Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Was Braxton Bragg Really that Bad? Part IV

Braxton Bragg was a mediocre general, to be sure. For example, he went into the Perryville campaign without a clear purpose. Bragg should not have allowed himself to get dragged into Kirby Smith’s harebrained and half-baked scheme, at least without (a) thinking through and setting up clear goals and purposes, and (b) clearing up the chain-of-command issue. Likewise, in the campaign itself Bragg probably made a major mistake in failing to go straight for Louisville after Munfordville, rather than diddling around in Eastern Kentucky. Perhaps if Bragg and Kirby Smith had taken Louisville, some of the pro-Confederate Kentuckians might have enlisted and put to use all those extra rifles that the Confederates dragged up with him.

In terms of his conduct during battles, Bragg seems to have gotten worn down and lacked the ability to improvise. At Stones River, when the first day plan came so near to success but fell short, he didn’t know what to do next. At Chickamauga, Bragg seems to have begun the battle dispirited because D.H. Hill, Hindman and Polk had, contrary to orders, missed some of the best tactical opportunities of the War to inflict significant damage on isolated Federal corps on September 10, 11 and 13. Then, particularly when Polk failed to have his men in position to attack the Federal left on the morning of the second day of Chickamauga, Bragg basically threw up his hands in disgust and wrote off the whole mess. Psychologically understandable, but you just can’t do that as commander.

But for all his faults, was Bragg any worse than Joe Johnston? Consider the following:

- Each won one battle (if you give Joe credit for First Bull Run and Bragg credit for Chickamauga);

- Each was responsible for a major debacle (Joe for the loss of Atlanta, Bragg for Chattanooga);

- Each was capable of coming up with good battle plans (Joe at Seven Pines and Cassville, GA [aborted by Hood], Bragg at Stones River and repeatedly on September 10, 11 and 13 before Chickamauga);

- Each executed a masterpiece of transportation logistics (Joe’s transfer of his army to Bull Run, Bragg’s transfer of his army from Northern Mississippi to Chattanooga);

- Each seemed to lose control of battles (Joe at Seven Pines, Bragg as stated above);

- Each had fatal personality flaws (Joe’s almost pathological sense of pride and perfectionism, Bragg’s lack of “people skills”).

Yet even Joe’s detractors usually are willing to admit that there were positives mixed in with the negatives. I find it curious that discussions of Bragg do not involve similar careful weighing and analysis.

I also wonder whether the pummeling that Bragg routinely receives is not connected to the Lost Cause mythology. That mythology consists of a number of discordant trains of thought that can be in tension with one another. On the one hand, the South was ground down by the remorseless weight of Northern men, materiel and technology. On the other, proponents are loath to admit that the South entered a war that it was bound to lose. Maybe, just maybe (so the thinking goes), if the Confederacy had had a decent general in the West, it could have prevailed.

Bragg was the perfect fall guy. He succeeded the (supposedly) brilliant Albert Sidney Johnston, who fell at Shiloh. In contrast to the divine and chivalric Lee, Bragg with his unibrow looks like the villain in a vaudeville melodrama. He was the faithful lapdog of Jefferson Davis. And, of course, he presided over that most humiliating of defeats at Chattanooga.

Such factors, I suspect, account for the fact that such scorn has been heaped upon Bragg, while others such as Joe Johnston, Pierre Beauregard (who basically deserted the Army of Tennessee after Shiloh) and James Longstreet (who was grossly insubordinate and incompetent at Chattanooga) have come in for less criticism.

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