Monday, May 17, 2010

Tommy Lee Jones: "Am I dead?" John Bell Hood: "You don't look like it to me"

Certainly Hood saw enough dead men to answer that question correctly. Back in 1994 I picked up a copy of James Lee Burke's In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, because it combined two interests of mine, murder mysteries and the Civil War (though in truth, it has virtually nothing to do with the Civil War). In the novel, detective Dave Robicheaux (the sixth installment with this classic, South Louisiana character) encounters the ghost of Confederate General John Bell Hood with whom he has a conversation or two. There's no particular reason to bring Confederate ghosts into the story, but the general serves to bolster the spirits of the struggling lawman while Robicheaux sees connections between a half-forgotten murder he witnessed as a boy and a string of present day serial killings. Hood's main purpose here seems to be to present the ideal of steadfast honor and adherence to principle.

Spring forward to 2010, last month in New Orleans, I was visiting the grave of John Bell Hood at Metairie Cemetery, and the statue at the Army of Tennessee tomb which provided artwork for the original dust jacket of Burke's book. I mentioned In the Electric Mist and was excited to learn from Civil War Forum member John Lancaster that they'd made a movie of the book. Incidentally, next to the Hood gravein which the Hood name is overshadowed in his wife's family plotis a large metal plaque giving a biography of the general. It's designed to look like a government issue sign, but as our guide told us, it was placed there by a Hood descendantthe same one, I'm pretty sure, who is on a crusade to rehabilitate Hood's military career, and who took out the ad in Civil War News to attack Wiley Sword for unkind words about the general. The plaque, I can report, is a fairly straightforward biography. I was glad it didn't end with a footnote about Sword being a damned liar.

Somehow, this movie (with the title shortened to "In the Electric Mist") passed me by completely, even though it's only from 2009, and had a fairly substantial cast, including Jones, John Goodman, Mary Steenburgen, Ned Beatty, Buddy Guy, Peter Sarsgaard, and Kelly MacDonald. Last week I finally got around to looking up the film on Netflix, and was pleased as punch to see it was among their "Watch Instantly" offerings. I made time for it the other night, and with no expectations at all, enjoyed it very much. Jones and Goodman work pretty hard at their accents, and pull it off for the most part.

Levon Helm of The Band fame plays the one-legged general, and who can resist that gravelly drawl? For all his range as a singer, it's interesting that Helm's on-screen roles seem only to call for a monotone delivery (and Levon, it's cavalry, not calvary). Take off the general's insignia, and this is pretty much exactly the same character that Tommy Lee Jones had a conversation with in the intriguing, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," except that then he was an old blind man in Mexico, not a dead Confederate general.

Please don't be alarmed by the severity of my comparison.

Below, Hood's grave, and the aforementioned marker.


DW@CWBA said...

Isn't it funny how film always portrays Hood as an old man? He wasn't quite 30 when the war broke out, yet the gentleman here and the one that played JBH in Maxwell's "Gettysburg" are easily twice Hood's wartime age. The film world in general seems unaware that high ranking officers and generals in the CW armies were often young men in their 20s and 30s. Either that or they know it but don't think audiences would buy into it. I bet most "Glory" viewers with a non-CW background thought Broderick "looked way too young" to be Col. Shaw.

Interesting post. I love my netflix streaming video, too.

dw said...

Drew, that's a great observation, and just one more of the details that bothered me about the Turner Gettysburg movie.

At 54 in 1861, Lee was an old man compared to all those young whippersnappers. But even that is about 15 years younger than Levon Helm was when this film came out.

Anonymous said...

The immensly popular Ken Burns series also perpetrated this with various celebrities contributing their distinguished voices to the cast. The problem was that they were all OLD voices! This was a far primarily fought by guys in their teens and twenties, not decrepit actors. Particularly strange was the casting of Garrison Keillor as the teenage Indiana recruit Theodore Upson.
Will Hickox

dw said...


Good point. I had forgotten that Garrison Keillor pitched in as well. That's no kid talking!


Anonymous said...

Odd choice of words about the descendent of Gen Hood crusading to rehabilitate his military career by "attacking" Wiley Sword for "unkind words" about the General.

Wiley Sword is undeniably a slanderer of Hood and his books contain proven errors of both fact and omission. The ad placed in the Civil War News directed readers to a web site which detailed those factual errors and omissions. To date, none of Sword’s admirers have challenged the factual assertions that reveal his scholastic malfeasance, rather, they attack the messengers.

Open minded and skeptical Civil War students marvel at how an author like Wiley Sword can make vile personal attacks on the honor and character of a defenseless dead man, yet the exposure of Sword's scholastic and literary malfeasance is declared rude and inappropriate. It seems that Sword has carte blanche to publish factual errors, censor contemporary diarists and memoirists, cherry pick historical record and make vicious unfounded personal attacks on a defenseless man, yet when Sword is criticized and his errors and omissions revealed it is described as a personal “attack” on him.

dw said...

Yes, "attack" is the right word for it. I don't believe Sword falsified anything, and to call a historian's work "desecration" is an over-the-top emotional response by descendants, not an honest critique.

Anonymous said...

What assertion made on the expose' about Sword's work is factually incorrect?

If calling Sword's work "desecration" of a defenseless dead man is "over the top" how would you describe Sword calling the young JB Hood "an ill-mannered hellion," West Point cadet Hood managing to "prod and squirm" his way through school, military commander Hood as "a fool with a license to kill his own men" and Hood the husband and father as siring 11 children to prove to the world he was "no lame lover" due to his was wounds?

Are all defenders of Wiley Sword simply adoring relatives of his? Otherwise why would they defend Sword's biased and factually incomplete and erroneous writing?

If literary and artistic license allows Wiley Sword to use deplorable methods and terminology in portraying JB Hood, don't other writers deserve the same literary license in describing Sword's historiological conduct? Why are there no limits on what Wiley Sword can write about Hood but Sword himself is untouchable?

dw said...


Let me start by saying you should learn the difference between libel and slander if you're going to so casually throw those charges around. You're actually talking about libel, but nothing Sword writes fits that bill either. You wish to know what statements at your "expose" site are factually incorrect, but the site doesn't deal with "factual" statements. Virtually all of the criticism of Sword there are emotional rejections of Sword's "analysis" or "commentary." Those are conclusions Sword has arrived at, and the best you can do is try to dispute them, you cannot disprove them.

You accuse Sword of intentional deception, but don't even BEGIN to establish any basis for your claim. Ironically, if there is libel, it's all on your part. It's obvious that you don't have a shred of evidence to substantiate that Sword wrote those things for reasons other than that he arrived at that historical analysis by studying the historic record and made an honest assessment. By contrast, your character assassination of Sword is -- for all we can tell -- based soley on PERCEIVED slights to a historic figure.

I already addressed some of the ridiculousness of your complaints in the comments to my first post on your CWN attack ad. To wit, I wrote:

"Sword is not above criticism. All historians are subject to critical scrutiny. My objections stem first from the fact that the Society took out an advertisement to engage in what is really just base character assassination. The ad refers you to an article that continues the attack in the same vein (as if speaking harshly of Hood's generalship amounts to sacrilege).

The article at the web site DOES nitpick. It also disingenuously takes harmless sentences from Sword and presents them as insults. The author of the article was indignant that Sword called Hood ambitious.

My focus on the class rank complaint was not nitpicking. It was an example of why the apologist article is so bizarre. The Society author wanted to sugarcoat Hood's class ranking by ADDING 40-some people to Hood's graduating class. Don't you see how absurd that is?"

Dave W.

Anonymous said...

Since the debate over Sword's book and the JBHHS web site's expose is about who is and isn't nitpicking, lets not nitpick over the difference between slander and libel. One is written and the other is spoken, and although a court of law might care, casual readers and lay persons don't.

Sword was informed in writing and verbally about the fact-filtering, mischaracterizations and outright errors contained in his 1992 book "The Confederacy's Last Hurrah". He acknowledged some errors and some of his characterizations, then in 2007 he wrote the same things in the deplorable Hood-bashing essay in his book "Courage Under Fire." People can judge for themselves whether his anti-Hood bias is intentional or not.

As for nitpicking, it is Wiley Sword who nitpicks everything about JB Hood, the man and the soldier, yet he himself eludes criticism from Sword-worshipping apologists. When is more information rather than less; accurate information rather than erroneous; and inquiry rather than blind acceptance not good historiography?

The single information provided in the expose' that gives you the most heartburn seems to be the statement about the size of Hood's West Point Class. Hood indeed graduated 44th out of the 52 who completed their degrees. What harm is there in pointing out to the public that some 40-odd cadets in the orginial class either quit, expelled or flunked out...especially when Hood's class ranking is presented by Sword in the context of his being a substandard youth and student? Niticking? Perhaps, but I doubt any student of history is offended by being told the number of cadets who enrolled at West Point in the fall of 1849.

Sword's portrayal of the 1864 Tennessee Campaign is being broadly rejected by the Civil War history community as erroneous and overly malicious, although some, including Sword's publishers, friends and relatives, may choose to defend the indefensible and attack the messengers.

daniel mallock said...

There is no question whatever that Mr. Sword was inaccurate (and likely worse) in his portrayal of Hood's actions at Franklin. It is not widely understood apparently that the Army of Tennessee came extraordinarily close to victory at Franklin. If this had occurred, of course Hood would have been deemed a hero rather than the destroyer of the AofT. Without question, the attack at Franklin was hugely risky; but the risk almost paid off. Analysis of the ground and of the situation on November 30, 1864 in the late afternoon shows that Hood's decision to attack was not lunacy but one of the few options that he had available to him. Davis appointed Hood to command because of his fighting reputation; Hood did not disappoint in that regard.

There are no contemporaneous sources that suggest that Hood was doped up on laudanum or drunk, quite the contrary. And this is the foundation of the complaint against Mr. Sword's portrayal of Hood in his books. In my view, like many students of the War, Sword is a great fan of both the AofT and of Patrick Cleburne in particular. The Tarleton/Cleburne tragedy is highlighted for dramatic effect in Sword's book, Confederacy's Last Hurrah. Clearly, Sword adores Cleburne just as I, and many others do. The anger and sadness at Cleburne's death in front of the Cotton Gin in my view is fundamental to understanding the anger at, and hatred of Hood.

However, while many may disagree with Hood's attack order, and certainly because Franklin was such a horrific disaster for the South, the attack order itself is not cause to revile Hood. The harsh words for Cleburne, Forrest and Cheatham after the debacle of Spring Hill seem excessive and should not have been said, but there is no evidence in the source material to support Sword's suggestion that Hood was drunk or doped up.

As historians we are obligated to get to the truth, with hopefully a firm understanding of the source material available. There is no evidence for the accusations against Hood in the primary sources and this is the crux of the matter and the point being made by Hood descendents and other interested historians.

Any student of history should support an accurate telling of historical events and the people involved. The vilification of Hood for Franklin is understandable, but it is out of context. Placed in context, as all historical events should be, General Hood was doing his duty as he saw it to be, and most importantly without distraction from laudanum or alcohol imbibing.

dw said...

Anonymous wrote: "Since the debate over Sword's book and the JBHHS web site's expose is about who is and isn't nitpicking, lets not nitpick over the difference between slander and libel. One is written and the other is spoken, and although a court of law might care, casual readers and lay persons don't."


Well, there's the rub. The difference between those terms is the difference between accuracy and inaccuracy. It makes all the difference in the world. These distinctions matter. Just as it matters that you confuse Sword's historical analysis with some calculated attempt to spread lies about General Hood. If you take issue with his analysis, more power to you -- just make your case and move on. But this crusade against the "desecration" of Hood's memory is absurd.

The reason I highlighted Hood's West Point class size is that it shows the ridiculous extent to which Hood apologists are willing to go to exalt their hero. You are indignant that Sword reports Hood graduated 44th out of 52, even though that's the only accurate way to report the matter. Hood apologists wish to point out that 96 people entered that class years earlier, but only 52 graduated. The "Sword Exposed" website attacks Sword for not saying that Hood was 44th out of 96. Come on, now. You post stuff like that, and you want your complaints to be taken seriously? Hood did not graduate in a class of 96. He graduated in a class of 52.

I've looked over the website (again), and can't find a single item that demonstrates Sword ever knowingly published a false statement about Hood. It really just boils down to the fact that Sword's harsh analysis offends you.

I am actually sympathetic to Hood in the Atlanta Campaign, and am intrigued by alternative viewpoints by authoritative historians like Stephen Davis. In fact, I published Davis's sympathetic view of Hood's performance. I don't have any compunction about defending Sword's work. What I object to is the overly-personal character assassination of working historians by people who disagree with their assessments for emotional reasons.


dw said...

Daniel wrote: "There is no question whatever that Mr. Sword was inaccurate (and likely worse) in his portrayal of Hood's actions at Franklin. It is not widely understood apparently that the Army of Tennessee came extraordinarily close to victory at Franklin."


That's all well and good. If you know more about this than Sword and can correct his misperceptions, then write some articles or a book of your own and set the story straight. You might argue that Hood is a poor historian, but I don't think anyone has demonstrated that he has a personal vendetta against Hood, and is intentionally publishing false information in order to disparage Hood's memory.

We can identify any number of well-known Civil War historians whose apparent dislike of a certain officer colors their analysis of battles and campaigns to the point of distraction to the reader. I'm thinking of Sears's rough handling of McClellan, McMurry's harsh treatment of Joe Johnston, Krick's relentless denigration of Longstreet, etc. Well read students of the Civil War notice those trends and characteristics, and bear them in mind while reading, but as with Sword, I'm not aware of any premeditated effort on the part of those historians to publish false information for the purpose of tearing down the reputation of a historic figure.

You mention that the foundation of the complaint against Sword's portrayal of Hood is that he was doped up on laudanum or drunk. I don't know what Sword says about that -- does he flat out assert this as a fact, or does he "suggest" it as a possibility based on something (circumstantial evidence)?


Daniel Mallock said...

David wrote: If you know more about this than Sword and can correct his misperceptions, then write some articles or a book of your own and set the story straight.


David, I have.


David wrote: "You mention that the foundation of the complaint against Sword's portrayal of Hood is that he was doped up on laudanum or drunk. I don't know what Sword says about that -- does he flat out assert this as a fact, or does he "suggest" it as a possibility based on something (circumstantial evidence)?

I hope you are not being literal when you say, "I don't know what Sword says about it." If you read the Sword materials, you would know.

Thanks for your comments. However, while you may dislike the approach of certain Hood defenders or "apologists", the fact of the matter is that they are correct in the substance of what they say regarding Mr. Sword's portrayal of General Hood at Franklin.


Skipper said...

Those who read Sword’s The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, and cannot discern the thread of personal scorn and cynicism concerning his view of John Bell Hood as man and soldier, (a contemptuousness that worms its way through the entire account), cannot be expected to understand why those who do perceive it, are disgusted by it.

dw said...


When you acknowledge you have written some articles or a book to set the record straight, are you referring to something more than the 7-9-09 entry on your blog?

I read "Embrace and Angry Wind," way back when, and "Shiloh, Bloody April." I gave away the former book and do not have quotable recall on what Sword said about Hood being doped up or drunk. That's why I asked you if Sword explicitly asserted that Hood was on laudanum, or drunk, or if he merely suggested these things based on one thing or another. It was a simple enough question that I'm surprised you chose not to answer it.

As for Sword's subsequent titles, I'd like to see his detractors -- JUST ONCE -- quote a line of Sword's in context and then solidly refute it with substantiation. That entire "exposed" essay is composed of weak complaints that merely suggest Sword's error without making the case.

Again, the phrasing, and the construction of the argument at "Sword Exposed" is expressly personal, not dispassionately academic. There are a lot of complaints, but no substance -- nothing to uphold the charge that Sword has a personal agenda to intentionally post erroneous information.

Short of that, it amounts to nothing more than dissatisfaction with Sword's conclusions. I keep mentioning the class rank issue because it's emblematic. But there are several silly things like that.

For instance, the site takes Sword to task for saying he got into West Point through the influence of a congressman. Well OF COURSE he did -- that's how it worked. The site also slams Sword for calling Hood "ambitious."

Come on, now. You may have a different opinion, but that's all. It's easy to make a case that Hood was ambitious (to say nothing of the fact that not everyone considers that a negative quality).

I just went back and read every italicized Sword quote in the "exposed" essay. Nothing is refuted. Even this seemingly powerful rebuttal is off the mark:

"Continuing his intentional deception, Sword adds, “Even worse, the enormity of this mistake was never admitted by Hood.” Sword conceals from the reader Hood’s unambiguous acceptance of blame in his memoirs where he wrote, "Whilst I failed utterly to bring on battle at Spring Hill..."44 In his Army of Tennessee resignation letter, of the Tennessee Campaign Hood wrote, "I am alone responsible for its conception..."45 At the end of the Nashville retreat, near Shoal Creek AL, W.G. Davenport of the 6th Texas Cavalry wrote that Gen Hood rode up and "Looking worn and tired but with kindly words for all, said to the soldiers, 'Boys, this is all my fault.'"46

It's off the mark because accepting blame is NOT the same thing as admitting the enormity of the mistake. Not even close.


dw said...


Contemptuousness doesn't mean an author intentionally publishes false information about a subject as part of some vendetta. Your post here is a perfect example of the problem with the "Sword Exposed" tag team. You are responding emotionally to conclusions you do not favor, but you can't refute them in any way that's more compelling.

I've already pointed to authors like Sears, McMurry, and Krick who seemingly have it out for a particular office. But none of them, to my knowledge, intentionally posts false information. And as far as I can tell, Sword hasn't either.


Anonymous said...

We will just have to agree to disagree on the tone and content of the Sword Exposed article. Clearly the article is aggressive, but not nearly as aggressive as Sword's 400 page assault on the personal character and integrity of Gen. Hood. The article is full of irrefutable, factual primary source evidence, NONE of which was included in Sword's book.

I suppose it is possible that Sword did not come upon some of the material during his research, but almost all of the quotes in the Sword Exposed article were from books, memoirs, diaries, etc. that Sword lists in his bibliography. If Sword pulls selected excerpts from diarists and memoirists when the quotes are anti-Hood or support an anti-Hood assertion, yet conceals other excerpts from the same book if it is supportive or sympathetic to Hood, how could that not be intentional? I think any dispassionate reader would conclude that Sword had a preconceived theme for his book and like a lawyer, sought and revealed only evidence that supported his bias.

Again, I don't see how anyone can read Sword's Tennessee Campaign book and his essay "What Kind of Courage" in his latest book and not immediately see that the man has an obsessive hatred of Hood.

I just re-read the Sword Exposed essay and although some of their arguments are stronger than others, I think their point is persuasive.

I find it puzzling how anyone could feel that Sword is being treated too harshly because his work is characterized as "desecrating" Hood, yet Sword's incredibly harsh personal attacks on Hood evade criticism. Is it only permissable to attack the integrity of dead people?

With no disrespect, it seems that if anyone is being hysterical about intense nitpicking it is critics of the Sword Exposed essay.

Anonymous said...


Put plainly, Sword's book on Hood and Franklin is not objective history. The author has allowed far too much of his personal prejudice to creep into the text.
Had Sword been objective, he would have noted that the frontal assault carried out at Franklin was Hood's last chance to separate Schofield from Thomas, something he had tried to do with flanking movements almost as soon as the AOT crossed the Tennessee River. Sword should have also been open minded enough to explain that Grant ordered an equally disastrous assault in June at Cold Harbor, and with a far less compelling motive. Sherman did the same thing at Kennesaw Mountain, and then, as the OR shows, tried to get George Thomas to support another such assault. My point here, is that Hood was using a tactic employed by many top echelon generals during the war, including Lee.
Daniel Mallock is correct in asserting that Hood's charge came very close to success, and this is borne out by testimony of Union officers who were there.
I make no claim that Hood was equipped to command an army, but feel that in order to get a fair view of the man, one should examine his entire career without prejudice. The criticism almost inevitably centers on Franklin and his time with the AOT, a period that makes up only six months of four years service to the South.

Charles said...

I have 250+ books in my civil war library. I have 100+ titles in my library of WWII studies - with an emphasis on Weimar/Nazi Germany.
I was honored to be a book review consultant for North and South, Blue and Gray, Civil War Times and American Civil War Historian.

None of which makes a genius but such does allow me to tell history from op-ed pieces.

Sword's Last Hurrah/Angry Wind is nothing more than a venomous editiorial -for what purpose I can't decipher. I've seen Hitler and Comrades Lenin and Stalin get better 'press' versus the antic of Sword and those who parrot his bias.

I suggest Steve Davis and Winston Groom as two who offer a more reasoned and objective account of Genl Hood and his leadership.

I consider Sword as much as a hack as the once highly respected Stephen Ambrose.

dw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dw said...


Well, now your challenge is nothing more than a book review by someone who disagrees with Sword's conclusions. In this entire discussion, you and your tag team have been unwilling or unable to demonstrate one intentionally false thing that Sword wrote about Hood.

I've continued to participate in this discussion because I was holding out for the "smoking gun." But alas, it was not forthcoming. Now you want to defend Hood by invoking Grant and Sherman at Cold Harbor and Kennesaw Mountain.

Again, write your own book if you don't like Sword's.


dw said...


Fair enough -- you've read enough Civil War books to regard Wiley Sword as a sub-par historian.

I don't have any problem with that kind of analysis, as long as you can substantiate your opinion. All of us can point to authors whose work we find sloppy, inaccurate, or worthless.

But to take out ads in print media denouncing Sword's "desecration of a Confederate hero" is bizarre and irrational. If Hood was a deity, you'd think he would have fared better in Tennessee.


Anonymous said...

"Bizarre and irrational" is reading Sword's books and the Swordexposed essay and having no problem with his obsessive mistreatment and skewed portrayal of JB Hood. Researchers and critics caught up with the errors and omissions in "The Confederacy's Last Hurrah" and rather than being honorable, Sword doubled down with his disgusting Hood-bashing essay in "Courage Under Fire." Personally, I find it incomprehensible that anyone can read those works and not question Sword's intent.

Anonymous said...

JBHood was a tool. At Gettysburg he was ordered to take little round top. Lee knew what he'd get when he made that order. A ramrod. A fearless soldier that would LEAD his men to battle.
The same can be said for the Battle of Franklin. Hood was no Lee, Grant, or Sherman. He was a fearless soldier that didn't have the qualities to outsmart the enemy. He was a leader meant to break the enemies lines. 'Ol Wooden Head' was a nickname for a man that was meant to be a spearhead, or tool to break and bring fear to the Union Forces. It's really that simple. To over analyze who and what he was is a joke.
Historians need to take a step back and see him for what he was. A simple man, who in the end was a captain who was loved by his men, and followed his charge into battle and thier death.

Chris Evans said...

The blog 'From New York to San Francisco' has a lot of excellent posts on 'Gettysburg' and 'Gods and Generals'.

There is a good interview with Patrick Gorman who played Hood in both movies that brings up some of the issues of age that you mention and some other interesting comments about playing Hood.