’s generalship from the time he took over command of the Army of Tennessee.  However, to be fair, consideration must also be given to the desperate situation confronting Hood from the time that he took up his command.  At the time of his appointment Sherman was knocking at the gates of Atlanta, Johnston being able to delay, but not prevent, Sherman  from reaching Atlanta.  Against odds of two to one, Hood held on to Atlanta for over a month, beating off Sherman’s attempts to cut off his lines of supply.  Hood’s foray into Tennessee, after the loss of Atlanta, initially succeeded in confusing Sherman and delayed his March to the Sea for about a month.  The problem for Hood was that the Union by this point in the War was overwhelmingly superior to the remaining Confederate forces in numbers and supplies.  No matter what Hood did, his odds for success were low.  Hood cannot be blamed for rolling the dice to try to snatch victory out of what appeared to be inevitable defeat.

I would note that Stephen Hood, and some other Hood advocates, have commented before on The Almost Chosen People blog, go here to read their comments, a thread which is a model in the pleasant manner in which combox give and take can be conducted.

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  1. Mr. McClarey,

    What a pleasant surprise. Your article is sincerely appreciated. I also took advantage of your link and revisited the blog thread exchange (from 2010) and recall it distinctly. (Sadly, Thomas Brown passed away from cancer almost a year to the day after he posted his comments.) Discussion participant Dale Fishel is still around and well.

    As for my book, I proud to inform you and your readers that I have been awarded the Albert Castel Award for the Best Book of 2014 on the Civil War – Western Theater, and next week I will be in New York to receive the 2014 Walt Whitman Award as the Best Civil War Book of 2014.

    Thanks again for your courtesies…past and present.

    Stephen M. “Sam” Hood

  2. Mr. McCrarey,

    While researching my book I came upon a large cache of General Hood’s personal papers. I will soon be publishing them in “The Lost Papers of Confederate General John Bell Hood.” Among the documents was a postwar letter from Hood’s former subordinate Gen. Randall Gibson, accepting Hood’s request that Gibson be Godfather of Hood’s first child Lydia. Readers of The American Catholic might enjoy it:

    Gibson & Austin
    R.L. Gibson J.E. Austin
    Attorneys at Law
    5 Carondelet Street
    New Orleans

    June 11th 1869

    Dear General,

    I will act as God Father of your daughter with the greatest pleasure for the double reason that I have long cherished an equal friendship for the Father & Mother, if my conviction that the Roman Catholic Church is the true historical Church of Christianity, be no bar; and yet it does seem greatly presumptuous that one somewhat battered by the events of life (though I trust not hardened), should hold the relation of Godfather to one so “young & innocent” as your sweet child. Are there not General some compensations in life after all! And are they not in our homes?

    Your friend in Christ

    R. L. Gibson

  3. “I will act as God Father of your daughter with the greatest pleasure for the double reason that I have long cherished an equal friendship for the Father & Mother, if my conviction that the Roman Catholic Church is the true historical Church of Christianity, be no bar;”

    What a wonderful letter Sam and what a great country America truly is. I am looking forward to purchasing your volume on Hood’s lost papers. It is astonishing that there could be left anything to find in regard to papers of a major figure of the Civil War, and I hope what you accomplished will encourage other historians to do more digging for unpublished documents.

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