John Bell Hood Ambushed at Devil’s River, Part 1

Major General John Bell Hood

Emerging Civil War welcomes back Frank Jastrzembski

Confederate General John Bell Hood requires no introduction. He was one of the most controversial generals to serve on either side during the American Civil War. He made an exceptional division commander, but a reckless and careless army commander. Colonel Albert G. Brackett, a friend of Hood, aptly described that, “Nobody doubted his bravery, but as to his judgment – that was another question.” In an excerpt of his poem “Army of Northern Virginia,” Stephen Vincent Benét embodied Hood’s character:

Yellow-haired Hood with his wounds and his empty sleeve,

Leading his Texans, a Viking shape of a man,

With the thrust and lack of craft of a berserk sword,

All lion, none of the fox.

Years before he ordered bold counteroffensives during the Atlanta Campaign or his assault on the Union position at Franklin, Hood served as a lowly lieutenant in the Second United States Cavalry. While pursuing a party of Comanche and Lipan Apache Indians on the Texas prairies, his company was ambushed in July of 1857, not far from the modern-day city of Juno, Texas. Hood’s command was outnumbered four to one, but he managed to extradite it from the feasible disaster, almost “meeting a similar fate to that gallant Custer and his noble band.” This ensuing action foreshadowed the same lionized bravery and almost instinctive daring that Hood was applauded for during the American Civil War. Behind this façade of valor, the affair likewise revealed one of his biggest flaws only a handful of years before he took command of an army: his recklessness.

“I fancied a military life,” Hood proclaimed in his memoirs after the Civil War. His yearning for the army was not met with praise from all of the members of his family. Hood’s physician father wished he would choose to enter the medical profession, but the resolute 17-year-old would not budge: “He offered me every inducement – even the privilege of completing my studies in Europe. I, nevertheless, adhered to my decision,” Hood proudly declared. With the help of his uncle, Congressman Richard French, Hood disregarded his father’s wishes and secured an appointment to the United State Military Academy in 1849.

Hood graduated four years later in the Class of 1853, alongside other American Civil War notables including: James B. McPherson, John M. Schofield, John S. Bowen and Philip H. Sheridan. Hood ranked rather low in his class, at forty-four out of fifty-two cadets, not distinguished for his “particular scholastic acquirements.” His low rank ordained him for a career in the infantry rather than the engineer or artillery branches of service. He served for a short stint as a lieutenant in the Fourth United States Infantry stationed at Ft. Columbus, New York, and was then on frontier duty at Fort Jones, California from 1854-55.

Hood’s career abruptly improved when he received an appointment as a second lieutenant in the newly organized Second United States Cavalry in 1855. The regiment would earn a fearsome reputation on the Texas frontier. In his book Camp Verde: Texas Frontier Defense, Joseph Neal Luther noted that companies of the Second United States Cavalry were involved in some forty engagements along the western and northern frontiers of Texas and along the Rio Grande, fighting Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas and Mexican marauders. Hood was captivated by the colonel of the regiment, Albert Sidney Johnston, avowing that “I became deeply impressed by the exalted character of this extraordinary man.” The other junior officers of the regiment – Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, Major William J. Hardee, and Major George H. Thomas enamored the impressionable Hood who recalled that they “won my high regard by his manliness and dignity.”

Robert E. Lee

Hood formed an almost paternal attachment to Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee. He served with Lee as part of a detachment of the Second United States Cavalry stationed at Camp Cooper, Texas. “I had become very much attached at West Point where he was superintendent while I was a cadet,” Hood revealed, which was reciprocated by Lee. Lee gave Hood this specific advice while on one of their routine afternoon rides together, “Never marry unless you can do so into a family which will enable your children to feel proud of both sides of the house.” From these kind of interchanges, Hood explained, “sprang my affection and veneration which grew in strength to the end of his eventful career.”

After several months, the 26-year-old spirited lieutenant grew weary of the routine duties of camp life while stationed at Fort Mason. “I determined to change the scene and start on a scouting expedition in search of the red man of the forests,” Hood declared. He received orders on July 5 to move out from Fort Mason with twenty-four men from Company G, an Indian guide, and supplies for thirty days, to examine a trail supposed to be left behind by Indians fleeing from their reservation. Many of his men had less than two years of service under their belts, having enlisted in 1855. Hood and his command continued until they stumbled upon an Indian trail, estimated at two to three days old.

Upon examining the tracks, it was estimated that the strength of the Indian party was at least fifteenth to twenty in number. The party was headed in the direction of the Mexico border to the south. The “thrust and lack of craft” that made Hood notorious for his blunders in 1864, took ahold as he gazed at those tracks and his youthful energy clouded his judgment. “I was young and buoyant in spirit,” proclaimed Hood years later, and “my men were well mounted and all eager for a chase as well as a fray.” He decided to allow his daredevil temperament to take hold; he continued the rash pursuit rather return to face the monotonous lifestyle he left behind at Fort Mason.

This map shows Val Verde County, the region were Hood and his men were on their expedition and searching for water.

Hood’s company gave chase through the desert wasteland for about forty miles before halting that night. Enclosed by barren plains on all sides, there was no trace of water or game to hunt for miles. The next day, the company continued for another fifty miles under the same famished conditions. After many more hours spent under the beating rays of the sun, the company again made camp that night without any water or food, only passing a contaminated water-hole “utterly unfit for use.” Hood was too proud to turn back despite the bleak condition of his command.

At daybreak on July 19, Company G mounted up and resumed their vain pursuit. Around noon a deer hopped past the column, sending the men into a frenzy. Hood recorded that a “shout of joy” erupted from their ranks, “who then felt confident that fresh water was not very far distant.” A watering hole was discovered a few hours later, “but not of that purity which was desirable.” Hood remembered that, “The odor of the water was such as to oblige one to hold his breath whilst he partook of the distasteful but refreshing draught,” but the men plugged their noses, and took huge gulps of the filthy water to wet their cracking lips and parched throats.

Soon after departing early next morning on July 20, the horsemen came upon a deserted Indian campsite. There they found the carcass of a mule or horse devoured by a large party of Indians, now estimated at perhaps fifty or more. Hood had only twenty-four malnourished and tired men, and stood little chance to overtake a force at least double his strength. He temporarily abandoned his ploy to overrun the Indians before they could reach the boundary of Mexico, and instead decided to rest his men’s fatigued horses and find a fresh water supply.

To be continued….

Further Reading

Brackett, Albert G. “The Battles of Nashville.” The United Service 13, no. 3 (September 1885): 257-263.

“Details for Hood’s Devils River Fight, Historical Marker – Atlas Number 5465002556.” Texas Historical Commission.

Girardi, Robert I. The Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals – In Their Own Words. Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2013.

Hood, John Bell. Advance and Retreat: Personal Experiences in the United States and Confederate States Armies. New Orleans: G. T. Beauregard, 1880.

Hood, Stephen M., ed. The Lost Papers of Confederate General John Bell Hood. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2015.

Price, George F. Across the Continent with the Fifth Cavalry. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1883.

Swift, Ebin. “The Pistol, the Mellay and the Fight at Devil’s River.” Journal of the United States Cavalry Association 24, no. 100 (January 1914): 554-566.

Welsh, Jack D. Medical Histories of Confederate Generals. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995.

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