Book Review Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy by Earl J. Hess

Pat Young

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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.
 
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Pat Young

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Part II of my review:

Bragg’s command methods sometimes reminded me of the film The Caine Mutiny. Constant conflicts with subordinates molded them into a seemingly unified opposition.

After the disappointing outcome at Stones River, Bragg sought to root out his critics among his subordinates. Hess writes “There is no doubt that Bragg erred badly when trying to determine which of his generals supported him after Stones River. The round-robin letter of January 11 was viewed as a challenge, a demand that they declare themselves openly. No other commander in the Civil War did anything like this, and for good reason.” This set the stage for a perennial conflict of Bragg with Polk and other high-ranking officers in the army. Following this incident, Hess writes, Bragg “dug in his heels and fought back instead of gracefully leaving the Army of Tennessee.” There are several moments during the war when Hess apparently believes Bragg should have relinquished command. Hess argues that Jefferson Davis failed in his role of commander in chief by not removing Bragg in late 1862 or early 1863.

When a friend of Bragg’s urged him to reconcile with his generals, “Bragg did not know how to do that and never really tried,” Hess tells us.

Bragg’s leadership was also questioned by some of his men as he became associated with the execution of his own soldiers. While an early order by Bragg to execute a man without due process was rescinded by him before it was carried out, he did endorse court martial orders of execution subsequently. Hess points out that he had men executed at a rate that did not exceed those ordered by other Confederate army commanders, but at least some of his men thought him cruel.

Central to the book are Braggs disputes with a variety of officers, ranging from Forrest to Longstreet. In reviewing them, I can see some justice to Bragg’s positions, however, in the aggregate they worked overwhelmingly against him. You can’t fight with everyone and hope for success. Even in 1873, Braggs hostility to other Confederates comes through in assessing his failures he wrote that “no man could do his duty and sustain himself against the combined power of imbeciles, traitors, rogues and intriguing politicians.” Apart from Pat Cleburne, he did not have a lot of good to say about the men who led the Army of Tennessee.

By the Fall of 1863, Bragg appears as a sad visage. Hess uses words like “isolation,” “friendlessness,” “stubbornness,” “gloomy outlook,” and “poor health” to describe him. His fall after Chattanooga seemed inevitable. As Hess writes; "All of Bragg’s plans ended in disaster, his army far worse off than it had ever been before. Chattanooga was lost forever, and the victory at Chickamauga wasted.”

After the war, Bragg became an ineffective opponent of Reconstruction. He referred to the post-Emancipation Louisiana government as the “Semi-Negro Semi-Military Legislature.” Bragg insisted that slavery had been the “best and most humane labor system” in the world.

Bragg dealt harshly with renegade Southerners. He published an attack on General James Longstreet for his support of Reconstruction, writing that Longstreet was “well developed and full of animal or physical courage—but utterly destitute of moral or mental capacity courage or integrity.”

When Bragg reflected on failures in the army, he cast blame on others in his post-war writings. For example, he said that he should have had D.H. Hill and Buckner arrested for their undermining of his authority. He also claimed that some of the failures of his army could be attributed by the excessive resort to whiskey of his generals, including Cheatham at Stones River and Breckinridge at Chattanooga.

I am no expert on the Confederate commanders in the West. I read and reviewed this work as a general reader interested in Civil War Studies. I have not read any other biographies of Bragg. In this book Hess offers a fair biography of Braxton Bragg. While he does not rehabilitate Bragg, he does offer insights into the challenges he faced and the sometimes wrong-headed ways he dealt with them.

Hess tries to offer a perspective on Bragg’s accomplishments through metrics:

“if one tallied the results of the army’s fighting in terms of days of success (for it won only one major battle in its history) versus days of failure, Bragg overwhelmingly comes out on top. The army achieved stunning tactical success on four days, and Bragg was responsible for three of them. It suffered tactical failure on fourteen days, and Bragg was responsible for four of them. In other words, he accounted for 75 percent of the Army of Tennessee’s tactical success days but only 28.5 percent of its tactical failure days. None of the army’s other commanders achieved a success rate remotely close to this. In contrast, John Bell Hood was responsible for 57.1 percent of the failure days.”

Of course, Bragg’s successors inherited an army that was significantly weaker and more divided at least in part because of Bragg’s work.

I recommend this work to those interested in the Western Theater and those seeking insights into the ways a Civil War general could fail. The writing is very good and the book is never boring. It is fair to Bragg and his detractors. The historiographic discussions were quite interesting as well.

Reviewed by Patrick Young, Esq. I am Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra University School of Law and Director of the Law School's Immigration Law Clinic as well as Program Director at the Central American Refugee Center.

(Note: Mike asked that we include a brief biographical note at the end of book reviews.)
 
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Jimklag

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Part II of my review:

Bragg’s command methods sometimes reminded me of the film the Caine Mutiny. After the disappointing outcome at Stones River, Bragg sought to root out his critics among his subordinates. Hess writes “There is no doubt that Bragg erred badly when trying to determine which of his generals supported him after Stones River. The round-robin letter of January 11 was viewed as a challenge, a demand that they declare themselves openly. No other commander in the Civil War did anything like this, and for good reason.” This set the stage for a perennial conflict of Bragg with Polk and other high-ranking officers in the army. Following this incident, Hess writes, Bragg “dug in his heels and fought back instead of gracefully leaving the Army of Tennessee.” There are several moments during the war when Hess apparently believes Bragg should have relinquished command. Hess argues that Jefferson Davis failed in his role of commander in chief by not removing Bragg in late 1862 or early 1863.

When a friend of Bragg’s urged him to reconcile with his generals, “Bragg did not know how to do that and never really tried,” Hess tells us.

Bragg’s leadership was also questioned by some of his men as he became associated with the execution of his own soldiers. While an early order by Bragg to execute a man without due process was rescinded by him before it was carried out, he did endorse court martials orders of execution subsequently. Hess points out that he had men executed at a rate that did not exceed those ordered by other Confederate army commanders, but at least some of his men thought him cruel.

Central to the book are Braggs disputes with a variety of officers, ranging from Forrest to Longstreet. In reviewing them, I can see some justice to Bragg’s positions, however, in the aggregate they worked overwhelmingly against him. You can’t fight with everyone and hope for success. Even in 1873, Braggs hostility to other Confederates comes through in assessing his failures he wrote that “no man could do his duty and sustain himself against the combined power of imbeciles, traitors, rogues and intriguing politicians.” Apart from Pat Cleburne, he did not have a lot of good to say about the men who led the Army of Tennessee.

By the Fall of 1863, Bragg appears as a sad visage. Hess uses words like “isolation,” “friendlessness,” “stubbornness,” “gloomy outlook,” and “poor health” to describe him. His fall after Chattanooga seemed inevitable. As Hess writes; All of Bragg’s plans ended in disaster, his army far worse off than it had ever been before. Chattanooga was lost forever, and the victory at Chickamauga wasted.”

After the war, Bragg became an ineffective opponent of Reconstruction. He referred to the post-Emancipation Louisiana government as the “Semi-Negro Semi-Military Legislature.” Bragg insisted that slavery had been the “best and most humane labor system” in the world.

Bragg dealt harshly with renegade Southerners. He published an attack on General James Longstreet for his support of Reconstruction, writing that Longstreet was “well developed and full of animal or physical courage—but utterly destitute of moral or mental capacity courage or integrity.”

When Bragg reflected on failures in the army, he cast blame on others. For example, he said that he should have had D.H. Hill and Buckner arrested for their undermining of his authority. He also claimed that some of the failures of his army could be attributed by the excessive resort to whiskey of his generals, including Cheatham at Stones River and Breckinridge at Chattanooga.

I am no expert on the Confederate commanders in the West. I read and reviewed this work as a general reader interested in Civil War Studies. I have not read any other biographies of Bragg. In this book Hess offers a fair biography of Braxton Bragg. While he does not rehabilitate Bragg, he does offer insights into the challenges he faced and the sometimes wrong-headed ways he dealt with them.

Hess tries to offer a perspective on Bragg’s accomplishments through metrics:

“if one tallied the results of the army’s fighting in terms of days of success (for it won only one major battle in its history) versus days of failure, Bragg overwhelmingly comes out on top. The army achieved stunning tactical success on four days, and Bragg was responsible for three of them. It suffered tactical failure on fourteen days, and Bragg was responsible for four of them. In other words, he accounted for 75 percent of the Army of Tennessee’s tactical success days but only 28.5 percent of its tactical failure days. None of the army’s other commanders achieved a success rate remotely close to this. In contrast, John Bell Hood was responsible for 57.1 percent of the failure days.”

Of course, Bragg’s successors inherited an army that was significantly weaker and more divided at least in part because of Bragg’s work.

I recommend this work to those interested in the Western Theater and those seeking insights into the ways a Civil War general could fail. The writing is very good and the book is never boring. It is fair to Bragg and his detractors. The historiographic discussions were quite interesting as well.

Reviewed by Patrick Young, Esq. I am Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra University School of Law and Director of the Law School's Immigration Law Clinic as well as Program Director at the Central American Refugee Center.

(Note: Mike asked that we include a brief biographical note at the end of book reviews.)
I just finished part two of your excellent book review. It sounds like the author never really got to the very bottom of who was Braxton Bragg, but I'll still probably get the book one day. Great review, Pat.
 

uaskme

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Thanks for the review. Losing brings out the worst of
people. AOT did a lot of that. What's that adage, What a difference a Day Makes? He couldn't put a couple of those good Days together when he needed to. If Hess had of Rehabilated him, that would be something.
 

Pat Young

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I just finished part two of your excellent book review. It sounds like the author never really got to the very bottom of who was Braxton Bragg, but I'll still probably get the book one day. Great review, Pat.
Thank you. I agree that we are left to piece together the reasons for why Bragg behaved as he behaved. In any event, the book is not boring.
 
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I read the book, eventually. I had to stop several times to cleanse my palate. It's not that Hess wrote a bad book, it was a great book. It's just that I had to cringe reading about Bragg. What a tormented man! He should have been on medication and seeing a psychiatrist. Of course that could be said about a lot of people. Booga Booga! :smile:
 

Pat Young

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I read the book, eventually. I had to stop several times to cleanse my palate. It's not that Hess wrote a bad book, it was a great book. It's just that I had to cringe reading about Bragg. What a tormented man! He should have been on medication and seeing a psychiatrist. Of course that could be said about a lot of people. Booga Booga! :smile:
I read straight through. I don't think meds could have cured Bragg's problems.
 

Pat Young

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I read the book, eventually. I had to stop several times to cleanse my palate. It's not that Hess wrote a bad book, it was a great book. It's just that I had to cringe reading about Bragg. What a tormented man! He should have been on medication and seeing a psychiatrist. Of course that could be said about a lot of people. Booga Booga! :smile:
Has anyone else read the book who would like to offer an opinion?
 
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I really wanted Hess to redeem Braxton Bragg. He did some bold things, like when confronted with a larger army at Stones River he didn't run away and find some good defensive ground to make a stand, he attacked. It may have been his best day.
His plan to attack the Union left flank at Stones River may have worked if his orders had been carried out to the "T", but complex plans never work in battle. His conflicts with the news papers, Richmond and his subordinates convinced me that my dreams of Bragg being a great but misunderstood general were false.
 

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I really wanted Hess to redeem Braxton Bragg. He did some bold things, like when confronted with a larger army at Stones River he didn't run away and find some good defensive ground to make a stand, he attacked. It may have been his best day.
His plan to attack the Union left flank at Stones River may have worked if his orders had been carried out to the "T", but complex plans never work in battle. His conflicts with the news papers, Richmond and his subordinates convinced me that my dreams of Bragg being a great but misunderstood general were false.
Well, not completely false anyway. Bragg had talent, and he certainly has been misunderstood. But he also made his share of mistakes. :smile:
 

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