ECW Editors Note: Stephen “Sam” Hood is a descendant of Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, one of the most controversial commanders in the Confederacy. His early service in the war as a brigade and division commander in the Army of Northern Virginia was exemplary; his later service, as commander of the western Army of Tennessee, cast a pall over his legacy: was he the man who destroyed the army through his over-aggressive behavior, or did political pressure force him into a no-win situation against a superior foe? “Sam” Hood’s recent book, John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General has tried to rehabilitate his ancestor’s tarnished reputation. In doing so, Hood has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy.
In the interest of furthering the discussion, Emerging Civil War is pleased to offer a multi-part series from Sam Hood that further explores the general’s checkered legacy. The following series does not necessarily reflect the views of the authors and editors of Emerging Civil War.
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From Sam Hood: I am the author of John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General (Savas Beatie, 2013). Most of the reviews of my book discuss its intended purpose, which is an evaluation of the historiography of Hood the man and general. Or, in other words, how historians have used the historical record to present him to the reading public at large.
Many reviewers mention that some of the characterizations I set forth in the book are “egregious, eyebrow-raising, gross misrepresentations,” and so on. Few reviewers, however, have presented actual examples from my book to demonstrate just how distorted Hood’s image has become—and why. I have been asked by many to do so, and I believe the time has come.
The following focuses on just one modern writer, Wiley Sword, who I believe has been the most influential author in creating the current Hood image for the public at large. I offer here, and in my book, specific examples of what was written, in some cases the exact source (for you to compare, but they are all in Sword’s book and my own), and let you, the reader, evaluate whether you believe this to be a fair and honest use of the historical source material.
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I first met Wiley Sword during a Blue Gray Education Society tour of Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville in 1999, at which time I had yet to read his book The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah. I found him to be pleasant, approachable, and unpretentious. Sword wasn’t necessarily harsh on John Bell Hood during his presentation (perhaps because of my presence,) which is why I was stunned when I began reading his book a few days later after I returned home from Tennessee. After completing only the first few chapters I wrote Sword a letter, to which he promptly replied, expressing regret that reading his book was and would continue to be a “painful” experience for me because of my relationship to the general. He stated that he only wrote what the historical records revealed to him. He essentially told me that sometimes “the truth hurts,” and to prepare myself for the forthcoming pain.
As I read the book, I was struck at Sword’s acidic and fact-filtered portrayal of every aspect of John Bell Hood—both the man and the soldier, from cradle to grave . . . and beyond. He labeled Hood an “ill-mannered hellion” as a child, and even asserted that Hood fathered eleven children to prove to the world that, despite his war wounds, he was no “lame lover.” According to Sword, Hood’s children and descendants were (and are) mere products of Hood’s vanity.
Sword’s writing was and remains eloquent and convincing, yet his assertions set off my radar. How, I wondered, could Sword’s ignorant, undisciplined, incompetent, disloyal, dishonest, lovelorn, vindictive, drug-crazed man graduate from West Point, attain the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate army, earn recommendations for promotions from Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet, and deceive the highest levels of the Confederate government and War Department into army generalship? Sword attributed Hood’s early war accomplishments to dumb luck, calling him “destiny’s darling.” I also wondered how, during the Tennessee Campaign, could such an incompetent dunce conceive and execute a brilliant flanking maneuver at Spring Hill, Tennessee, that came within inches of destroying his enemy, and his later attack at Franklin fail only because a Yankee regiment commanded by a mutinous colonel was—by mere chance—at the exact point of the Rebel breakthrough? To me, it seemed as if Sword was comparing John Bell Hood to the fictional bumbling Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies.
And thus began my research to double check “what the historical records revealed to him [Sword].”
I started by comparing Sword’s contentions with his cited sources. I was shocked at how frequently he made factual statements, citing secondary sources that were often simply opinions of earlier authors, and when he referenced primary sources, how often his paraphrasing and characterizations were distorted and exaggerated—always to Hood’s detriment. Worst of all, I noticed the almost complete absence of sources—primary or secondary—sympathetic or supportive of Hood, even though such evidence abounds in readily accessible historical records. As Roman historian Cicero implored, “The first law of the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice.”
In his portrayal of Hood, Sword in my opinion breaks all three of Cicero’s rules.
A few years later, Sword released Courage Under Fire: Profiles in Bravery from the Battlefields of the Civil War, which contained a chapter on John Bell Hood entitled, “What Kind of Courage.” The essay was effectively a condensed version of Sword’s earlier attacks on Hood’s personal character and integrity. In fact, in many ways Sword’s attacks were more concentrated and caustic.
In my recent John Bell Hood, I cite numerous instances of errors, omissions, misrepresentations, and mischaracterizations of Hood extant in Civil War literature. By necessity, Wiley Sword is the most often mentioned because my research revealed that he is, by far, the worst offender.
The following are some modified excerpts from my book. (Unless otherwise noted, all of the examples come from The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah.)
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Let me begin with what is certainly not Sword’s most egregious handling of the historical record, but one that at least sets the tone. By weaving Hood’s courtship with Southern Belle Sally “Buck” Preston throughout the book, Sword added pointless melodrama in what I believe was an attempt to make something unique out of his book at Hood’s ultimate expense. According to Sword, every major decision Hood made after joining the Army of Tennessee in the spring of 1864 was somehow influenced by his desire to impress Preston. Sword also added Patrick Cleburne’s fiancé Susan Tarleton into the drama, seemingly to personalize the damage done by Hood, even to innocents. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but Sword created a romantic sideshow and then elevated it to an importance it did not deserve. As an illustration, the indexes of the four major books on the Army of Tennessee and Tennessee Campaign show Sally Preston and Susan Tarleton listed as noted below:
Thomas Hay, Hood’s Tennessee Campaign – 0
Stanley Horn’s Army of Tennessee – 0
Thomas Connelly’s Autumn of Glory – 1
Sword’s The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah – 22 (Preston 13, Tarleton 9)
In contrast, the index of Sword’s book—whose subtitle includes the Battle of Franklin—lists four of the five brigadier generals killed at Franklin as follows this many times:
Otho Strahl 7
John Adams 5
States Rights Gist 5
John Carter 3
Did Sword find substantial new material on these women and their relationship with Hood? No. But he decided to spend more ink on two irrelevant women and their supposed impact on Hood than four killed generals combined.
Next week Sam will explore the fall of Atlanta, as well as Hood’s alleged use of laudanum.