Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, 150 years after it occurred. Written and maintained by Daniel J. Vermilya, a Park Ranger at Antietam National Battlefield and Gettysburg National Military Park.

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overulling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Book Review: John Bell Hood-The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, by Stephen Hood



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.

6 comments:

  1. Sir,

    Thanks for the fair and accurate review. As you keenly observe, my book is not so much about JB Hood, but about what has been written about him, and how it has shaped his historical reputation.

    Allow me to explain the sparse use of the newly discovered personal papers of Hood. I had finished the manuscript of the book when I was invited to inspect some boxes of old papers held by a direct descendent of John Bell and Anna Hood. They turned out to be the work papers and other personal documents of Hood, always thought to have been lost or discarded after his sudden death in 1879. Due to publishing constraints I only had time to transcribe some of the letters, and inserted information from them into the manuscript. I am now completing the manuscript of an annotated volume to be released by Savas Beatie next May, to be titled "The Lost Papers of Confederate General John Bell Hood." Richard McMurry recently reviewed the papers and calls them the most significant discovery in Civil War history in his lifetime. Richard will write the Foreword of my book.

    Thanks again for carefully reading my book in its entirety, and keeping it in proper context.

    Stephen "Sam" Hood

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  2. Mr. Hood,

    Thanks for taking the time to read my review and thanks for visiting my blog. I have seen quite a bit of back and forth lately on this book, and I thought I would add my two cents into the fray. I am glad you found my review to be balanced and in context, as that was my goal. As noted above, I cannot say that you convinced me on every point, nor should you have to. I still enjoyed the book and found it a worthwhile contribution to the literature on Hood.

    There is one question I have for you, sir. Do you have any opinion on Hood's actions at Kolb's farm on June 22, 1864? I am writing a book for the History Press on Kennesaw Mountain, and part of it will be covering the action there and Hood's role in Johnston's defense. Would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, as it was not addressed in your book (understandably so given the constraints of publishing and space).

    Dan

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  3. Dan, please send me an email at samhood52@aol.com. I have a friend in Atlanta currently writing a book reassessing Hood's AOT generalship, and coincidentally, he advised me just last week that he is presently working on Kolb's Farm. I know nothing of that fight and look forward to learning about it myself. I'll put you in touch with him. Thanks again for your review...strengths and weaknesses of my book duly noted.

    With your permission I may later post here some additional info on the parts of the book you felt were less convincing than others. You are absolutely right about that, and there is a reason.

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  4. If I may, a couple of brief comments on the book's shortcomings as accurately noticed by you.

    With a name like Sam Hood, you can imagine how many opinions and questions are given to me when I attend Civil War events. I am often referred to as a direct descendent of the general, and despite my persistent corrections (I am a second cousin) over 15 years I'm still thought by many to be a g-g grandson. Thus I hear much more about Hood than a "typical" Civil Warrior.

    When negotiating with my outstanding publisher Ted Savas, I told him that I wanted to take advantage of my book to broach each and every criticism of Hood I had encountered, everywhere from podiums at my presentations, to discussions in the back of CW tour buses between stops. I told Ted that some were more important than others, but I wanted to try and give my readers some info on all of them. Ted, being the great guy he is, consented, perhaps much to his later dismay. (Probably the best example of this is where I spend several pages on something as silly as the credibility of the myth that the during the retreat from Nashville the soldiers of the AoT sang "The Yellow Rose of Texas" with corrupted lyrics that mocked Hood. Although surprisingly, I have heard from several people who said they found my research on the song interesting.)

    So in my book I wanted to take ALL the common criticisms of Hood--some more legitimate than others--and simply give the man his day in court, so to speak.

    In the example you specifically cite (Hood's seemingly harsh words on casualties) I tried to illustrate that 19th century standards of expression of casualties weren't as sensitive as today. That is why I added to my argument how Hood would openly weep for his men after battles, and some of the compassionate things he said and wrote, which don't seem to make it into the literature as often as some of his words that seem cold.

    But you are correct, some of my cases were stronger than others...both in evidence and the quality of my presentation of the evidence.

    Thanks again for a well-reasoned and efficient review.

    Sam

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  5. Sam,

    I understand your feelings. Working at Antietam, I have grown to have a much different understanding of George McClellan than is the common perception. Every time I hear a visitor refer to McClellan as an "idiot", I make mental note and try to provide some perspective for that person on ways they may look anew at the general. I think McClellan needs his own book just like the one you have written for Hood, which is why I thought it was such a nice contribution to Civil War literature.

    Looking forward to seeing the Papers of Hood published. I will review it on here as well if I can.

    Dan

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