Earl J. Hess on the most hated man of the Confederacy.
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“Nearly everyone has a negative view of [Braxton] Bragg,” writes Earl J. Hess in the preface of his book “Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy” (UNC Press). “His contemporaries began the process of making him into a scapegoat for the South’s military failures in the Civil War,” continues the author, before noting that general Bragg’s reputation was later solidified by historians and Civil War enthusiasts, “who seem to delight in making Bragg the Confederacy’s chief whipping boy.”
In a nutshell, “Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy,” is an attempt to better understand the officer and the man by reconsidering Bragg’s Civil War career and trying to assess where he deserves credit and where he deserves blame. “We need to stop automatically assuming Bragg was a bad general, an ogre who casually shot his men for minor infractions of discipline, or a cold, callous person who deserved the opprobrium heaped upon his head by generals, enlisted men, and civilians alike,” writes Hess.
In the following Failure Interview, Hess explains why Bragg is such a controversial figure, offers an assessment of the general’s strengths and weaknesses, and analyzes the prospects for the rehabilitation of Bragg’s public image.
Tell me about the goal of your book.
My goal was to take a historical figure who I thought had been dealt with in a one-dimensional way and give him the thorough, well-balanced study of his Civil War career that he deserves. My effort was not to try to whitewash anything. I wanted to avoid that; my own view of Bragg is that he had admirable personal qualities and distressing personal weaknesses. He was a very good general in some ways and a very bad one in others. My attitude was that if you take a balanced look at Bragg it’s almost inevitable that he will appear a little bit better because the previous studies have been rather unbalanced, in my view.
For most people, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you say the name Braxton Bragg?
I’ve been a Civil War historian for a long time and give lots of talks to Civil War roundtables, and as I mention in the book, if you go to a roundtable and mention Bragg’s name there will be two or three people who will snicker and smile. It’s unfortunate that what people think of first is that he was kind of a clown or a fool, or an interesting but bumbling character who would be tragic if he wasn’t somewhat amusing. The famous story about Bragg serving in two different capacities [quartermaster and commissary] in the pre-Civil War army and writing letters to himself in both capacities is widely believed by people who read about the Civil War because it fits their image of Bragg. The irony is that it was Ulysses Grant who made that story public, and he himself admitted he did not know if it was true. After studying Bragg, there is no way I can believe it is true. He was a smart person and I can’t believe he would be so stupid as to write letters arguing with himself.
Why is it a challenge to get a good, accurate read on Bragg?
Well, if you want to put it this way, he could go halfway toward winning battles. He conducted stunning tactical victories at Perryville, Stones River, and Chickamauga. Admittedly, he had difficulty translating a good day of tactical success into winning an entire battle or campaign. It’s one thing to win one day of fighting, but what happens when you have to retreat two days later and you lose the battle in the end? That was Bragg’s problem. To a degree that was because of his personal failings. The point I bring out in the book is that we have overlooked how he was saddled with poor subordinates in his command, who, from an early stage of the war, didn’t sustain him.
I always like to compare him with Robert E. Lee, who in most people’s eyes would be the exact opposite of Bragg, because he won so many battles and was an honorable gentleman. But I point out that Lee was given more resources than Bragg; the Army of Northern Virginia under Lee was sixty- or seventy-thousand men; the Army of Tennessee under Bragg was thirty-thousand or so. And Bragg had more territory to defend.
I would also like to point out that even though Lee won many battles he still lost the Civil War. He was unable to translate his battlefield victories into strategic success for the Confederacy. You could say the same thing about Bragg. Yet we look upon Bragg as a miserable failure and look upon Lee as a noble guy, who didn’t “lose” the Civil War. When we get to Bragg, he lost the war and everybody else didn’t.
To a large degree it’s a matter of perspective and timing. Historians reading letters and diaries of Bragg’s enemies found wonderful quotes denigrating him. They were influenced by those and have duplicated them in their writing.
Grady McWhiney, a historian who published a pretty decent, fairly balanced biography of Bragg in 1969 titled his book “Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat.” For anyone who looks at the cover [it sends the message that] this guy was responsible for the Confederacy losing the war. I get really irritated with that attitude. Bragg was not the generalissimo or dictator who could snap his fingers and change history. He labored under tremendous difficulties and lack of resources and recalcitrant subordinates who didn’t fulfill his orders. If Robert E. Lee was not in full control of the war and can’t be blamed for losing it, why do we not have the same attitude toward Bragg? I think it’s because a lot of people like to hate Bragg and like to love Lee.
What was Bragg’s view of the Civil War?
He grew up in a middle class, well-to-do family in North Carolina. His father was what we would call a developer, and did pretty well. Then he went to West Point and had a wonderful career in the pre-war army, [after which] he married into the plantation aristocracy and was able to use his wife’s money to purchase a sugar plantation in Louisiana, which he made into a sterling success. He was also obsessed with discipline and obsessed with the idea that to be a success in life you had to control yourself and work hard and that everybody else should do the same. He owned more than a hundred slaves and viewed the sugar plantations of Louisiana as being the model for the kind of social responsibility and work ethic and self-discipline needed to be a success in America. He saw the war as threatening all of that. And he was a staunch supporter of human slavery. He very much bought into plantation culture and the Deep South’s rabid, emotional reaction to any northerner even hinting that slavery was a moral evil. He argued it wasn’t; he argued that it was the best thing for both blacks and whites in the South.
That perhaps explains his take on the caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks. He wrote: “You can reach the sensibilities of such dogs only through their heads & a big stick. The place was probably injudiciously chosen, but the balance was well, and were I in the House I should certainly propose a vote of thanks to Mr. Brooks.”
I was shocked when I read that letter. I knew Bragg was harsh, but that was getting beyond harsh and into sadistic. I’m sure you know people who are hard-nosed about some things and sometimes they say things that go beyond the pale. I wasn’t proud or happy to include that quote in the book but I felt it had to be done because it’s part of Bragg’s personality and shows the depth to which he bought into the cause. You couldn’t even stand up in Congress and criticize slavery without getting your head bashed in by another Congressman. That’s what the Charles Sumner caning was all about and Bragg said: That’s the way it should be.
Bragg had a reputation for being a harsh disciplinarian. Was Bragg’s discipline too harsh?
You could certainly make the argument it was. I make the argument that Bragg was too hard on himself. He was just as hard on himself as he was on anybody else in terms of self-discipline. There are stories of him working endless hours in the office when he was commander of the Army of Tennessee. Staff members worried that he was not eating enough and would send in a plate of food now and then to try to coax him to stop for a few minutes and do some eating. But he also tended to be hard on others and I completely agree that that was a fault, and it rubbed people the wrong way and ruined his own health—or at least contributed to severe health problems that he developed by 1863. Those health problems, in turn, reduced his ability to be an effective field commander. I argue that by late 1863 he was burning out.
How did his health impact his life and career?
He apparently developed malaria in the 1830s in the Second Seminole War just after getting out of West Point. And during the Civil War he suffered from painful boils that appeared on his hand. The health problems made him thin and gaunt and stressed; the guy didn’t know how to relax and take it easy and stop worrying. He always felt he had to be in total control of everything. The combination of emotional and mental overstress—in addition to genuine health conditions and all of the expectations on his shoulders, not to mention having to deal with scurrilous attacks on his personality and character coming from anonymous newspaper reporters—added up. He remembered every slight and couldn’t let things go.
In the book you write: “How Bragg handled his army in the field is important, but the reaction of a myriad of people to his success or failure as a general is even more important.” Why?
That’s a very good point. Everybody has had a tendency to interpret Bragg as the center of controversy and the cause of controversy—that he was the one creating the poisonous atmosphere in the Army of Tennessee. I think it’s important to remember that Bragg was a human being and had as much sensitivity as anybody else. He was constantly getting attacked by other people and [we need to ask]: What effect did that have on his mindset and ability to command? Nobody had really dealt with that angle and I found that to be a major flaw with the historiography. It was a nice opportunity for me to come and help set the record straight.
Another thing is that there is a very strong tendency to assume that everybody hated Bragg. I found that to be completely wrong. In his papers and the papers of his soldiers, I found many men who liked him and believed in him and supported him, even after he left command of the army. He got a lot of letters from his former soldiers saying, “We miss you. I wish you were back in command of the Army of Tennessee.” That is something you don’t get the sense of when you read most of the published biographies of Bragg.
What was his greatest strength as a general?
His administration; he knew how to run an army. He knew the paperwork and the importance of supply and logistics. He knew the importance of training and discipline and of having quality people in the right places. Jefferson Davis [President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War] recognized that Bragg’s administrative ability was his chief virtue and I would agree with that.
What about Bragg’s greatest weakness?
It was his inability to recognize that he could not control everything—and that if some people don’t do exactly what they are supposed to do, you don’t necessarily have to make a big deal about it. One of his biggest mistakes was that he reached the stage where he could not stomach the criticism of his chief subordinates, so he tried to confront them and either forced them to back down or get out of the army. That was a serious strategic mistake. Bragg’s myopia was a big difference between him and Lee. Lee tried to keep himself above petty squabbling. He didn’t try to create a vendetta against people who he thought were not doing their jobs. He tried to deal with them in more subtle ways. Bragg was anything but subtle. He did not have good people skills in that sense.
What was Bragg’s greatest success on the battlefield?
December 31, 1862—the first day of the Battle of Stones River—in which he gained a tactical advantage over his opponent and attacked the Union army before the Federals attacked him. He took them by surprise and drove the right wing of the Federal army three miles back. He took 10,000 Union soldiers out of action that day and captured something like twenty pieces of artillery. It devastated the Union Army of the Cumberland. It’s difficult to point to any other single day of activity where the Confederates accomplished more.
What about his greatest failure on the battlefield?
His greatest failure has to be Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863. He deserves lots of criticism as he was mainly responsible for that debacle. His army occupied Missionary Ridge for two months and during those two months he failed to do a good job of making fortifications and positioning the men properly. He allowed his army to send some men away to Knoxville and reduced his troop strength on Missionary Ridge; at the same time he knew the Federals were building up their troop strength at Chattanooga.
My explanation is that Bragg was burnt out by that stage. He wasn’t the Bragg of Stones River. For many reasons he probably should have left command of the army before November 25, 1863. But that certainly was the worst day of his Civil War career.
As a whole, would you describe Bragg as being inadequate on the battlefield?
I wouldn’t accept that kind of blanket assessment. I would say that in order to be adequate or successful on the battlefield any general has to be a multi-faceted commander. There are three dozen things he has to know about and be pretty decent at in order to bring about success in such a complex operation as managing 30,000 or 60,000 men who are trying to kill other men. Bragg was more than adequate in some areas and inadequate in others.
One of his inadequacies is that he often didn’t know how to adjust to changing circumstances. At Stones River he did a magnificent job of taking the tactical advantage on December 31, 1862, and won a stunning success, yet the Federals still managed to hold on. Another commander with an inventive mind might have thought of some way to renew the offensive, but Bragg was not a quick or flexible thinker. I think it’s accurate to say—as some people have said—that his mind was rather inflexible. He developed good plans but didn’t know how to change them to meet contingencies as they developed. In a general, that’s important as a battle can change dramatically on the spur of the moment. Good generals are usually up to that and try to adjust and that was an area where Bragg was rather weak.
Do you think Bragg’s image has much chance to be rehabilitated?
I think it does. The reaction I’m getting from the book has been overwhelmingly positive and the biggest thing people are saying is that whether readers agree with me or not, they are glad that this book has been written because we have too much of a one-dimensional view of the guy and it’s time we get more sophisticated. Whether you like what I say or not, the fact that we are having a conversation about [Bragg] is refreshing. That sets the stage for a possibility of rehabilitation. How far should it go? There is no possibility of turning Bragg into the Stonewall Jackson of the western theater. If he is rehabilitated, it’s going to go a certain distance and no further.