The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy
Earl J. Hess
University of North Caroline Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2016, 368 pages
Book Review published on: July 28, 2017
Braxton Bragg was not only vilified by the politicians and soldiers of his era but also by generations of historians. In the very aptly titled Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy, Earl Hess explores the controversy surrounding the embattled Confederate general and argues that his treatment has not quite been fair. Attempting to restore balance to historical assessments of Bragg, Hess notes, “We have to approach Bragg from a clean perspective and take him for what he was, while rejecting the old image that has become a comforting but unfair view of the man and his military career.”
Born to a large, middle-class, slave-owning family in North Carolina on 21 March 1817, Bragg graduated fifth in his West Point class in 1837. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Artillery, he participated in the Second Seminole War but did not see combat. He later distinguished himself in combat in the Mexican War at the Battle of Buena Vista, where he also established a relationship with Jefferson Davis. Always an advocate of Army reform, Bragg opposed changes to light artillery implemented by Davis as secretary of war and, disillusioned, he resigned in 1856.
Retiring to Louisiana, Bragg used his wife’s inheritance to purchase a sugar plantation near Thibodaux, making him a full-fledged member of the plantation aristocracy and a staunch defender of the “peculiar institution.” With the state’s secession, Bragg became a major general of Louisiana forces, was subsequently commissioned a brigadier general in the provisional Confederate army, and assumed command of Confederate forces in Pensacola. Beset by many problems as the commander of the Department of Alabama and West Florida, Hess argues that Bragg’s men, nevertheless, held their commander in high regard. Although some of Bragg’s men later grew to hate the commander, Hess shows that some soldiers always thought highly of his ability.
Such feelings about Bragg persisted until the Battle of Shiloh, where he faced criticism about his role in the battle. Hess finds fault with Bragg for throwing his soldiers into costly piecemeal assaults against the Hornet’s Nest but also notes Bragg’s personal bravery and leadership on the field. Moreover, Hess finds that Bragg had little choice, given the awkward attack formation selected by Albert Sidney Johnston, who prevented cohesive attacks.
Bragg’s failure to gain conclusive victories at Perryville and Stones River, and the lackluster conduct of his campaigns around Tullahoma and Chattanooga, largely contributed to his reputation as a poor general. Although the Army of Tennessee had a dismal record generally, Hess convincingly argues that the army largely owed what little success it had to Bragg. According to Hess’s tally, the Army of Tennessee experienced 75 percent of its “success days” during Bragg’s tenure. Moreover, Hess exhaustively addresses the blunders, backstabbing, and outright disobedience of Bragg’s subordinates, whom he could do little about and who cost him so dearly on the battlefield. Hess remarks, “It is probable that no army commander of either side in the Civil War had to deal with such insubordinate corps and division commanders as did Bragg.” Hess particularly paints Confederate Gens. Simon B. Buckner, Leonidas Polk, and Benjamin F. Cheatham as troublesome, incompetent, or disobedient subordinates.
Bragg’s reputation also suffered from rumors that he was a martinet, treated his soldiers with cruelty, and frequently approved death sentences for minor offenses. Many newspapers repeated the rumors, further damaging Bragg’s reputation with southern civilians, soldiers, and Confederate congressmen. Hess examined court martial records and contends that Bragg exhibited significant leniency when deciding the fate of soldiers facing execution. By contrast, Hess shows that the beloved Joseph Johnston approved far more death sentences for soldiers and argues that historians have forwarded negative views of Bragg without offering proper evidence.
While Hess defends Bragg at many points, he is no apologist for Bragg and takes him to task for many failures, remarking, “Far too often he becomes a stock figure exposed to ridicule instead of a man and commander. Bragg was neither a hapless fool nor a brilliant general.” Hess argues that Bragg exhibited little skill when it came to managing personal relationships. Frequently quarreling with southern civilians, politicians, and his commanders, Bragg did nothing to improve his reputation with these groups. Bragg had little patience with those who failed to meet his expectations. Moreover, Bragg failed to engage in good public relations practices, exacerbating the problem.
Hess has written a useful, balanced, and thoughtful biography, shedding new light on the controversial Bragg. While Hess describes Bragg’s failure to tell his story after the war, thus cementing his reputation as a hated figure in Confederate history, further analysis of Bragg’s place in Southern memory would have been useful. Hess, for instance, argues that Bragg was heavily criticized for his actions and failures. Robert E. Lee, however, faced no criticism for similar actions and failures. Further explanation is needed. Surely Lee’s ability to escape criticism resulted from his primal place within the Lost Cause pantheon, which Hess acknowledges. How and why was Bragg not included? Nevertheless, Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy is a must-read for any Civil War scholar or serious layperson. Not only is it a useful and balanced reassessment of a pivotal Civil War figure, but it is also a cautionary tale for historians about simply repeating the claims of previous authors without proper primary research.
Book Review written by: Joseph R. Bailey, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas