Hood and Me (But Mostly Me)

3 02 2014

JBHWhile reading John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, I realized something about myself: the more ubiquitous the application of hyperbole to an individual or event, the more willing I am to consider challenges to the established line on them. Does that make me an iconoclast? To some extent, maybe, and certainly in cases where it appears to me writers have worked backwards from their fundamental diagnoses and bent evidence to fit their conclusion. Author Stephen M. Hood makes a compelling case that this is precisely what has happened over the years with his collateral relative. I think.

(It’s not hard to find “discussion” of this book on blogs and social media. Some clear thinking, some dogma, the usual “I haven’t read it, have no intention of reading it, but am happy to tell you what I think of its content” type comments. Some compelling arguments that author Hood committed some of the same crimes of which he is accusing others. Lots of folks talking past one another. Lots of pots shouting at kettles. Google to your heart’s content. You’ll find all of it out there.)

To me, the  book is strongest when it points out that sources cited as support in a particular work do not say what the author of that work claims they say. Author Hood does so often. And he does so convincingly. This is why you should read the book. In my opinion.

While I’ve had Wiley Sword’s The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah (aka Embrace and Angry Wind) on my shelf for years with every intention of reading it, I don’t see how I can possibly do so now with an open mind. Many of the indictments of Sword in author Hood’s book appear so cut and dry that I have difficulty perceiving of a scenario in which reading Sword’s book will make me think, “you know, with regards to these particulars, Sword is right and author Hood is wrong.” Again, that may say a lot more about me than about Sword or author Hood. And Hood doesn’t stop at Sword. He points out weaknesses in the works of Sword’s predecessors and followers. Out of necessity writers of non-fiction build upon the work of those who have gone before. Sometimes what they accept, they accept in error. I’ve seen it in my research of First Bull Run. I imagine everyone who has researched anything has seen it as well. Sometimes it’s purposeful, sometimes it’s not, but when discovered and proven it’s always wrong and should be corrected. At least, if you ask me it should.

Of note, author Hood points out that, despite what most students of the war believe, General Hood was not overly fond of frontal attacks, and rarely employed them of his own volition. Read that again. And he backs it up, too. Hey, don’t get mad at me. Relax. Count to ten. Now, if it’s true, does that affect your overall impression of General Hood? It affected mine.

On the other hand, I found the book weakest when it reached down deep in the ranks to find contemporary Hood praises; when it presented defenses consisting of “how could all these guys say such nice things” and “well, if Hood was so bad, why don’t you think so-and-so was bad for doing the same things?” Now, in a lot of instances author Hood is right, double standards have been established, but the exposition of double standards has rarely ever done anything but dredge up the old “you’re trying to tear down our guy to build up yours” response. That is to say, it’s an emotional thing, and the consideration of cold, hard facts carries more weight. With me.

I felt the Foreword and Introduction didn’t serve the book well. I was in fact concerned about the book’s prospects after reading them – they laid out a game plan that was inconsistent with my understanding of the focus of the work. After deliberation, I determined to forge ahead. I also found the author’s attempt to discredit Jefferson Davis’s writings about and dealings with Hood, coupled with his uncritical, face value acceptance of Davis’s criticisms of Joe Johnston, to be an odd and hypocritical juxtaposition. But maybe that’s just me.

Despite these and other, as I view them, weaknesses, I think John Bell Hood is an important book, and one that should be read by anyone interested in Hood and his tenure at the helm of the Army of Tennessee, and/or historiography in general. This book will make you think, whether or not you agree with the resurrection bit in the title. For this reason, it was picked as a runner-up for best book of 2013 in Civil War Monitor. By me.

I thought about this song a lot while reading this book, and while reading discussions of this book. I think sometimes it illustrates the relationship between authors and their subjects.

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13 responses

3 02 2014
Theodore. P. Savas

Thanks for the thoughtful and fair review, Harry.

It appears you actually read the book, which is refreshing, and then reviewed the book the author wrote. Your honest evaluation is all any publisher and author can ask for, and you delivered precisely that.

3 02 2014
Harry Smeltzer

Hey, that’s what I tried to do – I think.

6 02 2014
Theodore. P. Savas

Well at least you didn’t call it a biography, lament the fact that the author did not add more in that regard, and go off the rails in other regards. Of course, reading even the dust jacket flap would preclude such a thing. I think.

3 02 2014
Brett Schulte

Harry,

I’ve got a review of this one written (finished last week) and it is scheduled to go out on Friday. Like you, I found myself convinced that Wiley Sword’s portrayal of Hood is completely wrong. Unlike you, I have read Embrace an Angry Wind, and found some of Sword’s comments about Hood odd at the time, though I never actively challenged them until Eric Jacobson’s book on Spring Hill and Franklin came out. Like you, I found some things odd or unconvincing in Author Hood’s efforts. Like you, I found myself trying to clearly distinguish between Author Stephen Hood and General John Bell Hood to avoid confusing myself and readers in my review.

Very good review. This book isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it definitely asks a lot of good questions which point to issues in the way most people currently “see” John Bell Hood.

3 02 2014
Harry Smeltzer

Looking forward to your review, Brett. Thanks for the comments!

3 02 2014
Sam Hood

Mr. Smeltzer,

Many thanks for the thoughtful review of my book, and the well-reasoned, respectfully expressed criticisms.

I’ll admit it was difficult writing a book on a character whose surname I share as I expected even reasonable people to reject it as a hagiography. It is as you know more a study of the historiography and literature of John Bell Hood than the man himself.

My book is far from flawless, and some arguments are admittedly stronger than others. I just felt that when the literary interpretation and portrayal of JB Hood deteriorated to where he was described as a fool with a license to kill his own men, and the most destructive American of all time, it was time to give the man his day in court, so to speak.

I also shamelessly prevailed on my tolerant publisher to allow me to broach some subjects that were admittedly trivial in the grand scheme of things, such as the legitimacy of the tale of the soldiers of the Army of Tennessee singing a corrupted version of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” during the retreat from Nashville. As a frequent attendee of battlefield tours and conferences with “Sam Hood” on my name tag, I’ve been asked questions and heard stories of JB Hood in the back of tour buses that many scholars haven’t heard. I wanted to take the opportunity of my book to cover them all, as best I could.

I sincerely hope that in addition to restoring some dignity to JB Hood’s eternal reputation, my book will inspire future authors–regardless of their subject–to be more skeptical of sources, less hyperbolic in their presentations, and take fewer liberties in their paraphrasing of primary sources.

Thanks again,

Stephen M. “Sam” Hood

4 02 2014
Susan Evelyn McDowell Cole

I think you are beating yourself up. I live in the metro Phoenix area, an area which is named after the Civil War General Irvin McDowell. Nobody worries about the fact that the battles of Bull Run were lost here. Irvin McDowell’s birthday is celebrated every year at Fort McDowell in Scottsdale because he first stabilized the water situation here in Arizona. Everyone has successes and failures. I just live with them.

I believe I am the great great great granddaughter of Irvin McDowell through his illegitimate son John R.McDowell. Do I care if his his legitimate family accepts me? No. I take my undergraduate degree in biology with my emphasis in genetics and I build medical infrastructure. I received the first inkling that I might be related to these famous McDowells because one day I read about Ephraim McDowell MD and the operation he performed on Jane Todd Crawford. Mrs. Crawford’s conditon’s sounded like the rare cancer that I had been diagnosed with in 2005.

I convinced a medical trust back East to investigate and the next thing I know Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska was doing a study a study to determine if the cancer was genetic. The study is finished and the answer is no.

So it doesn’t matter if you stumble around a little. Just ask questions and try to find answers, You never know what question you might end up answering.

4 02 2014
Dale Fishel

Harry,

Your thoughtful and objective review of Stephen (Sam) Hood’s book and the comments (especially Susan Cole’s) are fertile grounds for response. First of all, I want to add quickly that I had the privilege and honor to render some small assistance to Sam in the form of research, discussion, and preliminary editing of his recent book. So I have to admit to a bias. But, before some judge me too harshly I am also the direct descendant (great grandson) of a Union soldier (Private Warren Fishel of the 125th OVI) who fought against Hood and his army beginning with Chickamauga, all the way through the Atlanta Campaign and on to Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville. So, I have bias’s related to that fact, too.

Unfortunately, I had already purchased and read Mr. Swords books on the Spring Hill/Franklin/Nashville sequence and had naively accepted them as legitimate Civil War history. Later, I met Sam at a reunion of Descendant’s of Soldiers of the Battle of Franklin about 10 years ago sponsored by the Carter House and we struck up a friendship. That gave us the opportunity to discuss General Hood’s personal reputation and war history at great length. I followed through with research on my own, long before Sam invited me to assist him with his book. It didn’t take long for me to see the exaggeration in Mr. Sword’s representation of the general. I have no problem with an author openly describing within his work his personal opinions and theories related to the “might have beens”, “probably’s”, and “what if’s” if they are clearly described as such. I do not feel that Mr. Sword’s books meet that test. In the 20-plus years since their publication much of this conjecture has been accepted as bona-fide history by interested Civil War buffs, and some scholarly experts, and that’s both sad and wrong. Personally, I want to know I’m reading real history. This experience with Sam has made me much more careful to check footnoting and sources, especially when I see sensationalized passages.

Sam has invested over 10 years of intensive research tracing source materials related to General Hood to the earliest available. As a result a far different image of the general emerges. It is not hagiography, as you have already stated, but a thoroughly complete effort to portray him as little different from major general’s on both sides thrust into extremely difficult life or death situations. I feel that he should be treated historically as fairly as these other well known figures. I have also read and transcribed many personal letters among the recently recovered Hood Papers, many of them correspondence between General Hood and his family. He was clearly not a monster, but a loving, devoted family man, gentleman and devoted friend.

Finally, in respect to Susan Cole’s note…it appears that we are distant relatives. On my grandmother Mary Elizabeth Eagan’s side of the family I am descended from Charles and Rachel McDowell. I attended a McDowell family reunion in Asheville, NC in 2006 and presented a short talk on “Confederate McDowell’s in the Civil War” while there. It would be very exciting to share family history with Susan.

I can be reached via email – dfishel@comcast.net

Thanks again for your objective review.

Respectfully,

Dale Fishel
Olympia, WA

6 02 2014
Chris Evans

Thanks for the interesting review. I want to eventually read the book.

Some of my thoughts on Hood as General (for the little it is worth):

I have found Hood a fascinating but deeply troubled figure. His tenure with the ANV was pretty excellent. I always find it ironic that he wanted to flank the Union forces at Gettysburg.

I’ve come to realize that the battles around Atlanta actually were not exactly frontal assaults except for the terrible mistake by Lee at Ezra Church and Hood was trying his own ‘Seven Days’. Stephen Davis summed up these battles and what Hood intended in a excellent essay in the ’90s Savas book on the Atlanta campaign.

Hood’s involvement at Kolb’s Farm earlier in the campaign was pretty awful as detailed by Earl Hess in his excellent new work on Kennesaw Mountain.

Now when we come to the Tennessee Campaign it gets pretty dicey. Spring Hill was a great plan. I really don’t know what exactly happened there to mess up Hood’s plan. Stanley Horn’s old article in Civil War Times Illustrated is still one of my favorite accounts of it. The fail was kind of like Bragg before the battle of Chickamauga.

I believe that Franklin and Nashville were epic fails. Franklin was just horrible and I find indefensible. I would much rather have kept the Generals and the men of the Army of Tennessee that were lost there instead of attacking. The ‘siege’ of Nashville was pitiful also. There was no way to win anything there. It would have been better to bypass the position.

Pointed nasty criticism of Hood did not start with Wiley Sword. Among some of the most articulate criticism of Hood from people who were there (and suffered and had comrades die) is contained in General Samuel G. French’s ‘Two Wars’ autobiography and ‘One of Cleburne’s Command: The Civil War Reminiscences and Diary of Capt. Samuel T. Foster, Granbury’s Texas Brigade, Csa’ which has some absolutely scathing words to say about Hood after Franklin.

Chris

6 02 2014
Brett Schulte

Chris,

It’s ironic you should mention Foster. Stephen Hood reserves more than a page on Foster due to his virulent anti-Hood screeds. Some of the criticisms against Hood which persist to this day were originated by Foster, and have endured despite little or no primary evidence to back them. Stephen Hood points out Foster’s bias as a Johnston man, and his tendency to rail against everyone and everything. He was apparently a bit of a curmudgeon.

Stanley Horn is also mentioned frequently in the book. Stephen Hood makes a pretty compelling case against Frank Cheatham as far as who is responsible for the Confederate failure to trap Schofield at Spring Hill. It seems the recently discovered Hood Papers have several letters from other generals to Hood saying as much.

6 02 2014
Chris Evans

Thanks for the info. That is interesting about Foster. I really like him as a source anyway. His account of the Battle of Pickett’s Mill (and aftermath) is really intense and moving. It is a fascinating companion with Ambrose Bierce and his account of the battle.

I also like Stanley Horn’s history of the Army of Tennessee because despite mistakes it was intelligently written.

I really don’t have anything against John Bell Hood except for the twin disasters of Franklin and Nashville. He was a brave soldier and his death in New Orleans was very tragic. If he had been killed in the moment of victory at Chickamauga he would have been a Southern military hero for all time sort of like if Longstreet had been killed at the Wilderness instead of making the South fume at him for various reasons.

Chris

7 02 2014
samhood19SnikdA52

Brett and Chris,

Two things bug me about Sam Foster. One is that he wrote even before Atlanta fell that Hood was attempting to hold Atlanta, and that was something “Joe Johnston said could not be done.” (If Johnston was letting it known within the army that they weren’t going to try and hold Atlanta, why didn’t he tell Richmond?) Anyway, Foster said that the army wanted nobody but Johnston, so he was anti-Hood (and anyone else) from the start.

Also, Foster was so belligerent that he bragged in his diary that he advised a private to disobey a direct order that had come from Hood, and the soldier indeed disobeyed. The consequence was that some industrial equipment was left un-scuttled for Sherman to use.

It is unfortunate that when a character writes something extreme or profound, he is assured of literary immortality. I have never read a book or article on Hood, the AOT, Atlanta, or the TN Campaign that Sam Foster doesn’t get marquee treatment, and his opinion of Hood isn’t presented as typical of the soldiers of the AOT. Foster was, by far, Hood’s harshest critic, with his literal damnation of Hood making all the books, when in reality his opinion of Hood was not typical of the officers and soldiers of the AOT.

Another example is the “wrathy as a rattlesnake” description of Hood at Spring Hill. That is pretty cool…so cool that I admit it would be hard for any writer to exclude from a book touching on Spring Hill. But most folks don’t know how it entered the public domain. The description of Hood is claimed to have originated from the mouth of Gen. John C Brown. He apparently told it to Major Joseph Vaulx of Cheatham’s staff, who then apparently told it to Pvt. J.P Young, who then wrote about it in 1908–44 years after the event! It seems curious to me that something like Hood being called wrathy as a rattlesnake would evade newspapers, books, and periodicals for nearly a half a century.

I’m not saying Foster or Young should be ignored, I just wish authors would be more curious about sources.

SM Hood

17 02 2014
Chris Evans

I also meant to add as I have in other places that a excellently written ‘early’ defense of Hood in the 1864 campaigns is contained in Alfred Burne’s 1938 book ‘Lee, Grant and Sherman: A Study in Leadership in the 1864-65 Campaign’ that was reprinted by the University of Kansas Press in 2000.

I guess Burne was ahead of his time in his nuanced depiction of Hood. I highly recommend interested readers to seek it out.

Chris

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