Born in Owingsville, Kentucky, John Bell Hood was the son of Dr. John Wills Hood and Theodosia French. He was also the cousin of Confederate General G. W. Smith, nephew of U.S. Representative Richard French, grandson of Lucas Hood who fought in the Battle of Fallen Timbers during 1794. His maternal grandfather was James French, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. The son of a rural doctor in Owingsville, Kentucky, John grew up in the bluegrass region of central Kentucky near the town of Mt. Sterling.
With a reputation for bravery and aggressiveness that sometimes bordered on recklessness, Hood was arguably one of the best brigade and division commanders in the Confederate States Army. However, Hood became increasingly less effective as he was promoted to lead larger, independent commands late in the war. His career was also marred by his decisive defeats while leading his troops in the Franklin-Nashville and Atlanta Campaigns.
Uncle Richard obtained an appointment for John to West Point; despite the fact his father was reluctant to encourage his son to have a military career. John graduated in 1853 by the skin of his teeth. With a class size of 96 at the start of his freshman year, by graduation, the count had dwindled to 52, with Hood in 44th place. During his senior year, Hood was reduced in rank and severely disciplined by new Superintendent Col. Robert E. Lee, due to accompanying a fellow cadet on an unauthorized pre-Christmas visit to nearby Benny Haven's Tavern. He also came very close to being expelled due to an excessive number of demerits. The maximum number the Academy allowed was 200 and by graduation, Hood’s collection totaled 196.
Known as “Sam” while at West Point and during his Army years, Hood was classmates with John M. Schofield and James B. McPherson. He received his artillery training from George H. Thomas. During the Civil War, all three of these men became generals in the Union Army and later opposed Hood in battle.
Colonel Robert E. Lee served as the Academy’s superintendent from 1852–1855 and later became Hood's commanding general. Though his record at the Academy was modest at best, Hood was appointed chief cavalry instructor in 1860. He declined this position, stating his desire was to remain with the active field regiment to which he was assigned.
Following graduation, Hood received his commission as a brevet second lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Infantry. His service began in California, then transferred to Texas where he became part of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, commanded by Col. Albert Sidney Johnston and Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee.
During a reconnaissance patrol he led from Fort Mason on July 20, 1857, Hood received the first of many wounds which marked his military service. In this case, an arrow pierced his left hand during a conflict at Devil’s River against the Comanches. He later received his first promotion, to the rank of first lieutenant, in August 1858.
Following the Battle of Fort Sumter, Hood resigned from the United States Army on April 16, 1861. The neutrality displayed by his native Kentucky left a bad taste in his mouth; thus Hood chose to serve his adopted state of Texas. He joined the Confederate army at the rank of cavalry captain.
On September 30, 1861, he received a promotion to the rank of colonel in the 4th Texas Infantry. When he became the brigade commander on February 20, 1862, his unit was renamed Hood's Texas Brigade, part of the Confederate Army of the Potomac. His next promotion, to the rank of brigadier general, occurred on March 3, 1862.
Under Hood’s leadership, the Texas Brigade was part of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Peninsula Campaign. Throughout this campaign, Hood established his reputation as an aggressive commander. He was eager to lead his troops into battle, and before long the Texans gained a reputation for being one of the army's elite combat units.
The Battle of Eltham's Landing saw Hood’s men quash an amphibious landing attempted by a Union division. When Commanding General Joseph E. Johnston commented about the success Hood's men achieved, he jokingly asked, "What would your Texans have done, sir, if I had ordered them to charge and drive back the enemy?" Hood’s sincere response was, "I suppose, General, they would have driven them into the river and tried to swim out and capture the gunboats." The Texas Brigade was now held in reserve at Seven Pines.
On July 26, 1862, Maj. Gen. William H. C. Whiting received a medical furlough. Hood now became the senior brigade commander in Maj. Gen. James Longstreet's First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. During the Northern Virginia Campaign, Hood led the division and added to his reputation as the premier leader of shock troops between August 28 - 30, 1862. At that time, he was involved in Longstreet's massive assault on John Pope's left flank at the Second Battle of Bull RunAugust 28–30, 1862, during which the Union Army was nearly destroyed.
While in pursuit of Union forces, Hood engaged in a major dispute with Brig. General Nathan "Shanks" Evans over a number of captured ambulances. The argument led to Evans arresting Hood; after which General Lee intervened and retained Hood in service.
During the Maryland Campaign, just prior to the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, 1862, Hood was stationed in the rear, still in virtual arrest. His Texas troops, however, set about to change that and shouted to General Lee, "Give us Hood!" In response, General Lee restored Hood to command, despite the fact Hood refused to apologize for his conduct.
The following year, he was at the Battle of Gettysburg, which began on July 1, 1863 with Longstreet's Corps arriving late. General Lee had planned an assault for Day 2 that would feature Longstreet's Corps attacking from the northeast, up the Emmitsburg Road and into the Union’s left flank.
Hood was dissatisfied with his assignment in the assault; due to the fact his troops would face difficult terrain in the boulder-strewn area known as the Devil's Den. He sought permission from Longstreet to move instead around the Union’s left flank, beyond [Big] Round Top Mountain, and strike the Union from the rear. Longstreet held fast to the plan, citing Lee's orders, despite the repeated protests Hood offered.
Eventually, Hood yielded to Longstreet and his division moved out around 4 p.m. on July 2nd. In the process, a variety of factors came into play which caused his division to veer eastward, away from the original plans that would bring them in contact with Union forces at [Little] Round Top.
As the attack began, an artillery shell exploded near Hood. He was again wounded, this time severely. This wound was to his left arm and rendered it useless for the rest of his life. Brig. General Evander M. Law now assumed command of the division; however, the confusion regarding orders and command status collapsed the strength of the Confederate attack and significantly affected the outcome of the battle.
While Hood recuperated in Richmond, Virginia, he made a social impression on the ladies of the Confederacy. Famous Confederate diarist, Mary Boykin Chesnut, wrote of Hood in August 1863:
When Hood came with his sad Quixote face, the face of an old Crusader, who believed in his cause, his cross, and his crown, we were not prepared for such a man as a beau-ideal of the wild Texans. He is tall, thin, and shy; has blue eyes and light hair; a tawny beard, and a vast amount of it, covering the lower part of his face, the whole appearance that of awkward strength. Some one said that his great reserve of manner he carried only into the society of ladies. Major [Charles S.] Venable added that he had often heard of the light of battle shining in a man's eyes. He had seen it once — when he carried to Hood orders from Lee, and found in the hottest of the fight that the man was transfigured. The fierce light of Hood's eyes I can never forget.
During his recuperation, Hood began a new campaign; the goal of this one to win the heart of Sally Buchanan Preston, a prominent young South Carolina socialite. Known as "Buck" to her friends, Hood first met Buck in March 1863 while traveling through Richmond. In the words of Hood, the flirtatious Southern belle managed to make him "surrender at first sight." Hood proposed marriage to Buck in September as he prepared to return to duty; however, she offered him only a noncommittal response.
Returning to duty on September 18, 1863, Hood joined a number of Longstreet’s troops which were transferred to the Western Theater. A gap had been discovered in the Union’s line and Hood led a massive assault against it at the Battle of Chickamauga. The assault led to the defeat of Union Gen. William Rosecrans. In the process, yet another injury beset Hood. This time the injury was to his right leg, severe enough to require his leg be amputated four inches below his hip.
After the leg was severed, Hood's condition was so grave, the surgeon sent both Hood and the severed leg in the ambulance, anticipating the two would be buried together. Hood, however, had other ideas. Instead of finding himself housed with his severed leg in a random grave, he lived to fight another day. Hood's bravery at Chickamauga caused Longstreet to recommend he be promoted on that date, September 20, 1863, to lieutenant general. His promotion was confirmed by the Confederate Senate on February 11, 1864, at which time Hood was preparing to return to duty.
Back in Richmond to recuperate once more, Hood befriended Confederate President Jefferson Davis, from whom he would receive another promotion. Hood also attempted to resume his courtship of Buck Preston. Though she offered Hood a number of ambiguously positive signals, she then dashed his hopes on Christmas Eve. Hood later confided to Mary Chesnut that the courtship "was the hardest battle he had ever fought in his life." Not one to give up the fight until he had struck out the third time, Hood proposed once more to Buck in February. This time he demanded a specific response, and received a reluctant, embarrassed agreement. Though Buck agreed, albeit hesitantly; the Preston family did not approve of Hood, and sent him back to the battlefield still a bachelor.
During Hood’s second recuperation in Richmond, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had offered him the position of a corps commander. This seemed to many to be a controversial appointment, due to the fact the Texan was still relatively young and inexperience; not to mention his growing number of physical disabilities.
Hood’s artificial leg was made of cork and donated (along with a couple of spares) by members of his Texas Brigade. They had collected $3,100 in a single day for the legs, which were then imported from Europe and traveled through the Union blockade.
Despite the limitations resulting from his two damaged limbs, Hood gave a good performance in the field. By strapping himself to his horse as his artificial leg hung stiffly, Hood was able to ride upwards of 20 miles a day with no apparent difficulty. Not far behind rode his orderly, who carried a set of crutches.
During the opening days of the Atlanta Campaign in the spring of 1864, the Confederate Army of Tennessee, under the command of Joseph E. Johnston, was losing a campaign of maneuver against William T. Sherman, who was pressing on towards Atlanta from Chattanooga.
The Army of Tennessee continued to withdraw until it crossed the Chattahoochee River, the last major water barrier prior to reaching Atlanta. Hood had recently begun to send a number of very critical letters about Johnston to the government in Richmond. In doing so, he broke protocol due to bypassing the official communication channels. Eventually the issue came to a head and President Davis ordered Gen. Braxton Bragg to travel to Atlanta and personally interview Johnston.
After interviewing Johnston, General Bragg held additional interviews with Hood and subordinate, Joseph Wheeler. Both Hood and Wheeler informed General Bragg they had repeatedly urged Johnston to attack. Hood also presented Bragg with a letter that branded Johnston as being both ineffective and weak-willed. In it, Hood stated, "I have, General, so often urged that we should force the enemy to give us battle as to almost be regarded reckless by the officers high in rank in this army [meaning Johnston and senior corps commander William J. Hardee], since their views have been so directly opposite."
Craig L. Symonds, Johnston's biographer, states that Hood's letter "stepped over the line from unprofessional to outright subversive." Hood, however, was not alone in his criticism regarding Johnston's timidity. In a letter sent by William Hardee to General Bragg dated June 22, 1864, Hardee stated, "If the present system continues we may find ourselves at Atlanta before a serious battle is fought."
Prior to the Battle of Peachtree Creek, President Jefferson Davis lost his last bit of patience with Johnston's continuous strategy of withdrawals and relieved him. Hood, at the time commanding a corps under Johnston, was promoted to the temporary rank of full general on July 18 and given command of the army just outside the gates of Atlanta.
At 33, Hood was the youngest man on either side to be given command of an army. Robert E. Lee gave an ambiguous reply to Davis's request for his opinion about the promotion, calling Hood "a bold fighter, very industrious on the battlefield, careless off," but he could not say whether Hood possessed all of the qualities necessary to command an army in the field. Another historian said Lee described Hood as “all lion, no fox.” Lee also stated in that same letter to Jefferson Davis he had a high opinion of Hood's gallantry, earnestness, and zeal.
Jefferson Davis had considered replacing Johnston with the more senior Hardee, but Bragg strongly recommended Hood. Bragg had not only been impressed by his interview with Hood, but he retained lingering resentments against Hardee due to bitter disagreements in previous campaigns. Hood was promoted to the temporary rank of full general on July 18, and given command of the army just outside the gates of Atlanta. (Hood's temporary appointment as a full general was never confirmed by the Senate. His commission as a lieutenant general resumed on January 23, 1865.)
Hood used strong aggressive actions for which he had become famous to conduct the remainder of the Atlanta Campaign. Four major offensives were launched that summer in an effort to break the siege by Sherman on Atlanta, immediately starting with Peachtree Creek. Ultimately all of Hood’s offensives failed, resulting in a significant number of Confederate casualties. On September 2, 1864, Hood evacuated the city of Atlanta, in the process burning as many military installations and supplies as possible.
While Sherman began regrouping in Atlanta for his March to the Sea, Hood met with President Davis and they attempted to devise a strategy in an effort to defeat him. The plan they created was to attack Sherman's lines of communication from Chattanooga and move north from Alabama into central Tennessee.
The plan, of course, required Sherman to feel threatened. Hood's personal hope was to gain the opportunity to maneuver Sherman into a decisive battle and defeat him; then recruit new troops in Tennessee and Kentucky prior to passing through the Cumberland Gap. This was in an effort to come to the aid of Robert E. Lee, who was presently besieged at Petersburg.
Unfortunately, Sherman refused to cooperate with Hood’s plans. Instead, Sherman sent Major General George H. Thomas to take control of the Union forces in Tennessee and coordinate the defense against Hood, while the bulk of Sherman's forces continued to prepare for their march toward Savannah.
The Tennessee Campaign took place in 1864 from September to December. It was composed of seven battles and involved hundreds of miles of marching. Following his failure to defeat a large portion of the Union Army under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield on November 29, Hood and his troops engaged in the Battle of Franklin. Their efforts to breach the Union breastworks were unsuccessful, thus allowing the Union troops to withdraw unobstructed toward Nashville.
During the Battle of Franklin, Hood sent his men across nearly two miles of open ground with no artillery support, seeking to destroy Schofield's forces in a last gasp effort before they could reach the safety of Nashville, which was only a night's march from Franklin across the Harpeth River. Hood’s troops suffered severe casualties during their unsuccessful attempt to breach the Union breastworks. Some have likened this effort to "Pickett's Charge of the West".
Hood's exhausted army was also unable to halt the withdrawal of the Union force into Nashville. He later wrote that "Never did troops fight more gallantly" than at Franklin. Several popular histories affirm Hood acted rashly in a fit of rage, because he remained resentful of the fact the Federal army slipped past his troops the night before at Spring Hill. As a result, he wanted to discipline his army by ordering them to attack against strong odds. Others discount this idea as unlikely. Not only the fact doing so was militarily foolish, but by the time he arrived in Franklin, Hood was observed to be determined, not angry.
Two weeks later George Thomas would defeat Hood’s troops at the Battle of Nashville. Most of his army was wiped out, making it one of the most significant losses for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After this catastrophe, what was left of Tennessee’s Army retreated to Mississippi. As of January 23, 1865, Hood resigned his temporary commission as a full general, reverting back to lieutenant general.
In the closing days of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis ordered Hood to travel to Texas in an effort to raise another army. Before he arrived, General Edmund Kirby Smith had surrendered his Texas forces to the Union. Hood resigned his command to Federal authorities in Natchez, Mississippi on May 31, 1865.
Following the Civil War, Hood moved to Louisiana and worked in the fields of insurance and cotton brokerage. On April 30, 1868 he married Anna Marie Hennen, a New Orleans native. Over the next 10 years, Hood fathered eleven children, including three pairs of twins, and accumulated a modest fortune. His insurance business was later ruined by a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans during the winter of 1878-79. The disease closed the New Orleans Cotton Exchange and wiped out the majority of insurance companies. Hood himself also succumbed to the disease and died just days after his wife and oldest child. This left his remaining 10 children as destitute orphans, who were adopted by seven different families located in Louisiana, New York, Mississippi, Georgia and Kentucky.
Confederate General John Bell Hood is buried in the Army of Tennessee Memorial in Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans. Hood County, Texas, and U.S. Army installation Fort Hood, Texas are both named for him.
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I can assure you that the gallant hearts that throb beneath its sacred folds, will only be content when this glorious banner is planted first and foremost in the coming struggle for our independence.
John Bell Hood