Sunday 5 May 2024

A Spot of Reading...

With painting and building armies suspended for a while I have been catching up on my reading backlog. I have been focusing on the American Civil War and working through a number of biographies, specifically works on Braxton Bragg, John Pope, Edwin Sumner, Oliver Howard, Henry Slocum, Henry Halleck and Camille de Polignac (who had careers in both the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War). While Polignac was a minor player, the others were far from minor, but tend to be overshadowed by the huge volume of writings on Lee, Grant, Jackson, Sherman and Sheridan. This is also an attempt to balance out my knowledge of the War by reading more in-depth about the Western Campaigns since much of my reading has centred on the East.

I started with Braxton Bragg, perhaps the most controversial of all the Confederate generals. I have read a biography of Bragg before, a two volume work written by two respected historians, Grady McWhiney and Judith Hallock, published in the 1980s that was a balanced biography of a man frequently described as the man who lost the war in the West. This work, "
Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy", is similarly written by a respected historian, Earl J. Hess. 

Hess writes that the book “ an effort to understand many things about Bragg the man and the Civil War general. To understand the man, it delves into his personality...” and that the “ gives shape and contour to Bragg’s career as the most hated general of the Confederacy, trying fairly to assess where he deserves credit as well as where he deserves blame.” Hess does an excellent job of humanising Bragg and distancing him from some of the bias directed against him over the last 160 odd years.

Bragg's first two battles as commander of the Army of Tennessee were Perryville and Murfreesboro. Both were Confederate defeats for which Bragg has been severely criticised. Hess argues quite convincing that while Bragg made errors his strategy and battle planning was sound. At Murfreesboro the Confederate attack smashed the Union right, driving it back three miles onto its own line of communications snd inflicting losses of more than one third. Five months later, at Chancellorsville, Lee did exactly the same smashing the right of the Army of the Potomac driving it back on its left and despite holding a significant numerical advantage its commander withdrew it from the fight. Bragg had good reason to be proud of the result and and had every right to believe that the Union army would retreat, but his opponent chose to hold his ground even though his lines of communication were cut. Chickamaugua might have been a complete victory if his orders had been obeyed.

Hess argues effectively that  despite an evident personality disorder, he was a capable commander let down by his subordinates who disliked him and actively worked to undermine him. On three occasions, at Perryville, Murfreesboro and Chickamaugua, those commanders either ignored orders or were deliberately slow and robbed the Confederates of victory. Even in the defeat in the Chattanooga campaign, for which Bragg must take responsibility, certain subordinates continued to work against him. 

The Confederate press also went a long way to undermine him, fed by the vitriol of those same subordinates and often by vindictive correspondents who had clashed with Bragg, they attacked him mercilessly. They painted him as ogre for imposing strict discipline and shooting his men for infringements. Certainly he was a firm disciplinarian, for which he was praised more often than criticised, and shot deserters, as did many Civil War generals (including Jackson and Lee), but there were many instances where he showed leniency. The hostile press, however, ignored that leniency and focused completely on the  negative aspects - so nothing has changed over 160 years there then.

Bragg made matters worse for himself after Murfreesboro when rumours of a generals' revolt began to circulate by saying to his subordinates if they had a problem with him they should express them openly and they did. Had he ignored the rumours and just got in with the job at hand things might have been different, but his personality was a combative one (his early career was littered with conflicts with the army administration) and he couldn't let it go. The bickering went on for most of the next year, resulting in dismissals and requests for courts of inquiry.

After the defeat at Chattanooga Bragg resigned his field command and became the special advisor to President Jefferson Davis, effectively commander in chief, where his administrative skills saw him excel.  He continued in that role until John C. Breckinridge became Secretary of War. Breckinridge was one of the hostile generals from Bragg's time with the Army of Tennessee and held a deep hatred for him. Bragg returned to field service serving as a corps commander in Johnston's campaign in the Carolinas in 1865. He did not make old bones, dying in 1876 at the age of 59.

The book is a good read and Hess achieved his goal of giving some balance to the story of this complex man, giving credit and blame where due.

What is next on the reading list? Probably the biography of Henry Halleck, a Union general about who I know next to nothing.


  1. This looks like an interesting book on an unpopular character. I have been keeping an eye out for a book which might offer a defence of or an alternative perspective on Bernadotte but might never find one. Have you given any more thought to compiling your notes on the Franco Prussian war into a book?

    1. It's nice to find an author who is prepared to look past the bias and present a balanced view. The Franco-Prussian book is written...has been for awhile actually...but needs another proof...maybe after I retire. BTW we will be out your way in August...must catch up.

  2. I remember reading about the tensions in his command and the subsequent fall out, so nice to get a more balanced and broad overview of his career:).

  3. While it's true that Burnside had the best sideburns, it's also true that Bragg had the best eyebrows.😁
    It's also true the that East gets all he ACW press, but the West is still a great story.
    There are sooo many historic generals that had major personality flaws, but it shows that if they win, these tend to be overlooked, and if they lose, get magnified.
    glad I'm not a general.

    1. I often wondered if Bragg's eyebrows were the inspiration for Mr Spock's. The western battles have a whole different feel to them, a kind of informality if you like. The characters in command are very different to those in the east and the battles were smaller and easier to recreate as wargames.

    2. Bragg, Halleck, you are off the beaten path and you will be rewarded with a great arc of reading.

    3. I have started on Halleck, who for most of the war he was general-in-chief of the US Army, and about who I know very little, so I am keen to learn.