Return to CCWRT Home Page


Serving Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana Since 1956

Preservation Project Canister Newsletter About Us Future Speakers Research & Information Hamilton CWRT Contact Us
He Always Stops to Quarrel With His Generals:
The Civil War Mystery of Braxton Bragg

By David M. Smith

February 18, 1999

© 1999 David M. Smith and the Cincinnati Civil War Round Table

Dr. D.W. Yandell, Medical Director for the Department of the West, wrote a typical analysis of General Braxton Bragg: "General Bragg is either stark mad or utterly incompetent. He's ignorant of both the fundamental principles and details of his noble profession, and he has lost the confidence of both his men and his officers." In contrast, a major in the Confederate service suggested: "The future Historian in chronicling the events and the lives of our great men, will hoist on high the name of Braxton Bragg, as synonymous with cool courage, consummate bravery, and determined devotion to the cause he espoused and served so well." Could it be that these two men were describing the same person? On the surface, it appears that the criticisms of Bragg are justified. Were they? Was he as bad as the record seems to indicate? And if so, what was it about him that earned such dislike and general censure? fn (1)

Braxton Bragg
There are significant problems in attempting to understand Bragg. First and foremost, there is a lack of good biographical data. Grady McWhiney completed the first volume of a planned two-volume work on the general, but could not bring himself to finish the effort. Historian Richard McMurry has said of the effort: "McWhiney found his subject so nauseous that he abandoned the project . . . At last report he had turned the disgusting Bragg over to a graduate student." The attempt to write the second volume by that graduate student resulted in one of the worst written biographies I have read. Historians have tackled bits and pieces of the Bragg enigma, writing about specific battles, armies or personalities with whom Bragg had substantial interaction. A good, full treatment, however, remains to be done. fn (2)

These efforts never seem to explain the big picture of Braxton Bragg. What was it about such a man that could make otherwise outstanding army act like alien beings? What was it that took over their bodies and minds? How could nearly everyone who came into contact with him, outside of a small group of loyal officers who served with him at Pensacola, react with such distaste and disgust? How could a man like Bragg squander opportunities generated in every major campaign and battle in which he fought?

Each of us encounter supervision on a daily basis. Our wives supervise us, and we try and fail to do the reverse. We have supervisors at work, and perhaps those we supervise ourselves. We confront peer situations in which our ability to play and get along well are keys to our professional and personal success. Often, we seem to lose sight of the simple truth that Civil War generals and politicians faced these same hurdles in dealing with their day-to-day lives.

Braxton Bragg had extremely poor interpersonal skills, and had very real problems in dealing with changing situations. Put together, the combination was an extremely lethal one for the Army of Tennessee.

Perhaps we should start with the physical man who was Braxton Bragg. Your handout tonight contains the pictures of Bragg I have been able to collect. Certainly, he was not a handsome man. You know you have a problem when your eyebrows are your distinctive features. And in Bragg's case, they were.. "Generals Bragg and Breckinridge are in the village with a host of minor celebrities," wrote a young girl during the Civil War. "General Breckinridge is called the handsomest man in the Confederate army, and Bragg might be called the ugliest. He looks like an old porcupine." A captain described Bragg as a "tall, slim, rough looking man, with a little round head covered with gray frizzly hair. He has a wild, abstracted look and pays but little attention to what is passing around him. His mind seems to be in a constant strain. His apparel consists of a long, gray hunting shirt, pants stuffed in his boots, and his hard looking head is ornamented with a military cap, to which some white cloth is attached to cover his neck." fn (3)

Bragg's Confederate military career was a combination of good fortune, solid foundation, and the misfortune of others. Born in North Carolina in 1817, he graduated 5th in a class of 50 from West Point in 1837. His was the typical antebellum career of a Civil War soldier: service in the Seminole War, three brevets for gallantry in the Mexican War, and promotion to lieutenant colonel by the mid-1850s. As a captain of artillery in the war with Mexico, it was Bragg to whom General Zachary Taylor turned with the famous "Give me a little more grape, Captain Bragg." Although the quote was twisted in the popular press with the passage of time, a solid pre-war record positioned Bragg well as the Civil War came closer. fn (4)

Elise Bragg
Bragg resigned his commission in 1856 to take up ownership and management of a Louisiana plantation. Those five years, coupled with his army career, put him in touch with the movers of the fledgling Confederacy. Along the way, he met and married Elise Ellis, a woman who brought Bragg not only a strong personality, but a large dowry. They were an odd couple, but suited for each other in a strange way.

In March of 1861, Bragg was made a brigadier general in the Confederate army, and placed in charge of troops in the Pensacola, Florida area. At Pensacola Bragg organized and developed a disciplined division of new troops. He received a promotion to major general, and was sent with his division to join General Albert Sidney Johnston's army operating in Tennessee and Kentucky, and led a corps at the Battle of Shiloh.

Following the defeat at Shiloh and the retreat to, and then away from Corinth, Bragg was promoted to full general in June of 1862 by President Jefferson Davis and named to command the Army of Mississippi. Bragg would command for nearly 18 months. During that time, he led his men through the Kentucky invasion, the battles of Perryville and Stones River, the Tullahoma campaign, the Battle of Chickamauga, the siege (if it could be called that) of Chattanooga, and the final Battle of Missionary Ridge / Lookout Mountain. After this final battle, and his army's retreat into northern Georgia, Bragg resigned his command.

Always loyal to those loyal to him, Davis named Bragg military advisor in Richmond. He served in that capacity until March of 1865, when he commanded a division with the remnants of Joseph E. Johnston's army in North Carolina. Following surrender and parole, Bragg worked after the war as a civil engineer in Texas, where he died September 27, 1876. fn (5)

There were strengths to Braxton Bragg. He was hard working, energetic and honestly and consistently concerned about the welfare of his men. While at Pensacola, for example, he made it his practice to inspect the hospital there in regular fashion. In typical Bragg style, reports were furnished daily from the chief physician regarding the status of all ill soldiers, and Bragg frequently visited the sick ward in person, taking time to chat with each patient. Although apparently blessed with little sense of humor, he tried to tell jokes. Perhaps the humor came more from the scene of Bragg's telling of the joke rather than the quality of the joke itself. fn (6)

It is not my intent to suggest that the task facing Braxton Bragg in the West was an easy one. Indeed, the Confederate War Department in Richmond seemed to take special delight in making life as difficult as it could for Bragg. And when you think about it, Richmond was the single source of support for Bragg. The Confederacy's bureaucracy in Richmond did not make life easy for Bragg and his army.

Jefferson Davis
Historian Thomas Connelly described the discord brought about by the departmental management structure of President Jefferson Davis. Although Bragg and the Army of Tennessee were expected to protect Confederate interests in Georgia, Alabama and East Tennessee as well as its normal Middle Tennessee responsibilities, these other states fell within different departments, and Bragg could not call on them for food, recruits, or equipment. Food provisions might well rot in Atlanta warehouses, but they were denied Bragg because they were promised to Lee's army in Virginia. At the same time, however, there might not be the means to ship the food to Virginia, but it mattered not. At times, the Army of Tennessee could not even forage in its own area of operations due to Richmond restrictions. Through it all, however, Bragg kept his army supplied with food, clothing and munitions in a better fashion than should have been expected. fn (7)

Bragg developed a deserved reputation as a strict disciplinarian. While this reputation was not always appreciated, there is ample evidence that this aspect of Bragg's management became better understood and appreciated as the war progressed. Captain E. John Ellis had written disparagingly of Bragg early in the war, but later had concluded: "It was an unbending justice Bragg meted out to his generals, his colonels, his captains, and privates alike that brings the ire of officers high in the rank down upon General Bragg." fn (8)

For Bragg, the letter of the law was the letter of the law. Enforcement of the Confederate Conscription Act, which forced civilians into the army against their will, caused resentment and desertion. Shortly after Bragg assumed command, private Sam Watkins noted: "[The men] were deserting by the thousands. They had no love or respect for General Bragg. When men were shot or whipped, the whole army was marched to the horrid scene to see a poor trembling wretch tied to a post and a whole platoon of twelve men drawn up in line to put him to death. . . They had no faith in him as a general. He was looked upon as a merciless tyrant." With Bragg, either you loved him or hated him. fn (9)

Historians have pointed to the many and varied illnesses of Bragg as an explanation for his behavior. McWhiney concluded that these illnesses were, in part, psychosomatic, often occurring in times of great stress. His health problems began with the unhealthy climate of Florida during the Seminole War and continued through the Mexican War and into the Civil War. He often complained of severe migraine headaches, boils, and dyspepsia throughout the period. fn (10)

Those that write well of Bragg often point to him having strengths in the area of strategic thinking. They point to the movement of his army by rail from Tupelo, Mississippi to Chattanooga, and the resulting invasion of Kentucky. Often the Kentucky invasion is linked with Lee's Maryland invasion of the same period, and held as the high watermark of the Confederacy. They point to the Tullahoma defense line as that which held Rosecrans in check for six months, and the retreat and maneuvering that led to the opportunities at McLemore's Cove and Chickamauga. Others give Bragg credit, as army commander, for the victory along Chickamauga Creek.

Edmund Kirby Smith
There is little doubt that Braxton Bragg could conceive a strategy and put it into motion. This is seen in the move to Chattanooga, the movement into Kentucky, as well as the attempt to defeat Rosecrans in detail prior to Chickamauga. Bragg's problem, and it repeats itself over and over, is that he could not handle the fluidity of changing circumstances. This occurred throughout the Kentucky invasion, as his military partner, Edmund Kirby Smith, and his Federal opposite, Don Carlos Buell, took actions neither foreseen nor planned for by Bragg. That military situations change over time should come as no shock. This problem, however, is inherent with the concentration at Perryville and with the fact that Bragg misread the strength and intent and of Rosecrans at Stones River.

The list goes on. Rosecrans advanced on Tullahoma, and did not do what Bragg expected. Before he knew it, Bragg was in northern Georgia in full retreat. Once there, and released of the pressure applied by Rosecrans, he managed to reset the military situation in his mind, and began to re-formulate strategy. Thus, we see the fundamentally sound strategy to attack the scattered forces of Rosecrans in detail, deny the Federal army its base at Chattanooga, and seek its eventual destruction. The failure of Bragg's plans, however, resulted from the ineptitude of his subordinate's ability to carry out orders, and flowed into the Battle of Chickamauga. Here again we see the fluidity of changing circumstances catch up with Bragg, and demonstrate his inability to adapt. On the eve of battle, Bragg persisted in his stubborn desire to cut Rosecrans off from Chattanooga, and to plan battle around this singe goal.

The Battle of Chickamauga is the classic example of Bragg in battle. His supporters point to it, because it was the only true victory the Army of Tennessee achieved in battle. That victory, however, was due in most part to the leadership and command of Lieutenant General James Longstreet, not to those of Braxton Bragg. In the middle of the afternoon of the second day of battle, Longstreet reported in person to Bragg. Noting the success of his wing in the battle, he asked for support from Polk's wing, then lying inactive. Bragg refused help, suggesting there was not a man left in Polk's wing with any fight left. Worse, he refused to believe he was winning a battle. That accomplished, he dismissed Longstreet, retired army headquarters a good way to the rear, and eventually went to sleep. Longstreet was left to continue the battle on his own. fn (11)

What was it that had so soured Bragg? The battle plan, as devised by the general, was an en echelon attack starting at daylight, and proceeding from the northern end of the battlefield south by division. Assuming success of the first attacking division (in this case, that of John C. Breckinridge), each succeeding divisional attack would build upon the former, and push Rosecrans further and further south and into greater and greater destruction.

Leonidas Polk
It was a simple plan, but had one inherent problem. If Breckinridge was not successful, the plan would fall apart. That was exactly what happened. Breckinridge, through no real fault of his own, did not meet with success, nor did any of the remaining divisions of Polk's command. The Federal troops of Major General George Thomas simply defeated Polk's forces in separate actions. Longstreet, however, did achieve success, but his efforts changed the nature of the battle to one of Confederate forces attacking south to north. This was not an eventuality that Bragg could, or wished to deal with. Rather than move his cavalry and part of his infantry north to cut off Rosecrans retreat, he simply quit, and the victory of Chickamauga went unfulfilled. As Shelby Foote noted, if Bragg "could not win in just the way he wanted, he did not care about winning at all, or anyhow he wanted no personal share in such a victory. Bragg was miffed because his design for herding the Bluecoats into McLemore's Cove had gone astray."

Perhaps the ultimate cap to the Confederate experience of Chickamauga occurred later in the night of September 20. Polk reported to Bragg that the Federals had fled the field, and a pursuit was needed. According to an aide present, Bragg "could not be induced to look at it in that light, and refused to believe that we had won a victory."

If that wasn't bad enough, a Confederate soldier who had been captured, but escaped, was produced to corroborate the story of the retreating Federal army. Bragg still refused to believe. "Do you know what a retreat looks like?" he snapped at the soldier. Setting the stage with an unforgettable one-liner that was the talk of reunions for years, the Rebel fired back, "I ought to, General; I've been with you during your whole campaign." Bragg's reply was not captured for the record. fn (12)

The problem of attack design, so fundamental in understanding the Battle of Chickamauga, is interesting to this discussion since it was the third time Bragg had tried such an attack. The strategies for the battles of Perryville and Stones River were also attacks en echelon, and they worked with similarly poor results. In the Civil War, attacks of this nature rarely worked due to the incredible on-site coordination required.

At Perryville, Bragg contemplated pulling his army together in the Harrodsburg area, uniting the forces of Kirby Smith with his own. He had no clear idea of the strength of Buell's force (which totaled nearly 70,000) that were lumbering out of Louisville, and somehow managed to lose contact with Buell's moving columns. Consequently, he was unprepared to find Polk (who made up his left flank) confronted by an unknown number of troops. Once apprised that Polk confronted an unknown force, he moved to fall on a single corps of Buell's army, applying the en echelon attack to try to turn the flank of the Union corps. In this case, he missed the flank, and the resulting battle turned into a slugfest between a single Federal corps and Bragg's entire force. Luckily for Bragg, Buell was screened from understanding that a battle was at hand, and 40-50,000 Federal troops never fought. It has been argued that Bragg won a tactical victory; in fact, that portion of his army present should have been destroyed.

The Battle of Stones River was another attack en echelon, in which Bragg attempted to attack from his left to right, driving the army of William S. Rosecrans back into Stones River. His counterpart, interestingly, planned a similar attack, coincidentally on his own left to right. Of course, this would have put the opposing armies attacking each other's flank, in a weird sort of military dance. Bragg, however, attacked first, and dictated the action.

Bragg's problem at Stones River was much the same as that which plagued him elsewhere -- he simply could not adjust to the ebb and flow of changing battlefield conditions. When the attack of McCown's division stalled in the face of stubborn resistance of Federal division commander Philip Sheridan, Bragg had no answer. When Rosecrans hunkered down along the Murfreesboro Pike, using the natural strength of the position, Bragg could only throw his reserves in a suicidal frontal attack. Later, he completely misread the situation and ordered the division of Breckinridge into another suicidal attack in spite of repeated attempts to warn him of the strength of the Federal position. As always, Bragg began looking for scapegoats as soon as the battle had ended.

A personality like that of Braxton Bragg does not spring forth overnight. Its roots go back quite a way, and a couple of famous stories about Bragg in Mexico and on outpost duty serve to illustrate the personality well.

We often think of the term "fragging" -- attempts to kill officers by the enlisted men -- as a Twentieth Century phenomenon. But it happened to Bragg in Mexico. Someone (Bragg believed it to be a "fugitive from the laws of Ohio") exploded a bomb under his bed. Miraculously, Bragg escaped unhurt. A report of the situation went on to explain, "except some of his men think he is too severe in his discipline. This is the second attempt upon his life." fn (13)

The other story is perhaps grown with the telling, but is well in keeping with our understanding of Braxton Bragg. Life as an officer on outpost duty often meant having to wear many hats, and Bragg was conscientious, or disputatious enough to play all of the parts. As quartermaster for the post, he naturally felt himself responsible to requisition certain supplies. As company commander, however, he took his own written request and denied it. As if this was not bizarre enough, he then engaged in a written debate among his two alter egos, and one can only imagine the feelings the permanent company commander must have felt upon returning to the fort. "You've quarreled with everyone in the army, Bragg, and now you're quarreling with yourself!" he is alleged to have said. fn (14)

Regardless, Bragg made it intact to the Civil War, and found himself in charge of what would become the Confederacy's Army of Tennessee. That he commanded it, during the formative years (and some would argue, during the true windows of Confederate opportunity) is unfortunate for Southern efforts.

Suppose, therefore, that you were a division or corps commander in Bragg's army. Dealing with Bragg's ability to fight a battle only occurred a couple of times a year, but there was also the aspect of Braxton Bragg, army commander and officer. As that division or corps commander, this dealt with your direct daily or personal interaction with the man.

It is this aspect of Bragg, I must admit, that I felt research would somehow clarify and improve for me. But I was struck, to be honest, with what I found. On examining the index of Connelly's Autumn of Glory, I found the following under the listing of "Bragg". There were separate discussions of:

William J. Hardee
  • Quarrels with Kirby Smith

  • Quarrels with Tennessee officers

  • Quarrels with Kentucky officers

  • Quarrels with Polk

  • Quarrels with Hardee

  • Quarrels with Breckinridge

  • Quarrels with Cleburne

  • Quarrels with Cheatham

  • Quarrels with McCown

  • Quarrels with Buckner

  • Relationship (negative) with Longstreet

  • Relationship (negative) with D.H. Hill

  • Quarrels with Hindman

  • Post-Chickamauga quarrels with officers

  • Quarrels with Forrest

  • Hostility towards [Joseph E.] Johnston fn (15)
Bragg apologists have contended that were it not for the underhanded dealings of some of Bragg's subordinate officers (implying, therefore, that some small, distinct minority opposed him), Bragg's command would have functioned with greater efficiency. But let us face it -- the list cited above is not a small cadre of officers. It primary composes the senior and middle leadership of the Army of Tennessee.

Somehow for Bragg, the officers in his army were never good enough -- with the exception of those with whom he had served at Pensacola. Perhaps it was a case of "not invented here"; namely, those who had not entered the war with, or had been trained by him, were somehow unfit or unworthy.

Those who supported Bragg had roots in Florida. W.H.T. Walker, West Point classmate and second-in-command at Pensacola, remained a staunch supporter until his death at Atlanta in 1864. In addition, future generals John K. Jackson, James Chalmers and Patton Anderson were all with Bragg there. These men remained Bragg supporters throughout the war.

The problems with subordinate officers emerged in the immediate aftermath of Shiloh. "Our failure is due entirely to a want of discipline and a want of officers," he wrote Elise shortly after the battle. fn (16)

Once he assumed command of the army from Beauregard, inability to work with subordinates developed. Struggling to figure out how to salvage the situation he inherited, he allowed Kirby Smith to talk him out of a portion of his forces, assume responsibility for defending Chattanooga (which was Smith's responsibility) and eventually move his army by rail to Chattanooga. Bragg was never sure of the limits of both his command and that of Smith, and Smith was quick to take advantage of Bragg's hesitancy.

In the meantime, the quarreling with subordinates began. In the initial salvo, he court-martialed and removed five generals from command. He requested permission from Richmond to remove and appoint officers at his discretion. The War Department, of course, refused. "I do not hesitate to assert that a fourth of our efficiency is lost for want of suitable brigade and division commanders," he told Samuel Cooper on August 6. fn (17)

Richard Taylor stopped by for a visit while on his way to command in Louisiana. In his memoirs written after the war, Taylor recalled a particularly disturbing conversation with Bragg about a unnamed division commander, likely to have been Leonidas Polk. Given Taylor's penchant for telling tall stories, one can question the veracity of the story. In any event, it certainly sounds like Bragg:

As a disciplinarian he far surpassed any of the senior Confederate generals; but his method and manner were harsh, and he could have won the affections of his troops only by leading them to victory. He furnished a striking illustration of the necessity of a healthy body for a sound intellect. Many years of dyspepsia had made his temper sour and petulant; and he was intolerant to a degree of neglect of duty, or what he esteemed to be such, by his officers. A striking instance of this occurred during my visit. At dinner, surrounded by his numerous staff, I inquired for one of his division commanders, a man widely known and respected, and received this answer: "General ---- is an old woman, utterly worthless." Such a declaration, privately made, would have been serious; but publicly, and certainly to be repeated, it was astonishing.

Taylor continued:

As soon as we had withdrawn to his private room, I asked by whom he intended to relieve General ----. "Oh! By no one. I have but one or two fitted for high command, and have in vain asked the War Department for capable people." To my suggestion that he could hardly expect hearty cooperation from officers of whom he permitted himself to speak contemptuously, he replied: "I speak the truth. The Government is to blame for placing such men in high position." fn (18)

For the men serving in his army, such brutal honesty was becoming second nature. For Taylor, the son of a President, well educated at Harvard and Yale, and successful sugar plantation owner, the discussion had to be a shock. It is no wonder that more than ten years after the close of the war, he remembered the conversation. One may rest assured that somewhere, somehow, Polk (or to whomever Bragg was referring) received word of his comments.

The failures of the Kentucky invasion and subsequent retreat back to Tennessee sent the anti-Bragg factions into high gear. The criticisms of the campaign, and attempts to fix blame led to the eventual formation of, as Tom Connelly termed it, the anti-Bragg bloc. They fell into three groupings: Kentucky and Tennessee officers not pleased with Bragg's performance in their respective states, officers who simply did not like Bragg, or Bragg did not like them, and the senior command of the Army of Tennessee, including Leonidas Polk and William J. Hardee. fn (19)

The several months leading up to the New Year's clash at Stones River saw sniping within the command hierarchy, but no overt action. Bragg publicly blamed poor performance on the Kentucky and Tennessee troops, and failure for the invasion on lack of support by Kentucky citizens. Polk, meanwhile, was communicating directly with his friend, President Davis, further widening the rift between Bragg and Polk. In addition, Hardee was beginning to criticize Bragg in private conversations with his staff.

The failure to defeat Rosecrans at Stones River finally brought all of the issues to the front. By now Bragg reported to Joseph E. Johnston, a relationship that involved an uneasy mutual respect. But Bragg did not report directly to Richmond anymore, and may have felt himself emboldened to action.

John McCown
He first arrested John C. McCown, a division commander, who was also well in-touch with influential Tennessee politicians, including Governor Harris. McCown was charged with delaying the opening attack at Stones River. Next he turned on John C. Breckinridge, ex Vice-President of the United States, Kentuckian and a division commander, whom he claimed took too long in moving from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Kentucky during the late summer campaign. Breckinridge's division was in large part made up of boys from Kentucky, and if anyone had an incentive to get to Kentucky, it was his division. No matter. Disputes with Breckinridge over Bragg's disastrous orders to attack at Stones River led to further quarrels. By now there was hardly a Kentucky officer in the army with faith or trust in Bragg.

Next on Bragg's list was division commander and prominent Tennessee native Frank Cheatham. Cheatham was not a professional soldier, but was a hard fighter. The problem, of course, was that he did not fit Bragg's ideal definition of an officer. Worse, Cheatham was well-known to be fond of his bourbon (as, by the way, was Breckinridge). Cheatham was also criticized for not attacking promptly at Stones River.

Finally responding to all of this turmoil, Richmond ordered Bragg to report in person to the War Department in early March 1863. Meanwhile, Johnston sustained Bragg's competence in a report to the War Department. Trying to fathom the mind, interests, and motivations of Joseph E. Johnston is a topic for another night. Suffice it to say that having Johnston command Bragg and John C. Pemberton made for an unfortunate triumvirate for the Confederacy.

Having achieved partial vindication, Bragg renewed his attacks -- this time on Polk and Hardee, his two corps commanders. In doing so, however, he did it in a completely unprofessional manner -- by addressing a circular to the fourteen brigade, division and corps commanders from the Kentucky campaign, and basically accused Polk of disobedience of orders.

Imagine yourself holding a director position in a company, reporting to a vice president, whom you most likely respect. He or she reports to a senior vice president, whom no one likes. The senior VP sends a memo around to the vice presidents and managers under them, asking to state on the record whether or not the VP screwed up.

Do you feel trapped? In a no-win situation? That is exactly how Bragg's subordinates felt. Many refused to answer -- a dangerous gambit where Bragg was concerned. Although he did not bring charges against Polk, the Army of Tennessee continued to fight with itself, instead of preparing for the eventual forward movement of the enemy.

James Longstreet
By now, the rest of the Confederacy was beginning to get some form of a handle on Bragg. Mary Chestnut, writing in her diary immediately after Chickamauga, wrote:

Bragg, thanks to Longstreet and [John Bell] Hood, won at Chickamauga. So we looked [for] results that would pay for our losses in battle, at least. Certainly they would capture Rosecrans. No! There sits Bragg -- a good dog howling on his hind legs before Chattanooga, a fortified town -- and some Yankee Holdfast grinning at him from his impregnable heights. Waste of time.


He always stops to quarrel with his generals. fn (20)

Robert Kean, a young man working in the War Department in Richmond, wrote in his diary on November 9:

Governor Isham G. Harris told Mr. Seddon that Sunday night of the battle of Chickamauga General Bragg did not know that a victory had been won, and when told that Rosecrans would escape during the night, would not hear of it, but insisted that a severe battle would have to be fought the next day. fn (21)

If the aftermath of Stones River was severe, events following Chickamauga turned outright ugly. Eight days after the battle, Bragg ordered cavalry leader Nathan Bedford Forrest to turn over his command to a Bragg favorite, Joe Wheeler. Forrest flew into a rage, dictated a letter in which he accused Bragg of duplicity and lying, and in typical Forrest fashion, proceeded at once to Bragg's headquarters to back up the letter.

Dr. J. B. Cowan, an eyewitness to the meeting, recalled the interview between Forrest and Bragg:

As we passed the guard in front of General Bragg's tent, I observed that General Forrest did not acknowledge the salute of the sentry, which was so contrary to his custom that I could not but notice it. When we entered the tent where General Bragg was alone, this officer rose from his seat, spoke to Forrest, and, advancing, offered him his hand.

Refusing to take the proffered hand, and standing stiff and erect before Bragg, Forrest said: "I am not here to pass civilities or compliments with you, but on other business.

Nathan Bedford Forrest
Forrest, according to Cowan, proceeded to summarize a long list of grievances against Bragg, including the fact that this was the second brigade Forrest had organized and equipped that had been taken from him. He accused him of revenge, spite, and persecution, and further humiliation. Cowan finished his recollection of the incident with the following quote of Forrest:

I have stood your meanness as long as I intend to. 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. You may as well not issue any more orders to me, for I will not obey them, and I will hold you personally responsible for any further indignities you endeavor to inflict upon me. You have threatened to arrest me for not obeying your orders promptly. I dare you to do it, and I say to you that if you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path it will be at the peril of your life."

Cowan noted that when confronted with "You are in for it now!" Forrest responded with "He'll never say a word about it." Forrest was correct. fn (22)

To cap off this bizarre and unexplainable period of time, Bragg's subordinates resorted to a written petition addressed to Davis, calling for Bragg's removal. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only time in the course of Civil War history that such a remedy was attempted. By now it was apparent that in any time of "blame fixing", Bragg would be quick to sacrifice his subordinates. Perhaps this time, they concluded, it was better to counter-strike first. With the failure to follow up the Chickamauga victory, blame was about to be dispensed.

Polk and division commander Thomas Hindman were Bragg's first two targets. Polk, a life-long friend of President Davis, had remained an illusive foe for Bragg, and would continue to be so. Polk began meeting with Longstreet, Hill and Simon Buckner to formulate plans to oust Bragg. Somewhere, deep below the hatred, the quarreling, the bickering -- was a command totally gone wrong. Jefferson Davis could not, or would not, see it. Things were getting progressively worse.

By the first of October 1863, Polk was under arrest and in exile in Atlanta. The infamous petition calling for the ouster of Bragg began circulation on October 4. The ringleaders were Longstreet, Hill and Buckner. Connelly believed Buckner to be the author of the document. Although everyone would not sign, twelve general officers endorsed the petition.

Although he apparently never saw it, there is reason to believe he knew of it, and in any event Davis hurried west in an effort to salvage the situation. His trip only compounded the problems. Polk, whom he visited in Atlanta, swore he would never serve with Bragg again. But Davis was blindly determined to sustain Bragg.

What happened next has its share of denials and counter stories, and frankly begs the question of how any professional, much less the president of a country, could have done such a thing. But we know that in the presence of Bragg, Davis asked Longstreet, Buckner, Cheatham and Hill their opinion regarding Bragg's competency. Each of the subordinates stared at each other in horror -- minutes must have seemed like days. Longstreet called it "a stretch of authority, even with a President". Finally he spoke up, and tried to deflect the question. Davis would not allow it. Old Pete finally confirmed that indeed he felt Bragg belonged in another assignment. The ice broken, Buckner, Cheatham and Hill quickly agreed. fn (23)

Place yourself back in the example of our hypothetical company. This time, the chief executive officer has called you in to express yourself as to the senior vice president's competency -- with the senior vp present in the room. Again, do you feel trapped? In a lose-lose situation? Perhaps you are simply stunned that an executive wold ask such a question in front of you and your boss.

Naturally (and this story could end in no other way), Davis sustained Bragg, and was somehow blissfully unaware of the impending thunderbolt headed towards the officers of the Bragg's army. Bragg sent Longstreet in exile to Knoxville, dooming not only Longstreet's attempt to defeat Burnside, but weakening his own forces enough to ensure his own defeat. Polk was traded to Mississippi for Hardee, and D.H. Hill lost his position.

Bragg boasted during this time that Davis had given his authority to relieve anyone he so chose. His final act was perhaps his ultimate revenge -- he got even with the Kentucky and Tennessee officers by breaking their units up and dissipating them throughout the army. If he was not universally hated before this, he was now.

Luckily, Bragg had only another month or so left with the Army of Tennessee. The disaster at Missionary Ridge -- which he characteristically blamed on alleged drunkenness on the part of Breckinridge -- finally forced his resignation on November 28, 1863. Ironically, he was replaced by Joseph E. Johnston.

President Davis was not finished with Braxton Bragg. Some historians argue that Bragg would have better served the Confederacy in a staff position, and that was where Davis placed him. On February 24, 1864 he named Bragg his military advisor and brought him to Richmond, from which position Bragg terrorized the government's bureaucracy. Robert Kean had an excellent opportunity to observe Bragg up close, and recorded the following on September 25 of that same year:

Bragg gets worse and worse, more and more mischievous. He resembles a chimpanzee as much in character as he does in appearance. He is engaged now in persecuting quartermasters who have clerks liable to military duty, detailed by the Secretary of War for duty with them. One . . . he ordered under arrest for keeping his funds on deposit in the treasury where the law imperatively requires them to be kept. . . Prying, indirection, vindictiveness, and insincerity are the repulsive traits which mark Bragg's character, and of which together or separately I see evidence of almost daily. fn (24)

From his earliest days in the army, until the end of his Civil War career, Braxton Bragg argued and quarreled with everyone. He rarely got along with anyone, short of Jefferson Davis, and he had quarreled with him before the war. One can only wonder had an acceptable general to Davis been available in early 1863 as a replacement for Bragg, would events had ended differently? Of course, we will never know.

Tom Connelly felt this way about Bragg: "His worst fault as a leader was probably his constant fear of making a mistake, and his consequent hesitation in committing his troops. He could drill, but he could not engage; he could plan, but he could not change his mind." Sounds to me to be the military version of the Peter Principle; Bragg was finally, in the end, promoted to his own level of incompetence. fn (25)

Wrote historian Glenn Tucker: "Bragg's main characteristic was an austere sense of duty that caused him to respect the army code inflexibly. He never indulged in personal weaknesses and endured none in others." I do not agree with the sense of forthrightness Tucker gives Bragg. The only reason Bragg did not endure weaknesses in others was because he constantly looked for them to tie blame for failure. Robert E. Lee could say to his men, "It was my fault." Braxton Bragg could not, and would have choked on the words. fn (26)

Certainly, given the opportunities available to the Confederacy east of the Mississippi River from mid-1862 until the end of 1863, it was a critical mistake on the part of Jefferson Davis to put in command the likes of Johnston, Pemberton and Bragg. That the Confederacy found itself in northern Georgia by the end of 1863 should surprise no one. The only surprise ought to be why it took the Federals so long to get there.

Thank you very much.


fn (1) Yandell quote in CWRT talk by Grady McWhiney, Braxton Bragg: Misplaced General (Cincinnati CWRT archives), Judith Hallock, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2 (University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 1991) frontispiece quote

fn (2) Richard McMurry, Two Great Rebel Armies (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1989) pg. 7

fn (3) McWhiney, Braxton Bragg: Misplaced General

fn (4) Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary (Vintage Books, New York, 1991 reprint) pg. 78, 244. Taylor's correct statement was "Double shot those guns and give 'em hell!"

fn (5) Patricia Faust, ed., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (Harper & Row, New York, 1986) pg. 75

fn (6) Grady McWhiney, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat: Volume 1 - Field Command (Columbia University Press, New York, 1969) pg. 183184

fn (7) Thomas Connelly, Autumn of Glory (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1971) pg. 7

fn (8) Ellis quoted in McWhiney, Braxton Bragg: Misplaced General

fn (9) Sam Watkins, Co. Aytch (Broadfoot Publishing Company, Wilmington, 1987, reprint) pg. 71

fn (10) McWhiney, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, pg. 28, 94. Dyspepsia was a term used during the Civil War to reflect any kind of disorder in digestion. Problems with ulcers, constipation, stomach pains from worry or nerves all could be classified as "dyspepsia." What exactly Bragg suffered from is difficult to tell, but stomach ailments resulting from nerves would be very typical.

fn (11) The interaction of Longstreet and Bragg is discussed Dave Smith, Longstreet at Chickamauga (Cincinnati CWRT internet site and Round Table archives)

fn (12) Quoted in Smith, Longstreet at Chickamauga

fn (13) McWhiney, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, pg. 98

fn (14) Glenn Tucker, Chickamauga (Morningside House, Inc. reprint, Dayton, 1984) pg. 75. That the story may be apocryphal may be illustrated by the fact that McWhiney does not tell it.

fn (15) Connelly, Autumn of Glory, pg. 550

fn (16) McWhiney, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, pg. 250

fn (17) Ibid, 278. Generals George B. Crittenden and William H. Carroll were court-martialed, and James Trapier, James M. Hawes, and Lucius M. Walker were removed from command. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C., 1880-1901), Series I, Vol XVII, Part 2, pg. 668 (hereinafter cited as OR)

fn (18) Richard Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction (Time-Life reprint, New York, 1983) pg. 100

fn (19) Connelly, Autumn of Glory, pg. 19

fn (20) C. Vann Woodward, ed., Mary Chestnut's Civil War Diary (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1981) pg. 469

fn (21) Edward Younger, ed., Inside the Confederate Government: The Diary of Robert Garlick Hill Kean (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1957) pg. 127

fn (22) John Allan Wyeth, That Devil Forrest, (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1989 reprint) pg. 242-244

fn (23) James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox, (Blue and Gray Press, New York) pg. 465

fn (24) Younger, ed., Inside the Confederate Government, pg. 175

fn (25) Connelly, Army of the Heartland, pg.

fn (26) Glenn Tucker, Chickamauga, pg. 75

Return to Top