John Bell Hood: The Worst General in History

John Bell Hood
John Bell Hood

John Bell Hood is one of several Confederate generals who have major US Army bases named after them. While I don’t think, in general, that we should name army bases after enemy generals, in this case it might be apt because John Bell Hood, almost singlehandedly, lost the Civil War.

He, along with Braxton Bragg, – who also has a large army base named after him – were not just the worst generals in the Confederate Army, they were two of the worst generals in history, but Hood’s stupidity was particularly damaging to the Southern cause.

Let’s zoom out for a minute. 1864. The war has gone on for four years and colossal stupidity by Northern commanders has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. William Tecumseh Sherman is in a stalemate outside Atlanta against the South’s best general, Joe Johnston.

Robert E. Lee? In my book he goes down as one of the stupidest generals in history. Ever hear of the charge of the Light Brigade? or the Battle of New Orleans? Both are listed as the greatest blunders in military history, but both suffered fewer casualties than Pickett’s charge.

The election of 1864 is looming. Nobody, even Lincoln, expects Lincoln to win. People have been sickened by the carnage of the war and its cost – over a million dollars a day. Lincoln’s opponent George McClellan, advocates negotiation with the South.

This would end the war, but leave four nations on the North American continent, two in what is now the United States. If you doubt how quickly the European powers would exploit this rift, consider that the French were already in Mexico. They left rather quickly when the war was over.

General Joseph E. Johnston
General Joseph E. Johnston

Johnston has stalemated Sherman by NOT giving battle. Look up ‘cunctator’; it was a term of honor among the Romans. Not giving battle can be as effective as giving battle. Lee could have well profited from this adage at Gettysburg. Had he sashayed to the right, as Longstreet suggested, he might have won the day.

But in Atlanta, Jefferson Davis replaces Johnston with John Bell Hood because he will stop the cunctating and FIGHT. He does. He loses. Sherman takes Atlanta just in time for the election. People see an end to the conflict. Lincoln wins, largely due to ballots from the troops. It’s a very close thing indeed, and it took colossal stupidity by Davis and Hood. Had they cunctated a few months longer, the flaccid McClellan would have been president.

But Hood’s blundering had only just begun. When Sherman took off from Atlanta on his march to the sea, Hood took command of the Army of Tennessee. Seasoned veterans of this army wept when they heard the news. They knew they were going to be slaughtered. And they were.

Hood nearly trapped a Union army, but because he gave vague orders that weren’t followed through, the Federals escaped. To Franklin.

At the Battle of Franklin, under Hood’s orders, an attack by infantry on entrenched positions, six Confederate generals were killed, seven were wounded, and one captured, along with 55 regimental commanders and thousands of their men while Hood was stoned out on opium in a nearby farmhouse. In fairness, he had lost an arm at Gettysburg and a leg at Chickamauga, but still. 

It was clear he was trying to teach his army a lesson, and that’s downright sick. He then caused the rest of his army to be annihilated at the Battle of Nashville, where Union General George Thomas had been waiting for him for months. Why you would ever name an army base after this guy is a mystery to me. Maybe it was a ploy to boost Southern enlistments in WW II.

Sally "Buck" Preston
Sally “Buck” Preston

I first got introduced to John Bell Hood by my grandmother’s cousin, Edmund Wilson, who wrote about him in his compendium of Civil War Literature stupidly titled Patriotic Gore. Edmund stumbled upon the diaries of Mary Chestnut, later used extensively in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary.

Chestnut, a family friend of the Prestons, writes about the courtship by Hood of the Virginia beauty Sarah ‘Buck’ Preston. She’s about ready to marry a guy with one arm and one leg, but she dumps him after the Battle of Franklin, and rightly so.

Patriotic Gore, although stupidly titled, is a great sourcebook of American literature with very informative sections on Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, Mary Chestnut, and many others, as well as writers in the Reconstruction Period like Kate Chopin and George W. Cable.

Edmund Wilson was a perceptive guy, and he always tells you something you didn’t know before.