John Bell Hood

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John Bell Hood

Born June 1, 1831
Owingsville, Kentucky
Died August 30, 1879
New Orleans, Louisiana

Confederate general
Led failed Southern effort to keep Union forces
from capturing Atlanta in 1864

John Bell Hood was a Confederate general of unquestioned bravery and dedication. As a division commander he displayed great courage at many of the Civil War's most violent battles. These skirmishes included Second Bull Run (August 1862) and Fredericksburg (December 1862) in Virginia; Antietam (September 1862) in Maryland; Gettysburg (July 1863) in Pennsylvania; and Chickamauga (September 1863) in Georgia. Hood's devotion to the Southern cause was so great that he remained on active military duty even after suffering wounds that crippled one arm and required the amputation of one of his legs. But Hood's performance as commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee from July 1864 to January 1865 has tarnished his reputation. During that period he not only failed to stop Union forces from capturing Atlanta, Georgia, but also made a series of disastrous battlefield decisions that virtually destroyed his army.

Adopts Texas as home state

John Bell Hood was born in Bath County, Kentucky, in 1831. His father was a prosperous planter (plantation owner) who also ran a rural medical practice. Hood's childhood environment became even more comfortable in the mid-1830s, when his maternal grandfather died and left the family more than 225,000 acres of land.

As a youngster, Hood was a troublemaker who got in fistfights with other boys on a regular basis. He managed to gain admission into the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1849, however, thanks to his father's wealth and the assistance of an uncle who was a U.S. congressman. During his time at West Point, his poor grades and taste for mis-chief nearly resulted in his expulsion. As a senior, however, he developed a deep admiration for Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry), who took over as the academy's superintendent during that year. This admiration may have helped Hood reduce some of his bad behavior. In any event, he managed to perform just well enough to graduate from the school in 1853 (he ranked forty-fourth out of fifty-two graduates).

After leaving West Point, Hood was made a second lieutenant in an infantry company. He served in the U.S. Army in both New York and California until 1855, when he became a second lieutenant in the Second U.S. Cavalry in Texas. Hood developed a deep love for Texas's rugged frontier country over the next several years. He liked the rough beauty of the land and identified with the independent pioneer spirit of its settlers.

Hood's career in the U.S. Army came to an end in early 1861, after years of growing hostility between America's Northern and Southern states finally boiled over into war. The main issue dividing the two regions was slavery. Northern states wanted to abolish slavery because many of their citizens became convinced that it was a cruel and evil institution. Southern states resisted efforts to end slavery, though. The Southern economy had become dependent on slavery over the years, and white Southerners worried that their way of life would collapse if slavery was abolished (eliminated). America's westward expansion during this time made this dispute even worse, since both sides wanted to spread their way of life—and their political ideas—into the new territories and states. The two sides finally went to war in early 1861 when the Southern states tried to secede from (leave) the Union and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America.

Hood resigned from the U.S. Army on April 17, 1861, after the Texas legislature voted to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. Disgusted by Kentucky's decision to stay with the Union, he subsequently adopted Texas as his new home state and enlisted in the Confederate Army from there.

A fighting general

Once the Civil War started, Hood quickly gained a reputation as a tough and brave officer. He joined the Confederate military as a captain, but he rose rapidly through the ranks as word of his bravery and no-nonsense leadership spread. In March 1862, he was promoted to brigadier general and given command of the tough Texas Brigade, which was part of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee's force was the Confederacy's largest army, and as the war progressed it engaged in many of the conflict's biggest battles. Hood participated in most of these clashes, impressing friend and foe alike with his fearless approach to war. "Hood turned out to be an excellent combat commander," wrote Steven E. Woodworth in Jefferson Davis and His Generals. "An aggressive, ferocious fighter, Hood came to be considered one of Lee's better brigade commanders and was soon promoted to major general."

Hood's bold approach to combat made him one of the Confederacy's best-known officers and helped Lee secure several big battlefield victories. As the war progressed, however, Hood's hard-charging style earned him a number of serious war injuries. The most serious of these injuries took place at the battles of Gettysburg and Chickamauga. At Gettysburg (fought July 1–3, 1863, in Pennsylvania), Hood received a wound that permanently crippled his left arm. A few months later at Chickamauga (fought September 19–20, 1863, in Georgia), Hood was shot in the right leg while leading a charge. Soldiers quickly transported him to Richmond, where doctors were forced to amputate his leg at mid-thigh in order to save his life.

Hood spent the next several months in Richmond. As he worked to regain his strength, he struck up a pleasurable friendship with Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see entry) and his family. Hood's stay in the Confederacy's capital city also brought him sorrow, though. As a man who had always been physically active and strong, he found it very difficult to adjust to his new physical limitations. In addition, he waged a desperate campaign to win the heart of an attractive Southern woman named Sally Buchanan Preston during this time. When she rejected him over the Christmas holidays, Hood was emotionally crushed.

Battling against Sherman

In February 1864, Hood returned to active military service despite his injuries. Assigned to command a corps of troops in the Army of Tennessee, Hood reached its camp in Georgia at the end of the month. Once Hood arrived, he tackled his new responsibilities with great eagerness. He routinely rode twenty miles a day, even though he had to be strapped on to his horse because of his war injuries. He also encouraged Army of Tennessee commander Joseph E. Johnston (1807–1891; see entry) to adopt a plan advanced by Davis to launch an invasion into Union-held Tennessee. Davis believed that one or two more big Southern victories might convince the Northern states to end their efforts to break the Confederacy and restore the Union.

Johnston, however, resisted calls for a major offensive. More cautious than Hood, he hesitated to attack unless he was sure that he could win. In addition, he believed that the Confederacy's best chance of gaining independence was to avoid major losses and hope that Northern voters replaced President Abraham Lincoln in the fall 1864 elections with someone who would agree to Confederate independence in exchange for peace.

Davis and Johnston argued over strategy throughout the first few months of 1864. Then, in May 1864, Union general William T. Sherman (1820–1891; see entry) launched a full-scale invasion of Georgia in hopes of destroying the Army of Tennessee. Johnston used a variety of skillful maneuvers to avoid a full-scale battle with Sherman's much-larger army. But while Johnston's evasive tactics frustrated Sherman, the Union general kept moving his army deeper into Georgia. By early summer, the Army of Tennessee had been pushed all the way from northern Georgia to the outskirts of Atlanta, one of the most important cities still controlled by the Confederacy.

Hood takes command in the West

As Davis received reports detailing Sherman's advance on Atlanta, he became convinced that Johnston's reluctance to attack the invading Northern army would eventually result in the loss of the city. Hood contributed to Davis's mounting anxiety by sending a series of letters that were highly critical of Johnston's defensive strategy. The Confederate president thus decided to replace Johnston with Hood, even though General Lee thought that appointing Hood was a bad idea. "Hood is a bold fighter," stated Lee. "I am doubtful as to [whether he possesses] other qualities necessary [to lead the army effectively]."

Hood assumed his new position as commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee on July 17, 1864. One day later he was made a full general with temporary rank. Hood understood that he had been promoted because of his aggressiveness and willingness to fight. With this in mind, he immediately made plans to attack Sherman's forces. He ignored the advice of many other officers, engaging Sherman's larger force in a series of battles around the outskirts of Atlanta. Delighted with the dramatic change in the South's strategy, Sherman battered Hood in each of these engagements.

By August, Hood's tired army was trapped in the city of Atlanta, and Sherman had seized control of most of the surrounding countryside. Rather than order a bloody assault on the city's defenses, though, Sherman placed the city under siege (a military blockade designed to prevent the city from receiving food and other supplies from outside). Hood's defense of Atlanta ended on September 1, when his forces lost control of the last railway lines providing supplies to Atlanta at the Battle of Jonesboro. Aware that he could no longer keep Atlanta out of Union hands, Hood hurriedly withdrew his army out of the city. Sherman's Army of the Mississippi moved in to take possession of the town one day later, on September 2.

Hood's desperate gamble

In the weeks following Sherman's capture of Atlanta, the Union Army engaged in a series of skirmishes (minor fights) with Hood's force, which continued to lurk in the region. In November 1864, Sherman's army set fire to Atlanta and marched eastward out of the city. Sherman planned to march through the heart of the Confederacy, seizing supplies and destroying croplands along the way. "If we can march a well-appointed [prepared] army right through [Jefferson Davis's] territory, it is a demonstration to the world . . . that we have a power which Davis cannot resist," said Sherman. "I can make the march, and make Georgia howl!"

Hood knew that his battered army did not have the muscle to stop Sherman's superior force as it began its fearsome "March to the Sea." Instead, the Confederate commander moved his army into Tennessee in a desperate attempt to catch Sherman's attention. He hoped to lure Sherman out of Georgia by threatening both his supply lines and the Union-held city of Nashville. Hood's strategy, wrote historian James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom, created "the odd spectacle of two contending armies turning their backs on each other and marching off in opposite directions. As it turned out, there was more method in Sherman's madness than in Hood's."

Sherman ignored Hood's offensive. The Union general knew that his army could supply itself by taking what it needed from Southern towns and farms as it made its way across the Confederate heartland. In addition, he knew that sixty thousand federal troops under the command of General George H. Thomas (1816–1870; see entry) would be awaiting Hood in Tennessee. Sherman thus continued his methodical march across the South, destroying Confederate property and morale with each passing mile.

Hood, meanwhile, continued to move deeper into Tennessee with his weary forty thousand–man army. Worried that the Confederacy was on the verge of total collapse, he came up with another desperate plan to reverse the war's momentum. He decided to use his army in a bid to regain control of Tennessee and Kentucky and eventually move against Union forces gathered in Virginia. This plan was doomed to fail, but as historian Bruce Catton wrote in The Civil War, "the plain fact of the matter was that Hood had no good choice to make."

On November 30, 1864, Hood's dreams of somehow reversing the South's fortunes were crushed once and for all. On that day he launched a full-scale assault on Union forces at Franklin, Tennessee, about twenty-five miles south of Nashville. The well-entrenched Union Army, commanded by Major General John M. Schofield (1831–1906), easily turned back every rebel charge. By the time Hood called off the disastrous attack, he had lost more than sixty-two hundred men and the respect of many of his troops. "I have never seen an army so confused and demoralized," confessed one member of the Army of Tennessee who took part in the battle. "The whole thing seemed to be tottering and trembling."

Two weeks later, Thomas finished off Hood's exhausted and demoralized army at the Battle of Nashville. This battle, fought on December 15 and 16, virtually destroyed the Army of Tennessee, as wave after wave of Union troops battered Hood's defenses. Remnants of the courageous rebel army managed to escape, but Confederate authorities never managed to put the pieces back together again. The Army of Tennessee remained sidelined for the remainder of the war.

Hood survived the Battle of Nashville, but the destruction of his army depressed him terribly. Wracked with guilt and grief at his failures, he resigned his command on January 13, 1865. Four months later he surrendered to Union troops in Natchez, Mississippi, as the war drew to a close.

Settles in New Orleans

After the Civil War ended, Hood started a cotton business in New Orleans. He married Anna Marie Henen, with whom he had eleven children. He also wrote a book about his wartime experiences called Advance and Retreat. Before he could find a publisher for his memoirs, however, a yellow fever epidemic swept through New Orleans. The epidemic disrupted businesses throughout the city and bankrupted several prominent businessmen, including Hood.

In August 1879, the epidemic claimed the lives of Hood, his wife, and one of his daughters. At first, it appeared that Hood's ten orphaned children might be cast into poverty by the deaths of their parents. But family friends found a publisher for Hood's memoirs and arranged to have the profits distributed to his children.

Where to Learn More

Coffey, David A. John Bell Hood and the Struggle for Atlanta. Abilene, TX: McWhiney Foundation Press, McMurray University, 1998.

Hood, John Bell. Advance and Retreat: Personal Experiences in the UnitedStates & Confederate States Armies. New Orleans: Hood Orphan Memorial Fund, 1880. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

McMurry, Richard M. John Bell Hood and the War for Southern Independence. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

Woodworth, Steven E. Jefferson Davis and His Generals. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.

Hood's Texas Brigade

Early in John Bell Hood's Civil War career, he commanded a famous brigade (military unit consisting of two or more regiments) of Confederate troops that came to be known as Hood's Texas Brigade. This brigade was first organized in November 1861 from thirty-two volunteer infantry companies recruited in Texas. Its three regiments of Texas soldiers—the First, Fourth, and Fifth Texas Infantry—were the only units from that state who served in General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia (the brigade also included the Eighteenth Georgia Infantry and the Third Arkansas Infantry at various points during the war).

This brigade was originally commanded by Louis T. Wigfall. But when he left in early 1862 to take a seat in the Confederate Senate, Hood took his place. He quickly established the brigade as one of the fiercest fighting units in the entire war. By mid-1862, when Hood left for a new command assignment, his Texas Brigade was known across the country as a fearless and ferocious unit. Even after Hood departed, the members of the unit continued to refer to themselves by their old leader's name in order to honor him. In fact, their regard for Hood was so great that when he lost his leg after the Battle of Chickamauga, the members of the brigade collected $3,100 in contributions in a single day in order to buy him a good artificial leg.

The fighting spirit shown by Hood's Texas Brigade made it one of the war's most respected units. The brigade's fearless style, however, did take a heavy toll on its members. In fact, the brigade suffered record casualty rates during the war. It is estimated that approximately forty-five hundred men served in its ranks at one time or another, either as original members, later recruits, or replacements. Of those soldiers, fewer than 480 remained to see the Confederacy surrender in the spring of 1865.

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