Saturday, June 9, 2012

General John Bell Hood’s Competency

Hood was never given enough troops to enable him to fight on an equal footing with his Northern enemies. The Southern Draft never worked properly and at some point no more troops were forthcoming. So a “draw” for Hood was not the same as a “draw” for Sherman’s generals. Sherman could replace his troops. Hood could not. Had Hood been able to replace his troops as Thomas or Schofield did, he would certainly have fared better.

I don’t believe that everything has been said about the Civil War. It is a historian’s stock in trade to find overlooked matters to write about. Wiley Sword took a strongly anti-Hood stance in his Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, Spring Hill, Franklin, & Nashville, but Sword generalizes about Hood based on his performance at a time when he couldn’t get adequate support. His fiancé Sally Preston preyed that he wouldn’t be put in charge of the Western army because it was widely believed in Richmond that the Southern cause was lost and that the best the Confederate armies could do at that point was fight with honor and delay the end. The Confederate states by that time refused to support the war. That is, no state was sending more than token new recruits to the army and large numbers of soldiers were deserting and return to their home states.

To evaluate Hood’s overall performance one needs to look at his whole history and not just the period when he with one leg, one arm and an inadequate number of troops was drinking the last dregs of a losing cause. The reason he advanced so quickly in his career was that he was very good at his job. He kept winning. He was a “fighting” general in the midst of too much (according to the historians as well as Southern Leaders) caution. Lincoln you will recall dismissed his earlier generals because they were too cautious. He finally settled upon Grant because he was willing to fight. Lincoln probably would have loved Hood.

As to what the Civil War generals learned at West Point, Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson go into that in some detail, looking at the Civil War manuals, those written by Scott, Hardee & others. The tactics of Jomini had not been significantly improved upon. The bayonet was still the favored weapon. Running out of ammunition was no excuse for not charging the enemy. When the rifled barrel replaced the smooth all that did for tactics was to urge that the attacking forces moved slightly faster so they could more quickly get in bayonet range. And the preferred weapon of the cavalry was the sabre.

From our vantage point we think a bayonet charge against an entrenched position suicide, but everyone who fought in the Mexican War (which includes some of the biggest names in the Civil War) believed that tactic the only one that assured success. It wasn’t that Hood’s tactics were faulty when he sent his troops against entrenched positions at Franklin and Nashville. It was that he hadn’t been given enough men by Richmond to fight those battles.

We might try to fault Hood for fighting at Franklin and Nashville with inadequate forces but he had no reason to think he was going to fail. His opponent, Thomas, was fearful he might succeed. In the typical battle between the North and South, the North far outnumbered the South, sometimes as much as two to one, and the North didn’t always win. Thomas “retreated” before Hood when Thomas’s troops were no more numerous than Hoods, but as Thomas retreated he got more and more reinforcements. Lincoln and Grant were critical of Thomas for his retreats and Hood can be excused, perhaps, for thinking Thomas was afraid of him, but by the time Thomas reached Nashville he had overwhelming numbers and before Thomas’ replacement (he was being fired by Grant for not attacking Hood) reached him he attacked Hood and defeated him.

In pitting Sherman against Hood in one’s imagination, one shouldn’t forget that Sherman never won a major battle whereas Hood did. Sherman’s success came later when he conducted campaigns and commanded generals who won battles.


Anonymous said...

This is one of the most reasoned, logical, and best-expressed summaries of JB Hood I have ever read. Spot on.

(One minor was his friend Mary Chesnut, not his fiance Sally Preston, who didn't want Hood to succeed Johnston at Atlanta and be blamed for the fall of the city.)

Lawrence Helm said...

Thanks for the comment. As to who didn't want Hood to succeed Johnston" I have read in more than one place comments similar to the following from pages 142-143 of McMurry's "John Bell Hood and the War for Southern Independence": "Buck in her flowing white dressing gown met us at the head of the stairs, her blue eyes wide open and shining black with excitement.

"'Things are so bad out there. They cannot be worse, you know. And so they have saved Johnston from the responsibility of his own blunders -- and put Sam in. Poor Sam!'"

The quotation marks indicate that Mrs Chestnut is quoting Buck.


Nate J said...

I agree for the most part with your assessment, but Franklin showed a lack of ingenuity that you wouldn't have expected that late in the war.

Hood had probably the best tactical and fighting general in the civil war scout a flanking movement that he should have adopted given Forrest's record.

How would Franklin have turned out if he had given Forrest a couple of brigades or even a division and set the Devil loose. He probably could have cleaned house with Schofield as soon as Forrest sent him into a panic.

I agree that Hood was a great corp commander but he failed to understand that the confederacy couldn't play tit for tat with casualties hat late in the war(or 3 to 1 in Franklin's Case.) Nor was there reason to do so at Franklin.

One of the fascinating(would have never happened) scenarios would have been if Davis had rolled the dice and promoted Forrest instead.

Obviously, his death threats against Bragg and his status as a non-west pointer made this unrealistic but as far as a desparate gamble it should have been recognized as a 100 to 1 better than Hood.

Again I am not criticizing Hood's overall record but his decision to frontally assault Franklin when he had the War's best flanker and fighter offering to do the job with a brigade or two doesn't make any sense.

The more obvious commander to replace Johnston should have been Hardee or Cleyburne, although considering that Hood was obviously a calculated desparate gamble on Davis's part anyway I would have gambled with Forrest.

Lawrence Helm said...

Nate: I proposed that very thing over on Historum & took a good deal of flack for it, e.g. Forrest was a raider & had never managed an army and it was outrageous of me to propose Forrest as a full general. I argued in return that I wasn't going beyond saying that he would have done better at Franklin & Nashville than Hood did. The debate sort of died away after that.

I've read since my note that Hood couldn't have done what we think Forrest would have -- that Hood checked those options and saw that they wouldn't work -- maybe.


Nate J said...


My argument is from a relative amateur perspective. I know first of all that promotion of Forrest to full general was never on the radar. I also know that we have the benefit of hindsight.

However, my studies to date of Forrest's campaigns do not support this Guerrilla view. He fought Brice's Crossroads using artillery, and wings albeit in a small scale to perfection tactically and strategically. He had a nose for the jugular and would never have let victories sit like Bragg and Johnston did.

Lee, Johnston, and Sherman all called him the best soldier in the war and a genius in not so many words. I believe much of his success and genius was derived from his disassociation and contempt for conventional West Point tactics which were or should have been out of date.

The South needed unconventional and genius in command in the West regardless of whether the man who brought it was an semi-illiterate, non-west pointer, with a temper. In contrast to Bragg his core of subordinate commanders and staff was very loyal and complimentary of him.

To me the most fascinating story of the war about Forrest was his personal tirade and threats against Bragg face to face. Probably the greatest case of direct insubordination in the war and Bragg never said a word about it. Can you imagine Forrest's reaction if he had been in Bragg's position. Bragg wouldn't have made it out of tent alive. He was a natural leader which translates at any level.

At the very least Bragg and Johnston did a great disservice by not supporting him, expanding his command, and slighting him so often by taking away troops and promoting lesser men.

Its fun to speculate on what might of happened. Obviously I am not delusional to think Forrest could have changed the war's outcome, but it would have been interesting.