Thursday, November 12, 2020

Review - "Into Tennessee and Failure: John Bell Hood" by Stephen Davis

[Into Tennessee and Failure: John Bell Hood by Stephen Davis (Mercer University Press, 2020) Hardcover, 5 maps, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:298/356. ISBN:978-0-88146-720-8. $35.]

Historian Stephen Davis's 2019 study Texas Brigadier to the Fall of Atlanta critically examined the 1861-64 ascendant phase of Confederate general John Bell Hood's controversial Civil War career. Over that roughly three-year period, Hood competently led brigade, division, and corps formations before his disastrous initiation to army command beginning in July 1864 most exposed his limitations. Davis's follow-up volume, 2020's Into Tennessee and Failure, reassesses Hood's generalship after the fall of Atlanta when he masterminded his first and only operational offensive at the head of the star-crossed Army of Tennessee. Conducted from September 1864 through December of that year, Hood's long, winding advance through northwest Georgia, northern Alabama, and Middle Tennessee—what came to be known as either the 1864 Tennessee Campaign or the Franklin-Nashville Campaign—resulted in a military catastrophe that essentially ended the Civil War career of Hood and rendered the Army of Tennessee a spent force.

After the Battle of Jonesboro and the abandonment of Atlanta to the enemy, Hood's defeated army was scattered and vulnerable. Though a triumphant General Sherman was content with Atlanta's fall and failed to press his advantage further, Davis nevertheless credits Hood for successfully extricating his army from its potentially dangerous predicament. Like many other writers and observers of the campaign, Davis does not have any strong objections to Hood's subsequent decision to return north of the Chattahoochee River and operate directly against Sherman's lines of communication. Still, one has to wonder how history might have turned out had the Army of Tennessee instead stayed in Georgia in late 1864 to oppose further federal advances into the Deep South's almost undefended interior.

Just when the decision was ultimately made to strike north into Tennessee has long been a point of contention among historians. Davis's examination of the evidence strongly supports the argument that the September 1864 strategy meeting between Hood and President Davis marked the official genesis of the operation. President Davis's appointment of General P.G.T. Beauregard to theater command over both Hood and Richard Taylor (the latter the head of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana) is heartily approved by the author as it resulted in rapid improvement in Hood's rickety logistical arrangements. Avoidable or not, Davis and other chroniclers have shown that the three-week operational pause in North Alabama (a consequence of poor weather, the need to accumulate sufficient supplies for an offensive, and the desire to not set out before the arrival of Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry) was lost time that Hood could ill-afford and that the scrambling federals put to good use.

As he did in Texas Brigadier to the Fall of Atlanta, Davis draws on his mastery of the secondary literature to effectively harvest from the historiography a comprehensive overview of several generations of published views and opinions on every major decision point and controversy related to the 1864 Tennessee Campaign. Doing much more than simply summarizing competing interpretations both old and new, Davis analyzes the positions of other historians through the critical lens of his own decades of primary research. His judiciously weighed conclusions are appropriately equivocal in places where strong evidence is lacking. Also appreciated are the stimulating side discussions that take place in both footnotes and main text. Readers might recall from the first volume Davis's extended look at the differences and similarities between the events and historiographies of Stonewall Jackson's flank march at Chancellorsville and Hood's daring plan for the July 22 Battle of Atlanta, and this book offers an equally compelling comparative evaluation of Hood's Franklin assault and Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. A notable difference in presentation between the first and second volumes, however, can be found in the supporting cartography, with map coverage dropping in number precipitously from 28 to only 5.

Thankfully, in this volume Davis does not feel the need to once again refute old canards no longer worthy of debate (ex. previously popular contentions that Hood was heavily impaired by drug use or callously threw his army at the Franklin trenches as "punishment" for its failure at Spring Hill). The most exciting recent development in Hood research was the discovery of a large cache of the general's papers, and Davis properly praises Stephen M. Hood for making the previously unknown material available both privately and through publication (see 2013's John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General and 2015's The Lost Papers of Confederate General John Bell Hood). Davis is not alone in questioning some of Stephen Hood's more facile interpretations of those documents; however, he justly observes that the writer's highly partisan defense of the general does possess a number of persuasive challenges to traditional thought that every future Hood biographer must address.

In the book, Davis meticulously reconstructs Hood's planning and execution of the Tennessee campaign from its September 1864 beginnings through its December conclusion, and no one will be surprised to find Spring Hill presented as the campaign's inflection point. Often described as the location of one of the war's great lost opportunities, Spring Hill was a point astride the main Union line of communication between General Schofield's corps-sized command at Columbia and General's Thomas's growing army at Nashville. As Davis outlines in the book, there's no document trail indicating that Hood even had a clear plan (at least one shared with his generals) regarding what he expected his army to do once it arrived at Spring Hill. Indeed, a common critique of Hood's army generalship is that even when he had sound (even brilliant) ideas on the operational level careless planning and execution would commonly derail them. Some proportion of blame for the Spring Hill debacle has traditionally fallen upon generals Brown, Cheatham, and Hood. Brown, as commander of the right flank division of Cheatham's corps assault, declined to attack when he felt his own right threatened, and Cheatham not only did not overrule him but allegedly refused in the day's fading light to involve himself in any darkness attack. Hood has been criticized for not being present to ensure that his orders for Cheatham to attack were carried out, but Davis seems to agree most with Wiley Sword's view that Hood's chief failing at Spring Hill was his vacillating uncertainty over tactical objective (partly a function of him not having a clear understanding of the relative positions of the major components of each army). Davis also reiterates historian Stanley Horn's concern about how much benefit would have been derived from a successful Cheatham attack (as the movement would have placed the corps in a narrow pocket between two parts of Schofield's army). Hood's lack of attention toward operational details, logistics, and oversight are also frequently mentioned as major contributors to the day being a bust. Davis agrees with Richard McMurry's argument against the whole idea that seizing either the turnpike or Spring Hill itself ensured a grand triumph of Confederate arms. According to this view, Schofield could have rather easily marched the trailing divisions of his army around the blockade during the night. On the other hand, those that support that argument seem to underestimate the difficulty of moving an army and its trains over secondary roads in darkness. In the end, Davis's own view of who was most to blame for the aborted attack at Spring Hill centers on the usual suspects (Brown, Cheatham, and Hood) with the army commander shouldering the ultimate responsibility. The events of Spring Hill do seem to have become clearer over time, but Davis is surely correct to note that the host of contradictory testimony from participant generals and their staffs, along with the absence in the historical records of written orders that might clear up major points of contention, will always leave an element of mystery to the famously aborted battle. Regardless of where blame can be assigned, Schofield's army got away with little interruption and there was only one more opportunity for the Confederates to catch it.

In the wake of the so-called lost opportunity at Spring Hill, Hood's decision to launch his army into a headlong frontal assault against Schofield at Franklin has been roundly condemned in the traditional campaign historiography. With the benefit of hindsight, the carnage seems preordained, but the Spring Hill command debacle left Hood with no good choices. Retreat without a battle was unthinkable, and if the goal was to prevent a junction between Schofield's command and General Thomas's growing army at Nashville (and it had to be if the Confederate campaign was to have a gambler's chance of success) then the empty results of Spring Hill essentially straitjacketed Hood's dwindled options. By reproducing all of its main points in his own study, Davis generally agrees with the logic behind Stephen Hood's multi-faceted rejection of the conventional arguments advanced in favor of bypassing the Franklin defenders. In the few remaining hours before winter darkness settled in, a frontal assault was the last option available that might have prevented Schofield's junction with Thomas.

Given that Schofield's command escaped to Nashville intact and the Franklin battle gutted the leadership and manpower of the Army of Tennessee, most agree that all of Hood's remaining options afforded very little chance of redeeming the campaign. Davis narrows the conversation to three. On the face of it, retreating seems most reasonable, but the author sees eye to eye with those who have argued that a retreat at that juncture would have crushed the army's morale for good and resulted in mass desertions of such proportions that the army would have been done as a fighting force. Another choice would have been to channel Bragg in 1862 by bypassing Nashville altogether and striking into Kentucky, but December 1864 was not August 1862 and Davis is certainly correct in deeming such a maneuver both logistically and militarily impossible given the state of Hood's army and the superior numbers and fighting condition of his skilled opponents. Finally, the third option (and the one Hood settled upon) was to trail Schofield to Nashville and set up a strong defensive position just outside the city, the hope being that Thomas could somehow be induced into launching a rash battle fought on Hood's terms the result of which might lead to new opportunities. Clearly the campaign was grasping at straws, and no sane person would bet on its chances for success, but Davis presents a good case that the decision to continue forward had at least some rational reasoning behind it.

Even if one grants that Hood had no substantially better options than the one he selected, some critics maintain that the general still did not make the best of it. Writers have taken issue with the position taken by Hood's army as it settled into a defensive posture outside of Nashville as well as with Hood's decision to detach a sizable part of his remaining forces (under Forrest) to hover around Murfreesboro. On the former point, the consensus seems to be that Hood's army was poorly sited, but there is no suggestion regarding the layout of a better (let alone ideal) defense line. On the latter point, it is certainly reasonable for an army commander to assign troops for rear area security. Really the size of the force that Hood assigned to Forrest, not the decision itself, is most fit for debate. Of course, the battle itself was a predictable defeat for the Army of Tennessee. The strongest Nashville battle and retreat criticisms the author levels at Hood are related to the general's attempts to both conceal the scale of the disaster and delay reporting it to his immediate superior (General Beauregard). At least for the matter of Hood's purported reluctance to communicate with Beauregard, it might perhaps be ungenerous to fault Hood too sharply given the state of communications in his area of operations. On the other hand, Hood's record of regularly consulting with Beauregard and keeping his superior fully informed of his decisions and movements was spotty throughout the campaign.

When Hood resigned (to be replaced by Richard Taylor), his career as a Confederate general who commanded troops in the field ended. The book also discusses at some length Hood's postwar fight over control the historical memory of the Atlanta and Nashville campaigns, a frequently unseemly conflict in word and print that often pitted Hood and President Davis partisans against General Johnston's many supporters. When it came to Hood's, Sherman's, and Johnston's published recollections of the Atlanta Campaign, there were more than enough half-truths and untruths to go around. Ironically, it could be argued that P.G.T. Beauregard (who has his own historical reputation as an intensely vain military fantasist who took great offense at every slight both real and imagined) is the Confederate star that shone brightest over the period covered in this volume. Thrust into a job he did not want, Beauregard nevertheless labored overtime to provide Hood's army with the logistical support needed to make the Tennessee Campaign possible (all in the face of Hood's stubborn unwillingness to fully communicate with and subordinate himself to his new superior).

Davis's epilogue summary of Hood's entire Civil War career is appropriately titled "Spurs Without Greatness." As a bold, brave, and aggressive brigade and division commander, Hood, in the author's view, certainly earned his spurs, and he was an adequate corps commander among a rather undistinguished Army of Tennessee peer group. Yet the general's bid for greatness fell far short of expectations during the battles around Atlanta and especially during the 1864 Tennessee Campaign. Davis agrees with those who have argued that Hood's operational vision of the battlefield was occasionally on par with that of the Lee-Jackson school that spawned him, but he also concurs with those who have faulted Hood for tendencies toward assigning subordinates unrealistic goals and paying insufficient attention to details necessary for an army to carry out ambitious designs. On a more theoretical level, Davis sees in Hood's failure as an army commander a larger lack of recognition regarding how much the Civil War battlefield changed between 1862 and 1864. In last year's Texas Brigadier to the Fall of Atlanta, Davis advanced the view that Hood's principal character flaw was overweening ambition. Into Tennessee and Failure adds to that negative trait Hood's resistance to subordination, his unseemly penchant for blaming others (worst of all the common soldiers) for his failures, and his unwillingness to report the true scale of his army's disasters. Some of those conclusions are certainly open to further debate, but it is the opinion of this reviewer that these two volumes easily constitute the Civil War literature's richest and most compelling military biography of Confederate general John Bell Hood to date.


  1. Replies
    1. Very general. Just single maps of some of the battles and larger scale area maps showing march and retreat routes.

  2. Thanks for the thorough review, Drew. Does Davis address the fact that Hood had a meeting before the Franklin battle with Cheatham, Cleburne, and Forrest (and possibly Stewart), and these generals opposed the attack as foolhardy? If so, I think it is more foresight than hindsight that the attack was a spectacular failure, resulting in the needless casualties of thousands of men, including the deaths of six Confederate generals. When one takes into account Hood’s Army was attacking over an open plain nearly two miles long with only horse artillery in support in the late afternoon, I think Hood’s attack was nearly criminal, and certainly worse than Lee’s justifiably criticized “Pickett’s Charge.” The claim that it was a binary choice to attack at Franklin or face ultimate failure always seems like a false choice to me. Hood ultimately arrived at Nashville with a badly wounded Army that then had no hope of success.

    1. Hi John,
      Rough drafts of reviews are often written many weeks before they appear in final form on the site, and that isn't a particular detail that I can recall.

      In the Franklin assault vs. Pickett's Charge comparison that he discusses in the book, Davis believes both attacks had roughly the same expectations when it came to chances of success, and he feels both deserve a similar degree of criticism.

  3. Drew: Thanks for the (as usual) thorough and objective review. The first book is well-done and contains a number of useful insights - not surprising given Steve Davis's long immersion in the Atlanta Campaign. Based on this review, I'll be adding the second volume to the library.

  4. For a lengthy review/diatribe about the book, see Stephen "Sam" Hood's two-star review on Amazon. I was expecting some comment from him here, but he had already discharged grape and canister on Amazon.

    Phil LeDuc