- Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy by Earl J. Hess
Earl J. Hess's provocative new biography, Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy, sets out to correct the historical record about the Confederacy's most controversial army commander. In taking on the South's favorite lightning rod, Hess has set a difficult task for himself. Few generals inspire as much criticism, disdain, and even outright [End Page 491] loathing as Braxton Bragg. The irascible North Carolinian's reputation for military incompetence, harsh discipline, the wanton execution of his own soldiers, and tone-deaf mismanagement of his officers dogged him during the war and has tainted him ever since. And, unlike Union luminaries such as Ulysses Grant, William Sherman, and George Thomas, all of whom have benefited from recent historiography, Bragg's defenders are a small and embattled lot, if they can be found at all.
Hess is a careful historian and dutifully acknowledges Bragg's myriad shortcomings when appropriate. His verdict on Bragg is a mixed bag at best, but far from the outright condemnation of previous historians. Hess concedes that despite flashes of inspiration, Bragg made major missteps in almost every major battle and campaign. Still, Hess maintains, we have been far too unsparing in our criticisms of Bragg, and, like the general himself, Hess places much of the blame for these mistakes at the feet of Bragg's unruly subordinates and on his inept management of his public and professional image.
Hess also repeatedly points out that Bragg's reputation among historians has suffered unfairly in comparison with that of other, better-regarded generals who made similar mistakes. For instance, Hess compares Bragg's serious bungling of the Confederate assault on the Hornet's Nest at Shiloh to Robert E. Lee's mistakes at Malvern Hill, complaining that "Lee was never criticized for this costly exhibition of ineptness" while Bragg faced blistering condemnation for similar errors (42).
Throughout the book, Hess judiciously analyzes available evidence to overturn a number of long-held conceptions about Bragg, the most pernicious being Bragg's reputation for executing Confederate soldiers for "trivial reasons" (44). Rumors of cruelty swirled around Bragg for the rest of his career and contributed to his reputation for spitefulness and harsh discipline. Hess acknowledges that Bragg did, in fact, carry out the death sentence upon several soldiers, including a Kentucky corporal in 1862, destroying any goodwill that might have remained between Bragg and important Kentuckians like John C. Breckinridge. Hess also concedes that these killings and the unproven rumors of others began the process of breaking down public confidence in Bragg's generalship, especially among civilians who read these accounts in the papers. Yet Hess points out that Joseph E. Johnston, Bragg's successor, "was loved by his men" despite having approved "what may have been the largest execution of Confederate soldiers on a single day during the entire war" but that he, unlike Bragg, largely escaped condemnation for these killings (268).
Hess chronicles Bragg's greatest successes and worst failures in detail and weaves his complex relationship with Jefferson Davis and his [End Page 492] tragicomic problems with subordinates throughout the narrative. "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 observes (279). Much has been made in the historiography of the anti-Bragg coterie among the Army of Tennessee's officer corps, and there is no doubt that the western army leadership suffered from dysfunction and infighting of Shakespearean proportions. While confessing that Bragg contributed much to the toxicity within his army's command culture, Hess blames many of these failings on Bragg's subordinates. "Bragg did not create the bad blood within the Army of Tennessee," Hess maintains. "[Leonidas] Polk did that, and he also corrupted [William] Hardee into becoming a player of his corrosive game" (279). These points about Bragg's leadership are certainly arguable, but they...