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

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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 While an early order by Bragg to execute a man without due process was rescinded by him before it was carried out, he did endorse court martial orders of execution subsequently.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.)
Thanks for taking the time to read and review the book and post this.
I must admit I never have understood why Bragg held high command as long as he did or why some think so highly of him.
I've been waiting for someone to show me his 'good side', or at least a balanced appraisal. Maybe this is it.
 

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Thanks for taking the time to read and review the book and post this.
I must admit I never have understood why Bragg held high command as long as he did or why some think so highly of him.
I've been waiting for someone to show me his 'good side', or at least a balanced appraisal. Maybe this is it.
It is a balanced appraisal. Hess is an excellent historian, interested in providing understanding of the real Bragg, not a caricature and not a puffed up version.
 

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It is a balanced appraisal. Hess is an excellent historian, interested in providing understanding of the real Bragg, not a caricature and not a puffed up version.
Thanks for your response and recommendation.
Another addition to my Amazon Wish List....
 
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#24
A lot of the bad talk about Bragg has increased greatly because of Stanley Horn's book The Army of Tennessee.in what I have been looking into is Horn uses quotes from Gen.Basil Duke about What should and should not have done.this is a primary reference for Horn,but the problem is that Duke was not there so who knows where his information had come from.it is pure heresay and every one knows that is anything but reliable.
 

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A lot of the bad talk about Bragg has increased greatly because of Stanley Horn's book The Army of Tennessee.in what I have been looking into is Horn uses quotes from Gen.Basil Duke about What should and should not have done.this is a primary reference for Horn,but the problem is that Duke was not there so who knows where his information had come from.it is pure heresay and every one knows that is anything but reliable.
Horn was also one of the writers responsible for the phony laudanum claim regarding John Bell Hood.
 

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It is a balanced appraisal. Hess is an excellent historian, interested in providing understanding of the real Bragg, not a caricature and not a puffed up version.
This really seems to describe Hess's approach in his presentations, also. He was a valuable grounding force on the CWI2017 panel, often providing a pragmatic overview when topics would wander too far into emotionally driven content.
 

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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.
Yes. He had good moments but he was not a misunderstood genius.
 

Pat Young

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This really seems to describe Hess's approach in his presentations, also. He was a valuable grounding force on the CWI2017 panel, often providing a pragmatic overview when topics would wander too far into emotionally driven content.
I will have to take a look.
 
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#35
I just pulled out my two volumes by Thomas Connelly on the Army of Tennessee.these were written 20 years after Stanley Horn's book as I am curious right now to see how much of Horn he uses as primary research source.Connelly is the respected source right now.
 
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#37
Thanks for the review Pat, I was planning on buying this anyway. The Western theater has always been a favorite area of study for me, so a balanced study of Bragg is a real treat.

I will say that a new biography of Leonidas Polk is sorely needed. By the way, does anyone know where I can find a copy of "Simon Buckner: Borderland Knight"?
 



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