Speaker Interview: Reassessing Braxton Bragg

Speaker Interview: Reassessing Braxton Bragg

Dr. Earl Hess is the Stewart W. McClelland Chair in History at Lincoln Memorial University, where he teaches courses on the American Civil War, American military history, and the life and times of Abraham Lincoln.  He is the author of more than 20 books, over 30 articles, and more than 100 book reviews for academic history journals.  His works include Pickett’s Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg (UNC Press, 2001, winner of the 2002 James I. Robertson Literary Prize for Confederate History and nominated for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize); Lee’s Tar Heels: The Pettigrew-Kirkland-MacRae Brigade (UNC Press, 2002, winner of the 2003 Douglas Southall Freeman History Award); Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 (UNC Press, 2005, a finalist for the 2006 Jefferson Davis Award from the Museum of the Confederacy); Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (UNC Press, 2007); The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (University Press of Kansas, 2008); In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat (UNC Press, 2009, winner of the 2010 Richard Barksdale Harwell Book Award); Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness (LSU Press, 2015, winner of the 2016 Tom Watson Brown Book Award from the Society of Civil War Historians and a finalist for the 2016 Lincoln Prize); and most recently, Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy (UNC Press, 2016).

CWI:  How did Braxton Bragg’s contemporaries view his prowess as a general? What impact did Bragg’s critics have on him, both personally and professionally?

HESS:  The opinion of Bragg’s contemporaries proved to be one of his major and unsolvable problems. Newspaper editors tended to be excessively critical; many of his subordinate generals were recalcitrant and had no faith in his leadership. But, ironically, most Federal generals admired Bragg’s generalship, a handful of newspaper editors supported him, and many of his own generals retained an admiration for and a faith in him. Unfortunately, Bragg’s enemies were very vocal and his friends tended to be pretty quiet.

Historians had always portrayed Bragg as the instigator or the target of criticism and abuse, but have not been fair in assessing how the negative opinions of others affected Bragg’s own mind and morale. The truth was that the lack of faith in his plans among key subordinates dealt a devastating blow to Bragg’s self-confidence and his ability to command the Army of Tennessee. Some of his best-laid plans were spoiled by lack of cooperation.

CWI:  How have Bragg’s contemporaries shaped his place in American memory?

HESS:  His vocal critics played a large role in shaping his place because historians have tended to pay a great deal of attention to them, taking their criticisms for granted without stepping back to look at him with balance.

CWI:  What does a reassessment of Braxton Bragg’s personal and professional life tell us about the General and his larger significance in the history and memory of both the Confederacy and the Civil War as a whole?

HESS:  Most importantly it tells us that Bragg was a human being with both strengths and weaknesses, not a cardboard figure. He had a loving wife who he was devoted to and he had talent as an administrator, vigor as a planner of strategic offensives, and was quite aggressive on the tactical level. By no means should we go too far in this and portray him as the Stonewall of the Western theatre, but every historical figure deserves a fair shake and Bragg has not yet gotten one.

Bragg was deeply concerned about his place in history and wanted to find someone to write it the way he thought it should be written. He failed to find that someone and refused to write his memoirs on the grounds that it would only drag up the old criticisms of him if his name was on the cover of the book. He also contemplated writing a history of the Army of Tennessee but never found the time to do so. In the end, he failed to contribute to shaping the history of the Confederacy even though he certainly was capable of doing so. Memory therefore tended to go against him.