Born March 22, 1817
Warrenton, North Carolina
Died September 27, 1876
Was victorious at Battle of Chickamauga but
failed in two other campaigns in 1862 and 1863
General Braxton Bragg was one of the most controversial generals in the Confederate Army. In September 1863, Bragg guided the South's Army of Tennessee to victory in the Battle of Chickamauga. This was the Confederacy's only major triumph in the western theater (the region of the country between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains) during the entire Civil War. Despite this victory, however, the general is better known for his failures as commander of the Army of Tennessee. During the eighteen months that he led that army, Bragg's stormy relationship with subordinate (lower-ranking) officers greatly reduced its effectiveness. In fact, his unpopularity with his own troops is often cited as a factor in the failure of two major offensive campaigns he undertook in 1862 and 1863.
A life in the military
Braxton Bragg was born in 1817 in North Carolina to a wealthy planter. When Bragg was a teenager, his father managed to arrange his enrollment in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the nation's premier military school. He entered West Point at the age of sixteen and established himself as a top cadet. He graduated in 1837, ranking fifth in a class of fifty students.
After graduating from West Point, Bragg entered the U.S. Army. He became known as an intelligent and efficient officer, but also gained a reputation for being argumentative and stubborn. One of his first military assignments took him to Florida, where he fought in the Seminole Wars (1835–42). This clash between the U.S. government and the Seminole Indians eventually pushed the tribe out of Florida and onto reservations in Oklahoma. In the late 1840s, Bragg served with great distinction in the Mexican War (1846–48), a struggle between Mexico and the United States over possession of the vast territories in the American West. In 1848, U.S. military victories forced Mexico to give up its claims on California, New Mexico, and other lands in the West in exchange for $15 million.
In 1849, Bragg returned to the eastern United States and married Eliza Brooks Ellis, the daughter of a wealthy Louisiana plantation owner. He remained in the military until 1856, when he resigned at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He then settled in his wife's home state of Louisiana and became a wealthy planter himself.
Devoted to the Confederate cause
Bragg's comfortable life in Louisiana came to an end in early 1861, when America's Northern and Southern sections went to war. These regions had been angry with one another for years over the continued existence of slavery in America. The Northern states felt that slavery was immoral and wanted to abolish (completely get rid of) it. The South, however, wanted to keep slavery because many of its economic and social institutions had been built on the practice. In addition, Southerners argued that individual states had the constitutional right to disregard Federal laws that they did not like. This belief in "states' rights" further increased the divisions between the two sides. As Northern calls to make slavery illegal grew louder, Southerners became increasingly resentful and defensive. The two sides finally went to war in early 1861 when the Southern states tried to secede from (leave) the Union and form their own country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America.
When the Civil War began, Bragg immediately volunteered his services to the Confederacy. He strongly believed in the theory of states' rights. He also felt a great loyalty to his adopted home state of Louisiana, which voted to join the Confederacy in January 1861. When Confederate leaders learned of Bragg's decision to fight on the side of the South, they wasted no time in appointing the veteran soldier to a position of responsibility. He was made a brigadier general and ordered to Pensacola, Florida, where he trained volunteer soldiers for the upcoming war.
Bragg's skill at turning inexperienced recruits into disciplined soldiers attracted a good deal of attention. In September 1861, he was promoted to major general by Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see entry), even though the two men had clashed in the 1850s over various military issues. A month later, Bragg was assigned command of Confederate troops in western Florida and all of Alabama.
Takes command of Army of Tennessee
In February 1862, Bragg joined the Army of Mississippi, led by General Albert S. Johnston (1803–1862), as chief of staff and corps commander. Two months later, he commanded a major part of the Confederate force at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry) barely avoided a catastrophic defeat in this clash, which claimed the life of Johnston.
In recognition of his performance at Shiloh, Bragg was promoted to full general on April 12, 1862. Several weeks later, the Army of Mississippi's new commander, Pierre G. T. Beauregard (1818–1893; see entry), took an unauthorized medical leave. President Davis promptly removed Beauregard from command and appointed Bragg—whom he had come to trust—to lead the army.
Upon taking command, Bragg devised a plan to invade Kentucky. Kentucky was one of four "border states" that allowed slavery but remained part of the Union. The invasion was successful in its early stages, as Bragg skillfully moved his troops through Tennessee and into Kentucky. In the fall of 1862, though, Bragg's campaign faltered. On October 8, Union forces under the direction of General Don Carlos Buell (1818–1898) stopped Bragg's army at Perryville, Kentucky. The Confederate general retreated back to Tennessee, where he was hit with heavy criticism.
Political enemies of President Davis offered particularly harsh words of disapproval about Bragg's failed invasion. Some even suggested that Bragg had been given command of the army (which was now known as the Army of Tennessee) only because he was friendly with Davis. These critics hoped that attacks on Bragg might also hurt Davis, whom they wanted to replace. "You have the misfortune of being regarded as my personal friend," Davis wrote to Bragg. "And are pursued therefore with malignant censure [evil insults] by men regardless of truth and whose want [lack] of principle to guide their conduct renders them incapable of conceiving that you are trusted because of your known fitness for command, and not because of friendly regard."
At the end of 1862, Bragg's army was tested again when the Union's Army of the Cumberland moved into central Tennessee in hopes of seizing control of the area. Bragg reacted by setting up a strong defensive position at Stones River, near the town of Murfreesboro. The Union force, commanded by General William Rosecrans (1819–1898), attacked Bragg's position on New Year's Eve, 1862. The battle raged for three days, as both armies desperately fought for possession of the battlefield. The clash finally ended on January 2, 1863, after Bragg learned that Union reinforcements were on the way to help Rosecrans. He reluctantly retreated from the region, giving up on his hopes of establishing Confederate control over the area.
The Battle of Stones River (also known as the Battle of Murfreesboro) badly damaged both armies. Rosecrans lost more than thirteen thousand of his forty-seven thousand troops, while Bragg's thirty-eight thousand–man force suffered more than ten thousand casualties. These heavy losses forced both commanders to remain inactive for the next several months. By June 1863, however, Rosecrans's army had recovered. Armed with reinforcements that swelled the size of his Army of the Cumberland to about sixty thousand troops, Rosecrans launched a skillful military campaign that pushed Bragg's army all the way across Tennessee. By early September, Bragg had abandoned the city of Chattanooga, even though it was a major Confederate railroad center and supply depot.
Encouraged by Bragg's evacuation of Chattanooga, Rosecrans tried to acquire even more rebel territory. But when Bragg received reinforcements in northern Georgia, he turned to confront his pursuer. In mid-September he counterattacked near a small stream known as Chickamauga Creek. Over the course of two days (September 19 and 20) the brutal Battle of Chickamauga raged, until Bragg's Army of Tennessee finally gained the advantage and chased Rosecrans' troops from the field. Rosecrans retreated all the way back to Chattanooga. Bragg gave chase, but his progress was slowed by continued bickering with his junior (lower-ranked) officers over military strategy and other issues.
By this time, many of Bragg's officers had developed a great dislike for their stern, quick-tempered commander. They disagreed with many of his strategic decisions and did not feel any loyalty to him. As time passed, this dissatisfaction with Bragg could be detected throughout his army. "None of General Bragg's soldiers ever loved him," wrote Sam Watkins, a soldier in the Army of Tennessee. "They had no faith in his ability as a general. He was looked upon as a merciless tyrant. . . . He loved to crush the spirit of his men. The more of a hang-dog look they had about them, the better was General Bragg pleased. Not a single soldier in the whole army ever loved or respected him." By mid-1863, hostility toward Bragg had become so great that some of his officers had begun urging Davis to relieve the general of his command.
Davis ignored these calls, though. Instead, he watched with great interest as Bragg marched on Chattanooga in an effort to finish off Rosecrans's battered Army of the Cumberland. In October, Bragg surrounded the city and began a siege (a blockade designed to prevent the city from receiving food and other supplies) in hopes of starving the Union troops into surrendering.
As the weeks passed, however, the situation at Chattanooga began to turn against Bragg. Union general Ulysses S. Grant replaced Rosecrans with General George H. Thomas (1816–1870), who managed to open a supply route into the city. At the same time, Bragg's relationships with his officers and troops continued to worsen with each passing day. On November 24, Grant ordered an attack on Bragg's army in hopes of breaking the siege. This offensive easily broke through the Confederate Army, which fought in half-hearted fashion. The following day, Grant's forces pushed the entire Army of Tennessee out of the area and back into Georgia. The poor performance of Bragg's army at the Battle of Chattanooga shocked Davis and convinced him that Bragg could no longer manage his men effectively. Davis quickly replaced him with General Joseph E. Johnston (1807–1891; see entry).
Bragg spent most of the rest of the war serving as a military advisor to Davis in Richmond. In March 1865, he returned to the Army of Tennessee to take command of one of its divisions. But by this time Union control of the South was nearly complete, and all of the Confederate armies surrendered over the next few weeks. After the war was over, Bragg moved to Texas and settled in Galveston. He died on September 27, 1876.
Where to Learn More
Connelly, Thomas L. Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.
Hallock, Judith Lee. Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.
Woodworth, Steven E. Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.