Newly discovered reports show John Bell Hood’s injured limb wasn’t as useless as we thought.
FOR THE LAST 150 YEARS, the broad Civil War history community presumed that Confederate General John Bell Hood’s arm was so severely damaged during fighting on the second day at Gettysburg, it was rendered useless.
Look him up on Wikipedia, and you’ll read that Hood sustained a wound in that battle “severely damaging his left arm,” and although amputation was avoided, “he was unable to make use of it for the rest of his life.” History.com informs visitors that after Gettysburg, Hood “would lose use of the limb for the rest of his life,” and the National Park Service’s website concurs, stating Hood’s wound “rendered his left arm useless for the remainder of his life.”
Professional scholars, including all three of Hood’s biographers, concurred. In Hood: Cavalier General (1949), Richard O’Connor wrote, “The bone was damaged and the nerves were crushed, and from then on he would carry it in a sling, as it was paralyzed and useless.” In The Gallant Hood (1950), John P. Dyer described Hood, seated in his tent during the retreat from Nashville: “His left arm dangled almost useless at his side.” Richard McMurry wrote that “The Gettysburg injury had produced extensive damage to his left hand, forearm, elbow, and triceps. It probably caused major nerve injury, most likely in the elbow, and this produced permanent paralysis of the hand” in John Bell Hood and the War for Southern Independence (1992).
But his surgeon’s report, found among a cache of Hood’s personal papers discovered last year, tells a different story.
According to the 1,023-word medical report of Confederate surgeon Dr. John T. Darby, Hood sustained the wound to his arm at approximately 4:30 p.m. on July 2, while leading his division’s attack on the extreme left of the Federal lines near Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. Although Hood’s exact whereabouts is not known, many historians believe he was probably in the orchard of the Bushman Farm as his division began its assault. While he was mounted on his horse and holding the bridle with his left arm in a state of “pronation” (palm down), an exploded shell fragment entered the outside of Hood’s forearm two and one half inches below the elbow, fracturing the radius, grazing the ulna and exiting the underside of the arm three quarters of an inch below the elbow. Hood fell from his horse and, Darby says, “The shock was great and his immediate removal from the field was required.”
DARBY ACCOMPANIED HOOD to the infirmary and during the short journey the commander was given “brandy with carb ammonia, freely and frequently.” Carbonate of ammonia (“carb ammonia”) is a colorless salt and was used as an antacid, stimulant, antispasmodic and diaphoretic. Hood was anesthetized with chloroform and Darby and several other surgeons examined his wound. Darby performed an operation assisted by surgeon and medical inspector T.H. Wingfield and medical purveyor William H. Giddings.
A four-inch incision was made and two and a half inches of Hood’s radius bone were removed, along with bone fragments and damaged muscle and ligament tissue. Four silver sutures closed the wound and a wooden splint was applied that ran from the shoulder to beyond the finger tips, keeping Hood’s arm fully straightened. Following the effects of the chloroform, Hood was given a half grain (.0325 grams) of morphine, and cold water was applied to the wound throughout the night.
Hood was removed from the field the next day and transported by carriage, seated with the injured arm on a pillow, 186 miles to Staunton, Va., arriving July 13. The wound had mostly closed by July 24, Darby reported, and when Hood reached Richmond two weeks later, “use of the arm rapidly commenced.”
THE REPORT WAS WRITTEN December 24, 1863, while Hood was in Richmond recovering from the amputation of his right leg after being seriously wounded at Chickamauga in September.
A native South Carolinian, Darby was chief surgeon of Hood’s Division and personally oversaw Hood’s treatment and recovery after Chickamauga, remaining with the general until November 24. His detailed reports give specifics of the wounds themselves, the medical procedures implemented in the field, later treatments and rehabilitation and, in the case of Hood’s Gettysburg wound, the movements and functions of the left hand and arm. Darby’s report—along with his report of Hood’s Chickamauga injuries and recovery kept contemporaneously from September 20 through November 24—might have been requested by the Confederate War Department to ascertain Hood’s physical condition and his ability to return to service. Darby’s precise detail on the motions and functions of Hood’s arm at the time he was writing (six months after Gettysburg) and his estimation of the strength that Hood would ultimately attain support this theory.
Darby noted Hood’s further injury at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 20 had prevented use of the arm for nearly five weeks, “thus impairing the mobility of the forearm which had commenced to be developed by use.” Hood was wounded and the amputation performed on September 20. The next day he was taken 30 miles south to the West Armuchee Valley (Georgia) farm of Colonel Francis H. Little of the 11th Georgia Infantry. Darby arrived at the Littles’ residence and “took charge of the case” at 4 p.m. on September 24. By December 24, three months after the amputation of his right leg, the arm functioned well enough to let Hood walk short distances on crutches, Darby reported. Hood could flex and extend the elbow perfectly, the wrist could be “flexed with freedom, the fingers open or shut in the palm at will, and used in performance of the various uses for protraction,” and the thumb was “almost perfect in its varied motions.” Darby noted Hood could rotate the straightened arm to where the palm was up or down “to a considerable degree,” and concluded that “Use of the arm, causing development of muscular power…will in time cause the hand to lose [but] few of its motions.”
HOOD WOULD EVENTUALLY BE promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and in March 1864 was assigned command of a corps in the Army of Tennessee. To what degree the functionality of Hood’s left arm developed after he returned to duty on September 18, 1863, and again in March 1864 after his Chickamauga injuries, is not known. Darby’s encouraging report is somewhat at odds with descriptions of the condition of Hood’s arm as recorded by other witnesses. A Richmond diarist reported that in early September 1863 Hood was “scarcely able to manage his wounded arm.” At Chickamauga, a soldier described Hood with “his left arm still in a sling, and his noble countenance still pale from the wound received at Gettysburg.” Sumner A. Cunningham of the 41st Tennessee Infantry, who stood near Hood just before the assault at Franklin, described his commander as having “an arm and a leg in the grave,” and near the end of the Tennessee Campaign, Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee Infantry described Hood as looking “feeble and decrepit…with an arm in a sling, and a crutch in the other hand, trying to guide and control his horse.”
In wartime correspondence found among the newly discovered documents, Hood himself made no mention of his arm after returning to service, nor in his many recently found postwar letters to his wife did he mention anything specifically having to do with physical limitations. In a circa 1878 photograph, Hood posed seated with both hands holding a pair of crutches, his left arm and hand appearing to be natural.
It is likely Hood’s arm did not recover to the degree that Darby had anticipated, and as with many orthopedic infirmities, the flexibility and strength of injured limbs would be affected by temperature, overuse, stress, diet and other conditions. After returning to field service in the spring of 1864, Hood doubtless had some use of his left arm, but it is probable its functions were restricted, and the limitations were exacerbated by less than ideal living conditions during active military operations.
Sam Hood is a relative of General Hood and the author of John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of a Confederate General (Savas Beatie, 2013). He is transcribing the newly discovered letters for The Lost Papers of John Bell Hood, set for release in 2014.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.