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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bragg review

General Braxton Bragg, C.S.A.
Samuel J. Martin
2011, McFarland, 536pp

Few if any Confederate Generals are as maligned and misunderstood – both by their contemporaries as well as historians – as Braxton Bragg. To most today, a mention of the man’s name conjures up almost automatically an officer plagued by incompetence, bad luck, or both. But was Bragg truly the inept commander, who owed his position solely to his friendship with Jefferson Davis, that he is so often made out to be?

Author Samuel J. Martin, in his new General Braxton Bragg, CSA (2011 McFarland) argues no, and makes a very compelling case that Bragg was simply an officer whose Civil War career was cursed with bad luck and incompetent subordinates. Martin’s Bragg is not just a reappraisal of Bragg, but one also of Bragg’s personal friend and frequent battlefield enemy William T. Sherman, senior Confederate leaders in the Army of Tennessee, and Confederate strategy in the West overall. Understandably Martin is very critical of Bragg lieutenants Leonidas Polk and D.H. Hill, who were both very vocal opponents of Bragg while under his command and often disregarded his direct orders, but the author also is almost equally critical of John C. Breckinridge who was also a Bragg detractor (to the point that a duel between them was narrowly avoided). To this reviewer – an admitted fan of the former Vice President and victor at New Market – Martin’s criticism of Breckinridge’s generalship is a bit extreme. Other Bragg enemies – most notably James Longstreet and Simon Buckner – and their respective feuds with the commander of the Army of Tennessee are examined in detail as well.

The reader first finds Bragg’s family in humble beginnings in North Carolina. Martin proposes that part of Bragg’s difficulties with some officers – in particular Polk – may have stemmed from the societal class distinctions between them; that some from the Southern aristocracy just would not be made subordinate to someone who was their societal inferior, military rank and protocol be damned. After West Point Bragg was somewhat of a problem officer – one who had no qualms about writing directly to Washington or to newspapers to address perceived grievances and faulty practices, which understandably earned him some enemies among the pre-war Army’s senior officer corps, and a court martial. The Mexican War made Bragg a well-known war hero, at Buena Vista almost single-handedly giving Zachary Taylor the impetus he needed for his rise to the Presidency.

Many writers have posed that the friendship that was so evident in 1863 and ‘64 between Bragg and Jefferson Davis developed in Mexico. Martin destroys this premise – Bragg, who was never a fan of non-military men holding the office of Secretary of War, thought he would have a sympathetic ear in Washington when Davis became Franklin Pierce’s War Secretary. This notion was quickly squashed by Davis’ failure to accept some of Bragg’s policy recommendations; so brusquely was it squashed in fact that Bragg counted Davis among his enemies, and had nothing good to say about Davis in his letters to his wife Elise. In that regard, there was a strong similarity between the two men – their bluntness, ability to make enemies, and their quickness to take offense. But both were also very loyal to their friends and supporters, as shown by Davis’ continued support of Polk and later of Bragg, and Bragg’s support for commanders whose performance was often less than adequate but were reliable subordinates, like Joseph Wheeler.

Bragg’s Civil War career occupies the majority of the book, beginning with his command at Pensacola. Had fate been somewhat kinder to him, it could have been Braxton Bragg and Ft. Pickens rather than P.G.T. Beauregard and Ft. Sumter that garnered headlines in April 1861. Despite what many have written about the opinion of the men in the ranks toward Bragg, Martin argues that his original Pensacola troops revered him, despite his strict discipline. The oft-quoted Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee hated Bragg and his memoirs are filled with vitriol toward the General, sentiments which have been echoed by historians of this century, most notably pre-eminent early Army of Tennessee historian Stanley Horn.

“It seems obvious,” Martin writes, “that Bragg’s current critics are biased, looking in every instance to find fault with his actions. Bragg, as Elise [his wife] pointed out, never pursued personal glory. He assumed that history would fairly judge him. He had no idea that many students of the Civil War would instead believe the self-serving claims of his subordinate enemies, and as a result, sully his record whenever possible.” (p. 147)

Yet one notion Martin concedes to Bragg’s critics is that Bragg seldom led from the front, something he did at Shiloh and that the author proposes so shook him that he had no desire to be that close to the death and destruction resultant from his orders again– very similar to George McClellan in that regard. “Leading” from the rear on nearly every battlefield after Shiloh often caused Bragg’s orders to be not in accordance with a fluid situation at the front, and also gave his subordinates – Polk, Hill, William Hardee – the opportunity to disregard his orders.

For all its excellent scholarship and the author’s very readable narrative, three major flaws are to be found with Martin’s work. First, it is plagued by a number of misspellings and word omissions, many more than one would expect in a book of this size (and cost - $55). Second, the lack of adequate maps, especially when the author recounts the major battles of the Army of Tennessee, sends the reader scurrying for other, cartographically-better works. This is not to say the book lacks maps entirely, it does have several but these are very crude area maps for each major campaign with no troop positions. This reviewer is among those who thinks a book can never have too many maps. Third, for all the detail devoted to Bragg’s pre-war career (nearly 100 pages) and more than 350 to the Civil War years, Bragg’s post-war years are covered in a scant seven pages.

These criticisms aside, Samuel Martin has produced an excellent biography of a most misunderstood figure. An impartial view of Braxton Bragg has long been needed, and Martin delivers (although his criticism of Breckinridge and Hill sometimes goes beyond what is warranted). The reader certainly gains a new appreciation for Bragg the man as well as Bragg the officer, and the root of many of the quarrels which plagued the Army of Tennessee becomes evident. One certainly cannot have a clear understanding of the inner workings of that army without Martin’s biography.


  1. Charlie,

    I have also just picked up Martin's book. I am very interested in it due to Bragg's importance in the Chickamauga Campaign, but I was on the fence for a long time about the purchase.

    The publisher is not known for good editorial work in general, so any purchase from them can be hit or miss. I'm not at all surprised about the typos - exactly what I would have expected, in fact.

    My real qualm was whether or not Martin would bring enough of a different perspective (and support it) so as to make the purchase worthwhile, since I already have the McWhiney/Hallock two-volume bio of Bragg published years ago.

    So I got the book via inter-library loan first, and read the Chickamauga chapter. That satisfied me that I did need the book - Martin offers some interesting arguments and delivers that new perspective. I'm happy with the book, even though it has been one of the pricier purchases I made this year so far.

    1. I'll be honest - I was impressed by Martin's persuasive arguments for Bragg. His Ewell bio did not impress me all that much, and I've not read his Kilpatrick one. But love him or hate him, scapegoat him or victimize him, you definitely have to feel for Bragg and his treatment at the hands of nearly every historian for the last 150 years after reading this.