Thursday, June 7, 2012

On the reassessment of Civil War generals, e.g. General Hood

Someone wrote me privately wanting to argue about Burnside. I’ll probably get more into him in a couple of weeks. At present I’m more interested in Hood whose reputation has traditionally been much worse than Burnside’s. After years of passionate debate about these and other generals some scholars are making “better” assessments. By “better” I mean that the information about the various generals has improved cumulatively, but also the task of the historian is better understood and practiced than in earlier times. It is very difficult not to impose our present views upon earlier times. Some historians have been able to put those times into a “better” more objective and accurate context.

An easy criticism is “he should have known”; which is truly an absurd criticism when we honestly attempt to put ourselves back into those times. Imagine taking your family into the woods with an inadequate map and no knowledge of the territory. Imagine getting lost. Then imagine all the authorities saying “you should have known.” Today that would mean you should have taken better maps, a GPS, or perhaps have “known better” than to have gone into the woods in those circumstances, but back in the 1860s there were huge tracts of land where virtually no one knew what was in them. The enemy was “out there” some place but you didn’t know exactly where.

Guessing was a big part of generalship. Sherman was a great guesser but on one occasion he did “a very dangerous thing. He had divided his army and made it possible for Hood to attack it unit by unit; and that is precisely what he did. He struck Thomas with the expectation of defeating him and then turning on Schofield and McPherson, several miles to the east, before they could effect a junction with Thomas.” Hood called his three corps commanders together and explained his plan. They agreed it was a good one and went off to get their troops ready for the attack. But because of the uncertain terrain nothing went as planned. When the attack did occur it was with an inadequate force and Thomas held out against it. Should Hood “have known”? I don’t see how he could have. The Corps commander who “failed” the worst was Hardee who many at the time rated better at managing an Army than Hood. But Hood took the blame for this failure.

Sherman realized it had been a near thing. If Hood’s plans had worked successfully as well it might, Sherman would have suffered a defeat. He called his own corps commanders together for a “lessons learned” session: “We agreed that we ought to be unusually cautious and prepared at all times for sallies and hard fighting, because Hood, though not deemed much of a scholar, or of great mental capacity, was undoubtedly a brave, determined, and rash man. . . .”

As we read the correspondence of Jefferson Davis and Braxton Bragg we learn that Hood’s approach was just what they were looking for. Previous generals were too defensively minded. Davis & Bragg wanted more aggression and Hood gave it to them. Unfortunately for Hood’s reputation Davis and Bragg didn’t give Hood enough men to pull off that ‘brave, determined and rash” sort of combat. So Hood ran out of troops, and his reputation suffered accordingly. He was no longer the most highly praised of generals and his fiancé broke off their engagement – no one says that was why she broke it off but with the “shine” off of Hood, sitting there, wrinkled and worn with only one leg and one arm she realized she wasn’t really in love with him. Few people were. One woman however did love him. They married after the war and had eleven children – ending speculation that Hood’s injury may have damaged more than his leg.

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