Review of The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville, by Wiley Sword

4 Oct

“Franklin was the grave of the Army of Tennessee,” commented a Confederate veteran years after the Civil War.  Throughout those bloody years of conflict, the primary Southern army that fought west of the Appalachian Mountains had matched up with a host of Union forces sent against it and were beaten time and time again. Although the soldiers fought courageously, they suffered under poor leadership that either snatched defeat from the jaws of victory or worse, led them in fruitless campaigns and frontal assaults that bled the army dry. Historian Wiley Sword epically chronicles that army’s final grasp at victory in The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville.

The late Wiley Sword, who wrote an exhaustive account of the Army of Tennessee’s first major encounter with Shiloh, Bloody April, initially published this book as Embrace an Angry Wind: The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville. This book primarily focuses on the Confederate perspective in the war in the western theater, mainly from Atlanta all the way through the doomed 1864 Tennessee campaign led by John Bell Hood. Sword dramatically tells of Hood’s rise to leadership, from his glory days serving under Robert E. Lee in Virginia, to his transfer west to participate in the Battle of Chickamauga to eventually gaining corps command under Joseph E. Johnston in the initial stages of the Atlanta Campaign.  The overly ambitious Hood had a hand in Johnston’s removal as Federal forces menaced the city and eventually became overall commander of the Army of Tennessee. Hood would fail to save the city through his strategy of launching several bold and bloody attacks, including many doomed frontal assaults on entrenched positions. These tactics might have worked in Virginia in 1862 with the oversight of an organizer and a tactician such as Lee, but they were poorly conceived and executed in front of Atlanta owing to a combination of a wont of strategic vision, a faulty conception of the military situation, a lack of clear communications, and no small measure of incompetence. Under this cloud of mismanagement the army’s final campaign would begin.

The book picks up momentum with Sword’s narrative of Hood undertaking his campaign to reverse the war in the west and strike into Tennessee after the fall of Atlanta. Hood initially hoped to lure Sherman away from Atlanta or at least carry the war northward. He led his battered army into north Georgia and then turned westward across Alabama, looking for a way to cross the river with which his army shared its name. Sherman followed for a while, but soon tired of the chase and returned to Atlanta and eventually launched his famous March to the Sea. He left soldiers under the overall command of George Thomas to deal with Hood.

At this point, Hood’s campaign, as Sword expertly relates, started to unravel as mistakes built upon mistakes. First of all, Hood took too long to move his men across the Tennessee River, staying over three weeks near the Shoals area in northwest Alabama. This delay only allowed Union troops additional time to gather and undercut his chances of trapping the smaller Federal army under John Scofield which lay between him and Nashville. The next blunder would lead to much worse repercussions later. A flawed command structure allowed a portion of the Union Army to escape from a position at Spring Hill which could—some have suggested should—have resulted in the loss of an entire army. Hood had successfully placed his army into position to trap a large portion of Scofield’s army but Union troops marched directly past Confederate troops who had did not block the road connecting Columbia and Franklin. Sword states the failure was just another example of failed high command that had doomed the Army of Tennessee throughout the war. Spring Hill ranks as one of the greatest Confederate failures of the entire war.

After the debacle at Spring Hill, Hood marched his men towards Franklin where the Union troops who had just eluded him had positioned themselves. Hood, irate after letting the Union army escape, ordered a frontal assault. His subordinates tried to dissuade their leader, but Hood launched the attack anyway, almost as punishment for the soldiers and their leaders’ lethargy at Spring Hill. Hood even placed the units on which he placed most of the blame, those men under Benjamin F. Cheatham and Patrick Cleburne, in the lead.

In perhaps the best narrative of the drama of any Civil War battle we have read, Sword describes the legendary charge of the Army of Tennessee. In an attack even more foolhardy—and involving more men—than the more famous Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, Hood’s soldiers were slaughtered as they assaulted the positions in a forlorn display of incredible bravery. Describing the event as a “Monument to Southern Valor,” Sword captures the moment with unusual flare. Sword offers a detailed and comprehensive telling of the story that one general described as “the most magnificent site he had ever seen” without overwhelming the reader. When the brutal fighting was over, the Army of Tennessee was smashed. Thousands of casualties littered the bloody battlefield along with a host of generals dead or dying including the famed Cleburne. Scofield would pull out and march his men to Nashville afterwards. Sword places blame on Hood and declares him “a sad anachronism, a fool with a license to kill his own men.” The Battle of the Franklin is the crescendo in Sword’s tale, the epic event after which everything else is a sad and almost predictable denouement.

After Franklin, Hood marched his shattered army to Nashville, as much because he had no better plan than any real strategy. The surreal scene of a poorly equipped and dispirited army attempting to lay siege to a superior and well-organized defending force then unfolded in a bitter December outside of Nashville. Troops without shoes in icy conditions and having been led as sheep to the slaughter were asked to make superhuman sacrifice and wrest victory from an impossible situation. The Army of Tennessee was a house of cards. Everyone but Hood seemed to know it, even his opponents. Ironically, Hood based his unrealistic hopes on goading the Union forces to attack him and that is exactly what happened. Sword poetically states what happened next, “Hood’s army had given way to fear. . . Hood’s soldiers had suffered, until further suffering just didn’t make any sense anymore. Since Franklin, the army had become essentially a disaster waiting to happen.” Against the Union juggernaut, the Army of Tennessee now collapsed. Only the miserable winter weather, horrible roads and the strong work of Confederates leaders Nathan Bedford Forrest and Edward Walthall—and a little luck—saved the Army of Tennessee from complete capture or annihilation. When it was all over, barely 15,000 men of the once formidable Army of Tennessee could be mustered in Tupelo, Mississippi. Firsthand accounts reveal the assemblage of haggard soldiers hardly resembled an army so much as a disorganized and aimless mob. Hood, the central character in Sword’s book, was at last removed from command. While elements of the army would see even further fighting in the war’s final spring at places such as the Carolinas and on the Gulf Coast, the Army of Tennessee had effectively ceased to be a fighting force long before it straggled into its last camp after destruction in central Tennessee.

To say this book is highly recommended to those interested in the Civil War’s western theater is a disservice to the book itself. It captures the essence of the Army of Tennessee, the major Confederate force in the west, and tracks through its last campaign to its dissolution. It had fought for so long under such failed leadership that its ending story reads as one of the Civil War’s most compelling dramas. Sword’s narrative reads like an engrossing piece of fiction and is a model for good historical writing. The book is no mere melodramatic tale, though, as Sword offers well-informed insights from his research which have influenced the historiography of the war in the west. He pulls no punches with his criticism of Hood but also manages to have the reader pity him in his chronicle of his doomed romance with Sally “Buck” Preston, his horrible wounds suffered during the war and his eventual death along with other family members of typhoid fever in 1879. Hood, like the army he led to ultimate destruction, seemed marked for suffering. For anyone who has read about the Army of Tennessee during the Civil War’s Western Theater, this book proves a fitting epitaph to its incredible story. After reading it, one can better appreciate the homespun, poignant, lyrics of one of the soldiers who experienced the army’s infamous descent into disaster:

“So now I’m marching southward;

My heart is full of woe.

I’m going back to Georgia

To see my Uncle Joe.

You may talk about your Beauregard

And sing of General Lee,

But the gallant Hood of Texas

Played Hell in Tennessee.”

CPW/JMB

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