Joined: May 22, 2006 Posts: 92 Location: Huntington WV
Posted: Tue May 30, 2006 10:33 am Post subject: John Bell Hood and Laudanum
As a new member to CWDG, I recently read the posts from the old topic "Hood and Nashville" from last fall, and noted how the discussion immediately evolved into the myth of Hood's alleged use of laudanum and alcohol. I thought the members might find interesting an article written by Dr. Stephen Davis (author of Atlanta Will Fall) that appeared in Blue and Gray magazine in 1998. It might be a bit lengthy for this media, but it is the most thoroughly researched and enlightening work ever written on the subject of Hood and laudanum.
Really, y'all, this talk must stop --
where's the evidence of General Hood's drug use?
I don't know who started it...
Percy Hamlin, maybe. In his introduction to Old Bald Head: General R. S. Ewell (1940), he states that "Sherman captured Atlanta and Lincoln was reelected because "a competent, cautious man was replaced by one who, brave and loyal though he was, had been so crippled by wounds as to make him dependent upon the use of opium" (pp.ix-x).
Note that we're not naming names, so Hamlin is able to dodge a charge of libel. But the implication is clear: in July 1864, Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced General Joseph E. Johnston, the "competent, cautious man," with General John Bell Hood, the opium-eater.
What was Hamlin's source for this outrageous allegation? He doesn't offer one -- not in his text, not in a footnote. It doesn't matter. The charge has stuck to Hood.
One sees these allegations elsewhere, but curiously they're almost always speculative. In his booklet for the National Park Service, The Road Past Kennesaw: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (1972), Richard M. McMurry guesses that Hood "may have been taking a derivative of laudanum to ease his pain" from wounds (p. 42; italics added). The former newspaper columnist Webb Garrison, in his Atlanta and the War (1995), also entertains the possibility that Hood's judgement may have suffered "perhaps from use of laudanum to dull his constant pain" (p. 138) -- but note that again we see the unsupported, key word perhaps.
Hood's accusers often focus their attention on the notoriously missed opportunity at Spring Hill, Tennessee, the night of November 29-30, 1864, when the inert Confederate army allowed Schofield's Federal forces to slip out of a trap. Hood, having been up since 3 a.m. that day, was by all accounts exhausted. As James Lee McDonough and Thomas L. Connelly say in Five Tragic Hours: The Battle of Franklin (1983), Hood was therefore sound asleep while the Yankees slinked away, "especially if he took any liquor or a drug to relax" (p. 50; italics added).
Wiley Sword is just as equivocal in Embrace An Angry Wind, The Confederacy's Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville (1992). After dinner at his headquarters on the night of November 29, Hood retired and "perhaps swallowed some laudanum (a tincture of opium)" (p. 136). Sword's only source for this charge, we see in the endnotes, is a History of Maury County, Tennessee, not any primary, eyewitness source.
Indeed, local legend seems to be about the only basis of belief in Hood's insobriety at Spring Hill. Stanley Horn called attention to it in his The Army of Tennessee (1941): "Old soldiers and old residenters around Spring Hill explain all that night's fumbling in blunt terms: "Hood was drunk." That is a grave charge. It cannot now be proved or disproved. It is mentioned because the local tradition is so strong" (p. 392). The local legend of Spring Hill even made its way into Hood's first biography, as Richard O'Conner acknowledges, "it was a legend of the countryside for many years after that Hood was drunk that night" (Hood: Cavalier General, 1949, p. 232).
The legend is so strong that we've had to deal with it in our magazine. Editor Dave Roth, in his "General's Tour" of Spring Hill (Blue & Gray, November 1984), does not accept the legend of Hood's drinking, based at least partly on his reputation for abstemiousness.* Unfortunately, though, Dave does not rule out his possible use of laudanum, as he speculates that Hood "probably had a supply" of the drug; he "may well have turned to its use"; and if he did, the cause "may lie in his poor health" (italics added).
Dave's onsite research at Spring Hill included a visit with the Maury County historian in Columbia. Her "treasure trove" of material had accounts by local residents, including members of the Thompson family (Hood stayed at the Absalom Thompson house that fateful night) and neighbors. Among them is even a hint that Hood had taken a painful spill from his horse along the rocky backroad to Spring Hill. Based on these accounts and discussions with authorities in Civil War medicine, Dave concluded, "Laboring under intense pain, his [Hood's] mind was often clouded by pain-killing drugs" (p. 21) -- a statement he admits may have been too strong, lacking reliable eyewitnesses from the Army of Tennessee. (If you tweak him too much on this, he points out with a sly grin how Hood managed to wipe out many of those witnesses at Franklin the next day.)
The legend of Hood's drug use lives on. "Legend" though is a woefully weak basis for historical writing, especially as it allows hypothesis to leap to reality. Thus while Sword in his text wonders if "perhaps Hood swallowed some laudanum," his editors (in a caption for Hood's photograph in the book) assert flatly that Hood "often resorted to the use of laudanum," (Embrace an Angry Wind, f.p. 244).
Ronald H. Bailey, in his volume for the Time-Life series, The Battles for Atlanta (1985), also makes the self-assured leap in claiming, "By the accounts of some contemporaries, Hood suffered such intense pain that he was taking laudanum, an opiate that could impair mental judgement" (p. 91). Of course, Bailey doesn't name any of those accusing contemporaries, so we don't know his sources. The usually careful scholar, Steven E. Woodworth, in his essay for Savas and Woodbury's The Campaign for Atlanta (1994) also states that General Hood "at times resorted to alcohol and laudanum, a derivative of opium" (p. 18). Professor Woodworth does name his source; but it is nothing more than McMurry's booklet. As we have seen, although McMurry only guessed that Hood may have been taking laudanum, Woodworth jumps to the conclusion that he did.
Such is the leap from imaginative possibility to historical fact. In the literature of John Bell Hood, it seems a small step indeed.
Well, let's try to use some logic here, and approach the issue another way: if no contemporary ever saw Hood self-dosing with an opiate or if no one ever wrote about it, and if no such documentation has ever come to light, why are historians so eager to accept what must only be an unsupported speculation about a very important Confederate general?
The answer lies at least partly in Hood's wounds. As every Civil Warrior knows, the General suffered two severe injuries during the war. At Gettysburg, as he was leading his division into action on the second day, Hood took shell fragments in the left biceps, elbow, forearm and hand. The damage required no amputation, but thereafter Hood's left arm rested limp and useless in a sling. A few months later, at Chickamauga, September 20, 1863, Hood was shot in the right leg high in the thigh. Medical officers amputated that night; the procedure went well, without complication. Still, by all odds, Hood's chances of recovery were iffy.
Medical statistics for amputation in the upper third of the femur show death resulted in slightly more than 50% of all cases. According to The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1875-85), of the 268 Union and Confederate soldiers who died from Hood's type of amputation, more than a third perished within five days of the operation, doubtless from hemorrhage or shock. No cause of death is given for more than 180 of the reported fatalities. Not surprisingly, given the grossly unsanitary conditions of all Civil War surgery, the second most prominent cause of death was pyaemia, a "surgical fever" similar to gangrene.
Post-operative infection was the chief cause of surgical mortality in the Civil War and, as the name implies, "hospital gangrene" commonly occurred in the crowded wards where soldiers' unclean wounds festered. The main reason General Hood escaped infection of his leg stump was that he never entered a hospital. As was the custom of general officers of both sides, Hood received personal care, and commanded the attention of the army's best medical officers.
On September 21, the day after the operation, Hood was borne fifteen miles to the home of a staff member's parents, where he was tended by Dr. John Darby. Convalescence proceeded well. October 8, the General talked about returning to duty. The 17th, he sat up; Dr. Darby expected him soon to be on crutches. In late October, Hood was able to travel to Dalton, Georgia; a few days later he took the train to Atlanta. There he spent a week in the residence of John S. Thrasher. From there, probably on November 10, he went on to Richmond. "His stump healed promptly, but remained painful," observes Paul E. Steiner, M.D., in Medical-Military Portraits of Union and Confederate Generals (1968), "and because it was so short an artificial limb was hard to fit."
But in time, with crutches and a prosthetic leg, he was able to move about. By mid-January 1864 he was riding horseback. Clearly, with his left arm paralyzed in a sling, and his right leg gone, simply mounting his horse was a chore for Hood. As Confederate staff officer Joseph B. Cumming records, it took three aides to raise the General onto his horse, fix his wooden leg in the stirrup, and strap both Hood and his crutches to the saddle. But the General rode well and often after he returned to Georgia in February '64 as new corps commander in the Army of Tennessee. To quiet concerns about his comfort and mobility, Hood allowed an Atlanta newspaper to publish a letter written to a friend: "Since I came here I have been riding all over this country with Gen. Johnston, and have been in the saddle every day enough to have fought two or three battles, without feeling any inconvenience whatever from it. I ride with perfect comfort to myself, and expect to walk with a cane before long" (Atlanta [Memphis] Appeal, March 14, 1864).
Please note that in all this there is no mention of such discomfort as to require the use of any painkiller. During his three winter months in Richmond, frequently in the company of that alert observer Mary Chesnut, Hood talked of his crippled status (a "one legged man" who "cannot walk without help"), but in her famous diary she recorded no sense of self-pity. Nor does Mrs. Chesnut once mention Hood's resort to liquor or any other drug. Moreover, Dr. Steiner astutely assumes that in the winter of 1863-64, when Hood spent considerable time with President Davis, "Davis would almost certainly have known of any narcotic addiction" and not approved Hood for promotion to lieutenant general (Medical-Military Portraits, p. 229). Jefferson Davis may reasonably be accused of making some misguided decisions during the war, but appointing an opium-eater to high army command should not be listed among them.
Still, many writers can't help but imagine the pain Hood might have felt in his leg-stump. "His old leg wound may have been irritated by the long, damp ride over rough roads," Connelly muses in Autumn of Glory (p. 500 -- note may). "Maybe other things reinforced it [Hood's attitude]…physical and mental pain over his frightful wound (Five Tragic Hours, p. 67 -- note maybe). Even if untrained in medicine or unread in its literature, historians assume a learnedness in the etiology of pain, as does Winston Groom in Shrouds of Glory (1995), referring to Hood's "throbbing stump of a leg" (p. 159), or Wiley Sword commenting on "the pain in his leg stump" that Hood must have felt at Spring Hill (Embrace an Angry Wind, p. 69).
Worst, by far, is James Street, Jr.'s speculation in an article in Civil War Times Illustrated, May 1988. Though he technically hedges on the General's opium use ("if Hood was dependent on painkillers" (my italics), Street certainly feels Hood's wounds. "The pain from the stump of his right leg must have been horrendous when he rode strapped to his saddle. The bouncing and jolting, the abrasive rubbing of the stump against the rough cloth of a dressing or pad could not have been endured without some sort of pain-reliever. An opiate was the standard prescription. The drug would have made Hood sleep at Spring Hill while the Federals escaped his trap."
This is too much! Somewhere along the way, hasn't anyone thought of how other amputees handled themselves in active service? Take Dan Sickles, whose right leg was shattered by a solid shot at Gettysburg. After amputation at the thigh, General Sickles experienced pain for a while in his stump, but eventually returned to duty, and got about on crutches till his death in 1914. Where's the talk about his laudanum use?
Even better comparison is made with Dick Ewell, whose post-amputation ordeal was much worse than Hood's. After he was shot in the left knee at Groveton, August 28, 1862, Ewell underwent an amputation in the lower third of the thigh. Days later, carried by litter-bearers beyond threat of capture, Ewell was so jostled that the bone protruded from its stump. The wound "sloughed," and eventually an inch of necrotic bone fell away from the femur. Bedridden for weeks, Ewell finally mastered the use of crutches -- only to fall on the icy pavement of Richmond in December '62, knocking off another inch of bone, tearing his sutures and reopening the wound.
Added to these complications were the odd shape of Ewell's stump and ill-fitting wooden leg which together led, as Jack D. Welsh, M.D., writes in Medical Histories of Confederate Generals (1995), to Ewell's frequently being "bothered by abrasions of the skin and by small abscesses" (p. 64). Still, the General returned to active service in June 1863, and stayed in the field until his capture at Sayler's Creek in 1865. Every now and then Ewell would fall off his horse and also reopen his wound, as once, while talking to another officer, he forgot about his loss, got up, started to walk and promptly fell, striking the stump and causing much bleeding.
In November 1863, Ewell took sick leave, partly due to pain in his stump from probable osteomyelitis. During all this time none of Ewell's biographers -- including Donald C. Pfanz in the most current biography of Ewell -- has even contemplated the possibility of his drug use. How odd that General Ewell's first chronicler, Hamlin, would assume the need for pain medicine in one amputee, Hood, when his own subject suffered more frequent and painful complications of surgery without opium use.
To be sure, we must acknowledge the widespread dispensing of opiates by Civil War surgeons, and acknowledge too that a number of Yanks and Rebs became addicted to opium or its derivatives. But as David Courtwright suggests in his thoughtful study of the subject ("Opium Addiction as a Consequence of the Civil War," Civil War History, June 1978), such dispensing and addiction came about as much through surgeons' prescription of opium for chronic diarrhea and dysentery as for post-operative pain, a subject that seldom arises in the war's medical literature. The common understanding about Union and Confederate amputees seems to be that (assuming the soldiers got out of the hospitals alive), stumps healed and the men moved on.
At least partly for this reason, none of Hood's biographers even mentions laudanum in their books, though they ponder the effects of his wounds. O'Conner quotes Sam Watkins' pathetic description of Hood on horseback: "how feeble and decrepit he looked, with an arm in a sling and a crutch in the other hand, trying to guide and control his horse" (p. 243). During the Atlanta Campaign, according to John P. Dyer in The Gallant Hood (1950), Hood had access to two artificial legs brought back from Europe by Dr. Darby. One he kept strapped to his spare mount's saddle, the other he tried to wear, albeit with discomfort. Hood used it to help maintain his balance on horseback, but apparently found it of little help in walking.
Then there is Richard M. McMurry. A decade after his supposition, advanced in the NPS booklet, that Hood "may have been taking a derivative of laudanum," Dr. McMurry quietly recanted. In John Bell Hood and the War for Southern Independence (1982), McMurry explores the psychological effects of Hood's maiming, and its effect on the General's mobility, but there is no reference to drug use. Richard has reaffirmed to me personally that this non-mention is in effect an admission that in researching his book he found no evidence to support his earlier conjecture.
That should put an end to all the nonsense masquerading as fact. But Civil War writing being what it is, of course the blather continues. Take, for instance, Craig L. Symonds' new book on General Patrick R. Cleburne, Stonewall of the West. The night before Cleburne lost his life at Franklin, says Symonds, at the Thompson house in Spring Hill, General John Bell Hood took "an early dinner and a laudanum-induced sleep" (p. 254).
Really, y'all -- this talk must stop!
About the Author:
Steve Davis studied under the esteemed Bell I. Wiley and received his Ph.D. from Emory University. He has been Blue & Gray's Book Review Editor since 1985, and resides in Atlanta, Ga.
Initially, I thought John Bell Hood took laudanum to ease the pain caused by the Gettysburg & Chickamauga wounds, the poor-fitting prosthesis, etc. And I am not ruling out that possibility. But I have not seen any concrete evidence/first person accounts to back such an assumption/conjecture. So until I do, General Hood did not take laudanum. Period!
Today I picked up Anne Bailey's "The Chessboard of War: Sherman & Hood in the Autumn Campaigns of 1864," turned to the chapter entitled "Hood's Advance into Tennessee" & read the following:
"According to some accounts, there was much eating & drinking, and Hood, tired from the long march & undoubtedly in pain from the stump of a leg, PROBABLY (caps added by me) took some laudanum to help him sleep."
To compound the problem, there is no footnote for the paragraph from which I took this information. Sword is the basis for the previous paragraph & McDonough is cited for the paragraph that follows.
Well, "probably" doesn't sway this juror. I'm beginning to believe that the "Lost Cause" doctrine has a clause in it of which I was unaware -- The South lost Atlanta, Nashville, Spring Hill , etc. because General Hood took laudanum. Sheesh!
I'm not from MO, but you're gonna need to show me some proof.
Last edited by Zouave on Wed May 31, 2006 10:27 am; edited 1 time in total
Joined: May 22, 2006 Posts: 92 Location: Huntington WV
Posted: Wed May 31, 2006 9:30 am Post subject:
Seems the study of history is not immune from the tendency of scholars to try to add drama to past events. And when the scholars are also in the business of selling books, sometimes the temptation becomes too great.
Atlanta was lost because Sherman had more men and weapons and defeated Johnston, and then Hood. Hood's Tennessee Campaign failed because Schofield slipped the noose at Spring Hill, crushed Hood at Franklin, and Thomas raised additional troops and closed the deal at Nashville. Period.
All that may not be as sexy as a drug affected commander, but it's the plain truth.
Anne Bailey is a darn good historian, and generally fair and objective with Hood. I heard her give a talk in Nashville last year titled "The Tragedy of John Bell Hood" and it was excellent. She didn't even mention the word "laudanum."
I attend many battlefield tours in GA and TN, and read everything written on the Atlanta and Nashville Campaigns. Prior to a few years ago laudanum was always mentioned; lately it is rarely if ever brought up. This is, I believe, tacit acceptance by historians and scholars that the Hood-laudanum myth is just that.
Amen Sam. As you know I spent 10 years researching my book and there is not a single shred of evidence to support the outrageous laudanum claims. It is time once and for all to put this "story" to bed.
Forgive the novice for weighing in so belatedly on this topic. In my youth, many years ago, I had heard of the allegation that General Hood had used a narcotic pain killer. That presumption took root in my thinking because I deemed it to be reasonable that a man who had suffered such grievous wounds would require some form of relief to be able to endure even ordinary activity, much less the stress of a campaign. Of course, now I am ashamed to admit such a leap to that conclusion.
The members of this site have directed me to several readings that have led to the conclusion that there is no evidence whatever that General Hood took a narcotic.
Thanks and that will be my cautionary tale to avoid such leaps in the future.
Joined: Dec 05, 2007 Posts: 400 Location: Western NC
Posted: Sat Mar 29, 2008 7:58 am Post subject:
Since this thread has re-emerged I'll answer here instead of the other. I'm more than satisfied by your defense. I must also confess that I've done your ancestor an injustice in the past. Back when I was a guide the subject would occasionally come up on a tour and my usual response was possibly he did take something that night, I don't know for sure but certainly he was tired enough and hurting enough and cranky enough that when he turned in he left orders that he wasn't to be disturbed for any reason.
Of course I don't give tours anymore but who knows, I may again someday. In any event my answer in the future will be an unequivocal no, there is no evidence at all the Gen. Hood took any kind of painkiller.
I admit I'll continue to believe he was a much better division commander than army commander but I look forward to our meeting sometime and who knows, maybe you can turn me on that one also.
Joined: May 22, 2006 Posts: 92 Location: Huntington WV
Posted: Sun Mar 30, 2008 10:00 am Post subject:
I remember once hearing long ago--I can't recall where or by whom--that it was reasonable to assume Hood took laudanum since it was so commonly used that when artificial legs were purchased from France, a vile or two of laudanum would be included in the delivery case. The person added that all of the articial limbs used by the Confederate military came from France.
A few years later I learned that Hood's oft referred to "Cork Leg" was actually obtained from a prosthetic manufacturer in London, and that a "Cork Leg" wasn't made of cork, rather it was an "Angelsey Leg" initially manufactured in the city of Cork, Ireland, and thus given the moniker of "Cork Leg." (Not that this disproves anything, but heck, it's a tidbit of interesting minutia.)
Another thing. I have often heard that Hood's extreme anger (described as "wrathy as a rattlesnake") on the morning of Nov. 30 after learning of Schofield's escape was evidence of drug usage. First, if I was a commander and made a successful flank that would have virtually assured a complete and perhaps almost bloodless victory, and a mistake had been made that was going to surely cost many lives, I'd be pissed too. But anyway, I like to refer to a description of Nathan Bedford Forrest's reaction when he heard the same news as Hood on the morning of the 30th. John Copley of the 49th Tennessee described the outrage of Nathan Bedford Forrest in his 1893 book, A Sketch of the Battle of Franklin, with Reminiscences of Camp Douglass. Copley wrote:
"When we discovered their successful escape on the morning of the 30th, our chagrin and disappointment can be better imagined than described. General Forrest was so enraged that his face turned almost to a chalky whiteness, and his lips quivered. He cursed out some of the commanding officers, and censured them for allowing the Federal army to escape. I looked at him, as he sat in his saddle pouring forth his volumes of wrath, and was almost thunderstruck to listen to him, and to see no one dare resent it."
If overt outrage on the morning of Nov 30th was evidence of Hood's drug use, what was Forrest taking?
PS: Note that Copley wrote that Forrest cursed out "some of the commanding officers" (plural!) not Hood..or just Hood. Everyone blames Hood for the failure to block the Franklin Pike, but Forrest, who was heavily involved in the effort was one of several Confederate commanders who had met with Hood in the middle of the night (when he was supposedly high on drugs?) didn't single out Hood for blame.
Posted: Mon May 05, 2008 10:14 pm Post subject: civil war myths
It’s really difficult to pin down all the lies, myths, slanders and falsities that populate Civil War history.
I don’t think Hood was the total dunce and drug addict that many CW historians (?) make him out to be. For sure, we know he was a fighter. He was so good at fighting, that by the age of 32, he was made general of the Army of Tennessee. I think that that is all we know. Unless someone does a definitive study and analysis that may be all we ever know. Even then, barring concrete evidence it may be hard to prove anything. There will always be some dextrous wordsmith around or available that will devise a new excuse to ‘prove’ Grant never drank. Until then, all we can go on, is one’s analysis or educated guesses.
Most of the problem, I believe, is that many historians (?) adopt an historical figure, then make a career of writing about him. People like Lee, Grant, Jackson, and Sherman have become ‘mythic’ superheros due to the fawning, and hero worship foisted upon a largely unknowing public, by historians (?) more interested in the pecuniary assets than the historical. What else is there left to say about Grant that hasn’t been said in the 5,000 + books written about to date? What more can be said about “Gettysburg” that hasn’t been said in the 4,000 + books written already?
Some of the myths, established many years and books ago, are copied and repeated incessantly by fledgling drive-by historians (?).
Joined: May 22, 2006 Posts: 92 Location: Huntington WV
Posted: Tue May 06, 2008 9:15 am Post subject:
If anyone would read, as I have, all the major books focusing on John Bell Hood, they would see exactly what you describe. The first book that focused on Hood and the TN Campaign was written by Thomas hay in the 1920s, followed by Stanley Horn in the 50s, Thomas Connelly in the 70s, and Wiley Sword in the early 90s. With each successive book, objective presentation of facts became less apparent, and analysis and interpretation by the authors increased with each book. Why? Because once facts are exposed in a book, another book on the same subject must offer something new and/or unique, otherwise what use would there be in a new book. At Hood's expense, each of the aforementioned authors sought to create some unique new perspective, each one becoming increasingly more senational and hyperbolic, climaxing with Sword's utterly shameless novel-like presentation on Hood. Both Hood's legacy and Civil War scholarship were compromised by Sword, who unfortunately succeeded in established himself as the authority on Hood and the TN Campaign.
Eric Jacobson's book--the latest on the TN Campaign--is the best. Through a sober and thoughtful analysis of the historical record, Eric portrays Hood for what he was; a young, aggressive, and willing fighter who was thrust into an almost hopeless situation, and who, when facing a desperate situation, gambled too much when the odds were not in his favor. That scenario might not have enough spice and intrigue to entice a Hollywood movie deal, but that's what happened in November 1864.
Posted: Tue May 06, 2008 7:50 pm Post subject: Hood
“If anyone would read, as I have, all the major books focusing on John Bell Hood, they would see exactly what you describe.”
Judas priest! That’s the first time anyone on any group has ever said I was right about anything!
All said and done, you have done a fine job defining your ancestor. Keep it going.
I happen to think Johnston’s strategy was right on the ball. Fighting against two to one odds was
insurmountable. He had to retreat to keep his army on the field and a threat. I think he may have been a bit more offensive at times, but he was operating under the strictures of 19th century warfare.
Your ancestor was, in my opinion, a bit too offensive oriented. However, I haven’t seen in your writings yet the facts that he was urged on by the Confederate government and that nit wit Davis. I think that was a bit of a problem also. A young, aggressive, general egged on by “The President” who had become his friend and conferred many honors on him just may have turned Hood’s head a bit. Just a conjecture, but it’s one I’ve thought of several times.
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