America’s Civil War: September 1998 From the Editor

9/23/1998 • Archives, Gettysburg

In love, as in war, Confederate General John Bell Hood was the personification of bad luck.

When Confederate General John Bell Hood rode into Atlanta in July 1864 to take charge of the embattled Army of Tennessee, he was already in the midst of another desperate campaign: a frustrating and ultimately heartbreaking love affair with South Carolina belle Sally Buchanan “Buck” Preston. The ill-fated Hood would lose both campaigns, one by fighting too hard, the other–ironically–by not fighting hard enough.

The tall, handsome general and the lovely young socialite met in Richmond in the winter of 1862-63. Hood, at 31, was a dozen years older than Buck Preston chronologically, but he was far behind her in drawing-room polish and matters of the heart. His first compliment to her was typical of his romantic maladroitness. Miss Preston, he told his aide John Darby (who would later marry Buck’s sister Mary), “stood on her feet like a thoroughbred.” What the cultured young lady thought about being compared to a horse may be readily guessed.

Buck Preston’s suitors had a bad habit of turning up dead–one was killed in a duel with his cousin, two others died at Gaines’ Mill and Fredericksburg–and Hood must have wondered if he would be next. At Gettysburg he lost the use of his left arm, and two months later at Chickamauga he had his right leg amputated at the hip. Neither wound, however, prevented him from pressing his suit with Buck, who received the twice-wounded general “with tears not quite in her eyes but audible in her voice.”

Mary Boykin Chestnut, the celebrated diarist and Richmond socialite, was a longtime friend of the Preston family, and she recorded Hood’s stumbling courtship dryly, if sympathetically. She was well aware of Buck Preston’s flirtatious nature. Her young protégée had “a knack of being fallen in love with at sight, and of never being fallen out of love with.” Certainly, she had that effect on Hood, who had barely gotten up on crutches after his Chickamauga woundbefore he was back at Buck’s side. He could not know that the object of his adoration had already told Mrs. Chestnut: “I never cared particularly about [Hood]….I would not marry him if he had a thousand legs instead of having just lost one.”

Still, Hood persisted. In love, as in war, he knew only one method of combat–full-scale attack. Despite being turned down at least twice by Buck when he proposed marriage, the general kept after her. In Richmond, the on-again, off-again affair was the source of both merriment and sympathy. Colonel Charles Venable, one of Robert E. Lee’s aides and a relative by marriage of the Prestons, observed to Mrs. Chestnut: “Buck can’t help it. She must flirt….She does not care for the man. It is sympathy with the wounded soldier. Helpless Hood.”

But Hood was not as helpless as Venable thought. By dint of pure persistence, he managed to win from Buck a somewhat contingent acceptance of marriage. “I am so proud, so grateful. The sun never shone on a happier man,” he told Mrs. Chestnut. “Such a noble girl, a queen among women.” The worldly Mrs. Chestnut was still not convinced. “So the tragedy has been played out,” she wrote in her diary, “for I do not think even now that she is in earnest.” It did not speak well of Buck’s devotion that when Hood went to church with Confederate President Jefferson Davis before leaving Richmond for the Georgia front in 1864, she was seated one row behind him, but did not raise her head–or her veil–to look at him throughout the entire service.

Probably the resistance of Buck’s family to having the uncultured Hood as a new in-law doomed the courtship from the start. To Buck’s credit, she seems to have withstood the general’s headlong advances with as much grace and comparative kindness as she could muster. Nevertheless, she and Hood seemed to have entertained some thought of marriage as late as February 1865, when Hood stopped to visit the Prestons at their home in Columbia, S.C. The visit did not go well. Buck’s sister Mary, together with her new husband, Charles Darby, joined Buck’s parents in opposing the marriage. Hood, already demoralized by his long string of defeatsat Atlanta, Franklin and Nashville, hadlost the will to fight–even for the womanhe loved. He rode away, never to see BuckPreston again.

Sadly, he never realized how close he had come to victory. Buck herself alluded to the lost moment when she told Mary Chestnut: “If he had been persistent, if he had not given way under Mamie’s [Mary’s] violent refusal to listen to us, if he had asked me. When you refused to let anybody be married in your house–well, I would have gone down on the sidewalk, I would have married him on the pavement, if the parson could be found to do it. I was readyto leave all the world for him, to tie my clothes in a bundle, and like a soldier’s wife, trudge after to the ends of the earth. Does that sound like me? It was true that day.” In the end, “the Gallant Hood” had not been gallant enough.

Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War