John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of a Confederate General by Stephen Hood

john bell hood sam hoodJohn Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of a Confederate General by Stephen “Sam” Hood (2013)

Stephen “Sam” Hood has devoted a book to footnotes. Now before you dismiss it out of hand, footnotes in history, as in law, are very important. I had a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit when I was 28 years old. The U.S. Attorney cast doubt on a statement I made about an event in El Salvador by saying that the two cities in question were too close together for my scenario to be true. His footnote cited a National Geographic map. I got the map out and laughed when I saw that it was a map of the entire Western Hemisphere. Cities that looked right next door on that map were actually scores of miles away from each other.

Sam Hood’s new book claims that a number of books published in the 20th Century have made serious errors about his cousin John Bell Hood, the commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee in 1864. Since I began researching The Immigrants’ Civil War in 2010, I have noticed some of the same problems with Civil War historians’ writings that Sam Hood identifies.

Sam Hood correctly states that many of the claims made by historians about the Civil War general are based on information sourced in footnotes to books that do not substantiate the claims made. I have found the same problems in my own research on immigrants in the war. For example, a well known Civil War author wrote that a certain immigrant leader was drunk at a particular battle. I looked at his footnote and found no eyewitness source for this claim in either the primary or secondary literature.

Hood also says that once an historian makes an error, other subsequent historians copy that error without doing original research that would quickly debunk it. The later historians do not always even cite the previous historian who is the source of the error, but they often merely copy the alleged primary source from the progenitor of the error. The unacknowledged reliance on secondary sources by historians is much wider spread than just among Hood writers.

I have made great use of the letters of Peter Welsh of the Irish Brigade. The same quote from Welsh keeps turning up in the works of some major historians. The historians invariably cite to his letters, but since Welsh says similar things several times in slightly different words in various letters, it would seem odd if each historian came up with the same quote independently. Obviously they are getting the quote from one another and are offering it up without attribution as though they had come up with it themselves through their own close textual reading.

Sam Hood also alledges that either through personal bias or to create a more marketable narrative, several historians created a “Hood as Villain” myth, presented it as history, and that it was unquestioningly copied by others. He provides some good documentation of this charge.

When I purchased this book, I was worried that it would be little more than an exercise in hagiography by a relative of a Civil War general. Hagiography originally meant a life of a saint. The title enhanced my fears. Subtitling a book “The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of a Confederate General” gives it a messianic feel. Don’t worry, though, Sam Hood does not “resurrect” his cousin, he just dusts off the corpse a little. The book functions as brief against several historians, led by Wiley Sword, and not as a counter-biography.

There are several problems with this book, however. First is, if you haven’t really cared much about John Bell Hood, you won’t care much about him after you read it. Even if we accept all of Sam Hood’s claims as true, General Hood was still a young man who was not capable of turning around the Confederacy’s fortunes in Tennessee.

The second problem is that Sam Hood makes some dubious claims of his own and he tries to arouse irrational and unsupported prejudices against the men he takes on.

For example, the author refers repeatedly to certain historians as “Tennesseans”. It is clear that this implies some sinister anti-Hood bias on their parts as Tennesseans, but he never actually says that. He also never explains the connection between being from Tennessee and the bias he deplores. Is this like the well-known Virginia bias in favor of Robert E. Lee and against James Longstreet? And why would 20th Century historians be susceptible to it, Tennessean or otherwise? Hood’s seemingly arbitrary designation of the Tennessee historians would be as though one referred to a pair of historians as “Jewish historians”. Unless the author could demonstrate a link between their Jewishness and a bias, I would assume he was merely raising it to stir up anti-semitic prejudice. [Kindle Loc 527]

Sam Hood sometimes seems in such a rage against his opponents that he uses weapons against them that can be turned on himself.

David Eicher is the author of an annotated bibliography of books on the Civil War. Sam Hood slams Eicher, who cautions in his The Civil War in Books that the General’s memoir is distorted and rewrites history to defend his own reputation. In Sam Hood’s attack on Eicher he describes him dismissively as “a chemistry teacher who also writes on astronomical matters.” I note that Hood himself is not a professional historian (nor am I). He appears to be a Civil War buff in the construction business. While this is Sam Hood’s first book on the Civil War,  Eicher is the author of eight books on the Civil War. The Civil War in Books is published by the respected University of Illinois Press. His other books are published by Stanford University Press, Little Brown, and Simon and Schuster. If Eicher is inadequately credentialed, then Sam Hood is infinitely less so. And when Hood describes Eicher as the author of “several” Civil War histories, the reader is left with a misleading impression of the nuber of works Eicher has written.

Sam Hood also needlessly distorts elements of the record. For example, responding to the claim that Hood did not do well while studying at West Point, Sam Hood writes that “Hood graduated…in the bottom third of his class (44th out of 52).” At my school, we called that graduating in the bottom fifth of our class, or eight spaces from last. [Kindle Loc 5642] Sam Hood compounds the deception by saying that John Bell Hood should really be considered 44th out of the 200 students who applied to West Point. What an odd claim. I graduated 27th out of 260 students in my law school class. Should that really be 27th out of the 700 candidates who tried to get into Hofstra my first year?

After trying to convince us that Hood did a lot better at West Point than we think he did, the author then argues that doing well at West Point didn’t mean much anyway. [Kindle Loc. 5650] Then, again without saying so directly, the author implies that Hood may have been of such genius that he did not exert himself until final exams time, and then did just enough to pass. I’m not sure if the image of Hood as underachieving slacker is one the author meant to convey.

The author attacks historian Wiley Sword for describing Hood as an undisciplined student at West Point. Cadets were tossed out if they got 200 demerits. Hood reached 196 demerits a few months before graduation. Then Sam Hood congratulates John Bell Hood for pulling his act together and not getting any more demerits, but someone who got 98% of the demerits need for expulsion was hardly a model student. [Kindle Loc 5625]

Sam Hood also descends into minutiae at times. Incredibly, he gets caught up in arguing with several historians about whether Hood was good looking or not. He quotes a contemporary who describes Hood’s “yellow waving hair” and “Herculean frame” in fanboy superlatives. I have circulated Hood’s picture to a number of non-Civil War buff heterosexual female friends and on the “Hot or Not” scale he gets more nots than hots, although a few describe him as having a certain bad-boy look that draws them in.  The bad news for Sam Hood is that there was a reason all those Civil War Era women turned him down, and it wasn’t because of his problems with flank attacks.

Overall, if you are really interested in John Bell Hood and you like the “history as controversy” approach, this is an engaging book that you will find entertaining. Otherwise, spend your money on a book like The River of Dark Dreams which deals with a more consequential controversy, the place of mid-19th Century slavery in the transnational capitalist economy.

-Pat Young

The Immigrants’ Civil War

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

Remembering the Battle of The Crater: War as Murder by Kevin Levin

The Crater kevin levinRemembering the Battle of The Crater: War as Murder by Kevin Levin published by University of Kentucky Press (2012).

I purchased this volume with some trepidation. Its author, Kevin Levin, is not just a historian and an educator, he is also arguably the most popular Civil War blogger on the net. I began reading him several times a week beginning back in 2010 when I was first contemplating my own Civil War project. My worry was that since I had read nearly everything Mr. Levin had written over the last two-and-a-half years on his Civil War Memory web site, would the book be just a reduction of that writing to paper?

While what I read on Levin’s blog has echoes in the book, in fact it is an altogether different product of Levin’s research and ruminations from the dozens of blog entries that preceded its publication.

The book itself consists of three different sections. The first describes the brutal Battle of the Crater outside of the Virginia city of Petersburg in 1864. If you’ve read the novel Cold Mountain or seen the movie of the same name, that fictional work begins with explosions under the Confederate lines that created the Crater. The devastation temporarily disorganized the Confederate defenders, Union troops poured into the smoking hole, the Confederates counterattacked and overran the Northerners, massacring  black Union troops.

The Crater

The Crater

The book looks at how Southern whites interpreted the battle at the time. Confederate soldiers wrote home that black troops had been deployed by the thousands to serve as a warning to home folks that an army of black avengers was descending on the South and that all whites had to mobilize to defend their society against this revolutionary force.  They also bragged about killing captured black soldiers, equating the murders of black soldiers, illegal under the laws of war,  with the accepted killing of rebellious slaves by their white owners. To white Southerners, the blacks were not soldiers, they were insurrectionists.

The second section looks at the use of the memory of the Crater by the Confederate general who led the counterattack. General William Mahone rose to political power after the war based on an alliance between lower class whites and newly enfranchised African Americans. This made him a target for white supremacists throughout Virginia. His one shield was his notoriety as the Rebel hero of the Crater. His opponents attacked his war record in a 19th Century version of Swiftboating, but Mahone was able to control the historical memory of the battle to his own advantage.

The third section of the book looks at the writing out of the African American role in the battle and the whiting out of the murder of blacks. Visitors to the battlefield for three-quarters of a century would have learned nothing of what really happened there. They would be served a reassuring narrative in which white men on both sides fought one another in manly conflict and reconciled after the war was over. The men who fought there were all heroic, all decent, and all white.

The desire to maintain the fiction of the Civil War as a whites-only episode in our history was so strong that when the 100th anniversary of the battle came in 1964 during the height of the Civil Rights movement, most events were cancelled rather than allow blacks to intrude on the celebration of white masculinity that was to have taken place. As late as the 1970s, National Park Service personnel were not versed in the role of blacks in the battle and local African American college students said that the main purpose of the park was to glorify the Confederacy.

Real change in interpretation at the battlefield park was spurred by the release of the movie Glory and the airing of Ken Burn’s Civil War just two decades ago. These two works were the first time many Americans learned of the key role of blacks in the war.

Levin concludes with a look at how scholars and the African American community have reintegrated the role of black soldiers into the interpretation of what happened when Union troops rushed forward into the Crater.

Kevin Levin’s book is a wonderful examination of a battle that throws American racial politics into sharp relief. It examines the complex interaction of a historical event, how it was remembered by whites and blacks, and what was forgotten and why it was relegated to oblivion. The recovery of memory is part of the book’s optimistic conclusion.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Movie Review: Django Unchained

djangoI’ve always mistrusted the American devotion to redemption through retributive violence.

I don’t believe that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy with a gun take him out in slow mo.

Then I see the ultimate example of the salvific effects of bloodshed. Two hundred years of torture and rape eradicated by one badass black gunfighter.

Django Unchained pits a man who has always been a slave and his only friend, an immigrant outsider, against the institution, slavery, that gave Thomas Jefferson the leisure to write “All men are created equal…” Slavery made “Liberty” possible. Django doesn’t just shoot down his wife’s tormenters, he blows up the American Enlightenment.

Slavery and the violence against non-whites that it required are so essential to the character of our country that their residue can still be smelled whenever Birther fulminations against a “Kenyan President” are heard. I grew up at a time when white people believed they had the right to beat blacks with clubs if they tried to vote. In our time, when a recent poll shows that a majority of my white fellow Americans hold racist views of blacks, I know that this is good as it has ever been for African Americans. Black kids grow up assured that even if they grow up to be president, half of all whites will still not consider them part of the “Real America.”

Django, the slave freed by a German Liberal, is the Siegfried, or Freeman, of the Götterdämmerung of slavery’s gods in this movie. His rescue of his wife, Brünnhilde, is incidental to his role as the man who brings down the old white gods who had the power to order the destruction of the bodies of their black slaves. The twilight of these idols comes with the splatter and explosions you’d expect from a Tarantino film, but throws the post-Civil War radical’s quandary into sharp relief. Without the inhumane slaughter of those whose violence kept blacks in chains, freedom would always be jealously assailed by whites dispossessed of their fortunes in human flesh. Django and his wife can only escape to freedom if those who enslaved them cannot follow them from the grave.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Movie Review: Lincoln

All my writing 0n Lincoln is indexed here. Modern America only began when slavery died. Lincoln, more than any other popular film ever, puts the old Jeffersonian America of unbridled racism and African American enslavement on display as it endured at the end of the Civil War. The film dispels any nostalgic notion that slavery was due to wither away as reason and benevolence led the (white) American electorate to embrace equality in the mid-19th Century. It was only through the brutal path of human slaughter that non-whites were even allowed to trammel the road to freedom.

Lincoln is the finest historical movie I have ever seen. It is cerebral, funny, naturalistic, emotional, and tragic by turns. The script treats viewers as intelligent sharers in a common history that too many of us, actually, are unfamiliar with. By crediting us with knowledge we may not in fact have, the film mimics Lincoln’s own project of lifting the commonality of people above their circumstances.

Lincoln the scheming politician, the loving father, the inadequate husband, and the American visionary dominates the film. And I say that it is Lincoln who appears as himself, because there is no sign of Daniel Day Lewis in the film. His performance here is the best of his own legendary career.

Sally Field also gives her finest performance as Mary Todd. She is a wonderful actress portraying a suffering, wronged, and oppressive woman whom history too often judges only by the criteria of whether she helped her husband enough.

The supporting cast should be given a collective Oscar.

This film will be used for generations to transmit to young people and new citizens alike the values of modern America and the sacrifice and struggle, and the dying and killing, that were necessary to realize them.

TINY NITPICK: Couldn’t the film have identified at least one character as an immigrant? A quarter of the soldiers Lincoln meets would have been immigrants, but you wouldn’t know it from the film. His secretary John George Nicolay is Lincoln’s enabler in the film. He was a German immigrant, but there is no indication of that in his accent or otherwise. A lot of the White House help were Irish, but they were also not in evidence. Oh well!

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl

Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986)

When Peter Welsh joined the Irish Brigade in 1862, he forgot to tell his wife.

Poor Peter had wanted to join up, but family obligations kept him out. In the second year of the war, the handy carpenter was called to Boston to try to settle a longstanding feud within his family there. Caught in the middle, he became the object of both sides’ ire. Peter retreated to a tavern and didn’t emerge until he was broke. Ashamed, he acted on his Unionist impulses and joined the army.

Peter made the decision to enlist shortly before the fifth anniversary of his marriage to Margaret Prendergast, and he spent the rest of his life, which only lasted two more years, trying to reconcile her to his choice.

We don’t have her letters, but it is clear from his letters, chronicled in Irish Green and Union Blue, that Margaret was pissed. Peter spends part of many letters begging her to stop worrying about him, explaining why he joined the army, and promising to be a better husband after his enlistment ended. We can see him arguing with her in many of the letters.

Margaret was especially critical of his decision, as an immigrant, to involve himself in a fight between two fanatical groups of natives—the abolitionists and the Southern fire eaters—intent on slaughtering one another. Her objections to Peter’s service led him to this memorable articulation in an 1863 letter on why an immigrant should feel impelled to safeguard America:

This is my country as much as the man that was born on the soil and so it is to every man who comes to this country and becomes a citizen…I have as much interest in the maintenance of the government and laws and integrity of the nation as any other man… This war, with all its evils, with all its errors and mismanagement is a war in which the people of all nations have a vital interest. This is the first test of a modern free government in the act of sustaining itself against internal enemies and matured rebellion. All men who love free government and equal laws are watching the crisis to see if a republic can sustain itself in such a case. If it fail then the hope of millions fail and the designs and wishes of all tyrants will succeed…There is yet something in this land worth fighting for.

Even this beautiful letter did not settle things for Margaret and she demanded that Peter write to her father in Ireland and explain himself to her pater familias. Peter’s discomfort is evident in the opening line, in which he admits to his father-in-law that “it is under very peculiar circumstances that I now address you.” He acknowledges that his “present position” as a Union soldier “no doubt seems so unaccountable to you” because it must seem “very, very strange that I should voluntarily join in the bloody strife.”

Peter writes that he understands that both his father- and mother-in-law find Margaret’s situation “most anxious and painful,” seeing their young daughter left alone in a country where they could not help her. He explains why he is fighting in the awkward letter. Peter musters all possible legal and philosophical arguments he can come up with for taking up arms, then ends by claiming that he was as safe in the army as if he had been locked in the safest of towers.

A few weeks after he wrote the letter he would be fighting at Gettysburg.

When Peter Welsh was shot a year later in Virginia, his wife, whose critical letters always seemed to vex him, took what little money she had to go to nurse him back to health. Her ministrations were of no avail, and Peter died on May 28, 1864. Margaret brought his body to Woodside in Queens where he was buried in Calvary Cemetery. Margaret would use her small savings to erect a large monument on Peter’s grave that noted that he was once a color sergeant bearing a flag of the Irish Brigade.

Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens (Credit: A. Strakey via Flickr)

Margaret had always worried that Peter’s enlistment would deprive them of the normal comforts of married life. She survived him by 28 years, but she never remarried. She died childless.

Margaret, whose ornery letters brought out the deep thinker that carpenter Peter Welsh was, rests beside him in the consecrated ground in Queens. We have Peter’s letters because she saved virtually every one.

This volume gives us a window into the thinking of an immigrant working man and his wife, and their sometimes discordant American dreams.

Posted in American History | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860 by Ray Allen Billington

The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism by Ray Allen Billington published by Quadrangle Paperbacks (1938)

The classic work on the intellectual, if that is the word, origins of the anti-immigrant movement is more than seventy years old, but by God it is still a fascinating read.

The Protestant Crusade is old-fashioned history at its best. Ray Allen Billington did not have the tools of modern historical analysis available back when he wrote it before World War II, but he was able to read a massive amount of hate literature from the presses of the Know Nothings and their antecedents. Billington’s survey of the roots of anti-immigrant ideology during the Elizabethan era and its development over two centuries is magnificent and enlightening.

The Know Nothings brilliantly hit on deep veins of hatred which have been mined by successive generations of anti-immigrant demagogues, who, all too often, fail to honor or even acknowledge their Know Nothing forebears. The process of stigmatization of Irish Catholics pioneered by the Know Nothings would be used successfully against Italians, Chinese, Jews, and Latinos  between the 1870s and the present day.

This book is not only a remarkable work of historical scholarship, it is also a cautionary tale for today.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin has long been in the running for the title of Most Famous American Novel That No One Reads Anymore. My mom read it in high school, but by the time I took my courses in American literature it was typically dismissed as a racist relic and boring to boot.

I picked it up out a sense of obligation as part of my research on The immigrants’ Civil War. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s dad, the execrable Lyman Beecher, was an abolitionist but also an anti-immigrant bigot. In the decades before the Civil war he had set off anti-Irish pogroms in Boston that terrorized newcomer communities and created a permanent rift between immigrants and abolitionists in that city.

Believe me, I was quite prepared to hate Lyman’s daughter’s book.

The reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin defeated my prejudices. This is a wonderful work of empathy both for enslaved blacks and Southern whites. While there are passages that descend into Puritan cant, there are also whole chapters that provide honest depictions of life under slavery. I cried at least twice while reading the novel, something I rarely allow authors to make me do.

Where readers during the 1960s were put off by the racist assumptions of the author, today’s reader is likely to find them guides to the prevalence of race in the American consciousness reflected in even the most advanced white thinkers. Stowe is not a race hater, but she writes in a racist environment that was inescapable for nearly all whites, with the exception of John Brown and a few of his contemporaries.

This novel deserves to be read by all Americans and should inform high school discussions of race as much as To Kill a Mockingbird does.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment