“Punctuation acts as signposts to help your reader understand how to read your writing,” I tell my students. Many of the first-year writers I teach are still coming to grips with just how important good punctuation is—and how subtle and artful it can be in their writing.
Perhaps you’ve seen the classic example of “a man eating shark” versus “a man-eating shark.” One hyphen makes all the difference in who is eating who. There’s also the darkly funny “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” versus “Let’s eat Grandpa!” There, the comma makes the difference between an enthusiastic family meal and cannibalism.
While editing a piece for ECW’s upcoming book Turning Points of the American Civil War, I had a wrestling match with a question mark that brought to mind the punctuation advice I dole out to my students. (Fortunately, no Grandpas were harmed in the course of the final punctuating!)
The essay, written by my colleague Steve Davis, focused on Joe Johnston’s ouster as commander of the Army of Tennessee and his replacement by John Bell Hood. After batting around a few title ideas, Steve and I settled on this:
“Far Better in the Present Emergency”: John Bell Hood Replaces Joseph E. Johnston
The quote comes from Braxton Bragg, himself a former commander of the Army of Tennessee and no fan of Joe Johnston’s. Bragg assessed Hood as a much better alternative than Johnston, who’s defensive warfare had slowed but not stopped the advance of William T. Sherman’s armies as they marched on Atlanta. In the process, Johnston gave up hundreds of square miles of Georgia real estate, which made him deeply unpopular within the army and in Richmond.
Our decision to include Johnston’s ouster as a turning point boiled down to the fact that Hood’s offensive-mindedness quickly bled out the Army of Tennessee. He took over in July and, by the beginning of December, the bedraggled remains of his army evaporated in middle Tennessee after dashing themselves to pieces at Franklin and outside Nashville. The Confederacy’s ability to wage any sort of credible defense in the Western Theater evaporated with them.
Johnston’s Fabian tactics, although unpopular, at least ensured the army lived to fight another day. He didn’t necessarily care about winning so long as he didn’t lose.
So, did Hood turn out to be “far better in the present emergency”?
As I pondered this question, I decided to take a look at the numbers more closely. As it happens, I was also working at the time on edits to Lee White’s upcoming Emerging Civil War Series book on the battle of Franklin, Let Us Die Like Men. Lee works at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, so I knew he knew how many men Johnston inherited in the wake of Chattanooga and how many men Hood ended up with after Franklin and Nashville. If anyone could help me with a deep dive into the numbers, it was Lee.
“That’s a loaded set of questions!” he laughed. But then he offered what he believed were the most accurate set of statements he could pin down.
“On Dec 10, 1863, the army’s effective strength was 43,094,” he told me. “By April 30, 1864, just before the campaign opened, Johnston had 59,500. By June 10, partway through the campaign, Johnston had 69,945, due to reinforcements like Polk’s Army of Mississippi, the Georgia Militia, and various other units sent up from the coast, etc.”
Then Lee ran down some of the other numbers for me:
On June 30, after the fighting at Kennesaw, the army’s strength was 62,747.
Jefferson Davis removed Johnston from command on July 17 and replaced him with Hood.
On July 31, after Hood’s fights, the army’s strength was down to 51,793.
By August 31, after the siege, the army’s strength was down to 51,141. Most were combat casualties, but sick leave and desertions also factored in.
Hood spent September and October successfully harassing Sherman’s supply line, but by November, he was forced to launch his desperate gamble into Tennessee. By then, attrition and further casualties had brought his numbers down to approximately 39,000.
Numerous small engagements against Union Garrisons in North Georgia whittled away a dozen men here and a dozen there, Lee explained. And then fighting at Allatoona, Decatur, Columbia, and Spring Hill whittled a couple more thousand from the army. By the time Hood entered the battle of Franklin, he had around 37,000.
Hood took a stunning 7,000 casualties at Franklin and so showed up on the doorstep of Nashville with a mere 30,000 men. By the time Federals finished with Hood, he had 24,000, give or take—and very little cohesion. The Army of Tennessee as a viable fighting force was essentially over. By the time they settled in north Mississippi for the winter, Hood had something fewer than 18,000 men.
So, under Hood’s tenure, the Army of Tennessee went from 62,747 to fewer than 18,000. That’s 44,747 casualties—a rate of 72 percent.
Of course, the remnants of that once-proud army would coalesce once again in February 1865, in North Carolina. There, once again, Joe Johnston was called upon to try and resist Sherman. By that point, “Uncle Billy” had marched through Georgia, presented Savannah as a Christmas present to Lincoln, burned the capital of South Carolina, and was advancing toward the Tar Heel State. The Confederacy desperately needed some kind of response. Johnston suddenly found himself being “far better in the present emergency” than any other option—an unenviable position for anyone to find themselves in under those circumstances.
Perhaps Joe Johnston suddenly knew how John Bell Hood had felt on that mid-July day seven months earlier.
With all this in mind, I considered again whether Hood turned out to be “far better in the present emergency” after all? What about posing the idea not as a statement but as a question:
“Far Better in the Present Emergency”?: John Bell Hood Replaces Joseph E. Johnston
After thinking this all through, I floated the idea of the question mark past Steve, who is ever astute to subtle differences in meaning like that. “I wish you wouldn’t put that question mark in,” he admitted. “Bragg’s statement stands as it does, and besides, I believe he was borne out: Hood did perform, I think, better than Johnston would have at Atlanta. Hood’s failings in Tennessee were after ‘the present emergency,’ and while part of his military war legacy, do not pertain to Bragg’s judgment of mid-July.”
In other words, by leaving the question mark out, the statement limits itself to the dire back-against-the-wall situation Hood inherited in July 1864, which is what Steve’s essay hones in on. At that moment, in that “present emergency” as seen by participants at the time, Hood was the right guy—perhaps the only guy—for the job.
The question mark, on the other hand, would widen the lens to include Hood’s entire tenure as commander of the army and invite us to look at it with the hindsight available only to us. That is, after all, why we included this turning point in the book. But it’s nothing Jefferson Davis and his cabinet could have taken into account in the crucible of the moment.
So, to Steve’s point, the insertion of the question mark essentially takes Bragg’s statement out of context. If Bragg had any way of knowing how things would pan out—as we do—would he have made the assessment he did? While we could never know, I suspect we can all make a pretty good guess.
Who knew a question mark could mean so much, eh? In this case, the decision makes a huge difference because the question mark (or not) sets the frame for the discussion and defines the context in which that discussion takes place.
In the end, Johnston’s removal from command and Hood’s promotion proved to have dire consequences for the Confederacy in the Western Theater. In his essay, Steve analyzes that decision closely and traces the conversations and deliberations that led up to it. The situation troubled Jefferson Davis deeply—and of that, there was no question.