Why did the South lose the Civil War? That question has produced many books, lectures, and heated discussions from both historians and Civil War buffs. One of the many answers that could be given can be summarized in two words: Braxton Bragg.
Bragg achieved the rank of full general in the war. With a military background, he quickly rose through the ranks after his adopted state of Louisiana seceded. (He was originally from North Carolina.) Early on, he led a group of volunteers in capturing a federal arsenal in Baton Rouge. During the first year of the war, he proved to be an apt troop trainer. He later became a corps commander under General Albert Sidney Johnston at the Battle of Shiloh. After Johnston was killed at Shiloh, he was succeeded by P. G. T. Beauregard. When Beauregard left his command for health reasons, Bragg inherited the leadership of the Army of Tennessee, which would be the primary Confederate military force in the western theater of the war.
Skilled in training troops and having earned praise for his leadership in early battles, Bragg seemed worthy of his rise in the ranks. Yet, despite the early signs of success, General Bragg became a strong contender for the title of “worst high-ranking Confederate general.” There is certainly no shortage of grist for the mill when making the case against Bragg. Quite a few of his fellow commanders, most of whom served under him, were contemptuous of his leadership. Artillery officer E.P. Alexander said that Bragg was “simply muddle headed.” On several occasions generals in his army sent letters to President Jefferson Davis asking that Bragg be sacked. General Frank Cheatham, after the Battle of Stones River, vowed never to serve under Bragg again. After that same battle, General John C. Breckinridge, seething over a failed charge Bragg had forced him to make, challenged Bragg to a duel.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was never known as a commander easy to work alongside, but his greatest outburst against a commander came after the Battle of Chickamauga. Having won a great battle, arguably in spite of his own actions, Bragg refused to follow up his victory with further pursuit of the Union Army. This was too much for Forrest. After nearly begging Bragg for the chance to put his cavalry on the heels of the Union troops, Forrest turned from supplicant to accuser. Forrest said, “You have played the part of a damned scoundrel, and are a coward, and if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it.” He then told Bragg that he would never obey any orders from him.
Historians have not been gentle with Bragg either. David Donald said Bragg was “tense, punctilious, arrogant, a martinet, and a dawdler.” T. Harry Williams said Bragg “lacked the determination to carry through his purpose.” Douglas Southall Freeman, after comparing Bragg with Robert E. Lee, pondered, “How different might have been the fate of Bragg and perhaps the Confederacy if that officer had learned . . . from Lee.” James McPherson said that it was “bumblers like Bragg” who lost the war in the west. Bruce Catton, with a little more balance in his observation, said, “Braxton Bragg was as baffling a mixture of ability and sheer incompetence as the Confederacy could produce.”
Even Bragg’s biographers were critical. Grady McWhiney said Bragg had “failed as a field commander,” that he had “no real taste for combat,” that he had no ability to inspire confidence in other commanders, that he was “notoriously inept at getting along with people he disliked,” and that he had failed to learn from his mistakes. To make matters worse, McWhiney noted that Bragg was “not lucky.”
The first volume of McWhiney’s biography, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, was published in 1969. It was 1991 before the second volume appeared, and it was authored by one of McWhiney’s graduate students, Judith Lee Hallock. This prompted another historian to speculate that McWhiney had found his subject “so nauseous that he abandoned the project.” Hallock disagreed, but she had her own criticisms of Bragg. She thinks his worst problem was his inability to establish and maintain group solidarity within his army. After noting other such problems as Bragg’s not being able to distinguish friends from enemies, not recognizing the abilities of his subordinates, and being a poor judge of character, she summed up his faults with this: “He could manage everything but people.”
Private Sam Watkins, in his outstanding memoir of Confederate service titled Company Aytch, expressed continual grumbling from himself and others about his service under Bragg. He said, “None of Bragg’s soldiers ever loved him. They had no faith in his ability as a general. He was looked upon as a merciless tyrant.”
What was Bragg’s problem? The answers and speculations are many. His health didn’t help his leadership duties. Migraine headaches, boils, and dyspepsia plagued him, especially in times of overwork and stress. He also suffered from rheumatism and nervousness. Besides the responsibilities of leadership, Bragg was personally prone to drive himself relentlessly in his work. One general said he was “the most laborious of commanders, devoting every moment to the discharge of his duties.”
Bragg likely had psychosomatic problems as well. McWhiney said that at times Bragg “lost touch with reality.” Compounding all this was his use of calomel, a mercury-based purgative, which had severe side effects. It is also possible that his physicians prescribed opium to Bragg for his ailments. That might explain some of his tendencies to lose track of what he was doing in the midst of a battle. Halleck said it might also explain his paranoia toward fellow officers.
Grady McWhiney also attributes Bragg’s failures to his penchant for frontal attacks. This was a topic that McWhiney developed more fully in his book Attack and Die and then repeated in his biography. Southern commanders were obsessed with frontal attacks, which were based on military tactics from previous wars. Civil War weaponry had made such attacks extremely costly in terms of casualty counts. But if this line of argument is taken, it begs the question of why Bragg was unsuccessful when the same tactics were used by almost every other general in both Northern and Southern armies.
Since Bragg’s command was in the western theater of the war, most of his battles were in Tennessee. In contrast with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia which spent much of the war in a confined region of Virginia, the Army of Tennessee, Bragg’s command, covered a wider area and suffered from greater hardships in terms of supply and support from the Confederate government. Bragg was given a near impossible task in defending Tennessee and the western Confederacy.
Consider also the size of the armies of the Civil War. George Washington led about 15,000 men at the most during his years in the American War for Independence. Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans with less than 6000 men. Bragg and other full generals were commanding armies four times the size of Washington’s army and ten times the size of Jackson’s. Bragg is usually given high marks by the historians for his ability to organize and supply his troops. His West Point education and experience in the Mexican-American War had equipped him for leadership. But the logistics and demands of leading an army of such size was beyond even most trained military officers.
Primarily, it was battlefield actions that unhinged Bragg. Bragg tended to lose his grip on the reality of what was happening in the proverbial “fog of battle.” He judged victories as defeats and defeats as victories. He was indecisive when decisiveness was needed and was decisive when discretion was needed. He exasperated his commanders, lashed out at them at the wrong times, closed his ears to their counsel, and generally destroyed any chances of coherent, unified leadership.
Bragg failed in the western campaign. He lost Stones River and Perryville and abandoned Chattanooga. He failed to follow the unexpected and decisive victory at Chickamauga and was not able to hold the seemingly unconquerable defensive position on Lookout Mountain. But then what commander in the west did succeed? Albert Sidney Johnston lost his life and the Battle of Shiloh. John Pemberton lost Vicksburg. John B. Hood abandoned Atlanta and went on to destroy the Army of Tennessee in his epic failures at Franklin and Nashville. Joseph E. Johnston was perhaps the best commander in the west, but his record was one of strong defenses followed by skilled retreats.
Was Bragg a total failure? That question calls for a lot of reflection that goes beyond the complaints of his subordinates. History has not been kind to him. It is hard to imagine fans of the Confederacy decorating their walls with pictures of Bragg or naming their sons “Braxton” in his honor. To a large degree, McWhiney was on target when he said that Bragg was just not lucky.
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