Opinion: Daily Journal

Like Wheat Before the Sickle

RALEIGH – Given my name and my longtime interest in military history, I am often asked if I am related to John Bell Hood, the famous Civil War general who was famously promoted one step above his level of competence to command the Confederate Army of Tennessee against William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union forces (Dr. Laurence Peter, call your office).

The answer to the question is yes – but my relationship to Gen. Hood is a fairly distant one. General Hood was a great-great grandson of Jasper Hood, a New Yorker of Dutch extraction, as was James Monroe Hood, my great-great grandfather. So that makes Gen. Hood my third cousin, fourth removed.

But I don’t have to look that far up the branches of my family tree to find relatives who fought in the Civil War. Two of my great-granduncles, Gaston Hood and Theodore Hood, fought in some of the war’s most famous and momentous battles. On this eve of the 148th anniversary of Gettysburg, I thought I’d take a moment to tell you their stories.

In April 1861, 22-year-old Gaston Hood of Caldwell County enlisted in what became Company A of North Carolina’s 22nd Regiment. His company was called the “Caldwell Rough and Ready Boys.” Gaston was elected third sergeant of the company. The commander of the 22nd North Carolina was Colonel James Johnston Pettigrew, a native of Tyrell County.

The 1,000-man regiment was soon ordered to Virginia. It spent the rest of 1861 supporting artillery batteries that were blockading the Potomac River near Washington. D.C. By early 1862, however, the regiment was on the move. In April 1862, Union forces under the command of Gen. George B. McClellan made an amphibious invasion of southeastern Virginia. The 22nd North Carolina had been ordered south to help defend the peninsula against the federal advance. The regiment fought at the siege of Yorktown and the battle of Williamsburg.

It was at Williamsburg that Gaston and the other men of Company A probably experienced their first heavy fighting of the war. It was not to be their last. As the Confederates retreated up the peninsula towards Richmond, McClellan remained convinced that his Union forces were greatly outnumbered. He was ridiculously off the mark, and his errors in judgment allowed the Confederates time to settle into strong defensive positions around Richmond.

Still, the Confederate commander, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, knew that a prolonged siege of the city would be a disaster. Instead, he launched a surprise attack on May 31 in a battle later known as Seven Pines or Fair Oaks.

It was a bloody affair, and the 22nd North Carolina was in the thick of the fighting. Pettigrew, by now a brigadier general, was severely wounded and taken prisoner. Johnston was also wounded, and was replaced as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia by Robert E. Lee. The new commander of the 22nd, Col. Charles Lightfoot, was himself captured. In all, the regiment lost nearly 200 men dead, wounded, or missing.

Lee decided to seize the initiative again. On June 25, his Army of Northern Virginia launched a series of attacks known as the Seven Days Battles. The 22nd North Carolina played key roles at the ensuing battles of Mechanicsville, Gaines’s Mill, and Frazier’s Farm. Although costly in the extreme, Lee’s audacious moves unnerved McClellan, who withdrew federal forces from the vicinity of the Confederate capital. Later, nearly all of them were withdrawn to Northern Virginia to support Gen. John Pope’s efforts to defeat Lee.

On July 12, 1862, Sgt. Gaston Hood died. It is likely that he succumbed to wounds sustained either during the Seven Days Battles, which had ended on July 1, or some subsequent fighting near Richmond on July 5.

Gaston’s older brother, Theodore Hood, was more fortunate. At the age of 23, Theodore enlisted in July 1861 in another famous unit of Caldwell County boys, Company F of the North Carolina’s 26th Regiment. Theodore was elected a sergeant.

Company F was known as the Hibriten Guards, for the Caldwell mountain of the same name. The first commander of the 26th North Carolina was Col. Zebulon B. Vance of Buncombe County, who would later resign his commission and be elected governor of North Carolina. The regiment saw its first action at the battle of New Bern in March 1862. Then it was ordered north to join Gen. Johnston’s forces. Theodore and the rest of the Hibriten Guards fought hard under Gen. Lee during the Seven Days Battles, participating in a key charge at Malvern Hill that came within 25 yards of the Union position.

But the real fame of the 26th North Carolina was achieved at Gettysburg. The unit was among the North Carolina regiments forming a brigade led by none other than Gen. Pettigrew, Gaston Hood’s former commanding officer, who had recovered from the near-mortal wounds he received at Seven Pines. On July 1, 1863, the first day at Gettysburg, Pettigrew’s Brigade assaulted the federal Iron Brigade on McPherson’s Ridge.

The fighting was brutal. The young colonel commanding the 26th North Carolina, Henry K. Burgwyn, was killed. The regimental colors were shot down 14 times. Out of roughly 800 men that attacked with the 26th North Carolina at McPherson’s Ridge, nearly 600 were killed, wounded, or missing after the engagement. But the Confederate goal was achieved – the Union troops withdrew from their position.

The regiment rested on July 2 on the slopes of Seminary Ridge. Then, on July 3, Gen. Lee ordered the remaining troops in Pettigrew’s Brigade to form the left wing of an infantry charge on the center of the Union line at Cemetery Ridge. This was “Pickett’s Charge,” though it is more properly called the Pettigrew-Trimble-Pickett Charge to denote the three generals who led the assault.

As the Confederate forces were subjected to withering fire from artillery and small arms, the 26th North Carolina suffered an additional 120 casualties. It sustained the highest casualty rate of any unit on either side at Gettysburg. Theodore’s company, the Hibriten Guards, was completely destroyed. He was wounded and taken prisoner.

Later in life, Theodore Hood wrote a firsthand account of his experiences at Gettysburg. As the Hibriten Guards began their July 3 advance, he wrote, the enemy volleys were initially inaccurate – “the first volley striking ground about 15 paces in front of us” and “the next volley [passing] over us.” But then the Union troops found their range “and volleys of deadly missiles were sent into our ranks which mowed us down like wheat before the sickle.” That phrase, “like wheat before the sickle,” came to be quoted extensively among popular and historical accounts of the battle of Gettysburg.

The 26th North Carolina wasn’t done with the war. After reinforcement and reorganization, it fought in the Wilderness Campaign in May-June 1864 and at the siege of Petersburg, which lasted from June until the following spring. According to military records, Theodore Hood didn’t remain long in federal hands. He was part of a prisoner exchange in September 1863. The records show he was back in service with the 26th North Carolina by no later than July 1864, and was present with his unit at the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

As Gaston and Theodore Hood served in some of the key battles of the Civil War, it is likely that they fought against other relatives of mine in the Union ranks. Their grandfather Benedict Bristol had been born in New Haven, Connecticut. His ancestors had lived in New England for generations. Surely some of their many descendants served in Union regiments during the war. I know of at least one Union officer, Captain William Badger, Jr., who was a distant cousin of the Hoods. He served in the 4th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. His father, William Badger, had been governor of New Hampshire in the 1850s.

Of course, the most famous Civil War cousin of all was Gen. John Bell Hood himself. He was present on many of the same battlefields as Gaston and Theodore – Yorktown, Williamsburg, Seven Pines, the Seven Days Battles, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg. But there is no evidence that the general, a native of Kentucky, ever met either of his Caldwell County cousins.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.