Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
- Jan 7, 2013
- Long Island, NY
Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy by Earl J. Hess, Published by The University of North Carolina Press (2016) 368 pp. $35.00 Hardcover, $19.24 Kindle.
Note: Due to the length of this review, it will appear in two parts. This is Part I:
I took up reading Earl Hess’s brand-new book on Braxton Bragg after seeing it discussed at Civil War Talk as a defense of the General. Hess himself says that the book is corrective to the misinformation spread about Bragg. I had some hesitation in reading it, wondering if it would be more a brief for the defense than an unbiased (or only a little biased) biography.
Hess spends substantial space laying out the historiography of Bragg’s career. He engages with accounts of Bragg’s performance from his contemporaries as well as from later historians, some famous and some relatively unknown. Hess wants this book to be about how Bragg is remembered as much as it is about his life and career.
The view that has developed over the last 152 years is of Bragg as a competent organizer, but severely deficient in the other human qualities that successful commanders of his age had. Bragg, earlier writers said, lacked military genius, the ability to inspire his men, and the capacity to nurture the genius of others. They often depict him as cruelly executing his men, imposing unnecessary rule-book discipline, and quarreling with his officers.
Hess begins this volume with the famous story from Grant’s memoirs about Bragg in the old army serving as both a company commander and quartermaster in which he reportedly got into an argument over a requisition in which Bragg as quartermaster denied a request from Bragg as company commander. The story concludes with Bragg’s commanders exasperated statement; “My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarrelling with yourself!”
Hess writes that “Most people who have read this story accept it without question.” That has not been my experience. Most of my friends who are familiar with it have laughed at it as a good piece of comedy. Hess, however, spends time debunking the story, but not the reality that made the story funny.
In his Introduction, Hess writes:
Bragg was not responsible for Confederate defeat, nor was he a monster or an imbecile. It is true he had some glaring weaknesses, but he also had admirable strengths. His impact impact on history was mixed but important, and it is time to attempt a balanced view of it. This book to a degree defends Bragg; it is inspired by a sense of historical justice. In balancing historical accounts, Bragg will inevitably come out the winner because he has suffered such a deficit of goodwill in the eyes of history that his reputation can only go up if one looks at his Civil War career with care. Kindle Locations 250-262
Reading this made me nervous. I had read a book a couple of years ago about the “Resurrection” of John Bell Hood and worried that if all the Confederate commanders in the West got similarly reassessed we might soon learn that the Confederacy had triumphed in the West and only lost because of Robert E. Lee’s poor generalship.
This book, however, is far from a defense of Braxton Bragg. My earlier fears that this would be a successor volume to the recent defense of John Bell Hood were not realized. Instead, this is a decent account of a general who rose to high command, accomplished less than he could have and got blamed for more than he did. The writing is quite good, as is true with all of Hess’s books that I have read, and the research solid. You will get an objective view of Bragg from a well-respected Civil War historian. There are, however, some problems with the work which I will discuss.
Hess’s account of Bragg’s life starts before he was born. Margaret Bragg shot and killed a black man who said something to her that she didn’t like. She may have been pregnant with Braxton at the time. She was arrested and held in jail for a time and later acquitted in a jury trial. Hess is dismissive of other historians who try to analyze Bragg’s personality in light of this remarkable incident. He notes that Bragg never wrote about the murder of the black man or his mother’s time in jail, and that therefore it cannot be given much weight by biographers in assessing Bragg's personality.
I find this a strange position for Hess to take. If a person’s parent was involved in a racially charged murder, then any biographer would see it as significant. This incident was so well known that during the Civil War Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston wrote in her journal; “Bragg the incapable, the Unfortunate, is Commander in Chief!. Unhappy man, unhappy in his birth, for he is, I believe the son of his parents who was born in jail where his Mother was imprisoned on a charge of murder & the murder, too, of a negro.” [Hess, Earl J.. Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy (Civil War America) (Kindle Locations 4647-4649). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.]
If people were still discussing this killing decades later, why simply dismiss historians who believe that it impacted on Bragg’s personality? Hess notes that Bragg almost never wrote about his mother. This in itself seems odd if Bragg was not impacted by the incident. Is it a stretch to think that the killing and his mother’s jailing in some way helped to form him?
So Hess does not want to speculate about Bragg's mommy issues. Fair enough, I suppose. But, Hess really can't explain Bragg's exceedingly odd personality.
The story that Hess does tell reveals the basis of Grant's annecdote. While Hess wants us to know that Grant’s joke about Bragg was not true, the truths contained in it are brought out in the book. Hess describes Bragg’s rise in the pre-war U.S. army as a period when his “contentious personality came to the fore.” With seemingly few social skills, Bragg “often wrote testy letters to officers as well as politicians,” according to Hess. Bragg also became a strong sectionalist revelaing his prejudices to the dismay of other officers. Fellow officer Erasmus D. Keyes wrote that “He could see nothing bad in the South and little good in the North, although he was disposed to smile on his satelites and sycophants wheresoever they came.”
Bragg was so fierce in his defense of his native state that it nearly led to him being killed. W.T. Sherman recalled a story that Hess retells of a proposed “duel between Bragg and a correspondent of the Charleston Mercury. The newspaperman disparaged North Carolina while making a toast at an Independence Day banquet in 1845, calling it a “strip of land lying between two States.” Bragg challenged him to a duel. Friends asked Sherman and John F. Reynolds to stop it, and Sherman was able to convince the correspondent to “admit that North Carolina was a State in the Union, claiming to be a Carolina, though not comparable with South Carolina.” Sherman recalled this incident with a good deal of sardonic humor, but it is obvious that Bragg’s hotheaded defense of his home state nearly resulted in bloodshed.”
In the late 1850s Bragg became a Louisiana sugar planter with a large plantation and many slaves. Hess writes that “Bragg moved into the planter class where he became a thorough Southern patriot, protective of the institution of slavery and determined through the seminary [he was helping start] to instill a higher degree of efficiency in the younger generation of Louisiana. He embraced and promoted the secession of his state, acted to seize Federal property even before the secession ordinance was passed, and then organized and commanded the state’s military forces.”
Hess discusses Bragg’s most successful time as a Confederate commander, during the early days of the war, when he organized Confederate formations in the Gulf States. His efficiency recommended him for higher command and he was soon in charge of the major army in the West. Hess lauds him as the general most responsible for the Army of Tennessee. Even at this early stage, Hess says, Bragg could be seen feuding with his colleagues. Hess writes that “It was unfortunate that Bragg tended to take a strong dislike to some people and become blinded to their good qualities. It was worse that he allowed himself to act on those feelings.” The process of alienation from other officers was in place by early in 1862 and would continue throughout the war.
Part II will be posted later today.