[Note: Last week, Steve offered new insights about the location of Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood’s amputated leg. Today, he follows up with more about Hood’s operation and the erroneous report that he died during surgery.]
After the battle of Chickamauga, and the amputation of John Bell Hood’s right leg, a mistaken report circulated that the general had died from his wound.
A hundred and fifty years after the war, we’re still learning stuff. In this case, we’ve learned how the erroneous information came about.
Hood’s second biographer, John P. Dyer, tripped upon it from the pages of the Richmond Enquirer. “We understand,” the paper declared on Sept. 23, 1863, “that Major General Hood is dead. If true”—the editors were accustomed to after-battle reports proving to be false—“the victory, however great and decisive, has been most dearly purchased.”1
The general’s first biographer, Richard O’Connor (1949), misses the story, but that’s not surprising, given the flimsiness of O’Connor’s work. (He even gets the name of Hood’s surgeon wrong!)2
As usual, Richard McMurry gets it right, and even adds to the story of the erroneous press release. “Apparently this report originated in Atlanta and was repeated by newspapers across the South,” he writes.3
Richard’s source was the Savannah Republican of September 23, but he did not scratch down further. Among the nation’s Civil War historians, Dr. McMurry is probably the most knowledgeable about Confederate newspapers. He is aware that wartime Southern papers relied upon press associations to furnish them with telegraphed news articles which they could print.4
McMurry’s hunch that the incorrect report of Hood’s death “apparently…originated in Atlanta” suggests his awareness that the leading wire service in the Confederacy in the fall of 1863 was the Press Association of the Confederate States of America, headquartered in Atlanta.
Supervised by John S. Thrasher, the Press Association compiled news articles submitted by its correspondents posted at the various war fronts, and distributed them to member newspapers throughout the South.
But here is where we have to shift genres, for the story of Hood’s premature death was cracked not by McMurry or another Civil war historian, but by a scholar of Confederate journalism.
First, the Civil War historian part. Almost as much as Cump Sherman—just ask John Marszalek5—Braxton Bragg disliked the press. At least, he disliked the way reporters seemed to leak out information he deemed useful to the enemy. “I am advised that General Rosecrans has the fullest information,” he complained in July 1863, “derived in a great measure from our own newspapers.”6
Bragg also disliked the way Henry Watterson of the Chattanooga Rebel wrote about him. After a particularly critical article appeared in the paper, Bragg banned its circulation among his troops.7
Here’s where scholarship in Confederate journalism steps in. Ford Risley, who chairs the Journalism Department at Penn State, has written authoritatively on the Confederate Press Assocation. Reading the minutes of the Board of Directors of the Press Association for its quarterly meeting of Oct. 14, 1863 in Atlanta, Risley learned that in early September General Bragg banned the Press Association reporter assigned to his army, Will O. Woodson. When the battle of Chickamauga broke out, Superintendent Thrasher had to improvise as he composed his telegraphic columns about the engagement. He later complained to his board of directors, “I was compelled to make up in Atlanta the press reports of the interesting events on the Chickamauga from intelligence obtained from wounded brought from the field, and information received from persons coming from that vicitinity.”8
These unaccredited sources obviously fed Thrasher the incorrect rumor that General Hood had died. From its headquarters in Atlanta, the Press Association on the 22d sent out a telegraphic report, “Further from the Battlefield,” which stated, “Our loss in general officers is very great. Brig. Gen. Helm, of Ky., was killed while leading a charge. Gen. Hood’s wound is reported to be a mortal one.” The Atlanta Intelligencer ran this news: “Gen. Hood’s leg was amputated some distance above the knee, and it is our painful duty to state that he died after the operation.”9
Papers as far away as Richmond carried this incorrect news on the 23d. “Major General Hood was mortally wounded,” declared the Sentinel on September 23. The next day it reported, “To the killed we have to add Gen. Deshler, and Gen. Hood, who died after the amputation of his leg.”10 Col. Josiah Gorgas of the Ordnance bureau noted in his diary, “Our job is damped by the loss of General Hood, who died under the operation of his leg….His loss is a severe one, second only to that of Jackson.” General Lee took the news hard. “I grieve for the gallant dead,” he wrote Longstreet, “and mourn for our brave Hood.”11
Then came word that Hood was not dead after all. The Press Association sent out its correction: “Gen. Hood is not dead. His right leg was amputated. He says he will live to fight the Yankees at least another battle.” “We learn to-day,” wrote War Deparment clerk John B. Jones in his diary, “that Genl. Hood is not dead, and will recover.”12
In the end, General Bragg backed down, and allowed the Press Association to send a correspondent back to the Army of Tennessee. John S. Thrasher thus won the journalistic fight. He even got a figurative punch in when, in a column released to member papers, he criticized “the unwise course of Gen. Bragg in not permitting the Press Association to remain in the front.”13
And Gen. John B. Hood, not dead, would live to fight the Yankees at least another battle.
* * *
1 John P. Dyer, The Gallant Hood (Indianapolis, 1950), p. 211.
2 Richard O’Connor, Hood: Cavalier General (New York, 1949), p. 166 (“Dr. John T. Darmy,” instead of Darby)
3 Richard M. McMurry, John Bell Hood and the War for Southern Independence (Lexington KY, 1982), 79.
4 Richard M. McMurry, “The Confederate Newspaper Press and the Civil War: An Overview and a Report on Research in Progress,” Atlanta History, vol. 42, nos. 1-2 (Spring-Summer 1998), 71.
5 John F. Marszalek, Sherman’s Other War: The General and the Civil War Press (Memphis, 1981).
6 Bragg to [General Lee?], July 22, 1863, OR, vol. 23, pt. 2, 924.
7 Judith Lee Hallock, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, vol. 2 (Tuscaloosa, 1991), 39; Roy Morris, “That Improbable Praiseworthy Paper: The Chattanooga Daily Rebel,” Civil War Times Illustrated, vol. 23, no. 7 (November 1984), 22-23.
8 Ford Risley, “The Confederate Press Association: Cooperative News Reporting of the War,” Civil War History, vol. 47, no. 3 (September 2001), 232; Minutes of the Board of Directors of the Press Association, Embracing the Quarterly Reports of the Superintendent, October and January (Atlanta, 1864), 10, 23.
9 “TELEGRAPHIC. Further from the Battlefield,” Atlanta Intelligencer, Sept. 23, 1863; “TELEGRAPHIC. The Victory at Chickamauga,” Atlanta Intelligencer, September 24.
10 “Still Later,” Richmond Sentinel, September 23; “ADDITIONAL PARTICULARS,” Sentinel, September 24.
11 Richard M. McMurry, John Bell Hood and the War for Southern Independence (Lexington KY, 1982), 79; Lee to Longstreet, September 25, OR, vol. 29, pt. 2, 749.
12 “TELEGRAPHIC NEWS,” Richmond Sentinel, September 25; James I. Robertson, ed., A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary At the Confederate States Capital, 2 vols. (Lawrence KS, 2015 ), vol. 2, 44.
13 “TELEGRAPHIC. The Victory at Chickamauga,” Atlanta Intelligencer, September 24.