Saturday, June 12, 2010

Braxton Bragg and Leonidas Polk

My memory may be telescoping things a bit, but as I recall it fairly early on in my Civil War reading I began to think that Braxton Bragg had gotten a bum rap. It's not that I thought he was a reincarnation of Alexander the Great, but it did seem there was a good argument to be made that he wasn't The Worst General Who Ever Lived and utter incompetent that his detractors generally make him out to be. Some of my thoughts on this subject are laid out in a series of posts entitled Was Braxton Bragg Really That Bad?

Since I make no claim to originality, it will come as no surprise that my thoughts on Bragg derived primarily from the writings of Steven E. Woodworth, one of the Civil War historians I admire most, who has defended Bragg and pointed the finger principally at the truly miserable Bishop Leonidas Polk.

I mention all this not to recycle old posts (well . . .) but to shed some light on why I am so delighted with my recent purchase of what would otherwise seem to be a fairly obscure collection of essays entitled Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Volume 1: Classic Essays on America's Civil War (Lawrence Lee Hewitt and Arthur W. Bergeron Jr., eds.). A little more than half way through, I've encountered at least three essays that touch on the Bragg-Polk issue. All three roundly dump on the Bishop and/or give Bragg at least some credit.

Most predictable, given his prior advocacy, is the essay authored by Prof. Woodward, "Soldier with a Blunted Sword: Braxton Bragg and his Lieutenants in the Chickamauga Campaign." In the essay, Woodward provides an overview of the anti-Bragg conspiracy, headed by Polk, that ate its way through the Army of Tennessee between the Perryville campaign and Chickamauga, culminating in lost opportunities due to what I can only call insubordination in the week before the battle began. (For greater detail on one of these lost opportunities, see Woodworth's essay "'In Their Dreams': Braxton Bragg, Thomas C. Hindman, and the Abortive Attack in McLemore's Cove", in The Chickamauga Campaign, discussed briefly here.)

But Prof. Woodworth is not alone. Grady McWhiney contributes an essay, "A Bishop As General", in which he provides his assessment of Polk - and it ain't pretty. I particularly enjoyed this:
It may be time for historians of the Confederacy to admit that Bragg was not the Confederacy's worst general. Leonidas Polk may not be able to claim that title either, but he certainly was a bad general. Ignorant of military matters, quarrelsome, at times careless, lazy, insubordinate, and conspiratorial, he was dangerous not only because he knew so little about the art of warfare but also because he delighted in using his religious influence as well as his friendship with high government officials, especially the president, to promote himself and to undermine his enemies. Untrustworthy, he hurt every command and every commander with whom he served. The appointment of Polk to high military rank was one of Jefferson Davis's most serious mistakes.
Finally, Lawrence Lee Hewitt awards Bragg high marks in "Braxton Bragg and the Invasion of Kentucky in 1862":
Bragg's campaigning by maneuver should have become the primary Confederate strategy in the Western Theater. Even if the invasions were to fail, the maneuvers would upset Federal plans and would delay their penetration of the Confederate interior. More importantly, Bragg had demonstrated what a single individual could accomplish when charged with the defense of the entire Western Theater. Between June and October of 1862, Bragg had displayed greater ability at grand strategy than did any other Confederate commander during the entire war [take that, Robert E. Lee!]; he had accepted responsibility for key positions hundreds of miles from his headquarters and had successfully held them for the Confederacy.


  1. Interesting stuff on Bragg. I still think that Bragg, once in Kentucky, should have focused on his army and the march more instead of heading to Frankfort to try to install a Confederate governor of Kentucky, but perhaps one explanation (defense?) of his conduct of the Kentucky campaign can be found in "Rebel Raider: The Life of John Hunt Morgan" by James A. Ramage.

    On page 126, Dr. Ramage claims: "Morgan had done the Confederate war effort a disservice" by overstating the likelihood of Kentuckians joining the Confederate effort en masse. He proposes that without Morgan's exaggeration of Kentuckians' sympathies towards the South, Bragg would have possibly made other decisions, perhaps not invading Kentucky, or at least having a different set of plans and expectations for the invasion.

    Did this poor intelligence affect his decision-making that much?

    If so, it almost happened again at Perryville, where it took Bragg most of the day to realize Buell's full Union army was nearby, not just a piece of it.

  2. Captain,

    My take is that Bragg really had to go to Frankfort. The installation of the governor was the political centerpiece designed to confirm and legitimate the idea that there was a Confederate government in the state - and Bragg was the closest thing to a Confederate representative in the area.

    Did Bragg know it was a bad idea to go, particularly since he was leaving Polk in charge? I would think so. But such choices have to be made.

    Bragg was mistaken in thinking that Kentuckians would rally to the Confederacy - but then so did everyone else, from Jefferson Davis on down. Likewise, Robert E. Lee fantasized that Maryland would rise when he crossed into that state at about the same time. I have never heard anyone say that Lee was a moron for that reason, just that he made an honest and reasonable mistake born of undue optimism.


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