A review of Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy by Earl J. Hess, University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
In Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy, prolific Civil War historian Earl J. Hess attempts the near impossible task of resurrecting the reputation of one of the Civil War’s most disparaged generals. Many contemporaries and historians alike have long considered Braxton Bragg to be one of the most incompetent and ineffective generals of the Civil War. Much of the criticism directed towards Bragg tends to focus on his battlefield failures and his reputation as a fierce disciplinarian who would execute soldiers under his command for minor offenses. Hess challenges the popular opinion of Bragg and seeks to defend many of his actions in order to present a balance view and a “sense of historical justice.” (xx). Hess’ biography focuses primarily on Bragg’s Civil War career and places little emphasis on the general’s prewar life. The author’s intention was not to write a general biography, but to examine his Civil War career. In doing so, Hess examines the general’s actions from his first command at Pensacola in 1861 through the fall of the Confederacy and places major emphasis on the general’s relationship with his subordinates because it had a dramatic impact on his performance during the war.
In his attempt to reshape opinion on Bragg’s career, one of Hess’s key topics of focus is on Bragg’s reputation as a murderous disciplinarian. Bragg first became known as a general who would shoot his soldiers for minor offenses during General Beauregard’s retreat from Corinth in the Spring of 1862. As Confederate forces abandoned the town, Beauregard issued strict orders that no soldier fire his weapon during the retreat. However, some disobeyed the order and Bragg moved to discipline the offenders. A number of variations of wild stories quickly spread that Bragg shot men for stealing corn or shooting a chicken and soon the press and the public picked up on them. Some historians also included these tales in their descriptions of Bragg. Hess, however, successfully presents these stories as mere rumor and presents legitimate eye witness evidence from staff officer Giles Buckner Cooke to illustrate that the stories were simply hearsay. An incident did occur over the shooting of a hog during the retreat, and Bragg considered the possibility of executing the soldier involved but ultimately did not execute the offender. In other cases during the war, Bragg did execute soldiers for desertion or being absent without leave, but Hess points out that Bragg executed a smaller percentage of soldiers than his successor, the soldier favorite, Joseph E. Johnston. In presenting his evidence Hess make a strong case that Bragg’s reputation as an unjust disciplinarian is based largely on myth.
Hess also attempts to defend Bragg is his battlefield performance, but on this subject he is less convincing. In analyzing Bragg’s battlefield decisions, he credits Bragg with tactical victories and largely blames Confederate defeats on Bragg’s subordinates. Bragg commanded the Army of Tennessee for approximately 20 months and during his period of command, the army fought major battles at Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. Historians only consider one of these battles, Chickamauga, to be a Confederate victory. Albeit a victory that Bragg’s army failed to capitalize on. According to Hess though, Bragg achieved tactical victories at Perryville and Stones River by achieving some limited goals. However, this argument is difficult to make considering the fact that Confederate forces gave up valuable territory and retreated after both battles. Hess does admit that Bragg had difficulty following up on victories, such as at Chickamauga, but largely attributes those failures to capitalize on factors other than Bragg’s decision making. For example, in his conclusion Hess states: “No general had the opportunity of winning the Confederate war singlehandedly. All labored under a matrix of problems compared with their opponents…disparity of numbers…a miserable logistical system, a decrepit supply apparatus, waning morale, and severe problems of desertion.” Hess continues by stating “This is why Bragg could win fights but not campaigns –the Federals dominated the strategic context of military operations so thoroughly that victory on a large scale was nearly impossible to obtain.” (278). While Hess’ overall statement about the incredible difficulty of Confederate victory is largely true, Bragg’s counterpart in the east Robert E. Lee, won a number of stunning victories, driving Federal forces from the field on a numerous occasions. Bragg only accomplished that feat once, at Chickamauga, and that was largely due to Confederate luck and a disastrous mistake by the Federal Army rather than any brilliant maneuver by Bragg.
On a number of occasions throughout the book, Hess makes comparisons between Bragg and Lee. Hess rightly points out that Lee occasionally made terrible mistakes, such as his piecemeal attack at Malvern Hill or his decision to order Pickett’s Charge. These actions cost the lives of thousands of Confederate soldiers, and yet Lee did not garner the same criticism as Bragg when he made similar costly mistakes. For example, when analyzing Bragg’s piecemeal attack upon the Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh, Hess stated: “It is true that Bragg was to a large extent responsible for the uncoordinated assault against the Hornet’s Nest…but Robert E. Lee ended his highly praised Seven Days campaign with his army conducting equally uncoordinated piecemeal attacks against strong Union positions at Malvern Hill…” (42). Hess goes on to state that “ Yet Lee was never criticized for this costly exhibition of ineptness in the Army of Northern Virginia” (42). While it is true that Malvern Hill was a tactical disaster for Lee, no one can deny that the overall campaign was a rousing success. At the end of the Seven Days, Lee had driven the Union army down the Virginia Peninsula and saved the Confederate capital of Richmond. Braxton Bragg, on the other hand, could claim no such victories and therefore endured criticism that Lee did not. Hess attributes the difference in battlefield success between Lee and Bragg to greater support from the Confederate government, and while this is true, both Generals faced long odds but Lee often succeeded against long odds while Bragg did not.
In defending Bragg’s battlefield record, Hess also makes that case that Bragg was the best Confederate commander in the western theater. In making this comparison, Hess is on firmer ground. When comparing Bragg to Beauregard, Johnston or Hood, “Bragg’s record shines more positively than negatively” (275). Hess provides good analysis to prove this point. “If one tallied the result of the army’s fighting record in terms of days of success (for it won only one major battle in its history) versus days of failure, Bragg overwhelmingly comes out on top. The army achieved stunning tactical success on four days and Bragg was responsible for three of them” (276). Meanwhile he also points out that the army “suffered tactical failure on fourteen days and Bragg was responsible for four of them” (276). While this is not a truly stunning record, Hess points out that it holds up well compared to the other western commanders. However, does this make Bragg a “general who authored brilliant tactical victories…” (xvii) as Hess argues in his introduction, or merely the best of a bad bunch?
Interestingly, in his effort to present a “balanced view” of Bragg’s career, Hess tends to gloss over some of Bragg’s worst mistakes. Bragg failed to exploit his victory at Chickamauga, and suffered a ruinous defeat at the Chattanooga. In each of these failures, Hess largely lays the blame at the feet of Bragg’s subordinates. Following the major victory at Chickamauga, Bragg allowed Union forces to slink back to Chattanooga unopposed. According to Hess, this is largely attributable to Bragg’s belief that Confederate forces had lost the battle. Bragg was apparently unaware that Longstreet’s forces had finally taken Snodgrass Hill on the night of September 20th. Earlier that day, Longstreet requested reinforcements to drive George Thomas off of Snodgrass Hill, but Bragg refused, claiming that “there is not a man in the right wing who has any fight in him” (167). Later in the evening, Thomas’s forces withdrew from the position, but in making his stand, Thomas successfully protected the union retreat to Chattanooga. Hess faults Longstreet in not informing Bragg of such an important development. Longstreet on the other hand argued that “ the loud huzzas that that spread over the field just at dark were a sufficient assurance…” (168). Longstreet argued in his memoirs that because Bragg’s plan to flank the Union left and cut them off from Chattanooga had failed when Polk’s right wing was repulsed, he was “little prepared to hear suggestions from subordinates for other moves or progressive work” (167). Considering Bragg’s famously rigid personality, there is little doubt that there is at least some truth to Longstreet’s argument. In reality though, both generals deserve some of the blame for the failure to exploit the victory at Chickamauga, but Hess places the burden of blame on Bragg’s subordinates rather than Bragg himself. In his concluding paragraph about Chickamauga Hess wrote: “The sad truth was that all three of Bragg’s corps commanders in the Army of the Tennessee…were willful, unreliable subordinates who could not be counted on to obey orders or to cooperate with their commander” (168).
Hess also declines to give Bragg adequate blame for the strategic defeat at Chattanooga. During the siege of the city, Bragg’s army remained idle for two months, allowing Union forces to reinforce while his army failed to construct solid defensive positions on Missionary Ridge. The reason his army was idle was because Bragg’s focus was on internecine war with his subordinates. To his credit, Hess does point out Bragg’s lack of preparation at Chattanooga: “Even though holding Missionary Ridge for two months, Bragg failed to adequately plan for his defense of the place…Moreover, they had only recently constructed fieldworks on the ridge. Many of these works were not even sited properly to take advantage of the irregularities of the summit. As commander, Bragg bears the ultimate responsibility for all these problems” (201). However, later in the chapter Hess states: “While historians tend to criticize Bragg for fighting with his generals when he should have been taking care of strategy after Chickamauga the truth is he did not ignore the later (212). On a strategic level that may be true, but it is apparent that Bragg’s war with his subordinates was distracting enough to prevent him from preparing a proper defense of Missionary Ridge. As a result this severe tactical mistake became a strategic disaster that opened the door to Atlanta and the heart of the Confederacy.
Aside from Bragg’s battlefield performance, Hess also examines Bragg’s relationships with his subordinates. In doing so, Hess makes the argument that Bragg’s relationship with his subordinates severely limited his army’s effectiveness. There is much truth to this argument. Hess points out that the turning point in Bragg’s military career was the infamous round-robin letter to his subordinate generals after Stones River. In this letter, Bragg wanted them to state their support for the retreat from Stones River, but Bragg inadvertently asked his subordinates for their opinions of him as a commander. The letter opened a floodgate of criticism and permanently damaged Bragg’s relationship with his subordinates. His generals bluntly stated their opinions of him, and he lashed out over their criticism. Hess points out, that by Chattanooga, Bragg’s relationship to his subordinates had deteriorated so badly that the army’s “command structure was so fragile that the possibilities of the future –that it could take the strategic offensive in order to reap the full benefits of Chickamauga –would be very difficult if not impossible to meet” (168).
Hess does an excellent job of chronicling the difficulties Bragg faced with his subordinate generals. Several of them failed Bragg by refusing to comply with his orders. For example, during the Chickamauga campaign, Bragg missed a great opportunity to possibly destroy an isolated Union division at McLemore’s Cove when General Thomas Hindman failed to attack as instructed. Bragg also suffered due to similar failures by D.H. Hill and Leionidas Polk not following orders at Chickamauga. In fact Hess correctly states that:” it is probable that no army commander of either side in the Civil War had to deal with such insubordinate corps and division commanders as Bragg did” (279). In pointing out these issues, Hess successful shifts some of the burden of Bragg’s failures onto the shoulders of his subordinates. However, these instances of insubordination exacerbated the problems of Bragg’s relationship with his subordinates and he allowed it to cloud his judgement and decision making. All of this would manifest itself in the disaster of Missionary Ridge. It is ultimately the responsibility of the commanding general to ensure that his subordinates cooperate with him. However, Bragg failed to control his subordinates during the latter part of his career. The commander of an army should have never allowed disagreements with subordinates to impact his judgement and decision making, and yet Bragg did. Unfortunately for his army, he was incapable of bridging the gap with his subordinates and that failure to lead should rest squarely on Bragg’s shoulders. However, Hess places blame elsewhere. He states that by the Chattanooga campaign Bragg probably should have been removed from command by Jefferson Davis, and he lays the ultimate blame for Bragg’s lack of control on Davis rather than on Bragg himself. In fact, he wrote: “Ultimately Jefferson Davis was most responsible for failing to cure the poisonous mood in the Army of Tennessee” (194).
Following his removal from command after Chattanooga, Bragg continued to serve his nation in various capacities until the collapse of the Confederacy. In the years following the Civil War, Bragg continuously refused to write his own memoirs. Instead he trusted others to get his story right. In Earl J. Hess’s Braxton Bragg: the Most Hated Man of the Confederacy, the long derided general may have at long last found a champion to correct the record. Hess’s goal in writing about Bragg was to present a balanced account “inspired by a sense of historical justice” (xx). In this objective, he partially succeeds. He convincingly argues that Bragg was not a monster who senselessly shot troops. He also successfully shifts some of the blame for the Army of Tennessee’s defeats onto the shoulders of insubordinate deputies like Leonidas Polk and D.H. Hill. However, it is unlikely that the consensus perspective regarding the career of Braxton Bragg will ever change. Ultimately Braxton Bragg was never able to make the public adore him or modern historians laud him because he didn’t have the refined personality or win the sweeping victories that Robert E. Lee did.