RALEIGH — John Hood was an excellent leader of men in battle.
Hood demonstrated that 150 years ago this week during the Second Battle of Bull Run. Called Second Manassas by the Confederates, the August 28-30 battle pitted the Union’s Army of Virginia, led by Major General John Pope, against General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
John Bell Hood, a native of Kentucky (and a cousin of my great-grandfather Bristol Hood), had by August 1862 risen to the rank of brigadier general. The 31-year-old West Point graduate had made his military fame commanding the Texas Brigade, which had begun life in 1861 as a collection of Texas infantry regiments fighting in the Eastern theater of the war. Hood first led one of those regiments as a colonel before taking command of the whole brigade in March 1862.
The unit soon became known as “Hood’s Texas Brigade,” and played a key role in Gen. Lee’s Seven Days campaign of June 1862 that thwarted Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s attempt to capture Richmond via an invasion of the Virginia peninsula. President Abraham Lincoln then decided to bring John Pope, who had enjoyed some success in the Western theater, to head up the new Army of Virginia and attack Richmond from the north.
Lee’s 55,000-man army headed north to block the advance of Pope’s 80,000-man force. They met in late August 1862 on the same battlefield where a different Confederate general had defeated a different Union general the previous year. The North typically named battles after nearby geographical features, such as waterways (Bull Run is a small creek). The South typically named battles after nearby towns, villages, or settlements (e.g. Manassas Junction, a stop on the railroad.)
I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice to say that John Pope was a braggart who had no right to be, and was undone by a successful reunion of the right and left wings of Lee’s army, commanded by James Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson, respectively. By this time Hood commanded a division under Longstreet that included his beloved Texas Brigade (which he still personally led) as well as regiments from Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Hood’s division was in the thick of the action during the three days of fighting at Second Bull Run. At one point, his Texas Brigade fixed bayonets and charged a New York unit. One of the Union soldiers accepting the charge described the scene as “the very vortex of Hell.”
Gen. Hood was personally brave and audacious, sometimes to the point of recklessness. (In fact, by the end of the war Hood had only one functional arm and had lost a leg at the hip.) At Second Manassas, however, Hood didn’t just inspire his men by example. He also grasped the tactical situation quickly and gave quick, wise commands. Urging the Texans to charge a Union artillery battery, Hood instructed them not to “waste your fire on the infantry.” Instead, he urged them to run forward menacingly, giving some good Rebel yells, while saving their fire for the horses that would be needed to limber the guns. As expected, the Union troops ran away but couldn’t take their artillery pieces with them. Hood’s men captured the entire battery.
At Second Manassas, as at so many other Civil War battles, Gen. John B. Hood demonstrated why he was considered one of the Confederacy’s best battlefield leaders. Few matched his skill commanding brigades and divisions. But here’s the lesson: Talents and skills aren’t necessarily scalable. There’s a big difference between leading tactical units on a battlefield and commanding an entire army. When he was promoted to commander of the Army of Tennessee defending Atlanta from Gen. William T. Sherman, Hood’s limitations became obvious.
The value of putting the right person in the right role is evident in many fields of endeavor, from warfare and sports to business, church, family, and public administration. At Manassas, the Union learned that John Pope wasn’t the right guy to lead one of the North's main armies. Two years later, the Confederacy would learn something similar about Hood.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.