The commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee from the summer of 1862 to the end of 1863 began his life on March 22, 1817, as a member of Warrenton, North Carolina's humbler class. Living his early life yearning to be accepted by the cream of antebellum society, the youthful Braxton Bragg often felt the sting of rejection. Although he would come to be known for his abrasive personality, a school teacher described the nine-year-old Bragg as having a "tractable and docile disposition."
Bragg's father eventually became a fairly successful carpenter, but Warrenton's upper classes were never inclined to allow the Braggs to forget their humble origins. Indeed, after Bragg's service in the Mexican War, Congressman David Outlaw wrote to his wife: "It will be awful if the people of Warrenton should fail to make proper preparations to receive properly Col. Bragg, who I am certain must in his heart despise those who were formerly disposed to sneer at his family. . ."
Bragg graduated from West Point in 1837 and went on to serve in the Seminole War and the Mexican War. He retired from the military in 1856 to become a planter in Louisiana. When the War Between the States broke out, Confederate President Jefferson Davis made Bragg a brigadier general. Davis' faith in Bragg's abilities stemmed from an incident that occurred during the Mexican War. Davis' Mississippi regiment had been among the few American soldiers who had refused to retreat when the Mexicans attacked their left flank at the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847. Just as Davis' regiment began to fall back under the assault, Bragg's troops arrived in force to hold off the Mexicans, allowing Davis to reorganize and hold his position.
The two men came to admire each other through their service in Mexico. Bragg, lamenting the lack of fortitude volunteer soldiers showed when under fire, admired the fact that Davis' Mississippians had refused to abandon their position. Davis for his part admired the courage Bragg had shown later in the battle when his artillery stood its ground against a Mexican charge despite the fact that it had no infantry support. Bragg was a fine captain in Mexico but, unfortunately for the Confederacy, he was not suited for high command.
By the time the Confederates were battling for Tennessee, Braxton Bragg was a full general commanding nearly 40,000 troops. He was now responsible for the fate of the state whose eastern region was described by Abraham Lincoln as "the heart of the enemy's resources." Davis' experience with Bragg contributed to his refusal to replace the commanding general of the Army of Tennessee when other officers serving with Bragg repeatedly insisted that their commander be removed from command.
A look at Bragg's military service reveals a man obsessed with the details of military propriety. Bragg believed in following rules, often to the point of absurdity. For instance, once while he and his men were enduring a murderous artillery barrage at Monterey during the Mexican War, Bragg witnessed an American horse driver fall dead from his saddle. Bragg ordered his retreating men to halt, and in the middle of the onslaught ordered one of the other horsemen to dismount, turn around and recover the dead man's sword because it was public property that had been issued by the government. The horseman also took from the corpse a pocket knife, fearing that if he did not Bragg would send him back for it.
Ulysses S. Grant recalled in his memoirs a story about Bragg that seemed to suggest an essential need for proper procedure that bordered on mental instability. Once Bragg had been both a company commander as well as company quartermaster (the officer in charge of approving the disbursement of provisions). As company commander he made a request upon the company quartermaster--himself--for something he wanted. As quartermaster he denied the request and gave an official reason for doing so in writing. As company commander he argued back that he was justly entitled to what he requested. As quartermaster he stubbornly continued to persist in denying himself what he needed. Bragg requested the intervention of the post commander (perhaps to diffuse the impasse before it came to blows). His commander was incredulous and he declared, "My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarreling with yourself."
Bragg's curious personality had another side; ironically one that would often cause him to break with propriety by behaving rudely to superiors and committing acts of insubordination. Once while serving under Lieutenant Colonel William Gates at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina in 1843, he committed the impolitic act of being openly rude to his immediate superior in public. It seems that Gates had asked Bragg to join him for a drink at the officers' club one day. Bragg, a man of high moral character who despised his superior as a weak and inferior man, replied: "Colonel Gates, if you order me to drink a glass of wine with you, I shall have to do it."
Poor judgment was shown once again in 1844 when Bragg decided to extend his leave and remain in Washington to speak with concerned Congressmen about what he felt was wrong with the army, and, in particular, its commander Winfield Scott. He was court-martialed and punished for this offense, and at his military trial spent the balance of his allotted speaking time insulting Winfield Scott in an open forum, disregarding the fact that Scott's competence was not on trial. For this, Secretary of War Wilkins reprimanded him in a general order:
Lieutenant Bragg seems to be unmindful of what is due to the service and himself, as evinced even by the tone and scope of a portion of his defense. The disrespectful tenor of his remarks in reference to the Major General commanding the Army of the United States is not justified by the facts, and is highly disapproved. The Lieutenant is admonished to correct his error, lest its too frequent indulgence may become a confirmed and dangerous habit. -- Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, by Grady McWhiney, published by Columbia University Press.
It seems that within a year all Bragg had learned was that disrespect towards superiors need not be limited to immediate superiors.
Bragg's career as a field commander, like his sense of propriety, was based in contradictions. Though skillful in planning attacks, he frequently had difficulty in executing them. Bragg had the distinction of being both recklessly offensive as well as hesitant to the point of ineffectiveness at various times in his career; sometimes in the same battle. Perhaps his erratic behavior was partially due to the fact that he often suffered severe migraine headaches.
Bragg, however, had been indoctrinated at West Point in an era when frontal assaults were favored. The faulty lesson that Bragg and many who served in Mexico learned was that frontal assaults make for the best strategy. Unfortunately, by the time of the Civil War, technological advances relating to weapons had served to make defense much easier and straight-on charges much more perilous. Bragg, like many of his contemporaries, never realized that a change of tactics was in order. At Shiloh and Perryville, and again at Stones River, Bragg would order his infantry to make frontal charges that would serve to simulate the effect of steak being put through a meat grinder.
Ironically, at two of these battles the recklessly offensive Bragg would demonstrate that he was also capable of timid hesitancy, given the worst possible time to show it. Before the Battle of Shiloh, Bragg would advise his commander to delay attacking Grant (fortunately for the South, Bragg was ignored), despite the fact that it was essential that Grant be attacked before his forces could be united with those of Union General Don Carlos Buell. Again, after his tactical victory at Stones River, Bragg withdrew and abandoned crucial middle Tennessee to the Union because he feared the rising tide of the river would trap part of his army.
In fairness to Bragg, it must be mentioned that some of his staff had advised Bragg to retreat in this instance. Nevertheless, all of Bragg's corps commanders at Stones River expressed a lack of confidence in him after the battle. His senior generals, William J. Hardee and Leonidas Polk, asked Jefferson Davis to relieve Bragg of command. Division Commander B. Franklin Cheatham vowed never to serve under Bragg again. Major General John C. Breckinridge, whose men had been slaughtered by Union artillery in the final charge Bragg had insisted upon despite Breckinridge's misgivings, even challenged Bragg to a duel.
Later that year, after a decisive victory at Chickamauga, Bragg passed up the opportunity to smash the Union forces. Instead, he allowed the Federals to retreat to Chattanooga, Tennessee because he felt the local terrain was ideally suited for a siege, and would give his exhausted army a chance to refit and recuperate. Unfortunately for the Rebels, General Ulysses S. Grant eventually rescued the Union forces trapped at Chattanooga. Bragg's hesitancy won him no favor with the Confederate generals serving under him. In fact, he became one of the most hated military men of all time. Legendary Confederate Cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest, himself not an easy man to get along with, served under Bragg at Chickamauga and Chattanooga. After Bragg failed to destroy the beleaguered and surrounded Union forces, Forrest said to him:
You have played the part of a damned scoundrel, and are a coward, and if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it. You may as well not issue any orders to me, for I will not obey them. . . I say to you that if you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path it will be at the peril of your life.
The rest of Bragg's subordinates were outraged as well. Lt. General James Longstreet called on President Davis to remove Bragg. Davis traveled to Chattanooga to get a first-hand look at the trouble. Characteristically, Davis decided to stick by the man who had once rescued him, and instead transferred the generals that felt particularly hostile to Bragg. The legacy of Bragg's hesitancy in battle is recalled by the story of a woman who wished him dead and in heaven for the sake of Southern military fortunes. Her friend responded, "Why, my dear, if the General were near the gates of heaven, and invited in, at the critical moment he would "fall back."
There is also evidence that Bragg was unpopular among at least some, if not all, of the regular soldiers under his command. Private Sam Watkins, who had fought in all of the major Tennessee engagements up to that point, recalled in his post-war memoir:
None of General Bragg's soldiers ever loved him. They had no faith in his ability as a general. He was looked upon as a merciless tyrant. The soldiers were very scantily fed. Bragg was never a good feeder or commissary-general. . . Bragg was the great autocrat. . . He loved to crush the spirit of his men. The more a hang-dog look they had about them the better was General Bragg pleased. Not a single soldier in the whole army ever loved or respected him. -- Co. Aytch, by Sam R. Watkins, published by Collier.
Bragg finished the war, after further humiliation at Missionary Ridge in November, 1863, serving as Army Chief of Staff and eventually commanding a division in Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee. After being relieved by Johnston, he returned to join his friend Jefferson Davis as a military adviser. After the war, he lived out the remainder of his life as a civil engineer. He died September 27, 1876.
His career is remembered by most historians as a series of continuous calamities and blunders; often resulting in disaster. This perceived incompetence, combined with his failure to get along with other officers ensured that his reputation would escape none of the verbal bludgeoning that his performances in battle had earned him. Bragg had begun life at a lowly station and rose to power only to have his reputation come crashing down around him. He ended his military career in a situation reminiscent of his early youth: Surrounded by those who disapproved of him and regarded him as inferior.