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