The Confederacy's last hurrah

Monday Book Review

April 24, 1995|By John Bordsen


IT WAS A case of Forrest-"Cump" in September 1864. U.S. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman -- "Cump" to his friends -- had captured Atlanta, and was about to implement a campaign partly inspired by his keenest opponent.

That was cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederacy's Wizard of the Saddle," with whom federal armies clashed during the Atlanta campaign. Forrest was a maddeningly elusive foe, and -- more important -- the ease with which he rode behind Union lines made it seem as if federal occupation was just an illusion.

So Sherman embarked on his March to the Sea, slicing through the heart of rebel-held territory, devastating it and showing that Confederate authority (and independence) was ultimately a mirage.

His newly installed opponent, John Bell Hood, wasn't strong enough to face Sherman directly, so he set out for . . . the north. Tennessee. The other direction.

Bold? Very. If Hood could recapture Nashville and threaten Kentucky, he could possibly raise Southern hopes and regiments, and cut off the southbound flow of federal soldiers and supplies. Maybe even force Sherman to backtrack.

Doomed? Cursed may be a better word for the South's last hurrah -- for that's what the Nashville campaign proved to be. When it ended near the Tennessee capital on Dec. 16, the Confederacy was minus an entire army, five generals and most everything else between the Mississippi and the Carolinas. What could go wrong for Hood did; that's what makes this an oft-told story.

What can "Shrouds of Glory" offer? A smooth text, free of the military jargon that makes some battle books as hard to understand as an Avalon Hill war game (you know -- with the 42-sided dice).

The author follows the ongoing trend of sifting diaries and other first-person accounts and lacing quotes into a chronological narrative. Thing is, Winston Groom is so good at doing this. He had shoals of reminiscences to choose from, but what he stitches together is a tale heavy with irony, coincidence and fatalism.

Small wonder it reads as smoothly as fiction: Groom is best-known as author of "Forrest Gump," the vehicle that took Tom Hanks and others to the Oscars.

Center-stage through "Shrouds of Glory" is Hood, a Quixotic figure on the battlefield and in the parlor: In 1863 he lost use of an arm at Gettysburg, lost a leg at Chickamauga and lost his heart to Sally Preston, a fabled South Carolina flirt.

"Shrouds of Glory" plays out like a Southern-fried Greek tragedy. Hood's character determined his fate.

The hard-charging, testy Texan's seat-of-the-pants leadership style didn't help the faction-fractured rebel army of the West; matters came quickly unglued after initial success moving into Tennessee.

Sherman had no intention of turning around: Hesitant Union Gen. John Schofield was charged with holding on until Gen. George Thomas could come down from Nashville with more forces.

Luck wasn't marching with Hood. The Union army wriggled out of a trap at Columbia, Tenn. Hood did manage to get behind the federals to block their retreat, but the night of Nov. 29, Schofield's 20,000 soldiers marched past Hood's larger but sleeping army -- within sight of rebel camp fires -- to escape again. The next day, at Franklin, to the north, Hood's soldiers were decimated in a rash assault his generals warned against. Recriminations fell like snow.

Two weeks later, a Thomas-Schofield force holed up in Nashville uncoiled its now-larger force and destroyed what remained of Hood's army; only 18,000 of his 50,000 men were left. The book's title refers to what the Confederates "won."

Hood was sacked. In a final irony, the rash risk-taker ended his years as the head of an insurance company.

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