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Braxton Bragg led the best organized and disciplined army in the Confederacy

Gen. Braxton Bragg
Civil War Trust

A native of Warrenton, North Carolina, Braxton Bragg was one of six sons born to Thomas Bragg and Margaret Crosland. Arriving on March 22, 1817, he was the younger brother of future Confederate Attorney General Thomas Bragg.

Braxton suffered much ridicule as a child due to rumors which were spread stating his mother had been incarcerated for having murdered a black freeman. This resulted in Braxton’s birth taking place in prison.

Thomas supported his family by working as a carpenter and contractor. In time, he prospered to such a degree, he sent Braxton to one of the best schools in North Carolina, the Warrenton Male Academy. A prolific letter writer, Braxton spoke fondly of his father; however, he never mentioned his mother.

When Braxton was ten, his father prepared the way for his military career by soliciting a nomination for him to the United States Military Academy. At that time, his eldest brother, John, had been elected to be a state legislator. John contacted North Carolina’s US Senator Willie P. Mangum, for help with the appointment. At the age of 16, Braxton was admitted to West Point. While attending the Academy, he became classmates to a host of future Civil War generals; among them Jubal A. Early, John Sedgwick and William H. T. Walker.

Blessed with a superior memory, Braxton excelled in his academic pursuits. He also received a much smaller number of disciplinary demerits than the majority of his classmates. On graduation day in 1837, Braxton ranked fifth in a class of fifty and received a commission into the 3rd U.S. Artillery at the rank of second lieutenant.

Beginning his military career as an assistant commissary officer, Bragg was stationed in Florida and served in the second Seminole War. Due to his assignment, he saw no actual combat. He did, however, begin to suffer from a number of illnesses, likely due to the tropical climate. He received a temporary medical transfer to Philadelphia where he was assigned recruiting duty. In October 1840, he was back in Florida, assigned as commander of Fort Marion near St. Augustine.

Bragg developed the reputation for being a strict disciplinarian, someone who was literally “by the book”. In the memoirs of General Ulysses S. Grant, a story is found in which Bragg is a company commander at a frontier post where he also served as the post’s quartermaster. As company commander, Bragg submitted a requisition for supplies; then as quartermaster, he refused to fill it. Regaining the hat of company commander, he again submitted the requisition, with additional information stating his reasons for the request. As quartermaster, he once more denied the petition. Finding himself now at a personal impasse, he referred the matter to the post commandant. The commandant’s response to Bragg was, “My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the army; and now you are quarreling with yourself!

Rumor had it in 1847, during the months of August and September, some of Bragg’s troops attempted to assassinate him. During the more serious of the two incidents, a 12-pound artillery shell exploded under his cot. Though the cot was destroyed, Bragg escaped without injury. Suspicious of the perpetrator’s identity, Bragg did not have enough evidence to press charges. An Army deserter by the name of Samuel R. Church later claimed responsibility.

In 1843, the 3rd Artillery was transferred to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina. Here Bragg met and became close friends with three future Union Army generals; John F. Reynolds, George H. Thomas and William T. Sherman. Reynolds and Thomas were both lieutenants at the time and reported to Bragg.

Though controversial in tone, Bragg continued his prolific writing with a series of nine articles which were published in the Southern Literary Messenger under the nom de plume “A. Subaltern”. In his writings, he attacked the policies of then General in Chief Winfield Scott, due to having the attitude Scott was a “vain, petty, conniving man.” He also aired his grief regarding many of the administrative policies, along with officers of the army, while including a number of thoughtful recommendations he felt the Army would be wise to utilize. (Though ignored at the time of Bragg’s writings, in the early 20th century, his ideas were revisited and a number of them were incorporated.)

Labeled as the most cantankerous man in the Army, Bragg stood alone among junior officers with respect to the number of high-ranking enemies he could now name. Court-martialed and convicted, censored by the Secretary of War, the Adjutant General and the Commander of the Eastern division; Bragg was hated by both the Commanding General of the United States Army and the Commander of the Third Artillery. It went without saying, Bragg’s future with his regiment, and the Army as a whole, was definitely uncertain.

Though the actual reason is unknown, many historians believe Bragg’s temperamental swings were a result of his poor health. The fierce migraine headaches, along with rheumatism and poor digestion which had plagued him for years served to intensify the irritation of his personality. Sporting a black beard streaked with gray and coupled with his sour disposition, Bragg displayed the appearance of an individual many years his senior. British war correspondent William Russell described Bragg as, “A tall, elderly man of spare and powerful frame. His face is dark and marked with deep lines, his mouth larger and squarely set in determined jaws and his eyes look out at you from beetle brows which run straight across and spring into a thick tuft of black hair.”

Enter in Representative James G. Clinton, a Democrat from New York and political opponent of Winfield Scott. Having read Bragg’s articles, Clinton called on him to testify before the House Committee on Public Expenditures in March 1844. In defiance of the congressional subpoena, Scott ordered Bragg not to testify, then had him arrested and sent to Fort Monroe, Virginia. There Bragg was court-martialed for disrespect towards superior officers and disobedience of orders. Acting as his own attorney, Bragg endeavored to turn the tide and make the trial a condemnation of Scott. Instead, he was found guilty, received an official reprimand from the Secretary of War and a two-month suspension at half pay. Some considered the punishment to be little more than a slap-on-the-wrist, due to the fact Bragg was not deterred from voicing future critical remarks about his superiors.

Bragg and his artillery company were placed under the command of General Zachary Taylor on March 1, 1845 during the Mexican-American War. Displaying bravery and distinguished conduct, Bragg received a brevet promotion to captain after the Battle of Fort Brown in May 1846, then to major after the Battle of Monterrey in September.

Bragg’s efforts regarding discipline and new light artillery tactics now made him widely admired professionally. Following the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, Bragg was promoted to lieutenant colonel and earned national fame. Instrumental regarding the timely placement of artillery into a line gap, Bragg staved off a more superior Mexican attack.

Bragg also threw his support behind Colonel Jefferson Davis and the 155th Infantry (also known as the Mississippi Rifles). In doing so, he earned the admiration of the man who would later become the U.S. Secretary of War, followed by President of the Confederacy.

Now a hero, a northwest outpost, Fort Bragg, California, was named for him and Braxton was awarded a ceremonial sword from the citizens of Warrenton. Of the honor, Congressman David Outlaw wrote: “Col. Bragg having, no thanks to them, won for himself a brilliant reputation, is now the object of the most fulsome adulation. Those who formerly sneered at the Braggs as plebeians, as unfit associates for them, they are glad to honor. With what scorn must Col. Bragg, in his secret heart regard them.

A celebratory tour of sorts was now held for Bragg. Traveling to New York, Washington, Mobile and New Orleans, Bragg was honored in each location. It was during this tour Bragg arrived in Thibodaux, Louisiana and visited Evergreen Plantation. Here he met a young sugar heiress, 23-year-old Eliza Brooks Ellis, known to her friends as Elise. On June 7, 1849, Elise and Braxton were married. The newlyweds then reported to Braxton’s new post, Jefferson Barracks in Missouri on September 10th.

A relatively comfortable assignment, the couple called Missouri home for four years. Bragg was then transferred to Fort Gibson in present-day Oklahoma. Here they remained for eight months, then moved to Fort Washita near the Texas border. The conditions at both forts, Gibson and Washita, were too primitive for a married couple. After six months, Bragg requested a leave.

The couple returned to Thibodaux and Bragg went to Washington to confer with Jefferson Davis, now Secretary of War, to reassign his artillery battery somewhere else. Davis declined this request. Bragg then resigned from the Army on December 31, 1855, with the resignation becoming effective on January 3, 1856.

Braxton and Elise now purchased a sugar plantation, 1,600 acres in size and located three miles north of Thibodaux. Employing his stern disciplinarian mannerisms and military efficiency in the way he ran the plantation, Bragg’s efforts became immediately profitable, despite the fact there was a relatively large mortgage on the property.

Bragg also became active in local politics. Opposed to the idea of secession, Bragg believed no majority could set aside a written constitution within a republic. In the coming days, however, his belief would be severely tested.

Prior to the Civil War, Bragg served as a colonel in the Louisiana Militia. Governor Thomas O. Moore appointed him to the state military board on December 12, 1860. This board was charged with the responsibility of creating a 5,000-man army. Though he opposed secession, Bragg accepted the assignment.

On January 11, 1861, Bragg and a group of 500 volunteers traveled to Baton Rouge in an effort to convince the federal arsenal commander to surrender. At the same time, a state convention on secession was called and established a state army. Governor Moore appointed Bragg to the rank of major general on February 20, 1861 and commander of the New Orleans forces.

On March 7th, Bragg’s rank was raised to that of Brigadier General of the Confederate States Army. His command now extended over forces in Alabama and western Florida. Bragg was promoted to major general on September 12th and was in command of some of the most highly disciplined troops in the Confederate Army.

Now President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis approached Bragg to take command of the Trans-Mississippi Department. Bragg declined Davis’s request because he was concerned about the prospects of victory west of the Mississippi River; due in part to the fact the troops were ill-disciplined and poorly supplied. Following Bragg’s decline, Edmund Kirby Smith received the command.

Bragg later approached Davis with the suggestion he change his strategy. Rather than attempting to defend every square mile of Confederate territory, Bragg felt forces should be moved away from the Gulf Coast and relocated further north; concentrating a large number of them in preparation for an attack by the Union Army in Tennessee. In February 1862, Bragg transported approximately 10,000 men to Corinth, Mississippi, charged with the need to improve the poor discipline already displayed by the Confederate troops under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston.

During the Battle of Shiloh, Bragg’s troops conducted an initial surprise advance under orders to attack in a line formation approximately three miles in length. Before long, Bragg’s unit found themselves near the center of the battlefield in a location known as the Hornet’s Nest. The conflict lasted for hours and utilized a piecemeal frontal assault. General Johnston was killed during the battle and General P.G.T. (Pierre) Beauregard now took over and appointed Bragg as second in command.

Beauregard’s cancellation of a late afternoon assault against the Union's final position frustrated Bragg because he felt the strongly defended position was their last opportunity for victory. On the second day of battle, the counterattack by the Union army forced the Confederates to retreat back to Corinth.

On April 12, 1862, following the Battle of Shiloh, Bragg was the recipient of public praise and a promotion in rank to full general by Jefferson Davis. The sixth man to achieve that rank, Bragg would be numbered among only seven full generals during the history of the Confederacy. His promotion was backdated to April 6th, in line with the first day of Shiloh.

Following the Siege of Corinth, General Beauregard took sick leave and Bragg was left in temporary command of the army in Tupelo, Mississippi. Prior to leaving, however, Beauregard failed to notify President Davis of his actions; thus the general was classified as AWOL for two weeks. Due to Beauregard’s perceived poor performance at Corinth, President Davis wanted to replace him. The general’s AWOL status provided Davis the reason he needed to carry out his plan. On June 17, 1862, Davis appointed Bragg as Beauregard’s successor to be commander of the Western Department, which included the Army of Mississippi.

Chattanooga was the site for the meeting of General Bragg and General Smith on July 31, 1862. A plan devised by the two generals involved moving troops into Kentucky through Eastern Tennessee in an effort to rid the Cumberland Gap of Union defenders. Smith sought to arouse Confederate supporters in the border state, then draw Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Union forces beyond the Ohio River. Bragg was looking at other options, one of which involved retaking Corinth. He also considered advancing on Buell’s army, though doing so through Middle Tennessee.

Despite the fact Bragg was the ranking general in the theater, President Davis named Kirby Smith’s Department of East Tennessee to be an independent command, which would report directly to Richmond. Davis’s decision would now cause difficulty for Bragg during the campaign.

Bragg and Smith both set out with the attitude Buell’s army could be destroyed. Once that was accomplished, they would move their troops further north, expecting to receive the appreciation of the local populace. Then following a grand battle in Kentucky against any remaining Union forces, a Confederate frontier would be established on the Ohio River.

Things changed on August 9th. Rather than comply with the original plan, Smith now informed Bragg he would not follow through with the agreement. Instead, he would bypass the Cumberland Gap and move north. This would leave only a small holding force available to neutralize the Union garrison. Due to President Davis’s decision, Bragg was unable to command Smith to remain with the original plan. Consequently, Bragg now centered his focus on Lexington instead of Nashville. He did, however, caution Smith of the fact Buell would now be capable of defeating Smith’s smaller army prior to the time Bragg’s forces would be able to join them.

Starting out on August 27th, Bragg’s troops left for Chattanooga shortly before Smith’s reached Lexington. Smith soon captured Lexington and Richmond, which gave him control of the center of the state. He now threatened to move on Cincinnati.

Bragg met with Smith in Frankfort on October 4th to attend the inauguration of Confederate Governor Richard Hawes. During the ceremony, cannon fire from General Buell’s Union troops was heard. As a result, organizers canceled the inaugural ball scheduled for later that evening.

On October 8, Union and Confederate troops met unexpectedly as General Bragg’s troops searched for a source of water in the area. Bragg sent orders to Major General Leonidas Polk to attack what he envisioned to be an isolated portion of Buell's command; however, General Polk was not motivated to begin the fight until Bragg arrived in person. When Polk did attack the Union’s left flank, those troops were forced to fall back. At day’s end, Major General Alexander M. McCook’s forces were driven back about a mile. Bragg quickly learned this was merely a limited tactical victory against a minor portion of Buell's army and a large number of reinforcements were on the way.

General Smith now pleaded with Bragg to take advantage of the success they had achieved: "For God's sake, General, let us fight Buell here." Though Bragg replied, "I will do it, sir," he quickly demonstrated a vacillation which had now become simply perplexing to Generals Smith, Hardee, and Polk. He now ordered his army to return to Knoxville through the Cumberland Gap, referring to his actions as a “withdrawal” rather than a “retreat”.

Though his actions angered his critics, Bragg had multiple reasons for the withdrawal. He was in receipt of disheartening news from northern Mississippi which informed him of the defeat of Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price at Corinth, along with Robert E. Lee’s failure in his Maryland Campaign. Aware of the fact his army had little to gain from an isolated victory, Bragg’s major concern was that a defeat could cost them not only the bountiful food and supplies they had collected, but also his army. Writing a note to his wife, Bragg told her, "With the whole southwest thus in the enemy's possession, my crime would have been unpardonable had I kept my noble little army to be ice-bound in the northern clime, without tents or shoes, and obliged to forage daily for bread, etc."

President Davis now received numerous complaints from various senior generals regarding Bragg’s behavior. General Cheatham vowed he would no longer serve under Bragg, while Polk and Hardee requested to have Johnston replace Bragg. Add to this the fact Breckenridge was on the verge of challenging Bragg to a duel and things were not looking too good for the general. President Davis now ordered Bragg to report to Richmond and explain his actions. In the end, Davis left Bragg in command despite the fact Bragg's relationship with his subordinates was now severely damaged.

Still the man in charge, Bragg began to strike back. First, he court-martialed McCown for disobeying orders. Then he went after Cheatham for being drunk and disorderly during the battle. This was followed with blaming Breckenridge for inept leadership.

As this self-destructive donnybrook continued to escalate, it possessed the power to severely damage the entire Confederate Army if it was not stopped. Sensing the possibility of this dangerous outcome, Bragg confided to a friend it might “be better for the President to send someone to relieve me.” Bragg put that same remark in a letter he wrote to Davis.

In receipt of Bragg’s letter, along with those from several of his generals, President Davis sent General Joseph E. Johnston to investigate. At the time Johnston left, Davis’s mindset was that Johnston would find the situation requiring him to take command since he was Bragg’s superior. Instead, when he arrived, Johnston discovered the Army of Tennessee to be in good condition; so much so he informed Bragg that his troops were “the best organized, armed, equipped and disciplined army in the Confederacy.

When Johnston’s discovery caused him to refuse to take command, Davis ordered Johnston to send Bragg to Richmond; however, Johnston delayed Bragg’s departure because Elise Bragg was very ill. By the time her health improved, lingering medical problems which continued to plague Johnston due to a wound he received at the Battle of Seven Pines now made it impossible for him to assume command.

In February 1864, following further humiliation in other battles, Bragg was transferred to Richmond to replace Robert E. Lee as acting military adviser to President Jefferson Davis. Unfortunately, Bragg did not possess the same level of capability previously demonstrated by Lee. This resulted in another assignment for Bragg, that of overseeing defenses in various Confederate cities. Among those to which he was assigned were Augusta, Savannah, Charleston and Wilmington.

Regardless of the effort Bragg put forth as a commander, he continued to come up lacking in the skill level. When Fort Fisher was lost, the blame was laid squarely in the lap of General Bragg, attributed to ineffective command and confusion. By the end of the war, the size of Bragg’s command had been reduced to that of a division. The final conflict Bragg led was in the Battle of Bentonville as they faced troops under the command of General Sherman. The battle ended with the Confederates retreating to Georgia. This occurred at the same time Lee surrendered and the Civil War was approaching its conclusion.

Following the war, Bragg lost his Louisiana plantation and became a civil engineer. He designed a drainage and levee system for the state of Louisiana, then became Alabama’s chief engineer, charged with improving Mobile’s harbor. Upon completion, Bragg became an inspector for the railroads of Texas.

On September 27, 1876, Bragg was crossing a street with a friend in Galveston when he suddenly collapsed and died. He was 59 years old at the time and laid to rest in Mobile Alabama.

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Many historians consider Braxton Bragg to be one of the most controversial of the Confederate commanders and through the years have sought to denigrate the general. They base their claims on a variety of self-serving accusations from several of Bragg’s irritated subordinates without challenging these remarks; each of which was uttered by an individual who endeavored to blame his own failures on Bragg.

Though he displayed excellent skills in the organizing and training of soldiers, he proved slow in capitalizing on the enemy's setbacks. Bragg also had difficulty in dealing with his subordinates. Only his relationship with Jefferson Davis kept Bragg in command. In the end, Bragg became one of the most hated men of the Civil War.

Despite the fact Bragg’s military record was uneven during his years of service, in 1918 the Army named their largest installation for a "brave, resourceful, hard-bitten fighting man...a soldier's soldier...a fighting man who saw action in three wars and won distinction in each of them.” (Army War College). The boundaries of Fort Bragg stretch across Cumberland, Hoke, Harnett and Moore Counties in North Carolina.

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