Opinion: Daily Journal

President Grant’s Revealing Choice

RALEIGH – There’s a new book out about Civil War General John B. Hood. Authored by Emporia State University professor Brian Craig Miller, it is a good introduction to the subject for those unfamiliar with the story of the Confederacy’s youngest four-star general. And for longtime students of Hood or the Civil War, Miller’s work should still be of interest for the level of detail it provides about Hood’s early Army career in California and Texas, his convalescence in Richmond after losing a leg at Chickamauga, and his post-war life in New Orleans.

For all that, I must admit to an idiosyncratic interest in the book. As a relative, I was keen to discover how much General Hood’s characteristics and personality might remind me of other Hoods I have known.

The book didn’t disappoint. For starters, there were all the twins. I am an identical twin. There are many sets of twins in my ancestry. And after the war, when General Hood moved to New Orleans and started his family, he and his beloved wife Anna Marie produced 11 children in 10 years – a prodigious feat under any conditions, I suppose, but explained somewhat by the fact that there were three sets of twins involved.

I had always known that when John and Anna Hood both died of yellow fever in 1879, the 10 surviving children were left destitute and split up to be adopted by families in multiple states. But I didn’t know any of the details of how General Hood’s former colleagues and soldiers raised money from around the country – indeed, from around the world – to help support the orphans.

One story stands out in particular:

In late November 1879, former President Ulysses S. Grant traveled to Portland, Oregon. Grant’s presence in the region inspired a reception “which nearly every man, woman, and child in the county” attended. Coincidentally, on the same evening of the reception, the Portland Theater held a charitable performance of Ours, of which half of the proceeds would be donated to a charitable cause. Grant, described as an “Old Roman and Hero” by a local reporter, “deserted his own reception at a very early hour.” The hero of the Union during the Civil War went instead to the theater.

The former military commander “sat conscientiously through a long and rather dreary performance.” Owing to the large number of empty seats, the Portland Theater raised only a small sum for the charity. However, an observer declared that the funds raised were “better than nothing, and shows at least that everybody’s heart is in the right place.” The proceeds went directly to the Hood Orphan Fund, a newly created charitable organization formed to care for the orphaned children John Bell Hood and his wife left behind when yellow fever struck New Orleans in August 1879. Thus, Grant attended the performance not only to escape the reception but also “in the hope of helping dear old Hood’s little ones.”

Far too many people today view the Civil War as if it were a morality play, an action movie, or a series of cartoons. Some seem to be forever re-fighting it in their heads. Others see it as a convenient historical hook for hanging whatever modern political cause they happen to be exorcised about at the time.

Far too few people, it seems to me, take the time to try to understand the war from the point of view of its participants. They discount the miscalculations, misperceptions, and divided loyalties present on both sides of the conflict. And they pay insufficient attention to the post-war period, during which both Union and Confederate partisans attempted to rewrite history to comport with their rhetorical needs.

One remedy to all this is to read sober, fair-minded historical accounts of the period like Brian Craig Miller’s new book on Hood. I know I will long remember the image of Grant, the former Union commander, sitting in a half-filled Portland theater to assist the orphans of a former Confederate general who gave an arm and a leg (literally) in the defense of a lost cause – a cause that, as Grant knew, needed to be lost.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.