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The Enigma of Braxton Bragg
By William Sariego
August 2015

Braxton Bragg (1817 to 1876) presents historians with an interesting riddle. Was he a failure as a general, or was he competent but just unlucky?

Certainly many historians come down own the negative side of the equation. One biographer, arguably his best, entitled his book Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat. All historians of a partisan nature, whatever the war, often look for a scapegoat. Braxton Bragg filled that role nicely for Southern writers in the years following the War Between the States.

Pensacola to Perryville

Bragg was quite successful in his career before 1861. A West Point graduate, he served in the Florida Indian Wars, and in the Mexican War he won distinction as an artilleryman at the battle of Buena Vista. After leaving the army he ran a successful sugar plantation in Louisiana.

When 11 slave-holding states attempted to form a new country, the Confederate States of America, Bragg volunteered. His first command was the coastal defenses along the Gulf of Mexico. He is often discredited in this due to the South’s failure to take Fort Pickens in Pensacola, but he did much to improve and strengthen the Confederate positions otherwise.

He was promoted to command the II Corps under Albert Sydney Johnston. In this capacity he took part in the bloody battle at Shiloh in April 1862. Often Bragg is criticized for his frontal assaults during the battle, which led to tremendous casualties among his command. In his defense, the war was still young, and effective offensive tactics were being learned by all. The densely-wooded terrain at Shiloh hardly benefited maneuver, regardless. Following the death of General Johnston and the resignation of P.G.T. Beauregard, Bragg was given command of the army.

He then embarked on his offensive campaign to wrest Kentucky from the Union. The Bluegrass State had divided loyalties. More of her sons would serve in the Federal army than in the Confederate when all was said and done, but in 1862 it was logical to try to bring her into the war fully on the side of the Confederacy. In 1861 her pro-Southern governor and a rump legislature had actually formed a pro-Confederate government, which was effectively nullified by Union victories at Forts Henry and Donelson just inside the Tennessee border, and at Mill Springs, Kentucky, near the Cumberland Gap in the opening months of 1862.

Bragg’s use of the shaky Confederate rail system in getting his troops poised for the invasion was masterful. The campaign succeeded in its early stages, with subordinate General Kirby Smith winning a battle at Richmond, Kentucky. Bragg’s troops fanned out to occupy key positions in the state and attempted to recruit, but he was largely disappointed at the results. Despite installing a new pro-Confederate governor, the strategic city of Louisville remained in Union hands and Northern forces began to encroach upon the Southern army.

An accidental battle at Perryville on a blisteringly hot day on October 8 saw a tactical victory for the South, but the strategic position of Bragg’s army was becoming untenable and he was forced to withdraw into Tennessee. Bragg later commented that although Kentuckians talked of the South sympathetically, “they loved their Bluegrass and fat cattle more.” In truth, Kentucky thought it could retain her slaves by remaining loyal to the Union.

Chickamauga and Chattanooga

On New Year’s Eve, Bragg fought General Rosecrans’ army at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The battle was a bloody draw, and sporadic fighting continued until January 2nd. Bragg then withdrew to Tullahoma and winter quarters. This move brought much public outcry and criticism from the Confederate government because it was generally conceded that Rosecrans’ force were in worse shape after the engagement.

The first months of 1863 was All Quiet on the Tennessee Front, as momentous events were happening in Mississippi and Pennsylvania. When the campaign finally began, Rosecrans engaged in a war of maneuver to force Bragg to fall back, and captured the important rail junction of Chattanooga and pressed into northern Georgia — where Bragg had been waiting to seize the opportunity for a counterattack.

The bloody two-day battle at Chickamauga proved a tactical but bloody Confederate victory. Again Bragg’s critics came out the woodwork over his poor pursuit and Rosecrans’ escape. In truth Bragg’s army was battered, and attempts at a more vigorous pursuit were stymied by the excellent defense put up by the Union rearguard, led by General Thomas.

Bragg pursued Rosecrans and occupied key positions and high ground, effectively besieging the Union forces in Chattanooga. Here Bragg made a critical error. Sensing both a chance to retake Chattanooga and Knoxville, Longstreet’s troops — who had arrived in time for Chickamauga due to another extraordinary feat of the Confederate rail system — were dispatched to the latter. Bragg and Longstreet held much animosity toward one another, and the parting of ways eased command friction. The Confederacy split its forces as Union troops began to arrive from Vicksburg and other fronts.

Bragg was badly beaten by the forces now under overall command of General U.S. Grant in a series of battles around Chattanooga in late November. He pulled back to northern Georgia and was relieved of command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

War's End

Bragg was, in effect, booted upstairs. He had a good relationship with Confederate President Jefferson Davis (one of the few Confederate generals to do so). He served as Davis’ chief military advisor and de facto chief of staff. In this capacity he did great service to help coordinate Confederate efforts as the war drew to a close.

Bragg fled south with the government when Richmond was abandoned. He had one more field command, effectively commanding a division under Joe Johnston in the counterattack at Bentonville, but was captured by Union troops in May.

After the war Bragg worked as a civil engineer and a railway executive. His military career is still the subject of debate and acrimony, but one fact about Bragg does stand out. In reading the memoirs and papers of the Union generals he faced in the field, it is readily apparent they respected his abilities as a commander. It is an odd twist of fate to be respected more by one’s foes than one’s friends.

This brief look at Bragg’s career gives us an excellent opportunity to add a variant to Dave Powell’s Chickamauga and Chattanooga.

Recovery

During a night turn, when an infantry unit is activated, it can attempt to recover stragglers and treat the more lightly wounded, returning them to combat.

To attempt Recovery, the unit must be In Command and may not move. Roll a die; on a roll of 6 the unit recovers one step. The roll is modified by +1 if a leader is in the area and –1 if the unit attempting Recovery is adjacent to an enemy unit.

Only infantry units can attempt Recovery, not cavalry or artillery. A unit can never regain its “A” step.

This rule applies in scenarios three and six of Chickamauga and Chattanooga.

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