Why is the recent discovery of the John Bell Hood papers and documents important and why should you care?

I want to start off this interview series acknowledging that Eric Wittenberg’s initial interview with Sam Hood lays the foundation for my interviews. Please start by reading Eric’s interview.

Who is Sam Hood?

Sam Hood is a graduate of Kentucky Military Institute, Marshall University (bachelor of arts, 1976), and a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. A collateral descendent of General John Bell Hood, Sam is a retired industrial construction company owner, past member of the Board of Directors of the Blue Gray Education Society of Chatham, Virginia, and is a past president of the Board of Directors of Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans. Sam resides in his hometown of Huntington, West Virginia and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with his wife of thirty-five years, Martha, and is the proud father of two sons: Derek Hood of Lexington, Kentucky, and Taylor Hood of Barboursville, West Virginia.

Sam Hood made an exciting announcement on October 19th, 2012. Using the Historic Carnton Plantation as his backdrop for a media announcement, Sam revealed that he had “discovered” an extremely important collection of papers, documents and personal items related to Confederate General John Bell Hood. The documents are presently in private hands of a Hood descendant in Pennsylvania. Sam himself is a second cousin to John Bell Hood.

Who are the historians and authors I interviewed for this series of blogposts?

Sam Hood, William T. Davis, Steven E. Woodworth, Wiley Sword, Chris Losson and Thomas Flagel.

Why are the newly discovered Hood papers important?

The news of the documents is exciting, not only for the amount of primary resources it now provides scholars and historians, but for the potentially new interpretations that could come from examining the material.  Sam Hood says that he is absolutely sure the primary resources that have been revealed were personally used by John Bell Hood to construct his memoirs, Advance and Retreat: Personal Experiences in the United States and Confederate States Armies, “which served to justify his actions, particularly in response to what he considered misleading or false accusations made by Joseph E. Johnston, and to unfavorable portrayals in Sherman’s memoirs. (Wikipedia)”

If there are newly warranted interpretations that come from the papers, long-noted critic of John Bell Hood, author and historian Wiley Sword says that the new papers must not stand isolated, on their own:

“Since the new material must be put in context with the existing Hood materials, it should be evident from the beginning that the new documents will NOT STAND ALONE in an interpretation of Hood’s career. Hopefully, they will be a significant adjunct enabling further interpretation and insight, but care must be taken in discounting or ignoring existing original material. Once full access to the new materials (not merely their interpretation and partial reporting) is generated, we will have a better means to review what aspects of Hood’s career might be revised or reinterpreted.”

For those who would quickly conclude that the new Hood papers will significantly re-shape our understanding of John Bell Hood, esteemed T.C.U. Professor and historian Steven E. Woodworth advises:

“It’s way too early to know much about this. It might be big, might not. We just don’t know yet. I think the papers will need to be carefully studied by several well trained and/or experienced historians before we can begin to say how significant this find is.”

In the end, the Hood papers will be deemed valuable by historians from a variety of perspectives. It will largely depend on what one is (or is not) looking for.  Historian and author Chris Losson (author of a book on Confederate General Frank Cheatham) states:

“I would hope that the papers contain information which will more fully explain Hood as a corps commander but particularly as commander of the Army of Tennessee.”

What does the newly revealed collection contain regarding John Bell Hood?

According to Wittenberg’s interview with Sam Hood:

Approximately 80 letters to Hood by high and lower ranked Civil War characters, Union and Confederate, wartime and postwar. Correspondents include Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee, SD Lee, Braxton Bragg, James Seddon, AP Stewart, WH Jackson, SG French, William Bate, Henry Clayton, FA Shoup, Mrs Leonidas Polk, William M Polk, WS Featherston, Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, David S Terry, Matthew C Butler, GW Smith, PGT Beauregard, Louis T Wigfall, George Thomas, WT Sherman, and numerous lower ranked officers, mostly members of commanders’ staffs.

There are 61 postwar letters from Hood to his wife Anna, and 35 from Anna to him as he traveled in his insurance business. Also included are Dr John T Darby’s two highly detailed medical reports of Hood’s Gettysburg and Chickamauga wounds, and the daily log of Hood’s treatment and recovery from the day of his leg amputation until November 24 in Richmond.

The collection also includes Hood’s Orders and Dispatches log and 4 volumes of Telegram logs for his entire tenure as commander of the Army of Tennessee. Additionally, Hood’s first and second lieutenant’s commission certificates from the US Army are in the collection, along with 4 remarkable documents: his original commission certificates for his ranks of brigadier general, major general, lieutenant general, and full general in the Confederate Army. There are also numerous photographs and other ephemera of Hood, his children, and his grandchildren.( Read Eric’s interview. )

What has been the response among historians in the field since the announcement of the collection?

Veteran and trusted author-historian William C. Davis (professor of history at Virginia Tech University and Director of Programs at Virginia Tech’s Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. ) takes a more cautionary approach:

“My immediate response is not to place too much hope for revelations in the papers, but that is based solely on the slim descriptions provided in the Tennesseean article.  I would hope for some personal insights into Hood, but that would require personal letters by him, or from those who knew him very well.  It sounds like this cache is mostly letters to Hood rather than from him.  If I had to guess, I would suspect that the bulk of these are items he gathered while writing his memoir.  As such they will be from people whow ere friends and associates most likely to support his version of events.  That is the way with all memoirs, alas.”

Historian and critic of Hood, Wiley Sword hopes the collection will shed light on some of the more controversial aspects of Hood’s career:

“Since there are many controversial aspects to Hood’s career, hopefully there will be further clarification of some of the more crucial aspects of events and his intentions. For example, Tom Connelly in his Autumn of Glory cites the clandestine Hood correspondence with the Davis administration while serving under Joe Johnston in the Army of Tennessee (pp. 322-323). Much as the president’s watch dog, Hood was informing on Johnston without the later’s knowledge, in a highly prejudiced manner. This original correspondence is in the Western Reserve Historical Collection, Cleveland, Ohio (William P. Palmer Collection of Braxton Bragg papers), and perhaps in the new materials there may be an indication or further evidence of Hood’s instructions to keep Davis and Bragg informed on Johnston, whom neither trusted well. Of course, there are many other aspects of Hood’s career that need further explaining, including his thinking during the  1864 Tennessee Campaign. This would be a much desired clarification of the many disastrous decisions Hood made.”

Historian and author Thomas Flagel perhaps says it best in terms of how the recent discovery of Hood papers’ reminds us that history is still alive:

“On the recent Hood sources, I can be certain of this: it is a magnificent find because it proves once again that History is alive, and it is quite skilled in the element of surprise. Until I get into the documents, and well after, it will be difficult to gauge their magnitude. But their discovery is yet another reason why I love this profession. These are memories lost, and now they have found their way back into the collective consciousness. A few weeks ago, most of us did not know these letters existed. Now, our past, present, and future will not look quite like it did before.”

12 thoughts on “Why is the recent discovery of the John Bell Hood papers and documents important and why should you care?

  1. Sam Hood

    It is astounding that Mr Sword would caution students of JB Hood and the Atlanta and Tennessee Campaigns that “care must be taken in discounting or ignoring existing original material.” I have chronicled countless examples of Mr Sword doing precisely that. Frequently within the same book, report, diary, memoir or other primary source document where Mr Sword extracts criticisms of Hood, there is praise and words of support for Hood, yet Mr Sword consistently conceals the information from readers. He does the same with casualty statistics, “discounting and ignoring” credible numbers reported by Hood’s subordinates in favor of inflated numbers by Sherman and others. Mr Sword also routinely distorts the context of the primary source evidence; often his paraphrasing or portrayal of an event or testimony has no semblance whatsoever to the primary source.

    Mr Sword has almost single handedly destroyed the reputation of a defenseless dead man by distorting and corrupting the meaning of existing historical records, and selectively revealing only evidence that supports the strong anti-Hood premise of his books. My forthcoming book chronicles such conduct by Mr Sword and others.

    The newfound JB Hood papers are what they are, and the “trained” scholars that Dr Woodworth mentions can make of them what they will. But it doesn’t take a trained scholar to read an original letter and reconcile it with an author’s paraphrased presentation of the letter in his book.

    The Hood papers will be made public, probably in the next year, and the public can decide for themselves if Hood was indeed an ignorant, inept, conniving, lying, lovelorn, vindictive, drug-addicted, “fool with a license to kill his own men.”

    Scholars and writers have always been quick to judge historical characters. The Civil War history community–the consumers of the products of professionals–can now, with social media and the internet, likewise judge the professionals in a public forum.

  2. Dale Fishel

    One of the most interesting aspects of historical studies and research is the endless struggle to accurately portray the events surrounding a specific era. In many ways it is an interesting forensics exercise – a recreation. Without the benefit of documentation in the form of letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, telegrams, etc. scholars and authors are often left with incomplete evidence to reach conclusions regarding what really happened. In that circumstance we are often left with circumstantial evidence with which to draw conclusions. This tends to invite the application of opinion in the place of fact – and that’s a slippery slope. Use of probably’s, could have been’s, maybe’s and outright guesswork isn’t history, but it can be thought provoking and interesting. My hope is that this recovery of General Hood’s lost records will afford the opportunity to re-evaluate and thoughtfully consider who he was as a person and what he did in the critical situations he faced. He should be given the same objective appraisal of his Confederate and Union peers.

  3. Sam Hood

    Mr Towne:

    Thanks for the well-reasoned and informative comment.

    In the newfound Hood papers is a letter from Hood to Louis T Wigfall dated April 4, 1864, that will tell CW scholarship much about the nature of Hood’s correspondence with Richmond that Mr Sword calls “clandestine.” (The letter is one of four wartime letters from Hood to Wigfall that were returned to Hood’s daughter Lillian Hood Post by Wigfall’s daughter Louise Wigfall Wright in the early 1900s.)

    There are many letters in the Hood papers regarding Cassville. One very informative letter is from the Union captain who commanded the very battery that was shelling Hood’s right flank at Cassville. There are also postwar letters from Genl Polk’s son Dr William Polk, who was an aide to his father at Cassville, confirming what Hood and Polk counseled Johnston on the evening of the Cassville affair, later denied by Johnston.

    My long-running problems with Mr Sword are well-known throughout the Civil War history community and I find it extremely difficult to withhold personal comments on his historiography and objectivity when it comes to his interpretations and presentions of anything related to Hood. In response to his interview comments I will only say that I agree with your aforementioned response, and I thank you for making them.

    Sam Hood

    1. Sam Hood

      Mr Towne,

      I don’t see your most recent comment so this reply from me may appear to readers to be out of order.

      The original Walter Morris letter is among Hood’s papers. It was incredible to hold the actual letter in my hands while I had my copy of Advance & Retreat on the table in front of me, turned to the page where Morris’s letter appears.

      You are correct that William Polk was not present at the Cassville meeting of Johnston and his senior commanders. Polk’s postwar letters to Hood state that his father later conveyed to him the details of the meeting and that it was exactly as Hood recalled.

      Sam Hood

  4. Sam Hood

    Although I have completed the transcribing of a majority of the documents in the newfound Hood collection, I haven’t even begun on the orders and dispatches book, or the four telegram logs.

    I appreciate your acknowledging the importance of confidentiality as I proceed with the painstakingly tedious task of transcribing the numerous handwritten documents. Unfortunately, some information contained in the letters is so substantive that prudence dictates that, when practicable, I complete as many transcriptions as possible before revealing factual assertions contained in any particular letter. What if a correspondent makes a controversial claim in a letter that I have transcribed, but evidence appears in a yet-to-be-transcribed letter or in the orders and dispatches log that says otherwise, or impeaches the credibility of the correspondent? I’m sure you understand.

  5. Pingback: Has John Bell Hood been treated fairly by modern historians? «

  6. Pingback: Do all historians have bias and does it impact their doing history? «

  7. Pingback: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about John Bell Hood? «

  8. Pingback: How do the recently discovered John Bell Hood papers compare to other recent Civil War discoveries? «

  9. W. Bengston

    No matter what, Hood cannot defend his actions at Franklin nor others during the battle of Atlanta when he needlessly wasted the lives of so many of his troops. His biography seems like he is always blaming others for his mistakes. His total disregard for the chain of command is totally unforgivable.

    1. Anonymous

      How do I even attempt to have a reasonable discourse with someone who begins their comment with “No matter what.” Thus, if you excuse me I will decline to respond.

  10. Sam

    How do I have a reasonable discourse with someone who begins their comment with “No matter what.”?

    Kraig, please excuse me if I decline to make an attempt.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s