Sunday, February 20, 2011

Review: John Bell Hood and the Fight For Civil War Memory

By Brian C. Miller

Just days after his wife died from yellow fever John Bell Hood himself succumbed to the disease on August 30, 1879 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  His oldest daughter Lydia would die a few hours later.  John Bell Hood was 48 years old, nearly broke and left behind ten orphaned children.  Aside from his memoir, “Advance and Retreat: Personal Experiences in the United States and Confederate States Armies,” John Bell Hood did not leave much of a paper trail.  His memoir begins at age seventeen with his appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, and contains little in the way of biographical material before then.  “Advance and Retreat,” is in a large part, Hood’s defense of his actions at Atlanta and his campaign into Tennessee.

Brian Craig Miller has attempted to fill in some of the gaps in John Bell Hood’s life and career with his book, “John Bell Hood and the Fight for Civil War Memory.”  Mr. Miller covers quite a bit of genealogical material in the first few pages of his book, tracing hoods ancestry back to 17th century New York and bringing it forward, through Virginia to Kentucky.  Hood was able to count an Indian fighter, and two Revolutionary War veterans are among his ancestors.  Military service seems to have been a family tradition.

Unfortunately there are no large caches of John Bell Hood’s letters extant, nor diaries, so Mr. Miller delves into the realm of the gender identity of white, southern males to extrapolate and explain what may have motivated Hood early in his life and career.  Easily the first half of Mr. Miller’s book isn’t at all a biography of John Bell Hood in as much as it is a gender study of what it meant to be a young, white male in antebellum Kentucky.

As far as John Bell Hood’s military career in the Confederate Army, his participation in the battles of Gettysburg, where Hood received a wound to his arm, paralyzing it, and Chickamauga where Hood would loose a leg are briefly covered, in as much as they needed to be due to his wounds.  Again, Mr. Miller dips into well of the gender identity of southern manhood (and speculates the reason Hood went on to father eleven children was, in part, to prove his masculinity).  Instead, more time is given to Hood’s defense and abandonment of Atlanta and his failed Tennessee campaign in which Hood’s Army of Tennessee was destroyed.

One must read nearly two-thirds of the Mr. Miller’s tome until the subject of Civil War memory is discussed.  With a title of “John Bell Hood and the Fight for Civil War Memory,” one would expect the discussion of Civil War memory to be the main focus of the book, instead of being relegated to only a portion of the last third of the book.  John Bell Hood’s part in founding the Southern Historical Society, and the writing of his memoir is fully discussed, on reading Mr. Miller’s book, I’m not so sure that John Bell Hood was as concerned about how the Civil War would be remembered, as much as he was about defending his actions at Atlanta, Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville.

Mr. Miller has done his subject a great service in dispelling the rumors about John Bell Hood’s intelligence, drunkenness and addiction to drugs.  He points out there is not one shred of evidence that the General ever was drunk or addicted to drugs.

I found the most interesting part of Mr. Miller’s book to be the telling of what happened to the ten orphaned children of John Bell & Anna Hood, and the efforts to raise enough money to provide for their future.

Despite this is a mixed review, I would recommend “John Bell Hood and the Fight for Civil War Memory” to all who are interested in the Civil War and especially in Hood’s Tennessee Campaign.  Considering the lack of primary resources as far as John Bell Hood is considered, Mr. Miller has done an admirable job in piecing together secondary evidence and letting the reader draw his own conclusions about what life must have been like for General Hood.  Mr. Miller’s book is well written and easily read, and his exhaustive bibliography shows he left no stone unturned.

ISBN 978-1-57233-702-2, University of Tennessee Press, © 2010, Hardcover, 317 pages, Photographs, Endnotes, Bibliography & Index. $37.95

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