Saturday, May 9, 2009

Review: "A Slight Demonstration: Decatur, October 1864, Clumsy Beginning of General John B. Hood's Tennessee Campaign" by Noel Carpenter


A Slight Demonstration: Decatur, October 1864, Clumsy Beginning of General John B. Hood's Tennessee Campaign by Noel Carpenter (Legacy Books and Letters, 2007). $29.95, Hardcover, American History, Civil War, maps, photographs, bibliography, appendices, ISBN: 978-0-675-14866-3.

Curiosity concerning the role of his home town in the Civil War led Decatur, Alabama native Noel Carpenter on a twelve year quest for information. This book, the fruit of his research, details the October 26-28, 1864 siege of Decatur by Confederate General John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee. Although Hood termed this action as only "a slight demonstration," Carpenter argues that the events were instead a turning point in Hood's Tennessee Campaign.

Following the fall of Atlanta, Hood initially planned to cross the Tennessee River near Guntersville and strike at the railroad in Stevenson, thus disrupting General William T. Sherman's communication with Chattanooga and Nashville. Once in Tennessee, Hood intended to crush the scattered Union forces under General George H. Thomas before they could be adequately reinforced and concentrated. In Hood's view, these developments would force Sherman to follow him, freeing Georgia from Union control. Although Hood's reasons for abandoning this plan remain unclear, by October 26, his 40,000 troops had reached the river town of Decatur, still south of the Tennessee River and seventy-five miles west of Stevenson. This detour, the three day investment of the town, and the subsequent river crossing even further west near Florence wasted valuable time and supplies, forcing Hood to take a more direct approach to Nashville. By the time Hood's army reached Franklin, Tennessee, Thomas had been reinforced and Sherman was marching toward Savannah.

Carpenter collects pieces of the story from the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, letters, personal memoirs, unit histories, secondary sources, and the unpublished work of local amateur historians, skillfully weaving them into an effective narrative of the activities of both armies. The Confederate leadership often appears to be stumbling and incapable of cohesive action. Most puzzling is the failure to attempt the destruction of the pontoon bridge behind the Union fortifications. Over 2,500 Union reinforcements crossed the bridge during the three day siege. Among the reinforcements was the Fourteenth U.S. Colored Infantry, a unit that rendered significant service during the operation. General Robert S. Granger, commander of Union forces in north Alabama, is seen as failing to recognize and adequately respond to the large Confederate presence near Decatur. The Union hero is Decatur post commander Colonel Charles Doolittle. His grasp of the tactical situation and masterful direction of the post's defense mark him as perhaps the most competent officer on the field. Throughout the narrative, Carpenter interweaves the military with the human, citing the thoughts and words of common soldiers on both sides as they contend with mud, hunger, the possibility of capture, and the nearness of death.

The writing is in a reportorial style indicative of Carpenter's background as a military officer. His detailed sentences and thorough identification of military units help legitimate the work, but tend to make the reading somewhat cumbersome. Additionally, a better use of maps would enhance the reader's understanding. Only two are included: a map of north Alabama and a map of the Decatur fortifications. The latter fails to identify several important features, primarily roads, to which Carpenter makes repeated reference. A map including these details would be helpful to readers unfamiliar with the Decatur area.

Carpenter's conclusions of Hood's handling of this phase of the Tennessee Campaign are mixed. He acknowledges there is evidence of inadequacy in Hood's abilities in the areas of administration, strategy, and logistics. But he also states that the problems Hood faced in the areas of supply, transportation, cavalry support and communications were of sufficient complexity to challenge even the most experienced commander. Carpenter rejects suggestions that Hood's cognitive functions were impaired by the laudanum he took for pain. Instead, Carpenter concludes Hood simply became "rattled and confused." While Carpenter appears to sympathize with Hood, he acknowledges that this cannot be overlooked because it contributed to the destruction of his army.

Although A Slight Demonstration has limited popular appeal, it should be read by those with a sincere interest in the Civil War and the Tennessee Valley. On a larger scale, it is also a valuable addition to the literature on Hood's Tennessee Campaign, offering a new interpretation of a series of events that have been largely overlooked by historians.

(A Slight Demonstration is a difficult book to find. It can be purchased at Robert Parham's Civil War Relics and Memorabilia, 713 Bank Street, Decatur, AL, 35601, 256-350-4018, rparh@aol.com)