John Bell Hood: Dope Fiend?


The American Civil War, it seems, is awash in stories that “everyone” knows to be true. We accept them as fact because they either make for a great story, or they ring so true to life, that it seems natural for them to be established and proven.

But how many actually are? How many stories are either badly distorted or made up out of whole cloth?


There is, for example, a famous confrontation between Nathan Bedford Forrest – one of Civil War history’s more outsized personalities – and his commander, Braxton Bragg. A few days after the battle of Chickamauga, so the story goes, Forrest stormed into Bragg’s command tent. The famous cavalryman was outraged because Bragg had re-assigned his troops to a hated rival (Forrest hated almost as many Confederates as Yankees) Joe Wheeler, for a raid into Tennessee.

Forrest supposedly delivered the tongue-lashing of all tongue-lashings, calling Bragg a mean-spirited coward, accusing him of persecuting Forrest since Shiloh, threatening Bragg physically, and closing by informing the senior officer not to issue him another order, as he would not obey it. Pick up any biography of Forrest, and you will find this story recounted in vivid detail.

But is it true? Verifying the facts of the matter turns out to be surprisingly difficult. The story is based on just one post-war account, first published in 1899, long after the deaths of both Bragg and Forrest. The sole witness, Dr. James B. Cowan, was Forrest’s chief surgeon, a cousin, and later president of the Forrest Staff and Escort Memorial Association. He told his story to a turn-of-the-century Forrest Biographer, John Wyeth. Unfortunately, Dr. Cowan’s account is rife with inconsistencies, and raises more questions than it answers. Subsequent biographers have even been unable to pin down the exact date of this famous affair; though the timing is critical. Most writers, for example, have placed the incident sometime in early October 1863, and the location on Missionary Ridge, just outside Chattanooga. Unfortunately, Forrest was not with the army at this time, having taken leave to visit his wife south of Atlanta.

In my book Failure in the Saddle (Savas-Beatie, 2010) I explored all of these contradictions in detail, finally coming to the conclusion that the incident never happened, as least as Dr. Cowan related it. There was a meeting, but far from storming out in a rage, Forrest left appeased, at least for the moment.


Which leads me to marvel at the curious tale of John Bell Hood, opium addict. How else could Hood have screwed up so badly at Franklin, sending the bulk of his army forward against impregnable Union defenses only to see them shot down in droves? What else could have motivated Hood to settle on the attack as  a fit punishment for his army’s failure at Spring Hill? Why else would he stand pat at Nashville, in the face of utter disaster?

It is not hard to find modern historical speculation about Hood’s need for laudanum, the 19th Century opiate-based painkiller which, we suppose, a man as crippled as Hood would need every day. All well and good – but where is the contemporary evidence? What do the eyewitnesses say about Hood’s drug dependence and how it affected the campaign?

Unfortunately, there are none.

Exactly correct. None. At least none that have been found. In 1998, Historian Stephen Davis, writing for Blue & Gray Magazine, noted that the first such speculation only appears in 1940. Subsequent historians have expanded greatly on that first speculation, but none have managed to bring forth a contemporary account that might bolster that speculation with actual evidence.

Stephen M. Hood, in his recent examination of Hood’s treatment of the historical record, John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General (Savas-Beatie, 2014) offers a more in-depth exploration of this particular canard, using, among other things, the reports of Hood’s military physician concerning the matter. His conclusions also point to the lack of any real evidence that was battling demon laudanum.

And therein lies the problem. Despite this lack of evidence, both of these stories have become well established in the canon, even though they are built on the shakiest of foundations. How many more such war stories do we rely on in our study of history? Too many

19 Responses to John Bell Hood: Dope Fiend?

  1. Great post Mr. Powell! It seems that too many authors masquerading as historians have discovered that speculation such as you describe (abundantly dressed with other romantic nonsense and nuance) sells books. Gee, what a surprise. I think there’s a phrase for that…historic novel.

  2. It is odd how similar to the two canards you describe is my question: Is there adequate documentation that Forrest lingered after Hood’s castigation of his generals for their failure at Spring Hill; telling Hood if he were ” a whole man he would beat him within an inch of his life!”?

    1. There is ZERO evidence that Forrest ever said anything about Hood’s decision to attack at Franklin. In fact, half the myth-tellers have the event taking place at Rippavilla in Spring Hill, and the other half sets the occurrence outside the Harrison House in Franklin. Again, the is zero evidence.

    2. Actually, there is also no written record of Hood’s “castigation” of his generals at Rippavilla by anyone in attendance. In fact it isn’t even known all who were there. The only evidence that Hood was angry at the Rippavilla breakfast came from the lady of the house, who said that words were spoken that were “unfit for a woman’s ears.” But here is what a witness said about Forrest the morning of Nov. 30th:

      “When we discovered their successful escape on the morning of the 30th, our chagrin
      and disappointment can be better imagined than described. General Forrest was so
      enraged that his face turned almost to a chalky whiteness, and his lips quivered. He
      cursed out some of the commanding officers, and censured them for allowing the
      Federal army to escape. I looked at him, as he sat in his saddle pouring forth his
      volumes of wrath, and was almost thunderstruck to listen to him, and to see no one
      dare resent it.” – Pvt. John Copley, 49th Tennessee Inf.

      Notice that Copley didn’t say that Forrest cursed the commanding general (singular) but the “commanding officers” (plural.)

  3. One good way to be sure you are dealing with mythology is when the facts are suddenly hard to pin down.

  4. “The Lost Papers of General John Bell Hood,” by Stephen M. Hood (Savas Beatie 2015), demolishes a score or more of such myths and will forever alter the way in which the history of the AOT and many of its campaigns and officers are portrayed. I am pleased to announce it went into the printer today and will be officially released in early February. Merry Christmas.

    David P: Spinal what?

  5. Whether the Bragg-Forrest confrontation ever took place it should have; Jeff Davis’pet{Bragg} was a incompetent General

    1. Herb, That is indeed common wisdom re: Bragg, and generally true (I think), but nothing is as clear cut as “common wisdom,” especially when you ignore the opinions of past writers and research the issue using primary sources yourself. This has been personally true for me on several matters (Longtstreet at Suffolk, Mine Run, The March to the Sea, etc.)

      On Bragg, I would highly suggest (caveat: I published the book) you read carefully David Powell’s “Failures in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joe Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign.” I have to say that this single book and in-depth research changed the way I viewed him–at least for the time covered in that book. I don’t know what other similar research would turn up re: Bragg and other campaigns. Give it a read.


  6. Quoting an earlier historian, author Scott Bowden said, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” Sure enough, the most extraordinary stories in Civil War history are largely devoid of any evidence–extraordinary or otherwise. When it comes to John Bell Hood and laudanum, there is more circumstantial evidence that the anonymous creator of the myth was on drugs than evidence that Hood was.

  7. When you come across anything that you might consider “extraordinary,” test it. Look at the cite, and check it. And then check that book’s cite. If it is from a letter, or journal, find it and check that.

    To slightly misquote President Reagan: “It isn’t so much that readers of Civil War history are ignorant. It’s just that they know so many things that aren’t so.”

  8. With your in-depth research into General Hood’s addiction, you might dig into the true history of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and print that he was cleared by Yankee courts if the KKK story. Just print the true history of this Confederate hero.

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