This outstanding book by Earl J. Hess is perhaps the first objective look at Braxton Bragg in the Civil War. The popular view of Bragg is that of a bumbler. In his memoirs, U.S. Grant passed on a story he had heard about Bragg before the war where Bragg was supposedly a quartermaster and the acting company commander: “I have heard in the old army an anecdote very characteristic of Bragg. On one occasion, when stationed at a post of several companies commanded by a field officer, he was himself commanding one of the companies and at the same time acting as post quartermaster and commissary. He was first lieutenant at the time, but his captain was detached on other duty. As commander of the company he made a requisition upon the quartermaster—himself—for something he wanted. As quartermaster he declined to fill the requisition, and endorsed on the back of it his reasons for so doing. As company commander he responded to this, urging that his requisition called for nothing but what he was entitled to, and that it was the duty of the quartermaster to fill it. As quartermaster he still persisted that he was right. In this condition of affairs Bragg referred the whole matter to the commanding officer of the post. The latter, when he saw the nature of the matter referred, exclaimed: ‘My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarrelled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarrelling with yourself!’ ” [Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs, Chapter 44] Grant himself doesn’t claim it’s a true story, merely that he had heard it. Professor Terry Jones of the University of Louisiana Monroe called Bragg, “The South’s Orneriest General.”
Professor Hess lets us know, “Just as most people automatically assume Lee was a great general who made no mistakes, they have placed Bragg at the opposite end of the spectrum and assume he was a bad general who never did anything right. We have to approach Bragg from a clean perspective and take him for what he was, while rejecting the old image that has become a comforting but unfair view of the man and his military career.” [p. xiii] After a short review of the major monographs that considered and evaluated Bragg, Professor Hess gives us his evaluation. “Bragg was an officer of undoubted qualities. He was hardworking, meticulous, detail-oriented, and extremely self-disciplined. The intense way he did everything led him to burn out in his job of guiding the main Confederate field army in the West. Bragg also held the world up to his own standard and had little regard for those who did not meet that very high mark. He had a strong tendency to act with energy and aggression when dealing with tactical problems–his actions at Perryville, Stones River, Tullahoma, and Chickamauga indicate he was by no means afraid to attack the enemy. In the beginning of his tenure as commander of the main Confederate army in the west, at least, he also planned bold strategic offensives. Bragg’s chief failure in the Civil War lay on the personal level rather than in the military sphere. He saw life in black-and-white terms, had scant ability to accept the complexities to be found in others, and possessed a stubborn streak that served him ill in his relations with subordinates. He had no tact in dealing with newspaper correspondents and only clumsily tried to manipulate his public image or ingratiate himself with politicians. If not for Jefferson Davis’s keen appreciation for his talents, Bragg would have had no important supporter in Richmond. When Bragg unwisely began to challenge his generals to demonstrate whether they supported him, his effectiveness rapidly declined. Their frank admission that he ought to be replaced merely sparked the stubbornness in him. Bragg desperately held on to a command that he sometimes wanted to give up, out of sheer determination to impose the sort of discipline on others he demanded of himself. This course of action benefited no one in the end. Despite this, Bragg retained the support of far more men in his army than historians tend to admit. His record of success while shaping the Army of Tennessee and leading it longer than any other individual was severely tarnished and corrupted by the controversies that erupted from his ill-advised dealings with recalcitrant officers. Bragg was not responsible for Confederate defeat, nor was he a monster or an imbecile. It is true he had some glaring weaknesses, but he also had admiral strengths. His impact on history was mixed but important, and it is time to attempt a balanced view of it.” [pp. xix-xx]
Coming from a slaveowning family, Bragg graduated fifth out of fifty in the West Point class of 1837. That class ranking by itself should show Bragg was a very intelligent man, but he was sometimes his own worst enemy. “Because he had a strong tendency to analyze the army’s system and find it wanting, he often wrote testy letters to officers as well as politicians who might be interested in reforming the military establishment.” [p. 2] After his time in the US Army, Bragg settled down and became a Louisiana sugar planter. “Given his huge personal investment in slavery, he reacted harshly to any sign that the North threatened the plantation system of the South or encouraged the freeing of its slaves. He applauded the caning of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate in May 1856 by Preston Brooks, a South Carolina member of the House of Representatives, for making remarks derogatory of the South and of Brooks’s cousin in the wake of turmoil over slavery in Kansas territory.” [p, 11]
A strict disciplinarian, Bragg was successful in his first stint as commander of a confederate force in Pensacola. “He was in his element as a commander at Pensacola, responsible for a small enough army so that his personal stamp could be put on the men under his tutelage. Although a few of Bragg’s subordinates resented his methods, most of them understood that they were necessary and became firm supporters of their commander. The same methods would be far more difficult to apply to a larger force, as Bragg would soon discover, but the Confederates had to work with incredibly raw material in forming a volunteer army at short notice, and Bragg’s methods worked well.” [p. 27]
The soldiers he led at Pensacola would be among his most loyal supporters, along with his staff officers–those who saw him and interacted with him on a daily basis and who saw his tender side. Unfortunately, his subordinate commanders would prove to be less than the most reliable subordinates. Unlike what Robert E. Lee enjoyed in Virginia, Bragg had to contend with subordinate commanders who insubordinately disobeyed orders and rebelled against his command.
Throughout the book, Professor Hess gives us a balanced, sober account of Bragg. He doesn’t shy away from Bragg’s weak points or his mistakes, but he also points out where Bragg made good moves and wasn’t given the credit he deserved. In some ways he was a victim of his own success, such as at the first day of Stones River, where it seemed he had an overwhelming victory only to have more disappointing results.
In his conclusion, Professor Hess tells us, “Bragg was neither a hapless fool nor a brilliant general. He failed more often than succeeded in his Civil War career. He also was not the ogre who callously executed his own soldiers, nor was he friendless or cold toward his wife. Public opinion in and out of the army shaped Bragg’s image, making of him ‘the best-abused man in the world.’ Most editors and newspaper correspondents were far too ready to brand him as incompetent, tyrannical, or marked by a lack of good fortune. In turn, Bragg did not know how to deal with them except with contempt. … He did not have the political savvy to pull strings except to call on Davis to support him in controversies with his subordinates. That was a rather crude and heavy-handed way of dealing with recalcitrant officers, and he could not apply it to newspaper correspondents.” [p. 266]
The writing is clear, the analysis is cogent, the tone is sober, and the viewpoint is objective. I can highly recommend this book to students of the war. This will give you an appreciation for Braxton Bragg’s good points as well as his weaknesses. Often when Bragg’s name is mentioned at gatherings of Civil War enthusiasts it elicits smiles, chuckles, and mutterings of “idiot,” “fool,” or “incompetent jerk.” After reading this book, you won’t be one of those enthusiasts. Instead, you’ll have a more accurate view of Bragg.