To be published in August 2014, Amazon says: Scholars hail the find as “the most important discovery in Civil War scholarship in the last half century.” The invaluable cache of Confederate General John Bell Hood’s personal papers includes wartime and postwar letters from comrades, subordinates, former enemies and friends, exhaustive medical reports relating to Hood’s two major wounds, and dozens of touching letters exchanged between Hood and his wife, Anna. This treasure trove of information is being made available for the first time for both professional and amateur Civil War historians in Stephen “Sam” Hood’s The Lost Papers of Confederate General John Bell Hood.
The recent announcement of the newly discovered John Bell Hood papers is one of the largest and most significant findings of primary resource material tied to a major historical figure from the American Civil War in years. I asked several historians the same question: what are some other examples of newly discovered material about an important Civil War personality?
Jack Davis: I can’t think of anything similar in recent years. A lot of RE Lee private letters were revealed to be in family hands a few years ago, but they have not been released to the general public, only made available to Elizabeth Pryor for her book. There is no typical route by which such things become available to the general public. Sometimes they are published, sometimes sold at private auction, sometimes bought by a public archive, and sometimes donated to an archive.
Wiley Sword: Much to my amazement, there has been a lot of new information recently discovered. For example, I’m currently working on transcribing an archive of more than 100 Brig. Gen. Bradley Johnson letters. While most are ante-bellum, there is much new material with insightful perspectives on Johnson’s entire life. Also, this week, I’ve just run across various original unpublished and unknown Alexander Stephens – the Confederacy’s vice president – letters. Even Franklin seems to be involved. I’ve obtained a marvelous postwar letter and six very detailed battlefield drawings of an early prominent student of the battle, William D. Thompson (ex. lieut. 97th O.V.I.), which gives new information on the Carters and clarifys positions of Union troops. I have not yet released this material. Further, there have been recent new discoveries of other important material, much of which I’ve published in Blue & Gray Magazine, including the Longstreet-Jenkins-Law feud, Abraham Lincoln’s brush with death at the scene of a rocket test in 1862 (the rocket exploded); Hooker’s attempts to get ammunition to the front at Chancellorsville, etc. In all, there seems to be new material and new insights forthcoming. Let’s hope it continues.
Steven Woodworth: Bud Robertson finding Stonewall Jackson’s little black book of aphorisms, etc., when he was researching his Jackson biography.
Chris Losson: In 1999 a biography of Union general Orlando Willcox was published. The biography was based on papers that were discovered in a Washington, D.C. attic. Historian Robert Garth Scott used those papers, including a journal kept by Willcox, to create the biography. Certainly Hood was higher on the Civil War “food chain” than Willcox and if this is a sizeable collection it is the most important find in years. Because of the success of the film Glory, it was significant when a collection of Robert Gould Shaw’s letters were made widely available in an edited work. Yet scholars had known of the existence of Shaw’s letters, which had been published in a small print run by the Shaw family after the war. But it is hard to conceive of any collection that has surfaced recently that will challenge the discovery of Hood’s papers.
Question: What do you say to some historians – like Wiley Sword – who say Hood’s biggest critics were his own men and colleagues?
Answer by Sam Hood
Such statements are demonstrably factually incorrect. Like all commanders, Hood had critics—officer and enlisted men—but he also had plenty of supporters. Those who expressed sympathies and support for Hood are almost always concealed from readers. The opposite is true of Joe Johnston, who is portrayed as having been almost universally worshiped by everyone except JB Hood and Jefferson Davis. In my research I found countless criticisms of Johnston’s tactics by his officers and men. As for Hood, a classic example of how authors’ portrayals can influence perceptions is Sam Watkins, who in his diary recorded three times as many praises of Hood than criticisms, yet his critical comments about Hood appear in virtually all modern literature on the Army of Tennessee while his affectionate expressions for Hood are almost always absent.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about JBH?
Wow. Where do I begin?
Robert E Lee did not prefer William Hardee over Hood to succeed Johnston as commander of the Army of Tennessee.
Hood was not stupid.
Hood cared very much about casualties of his troops.
Hood did not write “poison pen” letters to Richmond intended to make Johnston look bad and take Johnston’s job.
Hood was not a poor army logistician, and other than shoes and blankets (which Hood implored the Confederate government multiple times to provide) the Army of Tennessee was well supplied during the Tennessee Campaign.
Hood absolutely was NOT a proponent of frontal assaults. (In fact Franklin was the only frontal attack Hood ever ordered as an independent army commander.)
Hood did not accuse any soldier of cowardice, nor did any of his soldiers ever think that he did. In fact he strongly praised the Army of Tennessee, and did so often.
Hood was not angry at any time after the early morning hours of Nov 30, 1864, and his decision to attack at Franklin was made after careful, composed consideration.
The attack at Franklin was not intended to punish his troops or teach them any sort of lesson. He had one reason to attack at Franklin: to destroy Schofield’s army before it reached Nashville.
Hood did not position any troops at Franklin to make them face the strongest enemy fire.
Hood did not shirk responsibility for his defeats; rather, he took personal responsibility.
Hood wasn’t obsessively infatuated with his girlfriend.
Hood didn’t use drugs or alcohol.
And just for fun, how about this one: the Army of Tennessee never sang “The Yellow Rose of Texas” with lyrics that ended with “But the gallant Hood of Texas played Hell in Tennessee.” (It is recorded that only one soldier sang it just one time.)
Sam Hood: I can’t speak for all historians, and although I don’t consider myself a historian, I certainly have biases, and assume everyone does. I love the ancient Roman historian Cicero’s quote: “The first law of the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice.” Cicero would roll over in his grave if he knew of some of the books published on the Tennessee Campaign.
Steven Woodworth: Absolutely! All historians have biases (and so does everybody else). How it affects one’s interpretation of the sources depends on what the bias is. When someone is expected to have a very strong bias in a particular direction, other historians are going to discount for that.
Jack Davis: Of course historians have biases. They are human, and no one is immune the bias or prejudice, however hard we may try to eliminate it from our work. And it can definitely impact how they interpret documents. Douglas Southall Freeman was notoriously humorless, and as a result his Lee is humorless, and Freeman completely misunderstood Lee when he wrote something tongue-in-cheek.
Wiley Sword: Bias is a very severe word – it suggests the lack of objectivity. Having long endured accusations of such from many of the Hood faction, I’m very familiar with this aspect. Contrary to much of what they have written in my case, when I originally began work on Embrace an Angry Wind, I had very little knowledge of John Bell Hood, and thus had no prior opinion or bias to promote as an agenda. Only through research of primary CONTEMPORARY materials did my opinions form. Thus when a statement was made critical of Hood in the book, it was based on a factual reference, fully documented as to source in the reference notes. Quite frankly, as I have long suggested, many of Hood’s men were his greatest critics, and I have been merely one of the means of their commentary. This same process has been used in many other of my projects, and my strong criticism of, for example, Braxton Bragg, P.G.T. Beauregard, and others has gone without the emotional response (including personal attacks and outright slander) from supporters of those generals. Certainly, Hood had his virtues as well as his liabilites, and as a complex personality with a dramatic role in the war he deserves further interpretaion, including such that the “new” papers might provide. As for other historians’ bias; this is an individual matter, and is not easily determined, but any qualified historian who seeks to explain history’s why and how events happened must be completely honest and write with integrity if the significant history of this nation is to be served.
Chris Losson: Historians live and operate within a certain era and cannot help but be biased. The trick is to be aware of this bias as much as possible and try to write as fair and balanced an assessment of events and people as you can. The amount of research material often dictates what you can do. Before these Hood papers surfaced, biographers had to make do with what limited material on him they could find in public repositories and other scholarship. Still, the times we live in inevitably impact our research and our writing. An early historian of the South, U. B. Phillips, made major contributions in terms of our understanding of the Old South, using primary sources in many instances. He also believed that slavery was generally a positive institution for the slaves. Needless to say, if he was around today and wrote what he did when alive he would be pilloried. I always tell my students early in a school year that I am going to teach them an interpretation of the past, and that their children and grandchildren may learn other (perhaps contradictory) interpretations. As society changes, historical interpretations do so as well. My grandparents in Louisville almost assuredly believed that blacks were inherently inferior to whites, although they may well have had cordial relationships with individual African Americans. But I would be rightfully dismissed if I told my contemporary students that their black classmates are by nature inferior owing to their skin color! In terms of John Bell Hood, both he and Joseph E. Johnston wrote books that were highly critical of the other officer. Frank Cheatham wrote an article defending his actions at Spring Hill. These men all knew that the Civil War was the most important event of their lives and they wanted to present themselves in as positive a light as possible. This is a very human instinct, I think; how many of us would write an autobiography that unhesitatingly exposed our darkest flaws and mistakes? In terms of the newly found Hood papers, it may well be that some people (I imagine Sam Hood among them) will find the material a useful way to devise a more positive assessment of General Hood than he has received from some scholars. Yet it stands to reason that other historians will use the material, juxtapose it with other sources about Hood in other manuscript collections, memoirs, and primary/secondary sources that will still criticize Hood (to use one example) for what happened at Franklin. Who will be right? Each author will feel that their account is the closest to that elusive truth. But it may take another writer who can try objectively as possible to weigh the pros and cons of the various interpretations about Hood (or events in which he participated) and synthesize the various arguments and then come up with his/her own interpretation. Each generation probably reinterprets the Civil War, but because of its central importance to our history we still ask big questions and continue assessing how various persons performed during the war. Sometimes popular culture swings public interest; The Killer Angels and the Ken Burns documentary on the war elevated Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain into the stratosphere of Civil War personalities; I discovered that you can even buy a General Chamberlain bobble-head! This is a very long answer to your question, but historians often interpret primary sources through a particular lens; if you think John Bell Hood has been maltreated by historians you may use these new sources to attack those historians. On the other hand, a historian who has an axe to grind against Hood may use the same documents to paint an unflattering portrait of him despite the new evidence. And a third writer may steer a middle course between the positive and negative interpretations. I should add that biographers do eventually arrive at some conclusions about their subjects that may or may not be accepted by other scholars. In my own limited case, some historians are far less generous to Frank Cheatham than I was and are highly critical of his abilities or lack thereof. But that’s what makes history such a dynamic field; we certainly don’t agree, sometimes on even rather trivial matters.
Second in a series of interview with Sam Hood ? Part One
QUESTION: In your view, JBH has been treated unfairly, especially by historians in the past 40 years. How so? Why do you think he has been?
Sam Hood: The degree to which JB Hood has been treated unfairly by modern authors is astonishing. Anyone who reads the first major book on the Tennessee Campaign by Thomas Hay (1921) and then reads Wiley Sword’s 1992 book on the same event would think that the Army of Tennessee’s commander was two different men. The first harsh criticisms of Hood appeared in Stanley Horn’s 1941 Army of Tennessee, followed by Thomas Connelly’s caustic portrayal of Hood in Autumn of Glory (1971), and Wiley Sword went completely off the deep end with The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah in 1992. Between Connelly and Sword’s book was Connelly and James McDonough’s collaboration in Five Tragic Hours which was as equally biased as Sword’s. The evolution of the decline in JB Hood’s legacy closely tracks these five books.
Sadly, most books written in the last 20 years are heavily influenced by Sword’s eloquent polemic, and new authors innocently cite his book excessively in their own books. This is how common legends are created. My forthcoming book John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General is over 100,000 words and approximately 1,000 endnotes that detail the hyperbole, inaccurate paraphrasing, mischaracterization of events, factual errors, and fact-filtering that many modern authors have done in their portrayals of Hood. I could have written 500,000 words and still not exposed all the instances.