Braxton Bragg (1817-1876)

Braxton Bragg, controversial commander of the Army of Tennessee from June 1862 to December 1863, was born in Warrenton, North Carolina, on March 21, 1817. He attended West Point and graduated fifth in the class of 1837. Bragg fought against the Seminoles and served with distinction in the Mexican War. He resigned his commission in 1856 to become proprietor of a sugar plantation in Louisiana. When Louisiana seceded in January 1861, Bragg served first as commander of state forces and then as a brigadier general in the Confederate army. First assigned to Pensacola, Bragg labored to turn the troops there into disciplined soldiers. His friend Jefferson Davis rewarded Bragg by promoting him to major general in March 1861.

In February 1862 Bragg joined Albert Sidney Johnston's army in northern Mississippi. He served as a corps commander at Shiloh, spending several hours on April 6 directing a number of the piecemeal assaults against the Hornets' Nest. Later that same month, Bragg received an appointment to full general. When General P. G. T. Beauregard took an unauthorized sick leave, President Davis replaced him as army commander with Bragg.

In his early months as commander, Bragg labored energetically to improve discipline and organization. He shifted troops from Tupelo to Chattanooga in the spring of 1862 and launched an invasion of Kentucky that summer. After a hard-fought, but inconclusive battle at Perryville, Bragg's army retreated back into Tennessee. Bragg attacked Federal forces near Murfreesboro along the Stones River on December 31, 1862, but failed to dislodge them in several days of combat and withdrew to the southeast.

After being maneuvered out of Chattanooga in September 1863, Bragg counterattacked at Chickamauga in a fierce two-day battle and drove the Union forces back into the city. He squandered the victory, however, by quarreling with his subordinates while the Federals brought Ulysses S. Grant and heavy reinforcements to Tennessee. Thus strengthened, the Union army delivered a humiliating defeat at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge that compelled Bragg to tender his resignation. Davis accepted but softened the blow by summoning Bragg to Richmond to serve as his chief military advisor. Bragg returned to field command in late 1864 in North Carolina and fought in the closing weeks of the war at both Kinston and Bentonville. Following the war Bragg served as chief engineer for the state of Alabama before relocating to Galveston, Texas, where he died on September 27, 1876.

During his Civil War career Bragg exhibited significant talent as an administrator, an appetite for hard work, and unstinting devotion to the Confederacy. These positive traits paled in comparison to his defects, though, which were exacerbated by chronic ill health. As an army commander, Bragg failed to inspire loyalty among either many of his subordinates or the rank and file. He had difficulty adapting to unforeseen circumstances and exhibited little genius for battlefield tactics. Worst of all, Bragg fought many of his subalterns with as much zeal as he did the enemy. He occasionally distrusted men in the ranks; before Shiloh, he endorsed his wife's misgivings about the fighting qualities of Tennesseans. Bragg's relations with his commanders were particularly stormy. His tenure ultimately fractured the Army of Tennessee, which splintered into two factions aligned largely on the basis of loyalty to Bragg. Bragg's most steadfast supporters included William B. Bate and Alexander P. Stewart, while he clashed with Benjamin F. Cheatham, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and John McCowan. In fairness to Bragg, it should be noted that Leonidas Polk, William J. Hardee, Cheatham, and numerous other officers rebelled against Bragg's authority and intrigued against him. Dissident generals went so far as to petition Davis to remove Bragg from command.

Bragg contributed mightily to the enmity by his tactlessness, inflexibility, and vindictiveness. He goaded men he viewed as enemies and failed to acknowledge his own shortcomings. His persistent attempts to shift the blame for misfortunes onto the shoulders of his subordinates created deep resentment. The ongoing infighting between Bragg and his officers damaged army morale and cohesiveness; it likewise adversely affected army operations as the Confederates vainly sought to retain Middle and East Tennessee. Although Davis sustained Bragg until after the Missionary Ridge debacle, the damage done by retaining Bragg as army commander undoubtedly contributed to Confederate defeat in the West.

Suggested Reading

Grady McWhiney, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat (1969).

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010