The Question of Hood and the Army of Tennessee: “Far Better” or “Far Better?”

TurningPoints-logo“Punctuation acts as signposts to help your reader understand how to read your writing,” I tell my students. Many of the first-year writers I teach are still coming to grips with just how important good punctuation is—and how subtle and artful it can be in their writing.

Perhaps you’ve seen the classic example of “a man eating shark” versus “a man-eating shark.” One hyphen makes all the difference in who is eating who. There’s also the darkly funny “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” versus “Let’s eat Grandpa!” There, the comma makes the difference between an enthusiastic family meal and cannibalism.

While editing a piece for ECW’s upcoming book Turning Points of the American Civil War, I had a wrestling match with a question mark that brought to mind the punctuation advice I dole out to my students. (Fortunately, no Grandpas were harmed in the course of the final punctuating!) 

The essay, written by my colleague Steve Davis, focused on Joe Johnston’s ouster as commander of the Army of Tennessee and his replacement by John Bell Hood. After batting around a few title ideas, Steve and I settled on this:

“Far Better in the Present Emergency”: John Bell Hood Replaces Joseph E. Johnston

The quote comes from Braxton Bragg, himself a former commander of the Army of Tennessee and no fan of Joe Johnston’s. Bragg assessed Hood as a much better alternative than Johnston, who’s defensive warfare had slowed but not stopped the advance of William T. Sherman’s armies as they marched on Atlanta. In the process, Johnston gave up hundreds of square miles of Georgia real estate, which made him deeply unpopular within the army and in Richmond.

Our decision to include Johnston’s ouster as a turning point boiled down to the fact that Hood’s offensive-mindedness quickly bled out the Army of Tennessee. He took over in July and, by the beginning of December, the bedraggled remains of his army evaporated in middle Tennessee after dashing themselves to pieces at Franklin and outside Nashville. The Confederacy’s ability to wage any sort of credible defense in the Western Theater evaporated with them.

Johnston’s Fabian tactics, although unpopular, at least ensured the army lived to fight another day. He didn’t necessarily care about winning so long as he didn’t lose.

So, did Hood turn out to be “far better in the present emergency”?

As I pondered this question, I decided to take a look at the numbers more closely. As it happens, I was also working at the time on edits to Lee White’s upcoming Emerging Civil War Series book on the battle of Franklin, Let Us Die Like Men. Lee works at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, so I knew he knew how many men Johnston inherited in the wake of Chattanooga and how many men Hood ended up with after Franklin and Nashville. If anyone could help me with a deep dive into the numbers, it was Lee.

“That’s a loaded set of questions!” he laughed. But then he offered what he believed were the most accurate set of statements he could pin down.

“On Dec 10, 1863, the army’s effective strength was 43,094,” he told me. “By April 30, 1864, just before the campaign opened, Johnston had 59,500. By June 10, partway through the campaign, Johnston had 69,945, due to reinforcements like Polk’s Army of Mississippi, the Georgia Militia, and various other units sent up from the coast, etc.”

Then Lee ran down some of the other numbers for me:

On June 30, after the fighting at Kennesaw, the army’s strength was 62,747.

Jefferson Davis removed Johnston from command on July 17 and replaced him with Hood.

On July 31, after Hood’s fights, the army’s strength was down to 51,793.

By August 31, after the siege, the army’s strength was down to 51,141. Most were combat casualties, but sick leave and desertions also factored in.

Hood spent September and October successfully harassing Sherman’s supply line, but by November, he was forced to launch his desperate gamble into Tennessee. By then, attrition and further casualties had brought his numbers down to approximately 39,000.

Numerous small engagements against Union Garrisons in North Georgia whittled away a dozen men here and a dozen there, Lee explained. And then fighting at Allatoona, Decatur, Columbia, and Spring Hill whittled a couple more thousand from the army. By the time Hood entered the battle of Franklin, he had around 37,000.

Hood took a stunning 7,000 casualties at Franklin and so showed up on the doorstep of Nashville with a mere 30,000 men. By the time Federals finished with Hood, he had 24,000, give or take—and very little cohesion. The Army of Tennessee as a viable fighting force was essentially over. By the time they settled in north Mississippi for the winter, Hood had something fewer than 18,000 men.

So, under Hood’s tenure, the Army of Tennessee went from 62,747 to fewer than 18,000. That’s 44,747 casualties—a rate of 72 percent.

Of course, the remnants of that once-proud army would coalesce once again in February 1865, in North Carolina. There, once again, Joe Johnston was called upon to try and resist Sherman. By that point, “Uncle Billy” had marched through Georgia, presented Savannah as a Christmas present to Lincoln, burned the capital of South Carolina, and was advancing toward the Tar Heel State. The Confederacy desperately needed some kind of response. Johnston suddenly found himself being “far better in the present emergency” than any other option—an unenviable position for anyone to find themselves in under those circumstances.

Perhaps Joe Johnston suddenly knew how John Bell Hood had felt on that mid-July day seven months earlier.

With all this in mind, I considered again whether Hood turned out to be “far better in the present emergency” after all? What about posing the idea not as a statement but as a question:

“Far Better in the Present Emergency”?: John Bell Hood Replaces Joseph E. Johnston

After thinking this all through, I floated the idea of the question mark past Steve, who is ever astute to subtle differences in meaning like that. “I wish you wouldn’t put that question mark in,” he admitted. “Bragg’s statement stands as it does, and besides, I believe he was borne out: Hood did perform, I think, better than Johnston would have at Atlanta. Hood’s failings in Tennessee were after ‘the present emergency,’ and while part of his military war legacy, do not pertain to Bragg’s judgment of mid-July.”

In other words, by leaving the question mark out, the statement limits itself to the dire back-against-the-wall situation Hood inherited in July 1864, which is what Steve’s essay hones in on. At that moment, in that “present emergency” as seen by participants at the time, Hood was the right guy—perhaps the only guy—for the job.

The question mark, on the other hand, would widen the lens to include Hood’s entire tenure as commander of the army and invite us to look at it with the hindsight available only to us. That is, after all, why we included this turning point in the book. But it’s nothing Jefferson Davis and his cabinet could have taken into account in the crucible of the moment.

So, to Steve’s point, the insertion of the question mark essentially takes Bragg’s statement out of context. If Bragg had any way of knowing how things would pan out—as we do—would he have made the assessment he did? While we could never know, I suspect we can all make a pretty good guess.

Who knew a question mark could mean so much, eh? In this case, the decision makes a huge difference because the question mark (or not) sets the frame for the discussion and defines the context in which that discussion takes place.

In the end, Johnston’s removal from command and Hood’s promotion proved to have dire consequences for the Confederacy in the Western Theater. In his essay, Steve analyzes that decision closely and traces the conversations and deliberations that led up to it. The situation troubled Jefferson Davis deeply—and of that, there was no question.

13 Responses to The Question of Hood and the Army of Tennessee: “Far Better” or “Far Better?”

  1. If only Robert Toombs had been president ? Ha-ha. It seems the Confederacy died of Jefferson Davis.

      1. Good one – to paraphrase (supposedly) Pickett when asked how the Confederates lost at Gettysburg, “I always thought the Union army had something to do with it.”

  2. I agree w/ Mr. Davis, that the question mark should be left out, as it is not part of what Bragg wrote. My personal bottom-line comment on Joe Johnston is that he would have made his fight for Atlanta once he reached the trenches at Macon (or, perhaps Tallahassee). Hood came closer to defeating Sherman outside of Atlanta than a lot of people think.

    1. I agree James. Richmond did not order Johnston to retain his army and perpetually retreat. In fact, originally he was ordered to take the offensive from North Georgia and recover East Tennessee. Later his orders were to repel Sherman and save Atlanta, and this he failed to do. By mid July there was no indication that he was going to fight save Atlanta, so Davis was compelled to make a change.

      1. As we know, Ole Joe later claimed that he was right on the verge of launching an attack at the Peach Tree Creek line when Davis booted him. Of course, he apparently had told next to nobody about it – in particular Davis or Bragg even though he was well aware of dissatisfaction with his constant backwards movements. Similar to McClellan’s big plans to take the offensive on the Peninsula in late July, 1862.

      2. Yes John Foskett. I think Georgia Militia commander G.W. Smith was alluding to Johnston’s claim when he wrote to Hood on Jan. 23, 1879, “I wonder if old Joe did intend to leave my little band in charge of Atlanta whilst the three corps and the cavalry were hunting for Sherman’s right or left flank. Carrumba! Wouldn’t that have been a kettle of fish?”

  3. According to research by Richard McMurry, the Army of Tennessee was being heavily depleted by desertions before Hood took command, and the rate of desertion remained roughly the same after Hood’s ascension to command on July 20, 1864. Multiple separate sources state that Johnson lost 20,000-25,000 men (mostly by desertions) between Dalton and Atlanta, while yielding the entirety of North Georgia. With the impending Northern elections, Richmond needed to halt Sherman and hold Atlanta, and Hood attempted to do so.

    I have always believed that CSA casualties during the Tennessee Campaign should have a large asterisk. Among the casualties were 4,500 “captured” at Nashville, while soldiers’ accounts state that many of the captured actually voluntarily surrendered, while many other members of the AOT melted away to the countryside during the retreat from Nashville. (And who could blame them?) Statistics can be somewhat misleading, such as Lee’s army after the fall of Richmond and Petersburg. Less that 8,000 surrendered soldiers of the ANV were processed at Appomattox, yet another 15,000 who had been isolated from the army (involuntary or otherwise) during the retreat came in after the surrender was announced.

    Hood’s command tenure was a failure, but he was not the only Confederate army commander whose army was destroyed by a superior Union force after 1863.

  4. As off-balanced and ridiculously dorky as my military brothers would find this coming from me of all people, my feelings concerning an article based on a single punctuation mark can only be explained in one way…I love it! I had to writing courses at Michigan where is earned my undergrad in history so I don’t know where that would put me Dr. But I would love to take one of your classes not only to learn the subtle nuances but to really become educated and how to hone your desired profession to the point that you can write in a way that people connect to your written words in a way a snake Handler can Mesmerize a cobra. Thank you for the great article sir and I am ahead of schedule according to my neurologist so that I will be able to go back to typing so you will not have to pull your hair out at all my talk to text grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. So hopefully that’s cleaned up soon and also I’m ahead of schedule with my knees, if I wear knee braces and use a walker or crutch I am starting to get around pretty well and I only tell you this because it was so frustrating for me to get the money for the last year’s symposium and then have a setback and not be able to go that I am driven so hard to go to the 2018 symposium that I told my physical therapist that is my actual goal so that I can walk around with the help of braces excetera to the point I can go on a tour with you. So as you can see you and the other people that work on this blog have touched me through your writing in such a way that it is actually being used as my goal to walk again. Great article as always Dr

  5. The fact that Hood was deemed the best-or the least inadequate-choice as Joe Johnston’s successor demonstrates the awful attrition rate among the senior leadership of the Confederacy by that time. It has always been amazing to me that a man as grievously wounded as Hood, with an exhausting combat record, endured as well as he did. To me, the real overarching problem was the secondary leadership of the Army of Tennessee. Two of the three battles around Atlanta revealed a peevishness and near insubordination that hindered all it’s operations. Imagine for a second that the Army of Northern Virginia, even the army of the Petersburg siege, was in the Battle of Atlanta, with Hood in charge. Does anyone doubt that. Sherman’s tactical ineptitude would have been severely punished?

  6. As a middle-aged former 20-year military man my particular job did not require using a computer all day. I hate to admit it but basically I’m technologically inept. Why do I have a feeling when you guys do this change over my profile is going to get dropped from the site and I’ll have to wait till I see my nephew in 4 months to fix me up a new profile and connect me back to the blog, LOL, getting old sucks. On a serious note I am trying to catch up and learn all these things between my neurological physical therapy and I physical physical therapy for my legs, it takes time though. So if this system does accidentally don’t my profile in all honesty you probably won’t hear from me for a while until I figure it out reconnect which I will and it just take me a little while. Anyway everyone remember it’s December the season of giving if you know any elderly people who are alone or poor people or homeless people try to go out of your way to not only give them some food let’s spend some time and talk to him see if they can call anyone on your phone I’m in Detroit so it’s going to be getting really cold soon so we got to do all we can to help the less fortunate I hate to drop this in the middle of a great conversation but it does need to be sad every now and then when people don’t expect it so I apologize but thank you and God bless

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