I had originally wanted to publish this review much sooner, but alas sometimes life gets in the way. Look for more reviews on here in the coming weeks, as my season at Antietam has drawn to a close in time for me to finish some of the other projects that are ongoing.
And now, for the review...
There has been much discussion over Stephen Hood’s new book “John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General.” The volume, published by Savas Beatie, is a fresh examination of Hood, not as much the man or the general, but rather how he has been perceived through the generations. The book is organized by chapters which each tackle a separate Hood “myth” or misunderstanding. Much of the text is spent discussing historiography and what others have said about Hood. Among the specific topics taken on the author discusses how certain “myths” about the general came about, such as his alleged use of Laudanum and misstatements about the bravery of his men.
During the course of these arguments, the reader picks up quite a bit of information about Hood. I have seen other historians and writers criticize the book as being shallow on historiography. I cannot understand why, as every chapter devotes significant attention to various authors and historians who have perpetuated myths regarding Hood. Of all the things that can be said of this book, saying the author doesn’t take historiography into account is certainly not one of them.
Overall, the book is a worthwhile addition to the literature on Confederate generals, especially on Hood. I can’t imagine anyone writing on Hood in the near future and not having to either read, cite, consult, or address Stephen Hood’s new book. At the end of the day, that is perhaps one of the most important things that can be said of any work.
That being said, I didn’t find every argument the author made to be compelling, and there were some points that were made with which I just flat out disagreed. The author addressed some of the myths or charges against Hood by deflecting attention and blame onto other commanders. For example, when discussing claims that Hood was ruthless or that he spoke poorly of his men, the author cites Sherman’s writings and conduct following Kennesaw Mountain as an example that other generals occasionally spoke in cold, calculating terms about bloodshed on the battlefield. This example doesn’t really address the stated issue of the chapter, nor does it specifically refute the idea of Hood as a cold general when it came to loss.
There certainly were other arguments which I found unconvincing. I agree in part with Carole Emberton's review of the work, published on the Civil War Monitor here. Emberton raises some issues with the book that are legitimate (I'll leave it to you to read her arguments and take part in the debate), but her judgment that the book misses the mark because it fails to provide a new view of Hood is incorrect. The author is quite clear in stating that this book is not a biography, but rather a defense of Hood in light of the negative aura that historians have built around the general for decades. Knowing that going in to the book is a key part to understanding its arguments.
Don’t let this distract you or dissuade you from taking the book seriously, however. The point isn’t whether I was entirely convinced by every chapter and every argument. In some instances, my opinion was changed. In others, it wasn’t. An author shouldn't have to make his reader agree with every point in the book for him to accomplish his job. The point is that each chapter and each argument caused me to stop, think, and reevaluate my own understanding of Hood. I can think of few higher compliments that can be given to any new book. That fact alone means that the author and the book are doing something right.
One of my complaints with the work is that throughout, many mentions are made of the author having a set of new, never before published personal papers from Hood. The papers are quotes or referenced selectively, and the reader is left desiring to learn more about this collection. I have recently learned, however, that there is a forthcoming volume of these new Hood papers, edited by Stephen Hood, and being published by Savas Beatie. I am in part reserving some judgment on the book until these papers are published. Because the papers mentioned in the book were brought up sparingly and selectively, I am curious to learn more and see how they may or may not further support the author's arguments.
When I finished the book, I had a renewed respect for John Bell Hood. Many of the “myths” surrounding him were soundly, efficiently, and entirely dismantled, such as the idea that Hood was addicted to laudanum.
Despite this being one of the most talked about part of the book in various reviews and online blog posts, I found it to be a rather small piece of the larger story. Viewing this book as an argument that Hood never used laudanum is to miss the forest for the trees. The point isn’t the alleged drug use; the point is to clarify, and where necessary debunk, the wild rumors which have impeded our view and understanding of Hood for so many years. The author's efficient and systematic dismantling of this myth was a small, yet important part of the book in that regard.
I have read biographies on the general before, and expected this to be more biographical in nature. However, despite the book taking a different approach than I expected, I still finished it glad that I had read it. The field of Civil War scholarship needs more books like this one, with more authors like Stephen Hood, being willing to challenge long held and deeply entrenched myths about the American Civil War. I have long believed that the average history buff knows more fiction than fact about the Civil War. Books like this have a place, and are needed in scholarship to correct such myths, start conversations, fuel debates, and give us pause to reflect upon whether or not our opinions are formed by fact or by years of misstatements and mythology. If you have an interest in John Bell Hood, or if you have an interest in fresh new approaches to writing about the Civil War, I would recommend John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General by Stephen Hood.