Robert E. Lee and John B. Hood: A Complicated Relationship

Hood-Lt.GenRobert E. Lee didn’t want John Bell Hood promoted to command a Confederate army, but once Hood had been, Lee didn’t want him to fail. Possible evidence hinges on a little-known command decision made by Lee and the War Department in July 1864.

But first, background.

I recently gave a talk to the Atlanta Civil War Round Table, tracing Robert E. Lee’s complicated views of Hood. The Kentucky-born Texan, if you will, had risen in the summer of 1862 as one of Lee’s most talented brigade commanders. After Sharpsburg, “Stonewall” Jackson recommended Hood’s promotion, and on October 27 General Lee formally advanced his name to the War Department. The administration approved, and Hood’s promotion was announced to the army on November 6.1

Then, a week later, Lee administered to Hood something close to an official reprimand. On November 7, Lee’s inspector general, Lt. Col. Edwin J. Harvie, toured Hood’s divisional encampments. Harvie saw men poorly clothed, counted those who were barefoot, noted which regimental bivouacs were indifferently policed, and took down the units whose arms were mixed and in bad order. Based on Harvie’s report, General Lee took the unusual step of admonishing Hood in a letter over the signature of his chief of staff, Col. Robert H. Chilton.2

Lee was sizing up his new major general, and six months later judged him undeserving of further promotion. After Jackson’s death, Lee reorganized his infantry from two to three corps, and needed two lieutenant generals to lead them. Tellingly, he did not recommend Hood for either position, naming Powell Hill and Dick Ewell instead. To be sure, Lee wrote President Davis that “R. H. Anderson and J. B. Hood are also capital officers,” but they were not yet ready for greater responsibility. “They are improving,” Lee added, and at some time in the future “will make good corps commanders, if necessary.”3

As we know, J. B. Hood would not become a corps commander in Lee’s army (even if R. H. Anderson would). After recovering from his Gettysburg wound, Hood followed Longstreet to Georgia in September 1863. Severely wounded again at Chickamauga, Hood was recommended for promotion to lieutenant general by Longstreet, who wrote Adjutant General Cooper on September 24. Bragg, Seddon, even the president himself, all endorsed favorably.4

After the disaster at Missionary Ridge and Braxton Bragg’s resignation, it is worth nothing that when asked, Lee suggested P. G. T. Beauregard to succeed him.5 Then, when the president balked at Bory, Mrs. Chesnut recorded in her diary that it was Lee who had persuaded Davis to appoint Joseph E. Johnston. “Joe Johnston made commander in chief of the Army of the West,” she wrote on December 18. “General Lee had done this.”6

Hood spent the winter of 1863-64 in Richmond convalescing from his leg amputation. During this time there is no record of General Lee having left camp on the Rappahannock to visit his former division commander, even during his extended stay in the capital, December 9-21. More importantly, there is no record of Lee having asked the War Department to return Hood to his army. Thus in early February 1864 when Hood vouched that he was ready for field service and the government promoted him to lieutenant general, it was as corps commander not in the Army of Northern Virginia, but in Gen. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee that Hood won assignment.

One is left with the impression that Robert E. Lee recognized that John B. Hood had risen to the level of his competence—division commander. I do not see any documentation of Lee’s offering comment on the government’s promotion of Hood that February.

Lee did offer comment six months later, when President Davis was thinking of relieving Joe Johnston and promoting Hood to succeed him in army command. On July 12, 1864, Davis first hinted to Lee that Johnston, who had retreated before Sherman all the way back to Atlanta, might have to be fired. “What think you of Hood for the position?” Marse Robert’s telegraphed reply is legendary: “Hood is a bold fighter. I am doubtful as to other qualities necessary.” So is his subsequent comment, “Hood is good fighter very industrious on the battlefield careless off.”7

The “careless off” part recalls Lee’s admonishment to Hood in fall ’62 regarding the administration of his division. I am not aware of Lee’s response when the government promoted Hood to temporary general’s rank and put him in charge of the Army of Tennessee.

The government, of course, hoped for Hood to succeed. In his telegram on the night of July 17, Secretary Seddon urged Hood to seek battle to defend Atlanta if it could be found on at least equal terms, and to send his cavalry raiding into Sherman’s rear, cutting the single-track railroad from Chattanooga which fed his troops.8

But authorities recognized that with the enemy by then a few miles outside of Atlanta, Sherman might settle into some sort of siege. In which case, Confederate defensive fortifications around the city would be put to the test.

Thus it comes as no surprise that Richmond sent Hood the best assistance it could: no less than General Lee’s own chief engineer, Maj. Gen. Martin Luther Smith. Under order of July 20—Hood had been in command for just two days—Col. Walter Taylor, Lee’s A. A. G., issued orders for Smith to report to Hood at Atlanta “without delay,” there to assume the position of chief engineer for the Army of Tennessee.9

Lt. Col. Stephen Presstman had served in that capacity since early April ’64. When General Smith arrived in Atlanta on August 1, Presstman became his assistant.

The question is, who suggested that Lee send his chief engineer to Hood’s army? Was it the War Department, or General Lee himself? The late Art Bergeron wrote the essay on General Smith in Jack Davis’ The Confederate General (six volumes, 1991). In it he states, “When General Joseph E. Johnston was relieved of command of the Army of Tennessee in July, Jefferson Davis, perhaps on the recommendation of Robert E. Lee, sent Smith to Atlanta to serve as General John B. Hood’s chief engineer.”10

The perhaps is what intrigues us here. Dr. Bergeron’s sources for his article don’t elucidate. So where does he get his “perhaps on the recommendation of Robert E. Lee”?

I don’t have Maj. Gen. Martin L. Smith’s compiled military service record at the National Archives. Can anyone out there help me answer whether it was Lee, or the Richmond authorities, who advised that Smith be sent from Virginia to Georgia?

I’ve recently written on R. E. Lee’s suggestion to Jefferson Davis, after the loss of Atlanta, that the president relieve Hood, replacing him with General Beauregard.11 I point out that the relationship of R. E. Lee to J. B. Hood is complicated. Let’s review: Lee endorsed Hood’s promotion to major general, then passed him over for corps command. When Hood convalesced in Richmond, Lee did not ask for him back. He suggested that President Davis not promote him to army command, then two months later quietly sought to get Hood relieved and replaced with Beauregard.

Yet stuck in the middle of all this is the notion that Lee might have volunteered his chief engineer to go help Hood save Atlanta.

Anyone out there with a comment, or suggestion?

*     *     * 

1 Lee to George W. Randolph, Oct. 27, 1862, OR, vol., 19, pt. 2, 683.

2 Chilton to Hood, Nov. 14, 1862, OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 718-19.

3 Lee to Davis, May 20, 1863, OR, vol. 25, pt. 2, 811.

4 Longstreet to Cooper, Sept. 24, 1863, in Hood, Advance and Retreat, 65-66.

5 Lee to Davis, Dec. 3, 1863, OR, vol. 29, pt. 2, 859.

6 Woodward, ed., Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, 507.

7 Stephen Davis, A Long and Bloody Task, 95-96.

8 Seddon to Hood, July 17, OR, vol. 38, pt. 5, 885.

9 Taylor Special Orders No. 169, July 20, OR, vol. 40, pt. 3, 787.

10 Arthur W. Bergeron, Jr., “Martin Luther Smith,” in Davis ed., The Confederate General (Harrisburg, 1991), vol. 5, 180.

11 Stephen Davis, “Would P. G. T. Lead the A. of T.?” Civil War Times Illustrated, vol. 52, no. 2 (April 2017), 36-41.

8 Responses to Robert E. Lee and John B. Hood: A Complicated Relationship

  1. Steve, Davis consulted Lee on the Army of Tennessee’s corps command, too, most notably when Polk was killed.

  2. Hello Steve

    I find the decisions as to who should be promoted to the Army of Tennessee’s corps and army command very interesting from Shiloh to 1864. Steve’s article really made me think about some things, I never considered. Specifically, Lee not requesting Hood to come back to his army. Personally, I think Hood was promoted above his ability.

    However, I never really understood Johnston’s original choices to lead his corp in the AOT. Hood does seem more logical than Lovell and Whiting. I believe he wanted to have 3 and not 2 corps.

    I think by the time A.P. Stewart and S.D. Lee were leading corps, they seem like the logical choices. The only other general that seemed to be ready, was Cleburne. Both Steve and Sam would be much better prepared to discuss that than myself. Perhaps there were others?


  3. Don, in my view, Cleburne was not as good a choice as Stewart, but preferable to SD Lee, who really didn’t perform well as a corps commander until the retreat from Nashville.

  4. Craig L. Symonds argues Cleburne would never be promoted because of his proposal to arm slaves.

  5. Well, when I see a word like “perhaps”, I think of “maybe”. It seems like whoever uttered that is seeking answers themselves, and/or are merely conjecturing out loud. That said, Longstreet obviously thought enough of Hood to recommend him for promotion. And that theater needed SOMEONE to lead. The infighting and backbiting there was horrible. As noted, Johnson did nothing but retreat, and Davis wanted someone who would make a fight of it. As for Lee’s admonition that Hood is “very industrious on the battlefield but careless off”, well, it was ON the battlefield where results were needed then. I will also offer this, or at least I will present these questions: by this time in the War, might Davis have been looking at the ‘big picture’ and PERHAPS was looking for someone who might be a potential replacement for Lee? Might a Confederate victor at Atlanta be considered a candidate for such? I have always wondered if Davis harbored any disappointment in Lee in that Lee hadn’t delivered any really decisive results since May of 1863 in the East? If Lee was not a fan of Hood’s yet Hood was indeed named to lead the AOT, you gotta wonder!

  6. Clearly, Lee (or someone else), felt that Atlanta needed better “defense” to survive, when they sent down General Smith. Hood’s problem (including his carelessness) was that he was an “offense only” commander. Which he showed during the Atlanta campaign.

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