Sunday, March 18, 2007

Was Braxton Bragg Really that Bad? Part I

Along with everyone else, I've read a bunch of books that take it for granted that Braxton Bragg was a disaster -- the ridiculous Kentucky campaign resulting in Perryville; Stones River; the "empty victory" at Chickamauga; the disaster at Chattanooga.

The verdict on the web has been the same. Several years ago, North and South Magazine convened a symposium of Civil War historians and experts; all but one (Steven Woodworth -- more about his views later) included poor General Bragg on their "Ten Worst Civil War Generals" lists. More recently, Civil War Interactive conducted a poll, and Braxton was named the absolute worst Civil War General on either side. (Thanks to Blogs 4 History for pointing out the poll, which I had missed.)

I dissent. No one is going to claim that Bragg was a great general. I won't even claim he was a good general. But I do doubt that he was any worse than mediocre -- a C or C-, but not an F, as it were. I'll try to explain why in the post and several to follow.

My doubts about the justice of Bragg's reputation were initially stirred when I read Steven Woodworth's fine book, Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West, several year ago. In it, Woodworth argued that Bragg, while certainly not a great general, was not terrible. He suggested, among other things,

* that the failure of the campaign that led to Perryville was in large part due to (a) the bad and confusing intelligence that Kirby Smith and Leonidas Polk provided, (b) Polk's insubordination, and (c) the mistaken assumption that Kentuckians would rally to and enlist with the Army, an assumption shared by Jefferson Davis and virtually every other leader in the Confederacy.

* that Bragg's plan at Stones River to assault the Federal right was quite good and almost succeeded, and indeed almost certainly would have succeeded had Davis not stripped the Army of troops.

* that through insubordination Bragg's commanders squandered several opportunities developed by Bragg to defeat the Union army in detail in the days before Chickamauga.

* that the dissention in the Army that was the core reason for the disaster at Chattanooga was caused principally by Leonidas Polk, who was an insubordinate malcontent who conducted a lengthy campaign to undermine Bragg and over time infected the entire army (and then found a kindred spirit in Longstreet). More generally, Woodworth suggested that Bragg, while certainly prickly, responded for some time with (for him) reasonable moderation to blatant provocations by Polk, et al., until he could take it, and almost open insubordination, no more.

As Woodworth summed up his view of Bragg in North and South Magazine's on-line Ten Worst Generals article: He was "an excellent strategist, organizer, administrator, and disciplinarian, and an average tactician. His lack of political skills was a serious flaw, reducing an otherwise good general to the level of mediocrity. Others, including Jefferson Davis, Leonidas Polk, William S. Rosecrans, and Ulysses S. Grant, were far more responsible for the defeats of the Army of Tennessee than was Bragg. He definitely does not belong in the bottom ten."

As I noted above, Woodworth apparently did not convince his fellow "Ten Worst" panelists at the North and South Magazine colloquium, for every one other than Woodworth listed Bragg. However, because of the format they did not directly address Woodworth's arguments. In posts to follow, I will amplify upon them.

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