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Monday, September 2, 2013

Did Another Prominent Historian Resort to Photocopy History?

Is historical curiosity dead?

Dr. Allen Guelzo has a good and well-deserved reputation as a historian, and he is a fine writer. I have never met him, and I do not believe I have ever corresponded with him. I am reading his new Gettysburg book, and it is a good single volume on the campaign/battle.

But . . .

Did he lapse into photocopy history mode by following Wiley Sword and Company in their interpretation of General John Bell Hood? It appears so. This is what he wrote about General Hood:

"John Bell Hood, an aggressive Confederate field general who suffered a mangled arm and an amputated leg, sustained himself on alcohol and opiates, and they in turn probably helped him lose his luckless campaign in Tennessee in 1864 by sapping his strength and deadening his judgment." 

Source: Guelzo, Allen C. (2012-04-20). Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Kindle Locations 5317-5319). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. [Submitted to me by a reader.]

And what credible sources did Dr. Guelzo use to conclusively state that Hood "sustained himself on alcohol and opiates"? Answer: None.  Others had written it, so it must be true, right?

Note thereafter Guelzo's eyebrow-raising qualifier "probably" [one of Sword's favorite words] as to how this combination of mind-altering substances sapped Hood's strength and deadened his judgment. Really? Ah . . . no. None of this is remotely accurate. And it is not subjective and no longer even arguable on any level. 

General Hood did not sustain himself or even use alcohol or opiates as Sword and others continue to endlessly prevaricate about, and historians who should know better copy without curiosity or question.

Stephen Hood's John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General (2013) unhorses these (and other) untruths and buries them under a flurry of stomping hooves. He does this in two ways: with newly found original firsthand sources, and a simple if time-consuming comparison of the "sources" originally used by Sword and others to characterize Hood as a drunk, crippled, drugged, hack of a leader. 

This new book conclusively demonstrates that, even WITHOUT these newly discovered documents, the sources used by Sword and others were, in the author's opinion, hearsay or misread or intentionally misused (readers can decide, and the plentiful reviews on Amazon and elsewhere demonstrate that they are shocked by the mountain of evidence). The record is one secondary mistake built upon another, piled upon a third, each with its own new purple adjectives thrown in for good measure. If Stephen Hood had left this subject alone, there is no doubt some author would have soon described an inebriated General Hood selling crack and meth in an Atlanta ghetto during leave.

Even good historians make mistakes. This is but another example. Hopefully, at least regarding General Hood, it is the last one.

(And if you would like to see the Hood book trailer, click HERE.)

-- tps


Anonymous said...

Sword is a professional historian that is being slandered by a dentist who likes to claim that he is descended from Hood. So far the dentist is the only historian writing anything positive about Hood. To say that Hood was taking something for the pain seems a kindness to explain some very questionable choices he made in the Western Theater.

TPS said...

You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts, sir (or madam--I don't know your name since you didn't provide it).

First, it was Steve Davis's outstanding article in 1996 in Blue and Gray Magazine who destroyed the laudanum drug myth. Of course, he is a simple insurance man, so what could he know?

Second, Stephen Hood is not as far as I know a dentist--which of course is irrelevant. He could be a cheese maker. He is in the construction industry.

New ideas that challenge long-held beliefs based upon solid research scare people who have deeply invested views. Ask Galileo.

You might try reading the book and examining and comparing the sources Sword (the "professional historian") and others relied upon and then get back to us.

Until then, and you offer a substantive debate on the merits of the book and allegations, I will not be replying.

JWM said...

I'm sorry, I didn't know you were getting your information from Blue and Gray Magazine. We are obviously running in differant scholarly circles. Most of the historians I read and deal with believe that it is acceptable to criticize a Confederate general. After all that is Sword's only sin.

James Epperson said...

The question of Hoods drug use (or non-drug use) has been hashed over a lot, and I am kinda agnostic on it. I think the accusations against Guelzo are misplaced, however. As an academic historian he probably did not read the B&G article mentioned above. The book cited in the original post sounds like a survey history intended as a college text. In writing such a thing one doesn't routinely fact-check every assertion of every reputable author (and Sword is, generally, considered a reputable author) cited, so I see no great sin on Guelzo's part.

TPS said...

Jim, Thanks for the reasoned reply. I don't see Allan's statement as a "great sin" either. But I do view it as a cautionary tale of how "historical truth" is passed down to the public and set in concrete to the point that when hard facts come to light contradicting it, people attack the new author's research without even giving the evidentiary record a careful examination. For me, as an attorney and trained historian, that is a head-scratcher. (And I like Guelzo's work and love his ability with the pen.)


Harry said...

I'm reading the book now - about 200 pages in. I believe there is some misunderstanding out there concerning the work. There are problems with it to be sure, especially in the early pages. However, this is not a hit piece on Wiley Sword. While Sword does indeed come off looking very bad where his characterizations of Hood are concerned, he's certainly not alone in that regard. And thus far the author has steered clear of speculation of Sword's (and Connelly's and Horn's and others) motivations behind their writings on Hood (really hoping he does not delve into that, though he does get into it with Hood's contemporaries which is more appropriate.) Many of the criticisms are pretty cut and dry, in which the sources cited in the works of those criticized clearly do not say what the authors claim they say. Other problems pointed out can be found in many other works, for example, citing as a source a secondary work which is actually the prior author's opinion only (an extreme of this is when an author cites as a source his own prior work which is also unsourced opinion!) A mixed bag to some extent (so far, anyway), but some very good and very big hits have been scored by author Hood.

J said...

The best example (IMO) of fiction getting in to the record and being accepted by many, then debunked, is the anecdote in which Lincoln says of Grant, "I cannot spare this man---he fights!" Lots of authors accepted it (for decades) because it is grounded in a primary source of sorts. But Brooks Simpson was able to cast enough doubt on the story as McClure tells it to torpedo the story.

Ken Noe said...

In addition to being a "simple insurance man," Steve Davis also has a PhD from Emory. I believe that he was a Bell Wiley student.

TPS said...

@Ken. Yes, you are correct about Steve Davis and I should have pointed that out. He is also one tremendous writer and researcher. And a fine man. Thanks for stopping by, Ken. (I very much enjoyed your Perryville book.)