Interview with Civil War historian Steven E. Woodworth on Hood’s role in the Atlanta and Tennessee campaigns (1864)

Interview with Professor Steven E. Woodworth
12/27/2006

Recommended reading for this interview?

Subject: John Bell Hood’s Atlanta and Tennessee campaigns (1864)

Also: read the interview with Dr. Woodworth about troop unit sizes during the Civil War

CWG: it’s pretty popular to bash Hood. There seems to be a strong Hood-hater crowd. Your thoughts?

SW: I think Hood has received something less than a fair shake from the historians, especially from those like Sword. For balance, read Steve Davis’s Atlanta Will Fall.

CWG: how important is the background to the Atlanta campaign important in understanding Hood’s involvement in it, assuming command late in that campaign?

SW: The fate of Atlanta was, from a Confederate point of view, all but decided by Joe Johnston. Given that a Union army of approximately 100,000 men, of the degree of toughness and experience it possessed, commanded by a general of Sherman’s skill and resolution, was advancing toward Atlanta, it’s fall was probably certain by the time the Federals crossed the Chattahoochee. Hood was given a hopeless assignment.

CWG: So what do you do when you’re assigned to do the impossible but you are expected to make a serious attempt at it?

SW: Well, in the case of Hood at Atlanta, you can’t retreat, since any further retreat will give up the city at once. When an opposing army executes a turning maneuver (which any Civil War army could do to any other at any time–even Burnside did it to Lee) the army that is turned must either retreat or attack. (In the case of Burnside and Lee, Burnside was stalled by the absence of the pontoons so as to negate his turning maneuver and relieve Lee of the necessity either of retreating or of attacking.) Sherman was almost unequaled in his propensity and skill for turning maneuvers. When Sherman turned him, Hood could not retreat, and so had to attack. His plans were reasonably skillful, though making good plans is probably the least difficult of a commanding general’s duties.

CWG: your evaluation of Hood at Peachtree on July 20th, where Hood lost nearly 5,000 men?

Editor’s note: the above casualty number should be closer to 2,500 than 5,000. Woodworth answered the first part of the question without disputing the inaccurate casualty figure.

SW: At Peachtree Creek he failed due to 1) his own physical inability to oversee the maneuver, 2) lack of adequate staff work (endemic to Confederate armies), and 3) Hardee’s apparent lack of cordial cooperation. Of course, the Confederates had at best an infinitessimally small margin of error at Peachtree Creek given who they were fighting against (Thomas)

CWG: your evaluation of Hood at Atlanta on July 22, where Hood lost 8,500 men?

SW: At the Battle of Atlanta Hood and his men did absolutely everything that should have been necessary to win a victory. Had they executed an attack like that one on Hooker and the Army of the Potomac at the time of Chancellorsville, I believe they would have won a victory at least as impressive. On the other hand, if Lee and Jackson and the Army of Northern Virginia could somehow have been transported through time and space to attack McPherson and Logan and the Army of the Tennessee at Atlanta, I believe the Federals would still have prevailed. The Army of the Tennessee was simply stout enough to withstand any blow the Confederates could conceivably have dealt, barring the presence of overwhelming Confederate numbers.

CWG: your evaluation of Hood at Ezra Church July 28 where 3,000 Confederate casualties took place?

SW: Ezra Church was of course an unmitigated flop–a complete fiasco from a Confederate point of view. It is attributable to a gross blunder by Stephen D. Lee and of course also to Hood’s own inability to oversee events personally and, perhaps, as well, to his lack of attention to detail.

CWG: and Jonesborough August 31st – Sept 1st?

SW: Jonesboro was much the same, as Ezra Church, in overall concept.

CWG: So your overall assessment og Hood in Atlanta would be?

SW: Therefore, my assessment of Hood’s performance in the Atlanta campaign is that he was 1) physically incapacitated by wounds from exercising fully effective command of a Confederate field army, and 2) possibly somewhat careless of details, as Lee had suggested.

CWG: let’s turn to Hood’s Tennessee campaign. Set the background up for us and place Hood in the reality he was facing.

SW: The Tennessee campaign is the same thing only more. What is a Confederate commander to do, in November 1864? Suppose you’re a Confederate army commander at that time. You’ve got to try something that at least seems to have a remote chance of saving the cause. What do you do? it’s hard to think of any course of action that could have won it for the Confederacy at that point. Would Jefferson Davis and Confederate public opinion have tolerated a passive policy of simply sitting down in front of Atlanta, poised to hinder Sherman’s advance farther into the interior of Georgia? Would they have insisted that Hood attempt to retake Atlanta?

CWG: Would the North Georgia policy, if pursued persistently, have yielded better results in the long run?

SW: Well, it would have piled up fewer casualties, but the end result would have been Union victory anyway. I’d say the worst criticism to which Hood is liable for the Tennessee campaign is that he acted out of desperation and failed about as spectacularly as is possible to imagine.

CWG: what responsibility should we lay at the feet of the Confederate political authorities?

SW: Maybe we should blame the Confederate political authorities for keeping their military fighting, throwing away lives by the thousand in utterly desperate gambits, when all rational hope of victory was past.

CWG: what significance or role did Franklin/Nashville have in the overall war effort for the South (for late 1864)?

SW: Franklin and Nashville had a limited impact on the overall course of the war simply because they failed to change anything. The Union controlled Tennessee before the campaign and controlled it even more solidly afterward. Confederate chances for success in the campaign were, from the outset, rather desperate. The impact of the battles was 1) to increase the overall Confederate death toll of the war, and 2) to remove whatever latent threat to Union control of Tennessee might have been posed by Hood’s army lurking in north Alabama. For example, it seems unlikely that Schofield’s two corps would have been shifted to the east coast if Hood, with an as yet unbroken Army of Tennessee, were still lurking just outside the state, threatening to move north.

And yet, would that have changed the outcome of the war? No, Sherman could have accomplished his purpose without Schofield, and the overall outcome would have been the same. Perhaps the crowning irony of the battles of Franklin and Nashville is that they were fought at a time when the war was already decided. by late November 1864 it is difficult to imagine any train of events that could have led to a Confederate victory.

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