restricted access Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy by Earl J. Hess (review)
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Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy. By Earl J. Hess. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Pp. 341. $35.00 cloth)

Confederate general Braxton Bragg is a hard man to figure. Arguably the second-most important Rebel army commander of the Civil War—right after Robert E. Lee—Bragg commanded the Confederacy’s most significant western theater force, the Army of Tennessee, for twenty months. By contrast, Joseph E. Johnston, the man who followed him, led it for only eight months. Under Bragg’s command, the army was trained, organized, marched thousands of miles, ranged across a half-dozen states, and fought the battles of Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. [End Page 293]

Although not without his supporters, Bragg is perhaps also the most vilified figure of the American Civil War. As Earl J. Hess notes in his introduction, Bragg’s “contemporaries began the process of making him into a fool, a hero, a bloodthirsty disciplinarian, and an old-fashioned scapegoat.” Many historians have followed suit, so much so that today, notes Hess, “one need only mention his name at a Civil War round table meeting to bring a guffaw” (p. xi). In this new volume, Hess, the Stewart W. McClelland Chair in History at Lincoln Memorial University and the author of many previous works, attempts to strike a more accurate assessment of Bragg’s role.

This work is not a full-fledged biography but rather an in-depth study of Bragg’s Civil War career, focusing both on his performance as a soldier and the personal stresses of those years. Of the sixteen chapters comprising Hess’s work, only two (the first and last) address his pre- and postwar life. Given that his work is meant to be a reassessment, Hess also exhibits a thorough grounding in the previous historiography. Bragg has been the subject of four previous biographies, figures prominently in the two major histories of the Army of Tennessee, and receives extensive coverage in various battle monographs. Hess combines a deft narrative of Bragg’s wartime experience with a judicious examination of how he has been treated by those historians. By and large (and perhaps surprisingly), Bragg has been treated well by his biographers, sometimes to the point of hagiography, but has been excoriated in both the army histories and most of the battle narratives. Surely there is a balance to be struck here.

And Hess strikes it. He fully documents Bragg’s successes. Bragg’s 1862 invasion of Kentucky reversed six months of steadily declining Confederate fortunes in the west, buying the beleaguered South at least an extension of its survival. Hess also credits Bragg’s battlefield successes and addresses the many myths that have sprung up concerning the general’s supposed failings. Bragg’s reputation as a grim disciplinarian is cast in a new light; Bragg had fewer of his own men executed than either the Army of Northern Virginia under Lee or than did Johnston when he replaced Bragg in 1864. [End Page 294]

However, Hess makes no apologies for Bragg’s very real leadership failings. As his army fell ever more into dissension and back-biting, Bragg proved unable to smooth over such rifts, indulging instead in personal grudges that only ratcheted up the army’s internal animosities. If 1861–1862 saw Bragg at his best as a soldier, 1863–1865 saw him at his worst, and the Confederacy suffered for it.

This work is a significant addition to our understanding of the Civil War. It offers a thoughtful counterpoint to much of the existing literature, as well as an important corrective to the overly zealous of Bragg’s (admittedly few) partisans. Any scholar of the war should consider it mandatory reading.

David Powell

DAVID POWELL is an independent scholar and author. A scholar of the Chickamauga Campaign, he has authored five books on that subject to date: The Maps of Chickamauga (2009), Failure in the Saddle (2010), and the three-volume The Chickamauga Campaign (2014–2016). He lives and works in Chicago.