John Bell Hood unlucky general

This book is highly

Stephen Hood has produced a passionate, well-written book concerning the career of General John Bell Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee. Supported by meticulous and non-pareil research, Mr. Hood, a cousin, has put to rest many of the 20th century controversies that enveloped Gen. Hood’s character and military career.

Hood earned a well-deserved reputation as a fighting general when he commanded the famed Texas Brigade in 1862 under Robert E. Lee, though some of his success was based upon luck. As a division commander in 1863, Hood was wounded in the arm by shell fragments at the Battle of Gettysburg. Two months later, during the Battle of Chickamuaga, his right leg was shattered by a bullet and amputated at the hip. While recuperating from his latest wound at Richmond, Hood was promoted to lieutenant general and transferred West to command a corps in the Army of Tennessee.

During the spring and summer of 1864, the Army of Tennesse fought a series of actions while withdrawing from north Georgia in defense of Atlanta. General Joseph E. Johnston, who commanded the Army of Tennessee, failed to arrest the advance of William Tecumseh Sherman’s army group and lost the feeble confidence of President Jefferson Davis. General Hood, with his reputation as a fighter, replaced Johnston on July 18 as commander of the Army of Tennessee. As army commander, Hood is remembered for his defense and evacuation of Atlanta, though he confronted problems that would have vexed Robert E. Lee. Hood also became notorious for the subsequent Tennessee Campaign.

Hood’s first attack on July 20 against a portion of Sherman’s army failed.

In the words of Albert Castel, whose work Decision in the West: the of 1864 is the acknowledged authority on the Atlanta Campaign:

“In brief, where the Confederates had the advantage in strength [William Hardee’s Corps], they did not fight well; and where they fought well [A. P. Stewart’s Corps], they were too weak, and because they did not not fight well enough where they were strong, they lost. This in essence is the story of Peachtree Creek.”


Two days later, Hood struck again and his army should have achieved considerable success. Hood attempted to strike the Army of the Tennessee’s vulnerable southern flank east of the city but he miscalculated the amount of time necessary for his troops to reach their assembly areas. By the time Gen. Hardee’s corps began advancing, the Rebels encountered elements of the XVI Corps that blocked the avenue of approach to the Army of Tennessee’s rear

The Rebels were able to achieve local success, however. Hood ordered Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham’s corps (formerly Hood’s) to advance from the Atlanta works and additional local success was achieved in this sector as well. Gen. Sherman became so alarmed that he ordered up the artillery from the Army of the Ohio and positioned the batteries personally.

As was the case in many Civil War attacks, success achieved by assault brigades was not supported properly to exploit a penetration of the enemy line, in this case Sherman’s beloved XV Corps. At Peachtree Creek two days before, the same thing happened in Stewart’s Corps. Command confusion prevailed among the Confederate generals in Cheatham’s sector and a Federal counterattack sealed the breach as the Confederate brigades retreated.

Sketch of Confederate dead after the Battle of Atlanta by Henry Otis Dwight, 20th OVI

On July 28, another Confederate attack failed miserably west of Atlanta at Ezra Church. John Bell Hood can not be assigned blame for this failure because General S. D. Lee exceeded his orders and ordered rash attacks that achieved nothing: the ratio of casualties were 5 to 1 in favor of the Yankees. Curiously, Hood’s book dates this battle in November.

Undoubtedly, Gen Hood was ill-served by his subordinates during these battles. Without able subordinates, success is impossible for any general or leader: At Second Bull Run, Lee had Longstreet; at Austerlitz, Napoleon had Davout. Every student of the Civil War knows that “Stonewall” Jackson’s ineffectiveness during the Seven Days crippled the Southern effort to crush the Army of the Potomac, on multiple occasions.

At the end of August, Sherman maneuvered his army west of Atlanta to cut the last rail link south.

Stephen Hood writes: “Unfortunately for Hood, [Joseph] Wheeler’s cavalry was raiding Sherman’s supply lines in north Georgia and thus was not available for reconnaissance purposes.”


The above illustrates a flaw in Hood’s book because here, as in other places, he fails to provide context. Gen. Hood, with the approval of Jefferson Davis, ordered Wheeler’s raid. Sherman considered the raid to be more of a nuisance than a threat.

On August 29, Gen. Hood telegraphed the secretary of war: The enemy have changed their entire position, the left of their line near the Chattahoochee about Sandtown, and their right extending to a point opposite and near the West Point railroad between East Point and Fairburn.

Albert Castel wrote: “Thus Hood has a reasonably accurate idea of where Sherman’s main force is. What Hood still does not know is where that force is headed….according to reports received during the day from [W. H. “Red”] Jackson’s cavalry five or possibly six enemy corps are moving to the left in the general dirction of Jonesboro and Rough and Ready.”
490, 493

Hood responded to Sherman’s maneuvering by sending two corps under the overall command of Gen. Hardee to the threatened area. At Jonesboro, southwest of Atlanta, weak Confederate attacks intended to preserve the rail link were repulsed. Hood was forced to evacuate Atlanta on September 2.

John Bell Hood’s sorties against W. T. Sherman’s three armies, if they had succeeded, may have delayed the fall of Atlanta but with superior numbers and a secure supply line, eventually, the Northerners would have prevailed. The fall of Atlanta served a decisive politcal purpose: it insured the re-election of abraha Lincoln.

Stephen Hood vigorously defends Gen. Hood defense of Atlanta but as is the case in warfare, particularly in the era before of mechanized warfare, where firepower has now assumed mastery (The Somme) of the battlefield, the execution of a plan, maneuver, is more important than the plan itself.

Concerning the Battle of Atlanta, Hood quotes Gen. Francis Blair, who commanded the XVII Corps during the Atlanta Campaign: “The attack on Sherman’s exposed flank ‘…would be rated among military men, as probably the most brilliant of the war, and that the escape of the Union army from ruin was owing more to the supineness of some southern officers than from any skill in the Federal generals.”


Others would argue that Jubal Early’s surprise attack on Phil Sheridan’s army at Cedar Creek in November would been the war’s “most brilliant” had not the arrival of Phil Sheridan averted a crushing Union defeat.

After the fall of Atlanta, Gen. Hood marched his troops along the Atlanta & West Point Railroad to Palmetto for rest and to refit his army. After a visit from President Davis on September 25, Hood chose to operate against Sherman’s rail communications extending from Nashville and Louisville. Gen. Sherman made a token effort to thwart Gen. Hood’s strategy but he was already committed to his march across Georgia to Savannah, which began November 15. As Sherman led his 60,000 “bummers” to the sea, George Thomas was assigned the task of defending Nashville. He ordered the Army of the Ohio, two divisions, under John Schofield to reinforce the IV Corps, Gen. David Stanley, at Pulaski, Tennessee. Schofield took command of both units November 14.

Hood, meanwhile was committed to a campaign in Tennessee to recover Nashville and perhaps reach the Ohio River to threaten Cincinnati. Even if Nashville had been taken, however, the reasonable flaw in Hood’s plan was that the operation would occur in winter. Logistical issues that impeded the Army of Tennessee’s advance into the state until November could not have been overcome in Kentucky, even with Yankee mule teams.

Both President Davis and General P.G.T. Beauregard, Hood’s immediate theater superior, supported the campaign into Tennessee, but the plan originated with Hood, perhaps as far back as August.

In a speech delivered in Columbia, South Carolina, President Davis stated:

General Hood’s strategy has been good and his conduct has been gallant. His eye is now fixed upon a point far beyond that where he was assailed by the enemy. He hopes soon to have his hand upon Sherman’s line of communications, and to fix it where he can hold it….I believe it is in the power of the men of the Confederacy to plant our banners on the banks of the Ohio, where we shall say to the Yankee, ‘be quiet or we shall teach you another lesson.’

Despite the protestations and quotes put forward by Stephen Hood, any reasonable expectation that a Confederate army in December 1864 or January 1865 could reach the Ohio River defies common sense, when the same army failed to do so in October 1862. Hood describes the consternation in the North when Gen. Hood’s began marching into Tennessee and states: “Indeed, in the early fall when Hood was plotting his strategy, all that stood in the way of a Confederate advance was the meager Union garrison at Nashville—a single corps and two divisions. Stanley concluded, ‘If Hood succeeded, Nashville, Louisville, Cincinnati, and possibly Chicago were doomed.’”



While it is true that offensive operations can revive the spirit of an army, it’s also true that a mistake or errors in judgment can reverse the fortunes of an army, irreversibly.

The fact is, following the complete defeat of Jubal Early, early in November at Cedar Creek, the VI Corps and two divisions from the XIX Corps were available in Virginia when the Army of Tennessee began its doomed campaign. Transported by rail to Louisville, this force along with other units, would have blocked a Confederate advance to the Ohio River. A similar transfer of troops had been accomplished in September 1863 when the XI and XII Corps were transferred to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland after its stunning defeat at Chickamauga.

Better equipped and presumably under the leadership of Gen. George Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga,” the Federals would have had the upper hand, though of course hindsight is 20/20. Again, this example shows the lack of context in Hood’s valuable book.

The Army of Tennessee, confident but crippled by fate, began marching toward the Volunteer State, November 21. Schofield learned of the Confederate advance and prepared to withdraw from Pulaski to Nashville November 22. Both armies converged upon Columbia on the road to Nashville. Fearing a Confederate trap, Schofield evacuated Columbia and S.D. Lee’s Corps entered the town November 28. Meanwhile, Hood attempted to outflank Schofield to the east with the rest of his army and trap his opponent on the Columbia Pike. The armies engaged in heavy skirmishing at Spring Hill, south of Franklin throughout much of the day, November 29, and during the night, the Federals and their train of 800 wagon escaped Confederate capture. Stephen Hood’s solves one of the enduring mystery’s of the Civil War by answering the question: “How did the Federals escape certain destruction?” Sources that Hood has uncovered is a strength of his book.

Nathan Bedford Forrest sent a brigade of Texas cavalry under “Sul” Ross to cut the escape route at Thompson’s Station but this foray failed when infantry repelled the assault. As Hood correctly confirms: “In Civil War literature, neither Ross nor Forrest is criticized for failing to notify Hood that they were unable to hold the road.” [114]

The main effort, however, should have been made by the infantry commanded by Gen. Cheatham. Despite clear orders to take control of the Columbia Pike, Cheatham failed. Various reasons over the years have been presented to explain this lapse of judgment and insubordination, includng the bottle, but Author Hood hits the spike on the head with a sledge hammer with two sources, who report the same thing. Cheatham requested support from Stewart’s Corps, which Hood ordered, but it was late in the day, growing dark. S. D. Lee, in a conversation with A.P. Stewart in 1875, wrote to Hood the following: “He replied in substance that Cheatham and [Patrick] Cleburne determined it was best not to bring on an engagement at night.”

Edward “Allegheny” Johnson had commanded a division at the Battle of Gettysburg. On November 29, 1864, he led a division attached to Lee’s Corps. Lee, with two of his own divisions and the army artillery train, were in the rear moving forward to join the main army. While his division camped for the night near Cheatham’s Corps, Johnson investigated movement on the Columbia Pike. According to William W. Old, a member of Johnson’s staff, E.L. Martin, another member of Johnson’s staff, told him in 1877 the same thing as reported above. When Gen. Johnson entreated Cheatham for permission to attack the fleeing Federals on the pike… “Genl. Cheatham refused stating finally he was opposed to night attacks. Mr. Martin said he was present. [121-126]

The following day found the Federals at Franklin waiting behind works they had thrown up during the night. Author Hood deploys many paragraphs to prove, which could be true, that Gen. Hood had not lost his composure but the Texan was certainly frustrated that a 24K opportunity to crush his adversary had slipped through his fingers. He chose to attack, a mistake. John Bell Hood could have demonstrated to pin Schofield’s force, brought up his artillery train with Lee, and employed indirect fire to bombard the Columbia Pike to impede the withdrawal. While an optimum outcome may not have happened, the alternative proved fatal to Hood’s ambition to take Nashville. His army’s offensive power and ardor would have remained intact. Ironically, two XVI Corps divsions arrived at Nashville from Missouri November 30.

The was a bloodbath. At 4 PM, the Army of Tennessee advanced nearly two miles over open ground, with the support of one battery, to come in contact with the Yankees. A forward line manned by two brigades was quickly overrun and the mass of men stampeded back to the man line. The Confederates broke through at the Carter House but were halted by a volley delivered by a reserve brigade commanded by Col. Emerson Opdycke. Captain Edward P. Bates, 125th Ohio, stated: “Fortunately, the rebels’ guns were empty, they having been discharged at our fleeing forces…the essential advantage of volley firing in this instance was to briefly check the onslaught of a horde so great that it may have by force of numbers overwhelmed and by sheer brute force trodden down that comparatively weak line of defense before the two [forward] brigades could reload and fire.” Opdycke’s brigade captured hundreds of prisoners…

The Union line stabilized and the Rebels huddled in the ditches outside the main line; their generals lost control of the battle. Many of Hood’s men cried out for surrender but the 175th Ohio, organized the previous month, kept on firing. Adjutant R. W. Banks, a member of Gen. Charles M. Shelley’s Alabama brigade, remembered:

When the colors of the twenty-ninth Alabama were planted on the enemy’s fortified line, the Confederates were huddled in the ditch like sheep in a shambles. They had not been there long before men were being killed and wounded in more rapid succession than the writer saw before or since. They were crowded together as closely as it was possible and were practically helpless. To go over the works was certain death, or wounds or capture. To run to the rear, aside from the shame of it, was almost of equal hazard. To remain was to accept the most fearful odds imaginable…death was holding high carnival.

At 9 PM, “Allegheny” Johnson’s division advanced to support Cheatham, a night attack, guided by torches.


Six Confederate generals, including the gallant Cleburne, the “Stonewall of the West” were killed or mortally wounded. Six others were wounded; one was captured. Estimated casualties were Confederate: 6,261; Federal: 2,326.

Two weeks later, outside of Nashville, George Thomas attacked Hood’s depleted, worn and shivering army. In two days of fighting, the Army of Tennessee was wrecked. The Battle of Nashville, was the largest major battle in which colored troops participated and were praised by Gen. James T. Holtzcaw, a Reb.

The Army of Tennessee retreated to Tupelo and in January, Gen. Hood was relieved of command by Gen. Richard Taylor.

Stephen Hood presents voluminous evidence that justifies his relative’s decision to make the fight at Franklin and continue on to Nashville. Perhaps Gen. Hood believed his depleted army could defeat Thomas’ army from behind a fortified line. The reader is encouraged to read John Bell Hood and decide for yourself but the results of Gen. Hood’s generalship seem to speak for itself. Napoleon sought lucky generals and admirals—John Bell Hood was unlucky.

Captain Ben Lane Posey was a lawyer in Mobile before the war. During the Atlanta Campaign he served in the 38th Alabama. When the Army of Tennessee withdrew to Palmetto, Posey commanded the 38th Alabama and sent a long letter, a de facto legal brief, dated September 22, to President Davis. In part, it reads:


Prompted by a solemn conviction of duty, I venture in disregard to military etiquette, to tell you Some important truths involving the fortunes of this army, and with it, as I believe, the fate of our confederacy….I tell you then that this army is in a very bad condition,_ a condition that promises no success in the future, but a series of disasters that will complete its ruin, and with its ruin, our subjugation is nearly certain….The army has no confidence in the skill & capacity of General Hood. It has on the contrary, a fixed, ineradicable distrust of him, in this respect. This army will not, cannot make a successful fight under his command….When you come, do not rely on Lt Generals & Major Generals for information. They are too far removed in intercourse, from the rank & file of the army, to know the opinions and feelings of the soldiers. They cannot tell you the truth if they could & many of them would not if they could. Call around you the regimental and company officers, and even the intelligent & patriotic soldiers in the ranks & ask them to tell you frankly & earnestly the truth, the whole truth, & nothing but the truth. Then you will get it…


In conclusion, one of the most interesting and entertaining aspects of Stephen Hood’s book is the number of historians he assails for their shallow scholarship regarding John Bell Hood’s military career and personal life. In particular, Hood assails Wiley Sword, who wrote the definitive book on the Tennessee Campaign: The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville. Hood’s disdain for Sword is palpable and oozes from the pages. He skewers the cunning saber for his shoddy research and repugnant bias frequently. One example. “‘Character,’ wrote Sword in an attack upon Hood’s morality, ‘the ability to determine and do that which is morally right based upon logic, common sense, and education, may very well be life’s ultimate quality.’ Sword’s homily applies equally well to writers and military commanders.”


About Jerry Frey

Born 1953. Vietnam Veteran. Graduated Ohio State 1980. Have 5 published books. In the Woods Before Dawn; Grandpa's Gone; Longstreet's Assault; Pioneer of Salvation; Three Quarter Cadillac
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