John Bell Hood’s Mistakes

on December 2, 2014 in American Civil War, People and Biographies, Strategy and Tactics

Readers of Stonewall Goes West and Mother Earth, Bloody Ground who are familiar with the 1864 Nashville Campaign have probably spotted that Stonewall Jackson’s fictional Middle Tennessee Campaign is a commentary on John Bell Hood’s performance. Given that Hood was a product of the Lee & Jackson school, using Jackson himself to lead in a similar operation¬† was in my mind the best way to comment on where Hood went wrong.

Not A Man Of Papers
Robert E. Lee once wrote of Hood that he was “a good fighter, very industrious on the battlefield, careless off.” He was certainly careless off the battlefield in preparing for his crossing of the Tennessee River and his march on Nashville. Hood had no idea of the conditions he would encounter in trying to find a practicable place to bridge the formidable waters of the Tennessee, and essentially winged the entire business of crossing a field army over a major river into enemy territory.

One of the truths of military leadership is that the higher one gets on the ladder, the more important what happens on the desktop before the battle becomes. As the axiom goes, amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. Confederate armies are often criticized by historians for their poor staff work, but I think as a rule the problem was one of lack of staff manpower rather than lack of talent.

Hood started to come under criticism for the poor performance of his staff as a division commander. The evidence suggests he had no aptitude for the management side of his job as he rose into higher command. My belief is that, aged 33, John Bell Hood just wasn’t enough of a mature, settled man to appreciate this side of his job.

A Broken Man
Any analysis of Hood’s command style on the battlefield cannot help but notice a stark change after Chickamauga, and for good reason. Hood had an arm mangled at Gettysburg, and that lost a leg at the hip in the mountains of northern Georgia. Hip amputations were terrible affairs, with the lowest survival rate of all amputation procedures during the Civil War.

One of the things I made sure to do in Stonewall Goes West was describe how shattered Hood must have felt at the end of a long day in the saddle, strapped in and unable to dismount with a lot of bother. Hood’s style before Chickamauga was see for yourself and lead from the front, but not afterward. Part of that might have been that he was leery of getting shot again, but for my part I believe most of it was that his body just wouldn’t let him be as active as he was in the past.

The result was that as a corps and army commander, things went awry because Hood wasn’t on the scene as often as he once would have been. He rarely had the kind of stellar subordinates, schooled in exercising independent tactical authority, that he would need for that, nor did he have the kind of staff work in the background to help make up the difference.

A Dilatory Man
In my opinion, the great lost opportunity of the Nashville Campaign was not Spring Hill, but when Hood chose to sit and wait at Florence and Tuscumbia, Alabama for three weeks. For a man who was supposedly of the Lee and Jackson school of boldly aggressive maneuvers designed to seize the initiative and baffle the enemy, it was an unforgivable delay.

Of course, the delay was necessary because of two factors. The most important one was that Hood wanted to collect 20 days of rations before invading Middle Tennessee, and nothing like that stockpile was either with him or waiting for him there. It was essential because even though Hood had not even an inkling how depleted Middle Tennessee was of forage, he had the experience to suggest that November is not the best time of year for an army to feed itself on the march, even in ostensibly friendly territory.

This was exactly the sort of thing that better attention to staff work would have overcome. His other reason was waiting for Nathan Bedford Forrest, then already in Middle Tennessee and engaged in a raid.

Schofield and his XXIII Corps were not even assigned to George Thomas’s forces until October 30, and Hood’s West Point classmate did not join Stanley’s IV Corps in Pulaski until November 13. If Hood had crossed earlier, he would have faced only IV Corps and a single brigade of cavalry, and his odds of cutting off that force and inflicting defeat in detail on the Union forces in Tennessee would have been that much greater.

My own thinking is that a true disciple of the Lee and Jackson school would have reckoned the invasion of Middle Tennessee was a huge gamble anyway, and if it was to have any chance of success in its stated ambition of halting Sherman’s March To The Sea it had to get moving sooner rather than later. Hood probably should have pushed off once he had sufficient supplies to reach to the Duck or the Harpeth at most, ordered Forrest to meet him in the middle, and thereby caught Thomas’s forces flat-footed.

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