Sword, Wiley. Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville.
Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.
Wiley Sword recounts with great detail the last great push by the rebel Confederates in The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville. Sword doesn’t miss an element while writing of that summer in 1864. Jefferson Davis named John Bell Hood to head the Army of Tennessee. There were acts of great heroism, there was political buffoonery, flawed leadership, and opportunities never realized. Sword does not hide his harsh judgments of Hood, placing a considerable amount of blame in his direction, although Sword does not place everything in the General’s lap but fairly includes the other men whose choices led the Confederates to failure. In this dramatic account, Sword follows the Confederate Army of Tennessee and shows how an early advantage was lost at Spring Hill, moving to the unfortunate attack on Franklin, and ending with the bloodbath at Nashville. Wiley Sword invokes both the Confederate and Union perspectives during the battles while including details about the major players.
Wiley Sword is the author of several Civil War histories including Courage Under Fire: Profiles in Bravery from the Battlefields of the Civil War, The Historical Henry Rifle: Oliver Winchester’s Famous Civil War Repeater, Southern Invincibility: A History of the Confederate Heart, Mountains Touched with Fire: Chattanooga Besieged, and numerous others. Embrace an Angry Wind, later renamed to The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah won the 1992 Fletcher Pratt Prize for the best book of Civil War history. Sword has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Parkman, Bancroft, and Western Heritage prizes. He has appeared on several historical television shows featuring the Civil War. Sword is a collector of historic American military-related letters from 1845-1866 and has written many magazine articles featuring these letters. He is also a great supporter of historical preservation. With these credentials backing him, it is no wonder Sword took on the infamous Tennessee Campaign. (date of death, 2015)
The Western Theater of the American Civil War has always been given a lot of attention by historians because of its importance. Having read several works by this author, the accolades Wiley Sword has accumulated with this forthright and appealing book that brings 1864’s summer military engagements to life through cinematic dialogue and thoughtful structure, are certainly deserved. Sword’s concentrated research effort of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and their unsuccessful attempt to push into Tennessee and defeat the Union forces that were occupying the territory are dynamic. Sword’s reference notes and bibliography are a testament to the amount of research he combed through, including several archives, diaries, soldiers’ memoirs, official records, and newspapers.
In the first few chapters of the book, Sword begins the process of examining the final months of 1864. General Sherman and General Joe Johnston are studied along with their military exploits around Atlanta. He also describes the rise of Confederate General John Bell Hood who took overall command of the Army of Tennessee. Having graduated from West Point forty-fourth out of a class of fifty-two, Hood was promoted quickly in the Army with surprising ease. “By good luck and opportune timing, whereby his dash and ardent fighting spirit quickly came under high notice, within the span of three months Hood had become a lieutenant colonel.” (p. 7) Hood seemed to brazen his way through battles with plenty of zeal but little astuteness. First, he found himself injured at Gettysburg leaving his left hand almost paralyzed. Then came the crucial Battle of Chickamauga where Hood took a rifle ball in the right leg shattering the bone just a few inches below the hip. Unfortunately for Hood, immediate amputation followed leaving him with only a four and a half-inch stump. During his recuperation, Hood courted Sally Buchanan Preston of Richmond.
Sword spends quite a bit of time on this relationship. Some book reviewers have found this diversion from battle intrigue unnecessary, however, it gives the reader a better sense of Hood’s mindset, his weakness for alcohol, and his inability to understand that he was the butt of numerous snide remarks by Sally’s friend Mary Chestnut. His focus on the woman did not allow his better judgment to surface, much like what would happen in battle. Sword, after all, is making a case against Hood’s suitability to lead the Army of Tennessee and his moments with Sally Preston are revealing. Despite his lady problems he was accorded a hero’s adulation and welcome in Richmond’s “coveted political circles.” (p. 24)
Hood slid into a bureaucratic relationship with Jefferson Davis and was soon sent to General Johnston’s Army of Tennessee where he would command a corp. Unbeknownst to Johnston, Hood was writing negative letters to Davis and Braxton Bragg of his frustration that Johnston would not take the offensive. Hood went so far as to send his aide in late May to apprise the government of Johnston’s continued retreat and lack of aggression. Johnston knew that at this point Sherman had three armies, over 100,000 men and 254 cannon set to march against him, and despite what was being said, Johnston claims to have begun plans to attack Sherman as he crossed Peachtree Creek. Bragg’s desire to discredit Johnston come to fruition with the help of Hood, and on July 17 a telegram was sent relieving Joseph E. Johnston of command. Hood now had command of the Army of Tennessee, but was in a very desperate situation, an unwinnable situation. Sword elucidates Hood’s continual brash and ruinous decisions that created catastrophe after catastrophe on the march to Nashville and later, the retreat.
Quite a bit of the book focuses on Spring Hill. Sword spends much needed time on Hood’s subordinate officers and the poor decisions that they made. So to be fair, the author does not use the entire book as a whipping post for Hood, he allows that mistakes made by men like Benjamin Cheatham and John C. Brown helped hurry tragedy along. A fascinating section dealt with the Union forces under the command of General John Schofield and how he led his troops past the Confederates under the cover of darkness. Hood did not well advise his men on the strategy of cutting off the retreat of the Union forces, which led to confusion. Pat Cleburne was especially aggrieved by Hood’s finger-pointing and told Major General John C. Brown that Hood, in fact, was to blame.
Once Hood realizes that the Union army had slipped by, he readies his men to pursue them to Franklin where the next battle will take place. Sword carefully follows Hood’s movements and methods. Union General Schofield’s men quickly construct barriers along the perimeter of Franklin, but Hood is breathing down their necks with no help coming from Thomas in Nashville. He has little hope of holding the Confederates at bay. Schofield’s goal is to get to Nashville where reinforcements await. An engagement with Hood is unavoidable.
Hood rashly orders his officers to a full-frontal assault even though they had no artillery support. The results were a brutal, hand-to-hand combat that caused massive casualties on both sides. Union Colonel Emerson Opdycke rallied his troops and miraculously routed the Confederates, who had, until then, a chance at destroying the entire army. Hood’s aggressively, bold action without the appropriate deliberation caused devastating loss. Schofield is able to cross Harpeth River and reach the fortifications of Nashville.
The last part of the book is focused on Nashville. Hood’s depleted Army of Tennessee was stationed south of the city and waits there for Thomas to attack. Ulysses S. Grant and others from Washington are frustrated when Thomas puts off the attack due to inclement weather, but finally, on December 15, the orders go out and a massive strike devastates the Confederates. The rebel forces are scattered south into Alabama and Mississippi. Hood’s Army of Tennessee was obliterated. Soon after this defeat, Hood resigned his command. On a side note, but no less interesting, Hood’s fiancé could not bring herself to marry her once dashing soldier, who was now just a shell of the man he used to be. Trodden by loss and crippled from injuries, Hood held little appeal for the capricious young woman who eventually wed Captain Rawlins Lowndes.
Wiley Sword gives readers an exhilarating chronicle of the Tennessee Campaign. He does not disappoint in his analysis of the generals who were involved and he successfully shows the importance of the Western Theater to Union victory. There is little doubt that this truly was the Confederacy’s Last Hurrah. Though the Confederates fought bravely, they were outnumbered, and beaten down by poor decisions and missed opportunities. The author admits that John Bell Hood was not a man to run from a fight, and displayed courage on the battlefield, however, he finishes with this truth, “Yet no segment of a man’s life stands alone; it must be put in the context of the whole.” (p. 439) Wiley Sword has surely written a history that will be appreciated by generations interested in the great American Civil War.
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