Daily Archives: May 2, 2015

As Brave & Dashing as Any Officer: John Bell Hood and the Limitation of Ability

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am continuing to periodically intersperse and publish short articles about various commanders at Gettysburg on the site. These all are drawn from my student text and may become a book in their own right.  The reason is I am going to do this is because I have found that readers are often more drawn to the lives of people than they are events. As I have noted before that people matter, even deeply flawed people, and we can learn from them.

Today’s article is about Major General John Bell Hood who commanded a division in Longstreet’s First Corps at the Battle of Gettysburg. As a brigade and division commander he was as good as any in either army. However, after Gettysburg he was promoted, eventually to army command in Georgia and Tennessee in which position he failed miserably. His story is interesting because it shows that all of us probably have some limitations, that while we may excel in one arena or level, that we may very well not be suited for other things, especially high command or senior management. As Harry Callahan so wisely noted “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I do hope that you enjoy this.


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Lieutenant General John Bell Hood. C.S.A.

John Bell Hood was born in Owingsville Kentucky in 1831. He attended West Point where he was a classmate of the future Union Generals James McPherson and Phillip Sheridan, and graduated fortieth of the fifty-one in the class of 1853. Hood desired a commission in the newly formed cavalry but “his low class standing resulted him entering service as a second lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Infantry Regiment.” [1] However, Hood was persistent and continued to lobby for an appointment to the cavalry service, even directly corresponding with then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. The young officer’s perseverance paid off and in 1855 he received orders to serve with the 2nd U.S. Cavalry.

Hood served as a cavalry officer under Lee’s command with the 2nd Cavalry in Texas. There he gained a stellar reputation as a leader and Indian fighter, though he only fought in one minor engagement. He was physically imposing and “stood six feet, two inches and had a powerful chest and a giant’s shoulders.” [2]

In 1860 “he received orders to report to West Point to serve as an instructor of cavalry.” [3] His secessionist sympathies were displayed when upon receipt of the orders and went5 directly to the War Department where he told the Adjutant General that “he did not want the position, since he “feared that was would soon be declared between the States, in which event I preferred to be in a position to act with complete freedom.” [4]

When his home state of Kentucky did not secede he attached himself to his adopted state of Texas. He resigned his commission and began the war as a lieutenant of cavalry in the Confederate army. In his resignation the officer was something of a realist concerning the coming war, noting, “seeing no hope of reconciliation or adjustment, but every indication of a fierce and bloody war.” [5] Lee assigned him to Magruder on the Peninsula where he quickly developed as a reputation as a fighter and was given the task of tasking independent cavalry companies into a regiment. He was soon was given the task of forming Texans then in Virginia into a fighting regiment, the 4th Texas, which was assigned to “join a Texas brigade under ex-Senator Louis T. Wigfall.” [6] After Manassas Hood was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of Wigfall’s brigade, the only Texas brigade in the east. He took temporary command of a division during the reorganization of the army that followed the Seven Days.

Over the course of the next year he had built a “combat record unequalled by any in the army at his level.” [7] And the “reputation gained as commander of the Texas Brigade and as a division commander made him both a valuable general officer and a celebrity who transcended his peers.” [8] After his performance at Antietam Lee worked the personnel system to get Hood promoted to Major General and assigned to command of an enlarged division which he would command at Gettysburg. Lee wrote of him “Hood is a good fighter, very industrious on the battle field, careless off, & I have had no opportunity of judging his action, when the whole responsibility rested on him. I have a high opinion of his gallantry, earnestness & zeal.” [9]

After Gettysburg Hood went on to succeed Joseph E. Johnston in Georgia as an army commander, but in this capacity he was out of his league. Johnston had fought a defensive campaign and was deemed by Jefferson Davis to be not aggressive enough in battling the combined armies of William Tecumseh Sherman.

However, Hood’s new responsibilities were beyond his capacity, at heart he “was an executive officer, not a strategist.” [10] Hood was overly aggressive and his offensive campaigns were all marked by failure. Hood saw his army shattered at the Battles of Franklin and Nashville. Afterward he asked to be relieved of command and “reverted to his permanent rank of Lieutenant General” in January 1865. [11]

He returned to Richmond to draft his reports on his campaigns and foreseeing the collapse and defeat of the army around Richmond “advocated that the three Confederate filed armies concentrate in central Tennessee and Kentucky.” [12] Though it was a reasonable suggestion from a strategic point of view, it was impossible for a number of reasons and rejected by Jefferson Davis. He requested another field command but instead was ordered to return to Texas. While on the way he learned of the surrenders of the various Confederate armies and “surrendered himself at Natchez, Mississippi.” [13]

After the war Hood married Anna Maria Henson and their marriage produced eleven children, who some jokingly referred to as “Hood’s brigade.” He remained in contact with James Longstreet and when Longstreet spoke to him about supporting Reconstruction and Negro suffrage Hood warned his former commander “that if he supported the congressional program that “the Southern press and people will vilify you and abuse you.” [14] While nothing is known about his own views on the subject Longstreet believed that the mirrored his own, though Hood would not publicly utter them.

He began working in the insurance business and writing his memoirs and campaign narratives, but in 1879 he business interests failed and in August of that year he, his wife and one of his children died in a Yellow Fever outbreak, he was just forty-eight years old.

As good of Brigade and division commander as he was under the direction of Longstreet, Hood was out of his league as an Army commander. John B. Gordon, as judicious of judge of command ability of any on the Confederate side noted:

“To say he was as brave and dashing as any officer of any age would be the merest commonplace tribute to such a man; but courage and dash are not the only or even the prime requisites of the commander of a great army.” [15]

Hood is highly regarded in Texas to this day. Units of the Texas Army National Guard including some that I served in during the 1980s and 1990s trace their lineage to the regiments of Hood’s Brigade. Likewise, Fort Hood, the largest post in the United States Army is named after him.


[1] Bohannon, Keith S. “A Bold Fighter” Promoted Beyond His Abilities: John Bell Hood in Leaders of the Lost Cause: New Perspectives on the Confederate High Command edited by Gallagher, Gary W. and Glatthaar, Joseph T. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 2004 p.250

[2] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.121

[3] Ibid. Bohannon “A Bold Fighter” p.251

[4] Ibid. Bohannon “A Bold Fighter” p.251

[5] Ibid. Bohannon “A Bold Fighter” p.252

[6] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.121

[7] Ibid. Tagg The Generals of Gettysburg p.224

[8] Pfanz, Harry F. Gettysburg: The Second Day. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1987 p.161

[9] Girardi, Robert I. The Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals in Their Own Words Zenith Press, MBI Publishing, Minneapolis MN 2013 p.219

[10] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.38

[11] Ibid. Warner Generals in Gray: Lives of Confederate Commanders p.143

[12] Ibid. Bohannon “A Bold Fighter” p.276

[13] Ibid. Warner Generals in Gray: Lives of Confederate Commanders p.143

[14] Ibid. Bohannon “A Bold Fighter” p.278

[15] Ibid. Girardi The Civil War Generals p.219

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