Thursday, March 22, 2007

Was Braxton Bragg Really that Bad? Part III

Braxton Bragg is typically excoriated for the campaign that resulted in Perryville. Here’s my take.

So far as I can tell, the basic problems with the Perryville campaign were two-fold:

First, the major premise of the campaign was that Kentuckians, given the opportunity, would rise up in great numbers and flock to the Confederate Army. If that didn't happen, the entire campaign served no purpose and was doomed to fail, unless it was transformed into a giant raid. But the Confederates weren't prepared to "raid" what they considered their home turf. Bragg may be faulted for this delusion, but then again so should all of the Confederate leadership, from Jefferson Davis and Breckenridge on down.

Second, the command structure was never resolved. Kirby Smith informally agreed to place himself under Bragg, but in practice he never did. Bragg may be faulted for failing to get a directive from Jefferson Davis sorting out the situation before he engaged in such a far-flung campaign. Then again, neophyte generals repeatedly had this sort of problem, naively believing in and relying on non-binding protestations of cooperation. Even Robert E. Lee allowed Jefferson Davis to send him to western Virginia early in the War without clear authority, resulting in a mess.

After Munfordville, Bragg was due north of Buell and could likely have marched straight into Louisville. In retrospect (since what he actually did didn't work), he clearly should have done so. Maybe, just maybe, more Kentuckians would have turned out. In Bragg's defense, it appears that he turned northeast, toward the Frankfort area, for two reasons. First was intensely practical. He wanted to hook up with Kirby Smith, and the only way to do so was for Bragg to go to Smith, since Smith wouldn’t come to him (see the second point above). Second, the hope was that installation of a Confederate governor at the state capital would either produce recruits or at least allow the Confederates to make a colorable argument that the Confederate conscription laws were in force and effect in Kentucky as a Confederate state. That obviously didn't work, but Bragg couldn't have known that at the time.

It’s also worth remembering that Don Carlos Buell wound up moving out from Louisville more quickly and more cleverly than one would have reasonably expected in light of his past performance. As usual, Leonidas Polk performed poorly, providing Bragg with intelligence that was outright misleading.

After the battle of Perryville, I can't blame Bragg for retreating. The previously-made mistakes, identified above, had already borne fruit. There were insufficient recruits: the thousands of muskets that Bragg had brought with him to distribute to Kentuckians remained loaded in the wagons, unused. The supply line was already long and tenuous – if it existed at all. Bragg either had to (a) risk his army in a showdown battle in what was proving to be a distant and unfriendly location, (b) keep moving, raiding and devastating Kentucky as he went, or (c) retreat to Tennessee. So long as the Confederacy was not prepared to execute option (b) (just as Lee was not willing to devastate Maryland in September 1862), it seems to me that option (c) was preferable to option (a), which entailed huge risks.

In all of this, Bragg is by no means blameless. I just don't see, however, that the campaign transforms Bragg from a mediocre general into the absolute pits. I must say that in many respects Bragg's Kentucky campaign resembled Lee's Maryland (Antietam) campaign. Both went into border states under mistaken assumptions and with unformed strategic purposes. Both discovered that it is far more difficult to maintain and fight with an army over attenuated supply lines away from one's native soil. Both fought inconclusive battles. Both concluded that under the circumstances retreat was the best option.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails