Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Review - "Texas Brigadier to the Fall of Atlanta: John Bell Hood" by Stephen Davis

[Texas Brigadier to the Fall of Atlanta: John Bell Hood by Stephen Davis (Mercer University Press, 2019). Hardcover, 28 maps, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xi,439/514. ISBN:978-0-88146-720-8. $35]

John Bell Hood's blemished record as lieutenant general and his dismal failure as acting full general, both in 1864, have largely overshadowed a stellar Civil War career up to that point. Until fairly recently, the literature's dominant characterization of corps commander Hood was that of a disloyal subordinate who lied and schemed his way into becoming the Davis administration's choice for replacing Joe Johnston at the head of the Army of Tennessee. According to many of those same critics, once Hood got command of the Confederacy's principal western army he then proceeded to bleed it white by launching an unimaginative series of bloody frontal assaults against a capable enemy that greatly outnumbered him. To further discredit Hood, some have gone so far as to paint the crippled general as a drug-addled military egoist who callously sacrificed a brave army he angrily blamed for ruining his brilliant plans. Such assessments, oft repeated, die hard, but the more recent generations of Civil War historians have effectively countered the most unsupportable of those charges. In that group is Atlanta historian Stephen Davis, who is, with the publication of his latest book Texas Brigadier to the Fall of Atlanta: John Bell Hood, now halfway through an exhaustive two-volume military biography of the general.

Roughly one-quarter of Davis's narrative recounts Hood's dynamic exploits on the Virginia Peninsula and at Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Suffolk, and Chickamauga. This 1861-63 coverage might seem proportionally inadequate given the tome-like dimensions of the first volume, but there is already broad consensus concerning the details and analysis of that early to mid-war period of Hood's Civil War career. Even so, it is an excellent critical summary. What is perhaps more interesting than yet another recounting of Hood's celebrated exploits as brigade and division commander is Davis's identification of troubling portents. One of these involves official notice of Hood's negligent oversight of the clothing, equipping, and hygiene of his men, along with reprimands regarding his men's indiscipline off the battlefield. Additionally, when bored with static operations around Suffolk in early 1863, Hood first displayed what would become a troubling penchant for communicating directly with Richmond authorities, bypassing chain of command with self-serving messages.

The extended prologue referenced above also establishes the author's opinion that "ambition" was Hood's "salient characteristic," (pg. 105) a finding mirrored by other writers. Of course, possessing a healthy measure of personal ambition and cultivating powerful patrons were almost prerequisites for any fast rise into the high command ranks of the Civil War's politically-charged volunteer armies. This is a truth many Hood detractors either minimize or ignore. The more important consideration surrounding Hood's ambition was whether it was toxic (i.e. did it negatively affect military operations at key moments, worsen the western army's already divisive command structure, undermine the authority of the army commander, or lead to Hood's elevation over clearly better available candidates). The author's likely answer to most of those questions is a qualified 'yes.'

Part 1 of Texas Brigadier to the Fall of Atlanta comprehensively covers Hood's February-July 1864 tenure as corps commander in Joe Johnston's revitalized Army of Tennessee. According to Davis's research, the new lieutenant general immediately proved popular with the troops (though Hood privately complained, inaccurately, that his corps contained all the "untried" men in the army, as if by pointing this out more than once he could avoid responsibility if his corps performed poorly in the upcoming campaign). As he had done earlier in his career, Hood also continued to violate army regulations by regularly corresponding with military and political officials in Richmond. To be fair, as Davis points out, the army's senior corps commander, William J. Hardee, did the same.

Though the the two men became bitter enemies during the postwar blame game and memoir battles, the much younger Hood seems to have become Johnston's chief advisor among his lieutenant generals (a personal relationship that makes the backdoor correspondence with Richmond all the more unseemly). Davis develops this conclusion through a number of sources, including the writings of officers and civilian visitors who frequently found Johnston and Hood in intimate consultation at army headquarters. Though other writers still seem hesitant to do so, Davis incorporates author and Hood apologist Stephen Hood's strongest arguments into his analysis, but he more compellingly sees the matter of General Hood's correspondence as one of the major blind spots in author Hood's often convincing brand of revisionism. In the end, Davis justifiably stands with the chorus of historians who see the content and nature of Hood's self-serving letter campaign (culminating in his infamous July 14 letter to General Bragg) as dishonest scheming for army command.

Though the matter of "phantom legions" being the source of Hood's aborted attack at Cassville has been thoroughly debunked for some time now, the historiography long-condemned Hood for allegedly ruining Johnston's most promising offensive battle plan. Davis thoroughly agrees with the current historical consensus that there was indeed a strong force beyond Hood's right that had to be taken into account. As Davis reiterates, though, Hood's continuous complaints about Johnston's timidity belied his own lack of fighting spirit at key moments in the campaign. For instance, after the army recollected itself atop a ridge south of Cassville, Hood and Polk's combined belief that they could not hold their defensive lines convinced Johnston against his own judgment to withdraw from yet another seemingly strong position.

In discussing key issues in the text, Davis does a great job of weighing the published thoughts and views of a host of prominent biographers and Atlanta Campaign historians (among others Dyer, Connelly, McMurry, Symonds, Newton, Hess, Woodworth, Scaife, and Castel) against his own research and analysis. One salient feature of Davis's literature review is a renewed appreciation for local historian Wilbur Kurtz to a degree not seen in other current Atlanta campaign and battle studies. It's also extremely helpful that this comparative assessment is frequently outlined in the main text instead of being relegated to the notes. Since there is so much extensive discussion, both on-point and discursive, contained in the notes their placement at the bottom of the page was an excellent decision. Descriptions of military movements are also well supported by a large set of original maps. One really gets the impression through text, notes, and massive bibliography that Davis possesses an exceptional mastery of the campaign literature.

To put it mildly, the level of controversy surrounding Hood's corps leadership is dwarfed by what would emerge after his appointment as Johnston's replacement. Thus begins Part 2. All acknowledge that Hood was placed in a tight spot when tasked with defending Atlanta after Sherman's immensely powerful army group was already beyond the last great natural barrier of defense (the Chattahoochee River) and approaching the gates of the city. The first clash would be at Peach Tree Creek.

In recounting the rift between Hood and Hardee that widened during the July 20 Battle of Peach Tree Creek and the great July 22 battle fought east of Atlanta, Davis acknowledges Hardee's shortcomings but agrees with other writers that Hood also deserves censure for not monitoring the action more closely and not accepting more responsibility for the results of the fighting (especially when they came at Hood's intercession). On a related note, many observers have drawn comparisons between Hood's July 22 battle plan and Stonewall Jackson's celebrated march around the Union right flank at Chancellorsville. For those interested in engaging further with that topic, Davis's sixteen-point contrasting assessment of why Lee's attack succeeded and Hood's failed is highly recommended reading.

With Sherman's advances north and east of Atlanta temporarily blocked, Hood's battle plan for Ezra Church west of the city was much more realistic than the overambitious one devised earlier for attacking the other Union flank on July 22. Even with more achievable goals, Ezra Church was another unquestionable defeat for the Confederate army. Rather than blaming Hood, though, the author joins with others (Ezra Church chronicler Gary Ecelbarger being a chief dissenter) in laying the poor results of the fight squarely at the feet of newly-arrived corps commander S.D. Lee.

An underappreciated aspect of Hood's actions during this period was his effectiveness in adding strength to his army during the middle of the campaign (and without the benefit of outside reinforcement beyond Georgia state militia). Though some have criticized Hood for going too far, Davis is not the first to credit Hood's success in returning able-bodied men to his army mid-campaign. It obviously was not enough to make a difference between victory and defeat, but Davis's demonstration that Hood was able to improve the strength ratio of his own army to Sherman's over the final two months of the campaign argues against the long-held view, though much altered in recent times, that Hood was engaged in mindlessly battering his own army to dust.

Though the series of attacks that Hood launched around Atlanta were clear tactical defeats, each served to temporarily stymie Sherman's lunges and cause the Union commander to reconsider his plans. Unlike many other historians, Davis does not find great fault in Hood's generalship between Utoy Creek and the fall of Atlanta. The author points to persistent allegations that Hood lost track of Sherman's final big flanking maneuver for many critical days as being both inaccurate and unfair. Davis stresses that the already overstretched Hood should not be blamed for the inability to divine precisely when and where Sherman planned to break the Macon & Western R.R. south of Atlanta. In Davis's view, if the idea (and it was) was to thwart Sherman's distant maneuvering against his railroad lifeline while simultaneously maintaining possession of Atlanta, there was little more that Hood could possibly have done.

Generally speaking, the author's views seem to align with those who have contended that Hood's losing Atlanta was inevitable given the unenviable military situation and fighting directives he was first presented with in July. Some could have done better and a whole lot could have done worse, and Davis describes his own evaluation of Hood's overall command performance in delaying Sherman's capture of Atlanta as being a "favorable assessment" (pg. 436). In the end, though one might disagree with certain arguments or points of emphasis, the book offers a highly judicious weighing of Hood's strengths against his flaws of character and military conduct.

Even though the book's greatest focus is obviously on Confederate general John Bell Hood, more than enough Union perspective is present to also rank the volume among the finest overall accounts of the Atlanta Campaign. Worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Albert Castel's classic study (and sharing similar jabs at Sherman!), it's a well-conceived and impressively executed hybrid of biography and campaign history. It would be hard to imagine a reader finishing Texas Brigadier to the Fall of Atlanta and not looking forward to the release of the second volume, Into Tennessee and Failure.

1 comment:

  1. Your review led me to order a copy of the book, and I was not disappointed. Like you, I thought it was an impressive book, and I’m looking forward to Davis’ take on the 1864 Tennessee campaign.

    ReplyDelete

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