Civil War Gazette publisher quoted in Tennessean article about upcoming Hick’s book

By Will Ayers • THE TENNESSEAN • September 20, 2009

Source

Welcome to Franklin, Tenn., where the Old South died.

So would read the road sign Robert Hicks would plant at the city limits, if he was being perfectly honest about the Civil War battle fought there in late 1864.

Hicks, a former music publisher and manager turned top-tier novelist, has an abiding fascination with the battle, which inspired his first novel, the bestselling The Widow of the South. Hicks is quick to tell you that while the Battle of Franklin may be among the Civil War’s more obscure clashes, once the blood soaked into the soil, the Confederacy was pretty much finished.

The Widow of the South dealt with the raw aftermath of that battle and the struggle to honor its legacy. Hicks’ new novel, A Separate Country, also draws its inspiration from the skirmish, following its implications many years later into New Orleans, where John Bell Hood, who commanded the disastrous Confederate assault at Franklin, settled after the war.

A controversial legacy

Hicks has picked a prickly character inA Separate Country Hood, who isn’t remembered kindly. The bloody defeat at Franklin helped scuttle the Confederate strategy to drag the fighting out as long as possible. Indeed, the war ended less than five months later.

“You truly see much of the endgame of the Civil War unfolding in Franklin, as this Southern army is virtually crippled,” said Kraig McNutt, publisher of the Civil War Gazette, an online compendium.

Hood has been portrayed in historical books as a bitter, vindictive man who marched his soldiers across two miles of open ground outside Franklin, in the face of withering fire, to punish them for letting Union troops slip away at Spring Hill. His detractors also claim that pain from a withered arm and an amputated leg (suffered at Gettysburg and Chickamauga, respectively) browbeat Hood into the thrall of narcotics.

“He is this drunken, drugged, vengeful, petty, murderous, idiotic, pain-wracked failure,” said Hicks, summing up the mainstream view of Hood.

But as he pored over old letters, memoirs and accounts of Hood from the soldiers who knew him, the man Hicks found didn’t look like the wretch of the history books. “About six months into the process of researching this book, there’s this other guy who appears, who is a fairly decent human being.”

Fighting the current

Hicks was surprised first, then outraged. In 20th-century accounts of the Battle of Franklin by prominent historians, most notably Wiley Sword, Hicks saw a slanted picture of Hood that ignored sympathetic sources and played up unfounded rumors. He tried to trace the stories about Hood’s use of opiates, but the historians he interviewed who had recounted the rumors couldn’t produce any documentable sources.

“The difference between me and the historians is that I put ‘novel’ on the cover and they don’t,” Hicks said.

Hood’s supporters, such as the members of the John Bell Hood Historical Society, argue that his legacy wasn’t besmirched until the 1920s, once the first wave of books about the Civil War had crashed and faded.

“If somebody comes along and wants to write a second biography or a second study of a campaign, they’ve got to do something different, otherwise somebody can buy the earlier book for 50 cents at a used bookstore,” said Sam Hood, president of the society. “People want to dramatize it a little bit.”

Hicks believes Hood became a scapegoat for Southern historians who preferred to minimize the Battle of Franklin rather than admit it had real significance in the preservation of the Union. It’s a minority opinion, though, and Hicks expects hot invective from Civil War historians once the book comes out, but he makes no apologies.

“Everybody ‘knows’ who John Bell Hood is, and almost none of it is documentable or is even true,” he said.

A city in flux

A Separate Country focuses on Hood’s postwar years in New Orleans, where he married a local belle and raised a family that eventually grew to include 11 children. He worked on his war memoir, Advance and Retreat, made (and then lost) money in insurance and cotton, and lived in a big house on a busy street.

Though the main focus is Hood’s ghosts from Franklin, Hicks uses the setting to explore what New Orleans was like in the late 19th century, as the prevailing cultural winds blew less French and more American.

“Everything is shifting, and New Orleans is becoming really a different place,” said Hicks, whose family often vacationed there when he was a boy. While he was writing the book, he returned to walk the streets, eat the food and try to imagine what the city looked like before the modern casinos and tourist bars.

He also looked up Hood’s house, whose owner had repeatedly refused him access. During one visit, he had a film crew with him shooting the outside of the house when the owner, a retired lawyer, arrived and got out of his car.

“I told him who I was and he said, ‘Mr. Hicks, you can’t come in.’ ” he said.

But five minutes later, he opened the door and came back out. He had changed his mind. Hicks was allowed in, and the camera crew could come too. “I felt like I had won the lottery,” said Hicks.

He walked into the room where Hood died of yellow fever in 1879, following his wife and oldest daughter by a matter of days. It immediately changed how Hicks saw the city.

“What happens with writing is that you invest yourself with these people,” he said. “It’s very difficult for me, when it’s all over, to leave them. It’s like members of my family have passed away; they’re always with me. Being in that house, there’s now this whole other layer that involves the Hoods, the fictional characters, the real and unreal. They’re part of New Orleans for me.”

Though the main focus is Hood’s ghosts from Franklin, Hicks uses the setting to explore what New Orleans was like in the late 19th century, as the prevailing cultural winds blew less French and more American.

“Everything is shifting, and New Orleans is becoming really a different place,” said Hicks, whose family often vacationed there when he was a boy. While he was writing the book, he returned to walk the streets, eat the food and try to imagine what the city looked like before the modern casinos and tourist bars.

He also looked up Hood’s house, whose owner had repeatedly refused him access. During one visit, he had a film crew with him shooting the outside of the house when the owner, a retired lawyer, arrived and got out of his car.

“I told him who I was and he said, ‘Mr. Hicks, you can’t come in.’ ” he said.

But five minutes later, he opened the door and came back out. He had changed his mind. Hicks was allowed in, and the camera crew could come too. “I felt like I had won the lottery,” said Hicks.

He walked into the room where Hood died of yellow fever in 1879, following his wife and oldest daughter by a matter of days. It immediately changed how Hicks saw the city.

“What happens with writing is that you invest yourself with these people,” he said. “It’s very difficult for me, when it’s all over, to leave them. It’s like members of my family have passed away; they’re always with me. Being in that house, there’s now this whole other layer that involves the Hoods, the fictional characters, the real and unreal. They’re part of New Orleans for me.”

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