Braxton Bragg, 1817-1876

Braxton Bragg was one of the most controversial Confederate generals of the American Civil War. However, while for many the controversies started after the war and centred on their war record, many of the arguments about Bragg began during the war, and many involved him in person.

Brown Bess BayonetBraxton Bragg, 1817-1876

Born in North Carolina, Bragg entered West Point in 1833. He graduated fifth in his class in 1837, and was appointed a second lieutenant in the 3rd Artillery. He fought with the artillery in the Second Seminole War (1835-42), and during the Mexican War (1846-48). During that war he fought at Fort Brown and Monterey (1846), after which he was promoted to captain of Battery C of the 3rd Artillery. In this capacity he fought at Buena Vista (23 February 1847), where his battery managed to plug several holes in the American lines, thus helping repel the much larger Mexican army. For this he received a promotion to brevet lieutenant-colonel (a brevet promotion carried no extra pay or authority. Brevet promotions were used in a similar was to promotions in modern armies).

After the Mexican War, Bragg stayed in the army for another eight years. During that time he married Elisa Brooks Ellis, from Louisiana. On his resignation in 1856 he moved to her home state, where he ran a plantation, and took an interest in public works (including the drainage and levee systems so crucial in low lying flood-prone Louisiana).

Louisiana seceded in January 1861. Bragg returned to arms as a colonel in the Louisiana state militia. He just had time to be promoted to major-general before moving to the newly formed Confederate States Army on 23 February, with the rank of brigadier-general. His first assignment was to command the troops guarding the gulf coast between Pensacola and Mobile. He remained in that post for nearly a year, rising to major-general in January 1862.

Soon after that, Bragg felt concerned enough about the situation in Kentucky to approach the Secretary of War on 15 February, to request that part of his command should be sent north.  His concern was well founded. Union forces under U. S. Grant were finally moving against the weak Confederate positions in Tennessee. On 6 February Fort Henry on the Tennessee River fell to a Union force under U.S. Grant, and on 12 February Fort Donelson was also besieged. The day after Bragg made his request, the fort fell. Central Tennessee was dangerously exposed to Union attack.

Bragg and most of his men were quickly ordered north (their absence from the Gulf Coast left New Orleans vulnerable to Union attack, and it fell to a naval expedition on 29 April). Bragg found the main Confederate army in the west at Corinth, Mississippi, under the command of General A.S. Johnston, one of the most highly regarded officers on either side. Johnston appointed Bragg to command of the 2nd Corps in this newly reorganised force.

While the Confederates reorganised at Corinth, Grant had moved south to Pittsburgh Landing. A massive Union army was being created by gathering together forces from all around the borders of Kentucky. However, Grant and his colleagues were convinced that the Confederate army was in full retreat, and proceeded slowly and carelessly. Their camp at the landing was unfortified. General Beauregard, second in command at Corinth, persuaded General Johnston to launch a surprise attack on this camp.

The original plan for this attack was that the Confederate force would attack in three lines. Bragg’s corps was placed in the second line. However, on the first day of fighting (Battle of Shiloh, or Pittsburgh Landing, 6-7 April 1862), the three lines soon became one. Bragg found himself commanding the Confederate right wing, where he achieved a great deal of success. However, victory was not achieved on 6 April. General Johnston was killed, and Beauregard took over. Having proposed the entire expedition, Beauregard had changed his mind on 5 April. Now, late on 6 April, much to Bragg’s disgust, he ordered an end to the days fighting. Bragg and his staff later claimed that this decision cost the Confederates the entire battle.

The second day at Shiloh saw the exhausted Confederates pushed back by new Union forces, under General Buell. After some fierce fighting the Confederate army was forced to retreat, ending up back at Corinth. On 12 April, Bragg was promoted to full general. After Beauregard retreated from Corinth, he was removed from command and on 27 June Bragg was appointed to command the Army of Tennessee.

It was in this new position that Bragg became controversial. He had always been argumentative (Grant provides us with an anecdote that has Bragg as an acting quartermaster refusing his own request for some supplies!). While this was acceptable in a subordinate, it was to cause immense problems when Bragg was in command of an entire army.

This soon became apparent. After capturing Corinth, General Halleck, the Union commander in the west, had dispatched a large force under General Buell to capture Chattanooga. If Chattanooga was lost, one of the main railroad links between Virginia and the rest of the Confederacy would be lost.  Accordingly, Bragg decided to launch an invasion of Kentucky, in the hope that it would distract Buell.

The campaign began well. Bragg managed to get his army to Chattanooga impressively quickly, arriving there only ten days after deciding on the expedition. Buell was moving incredibly slowly. Bragg’s expedition was delayed at Chattanooga for nearly a month, but was still able to move out while Buell was distant from Chattanooga.

Two Confederate armies were involved in the invasion. On 14 August, General Edmund Kirby Smith moved his army of 20,000 men (some from Bragg), out of Knoxville, East Tennessee, towards Kentucky. Bragg left Chattanooga with 30,000 men a few days later. At first Bragg’s invasion seemed to meet with great success, penetrating quickly into the heart of Kentucky, and causing a panic in the north. However, as they moved north, the Confederate armies slowly shrank. Kirby Smith had to leave a division at the Cumberland Gap, to prevent a large Union garrison from disrupting their plans. Worse, Kentucky showed a reluctance to rally to the Southern cause.

Meanwhile, Buell was rushing north towards his original base at Louisville, where supplies and reinforcements waited. In mid-September Bragg had his best chance for success. He was between Buell’s base and his un-reinforced army, and could have attacked either. Instead, he decided to move to Frankfort, to inaugurate a Confederate state governor. This political move probably cost him the campaign. Buell was able to reach Louisville, and then turn back to face Bragg with a much larger army. The inauguration at Frankfort was interrupted by a Union raid (4 October), while Buell’s main army moved to attack Bragg’s main force.

While Bragg and a large part of his army remained at Frankfort, part of Buell’s army hit part of Bragg’s army at Perryville (8 October). In a chaotic battle, the Union forces won a partial victory, although only a small part of their army was engaged.

Bragg now showed that despite his sometimes aggressive reputation he was not willing to risk a battle against overwhelming odds. Realising that the Union forcing gathering around him could inflict a crushing defeat on his army, Bragg ordered the withdrawal back into Tennessee. Much of the blame for the failure of this invasion of Kentucky was aimed at Bragg. However, his actions did relief the pressure on Chattanooga, which remained in Confederate hands for almost an entire year after Perryville.

In some respects Bragg owed that to his Union opponent. Buell reverted to his slow pace, and was replaced by Rosecrans. He was not much faster acting that Buell, but at the end of 1862 he finally moved out towards Bragg’s position at Murfreesborough on the Stone River. Rosecran was ready to launch his attack on 31 December. However, Bragg was not willing to be attacked, and early in the morning of 31 December launched his own attack against the Union right wing. This surprise attack achieved a great deal of success, almost totally destroying that flank, but Union forces on the left and centre managed to hold. At the end of 31 December Bragg had achieved much, but still faced an intact Union army, in a strong position. Over the next two days Bragg found that he didn’t have the strength to push Rosecrans out of his new positions, while Rosecrans was willing to simply sit and wait. On 2 January 1863 Bragg withdrew back towards Chattanooga.

By now he had fallen out with just about all of his corps commanders. One (Hardee) went as far as to request a transfer. None wanted him to remain in command of the army. President Davies sent Joseph Johnston was sent to investigate, probably hoping that he would take command himself, but Johnston was not interesting, and so despite the hostility of his subordinate officers, Bragg retained command.

These problems continued across the rest of 1863. After Stones River, Rosecrans slowed to a crawl. It took him nearly six months to make his next move, pushing Bragg out of his new position around Tullahoma in June 1863. Again, he stopped, this time until September, when he pushed Bragg out of Chattanooga itself. However, this time he did not stop, but pushed on into the mountains south of Chattanooga. This presented Bragg with a series of chances to attack isolated elements of the Union army, but now the poor relations with his corps commanders came back to haunt him. A series of excellent opportunities to make Rosecrans pay for his sudden burst of speed were missed when Bragg’s subordinates failed to carry through his orders.

These missed chances were suddenly forgotten, when on 19-20 September Bragg’s army won the greatest Confederate victory in the west, at Chickamauga. Even here, Bragg and his officers argued. Bragg’s own plan for 20 September had to be abandoned after General Polk was unable to carry out orders for an early attack. However, James Longstreet, on the Confederate left, launched his attack into a temporary hole in the Union line, and won the day. Only stubborn fighting by General Thomas prevented the entire Union army from collapse.

This victory totally transformed Bragg’s prospects, but he failed to take advantage of it. Shocked by the heavy losses suffered in his own army, he did not order a proper pursuit. He then decided not to risk an assault on the Union army that had fled to Chattanooga, deciding instead to lay siege to the city. This was probably a mistake. For a short period it looked like the Union army would be forced to surrender due to low supplies, but while Bragg waited for that, a vast outpouring of energy across the North, and the arrival of U. S. Grant to command at Chattanooga meant that supplies were soon restored, and the tables turned on Bragg, who now found himself facing a much larger Union force, well led and well supplies.

Worse, he had fallen out with yet another corps commander, this time James Longstreet. President Davis now made a personal visit to the siege lines, in an attempt to solve the problems in Bragg’s army. However, his visit was largely fruitless, and may even have contributed to the failure of the siege, for soon afterwards Longstreet was detached north east in an attempt to recapture Knoxville. This weakened Bragg’s army, and may have played a part in his defeat at the battle of Missionary Ridge (25 November 1863). Grant’s troops stormed what was widely considered to be an almost impregnable Confederate position on the ridge after attempts to outflank the ridge had become bogged down.

In the aftermath of Missionary Ridge, Bragg finally resigned (2 December 1863), finally being replaced by Joseph Johnston. It is worth recording that Bragg’s successors in command of the Army of Tennessee had little more luck with their subordinates. Johnston argued with General John Hood, while Hood launched an invasion of Tennessee which resulted in similar poor relations with his corps commanders.

The siege of Chattanooga was Bragg’s last important battlefield command. He served as President Davis’s military advisor throughout 1864 (officially he was commander-in-chief of the Confederate armies). He stayed with Davis to end, following him on his flight from Richmond in 1865. He was captured on 9 May. Post-war, Bragg worked as a civil engineer in Alabama and Texas. He died suddenly in 1876.

Bragg gained a reputation for not following up on his victories. This is a little unfair. While he could have done more after Chickamauga, at Perryville and Stones River he was facing undefeated Union armies, with more men on their way. General John Hood was to show what happened when you didn’t retreat in similar circumstances during his invasion of Tennessee in 1864, which ended in the effective destruction of the Army of Tennessee. His biggest flaw was that he quarrelled with just about everybody. As an army commander this meant that he did not have the trust of his subordinates, without which any general would struggle.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (6 September 2006), Braxton Bragg, 1817-1876 ,

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