Distinction between history and historiography

Braxton Bragg

A Man Keen to Blame Others

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A truism about generals is that their greatest skills lie in fighting and perhaps even winning the last war. With the acuity of hindsight, generals (along with politicians, war widows, and corporals), can see what mistakes were made and sometimes even why and can try to ensure that the same mistakes are not made for the same reasons again. But this is true only if the generals are skilled, although skill is to some extent mitigated by external factors.

This is far more important than, for example, having access to overwhelming force, for overwhelming force deployed without sense just increases the potential for a very high body count.

Braxton Bragg, a general in the Confederate Army, seemed to have learned little from previous wars. Or perhaps he simply learned the wrong things. At any rate, his actions during the War Between the States and afterward made him far more a villain than many others who acted no worse than he did. There was a reason for that: This involves not so much the facts themselves (although these are not entirely incidental) but rather the way in which historians have chosen to portray Bragg.

The previous phrase is not meant to suggest that historians such as McPherson have behaved unethically or capriciously in their descriptions of Bragg as a man out of his depth. But rather that history can be told through a range of different lenses. The role of the historian is to choose a lens. The role of the historiographer is to compare the different lenses that different historians have chosen and to caution that no single historical narrative arc is ever sufficient.

Historian James McPherson called Braxton a “bumbler,” a title he bestowed because of the stolidness of Braxton’s tactics, tactics so bereft of imagination that his men were bound to be slaughtered. Again and again, Bragg depended on a full frontal assaults — in Breckinridge’s attack on Stones River and at Shiloh — despite the fact that this type of assault had been proven ineffective (to say the least) throughout the Civil War. The Civil War was arguably the first modern war in terms of the type of weapons that were used and the ways in which they were used as well as the ways in which civilian infrastructure was recruited to the military effort.

Even Bragg’s staunchest supporters admonished him for his quick temper, general irritability, and tendency to wound innocent men with barbs thrown during his frequent fits of anger. His reluctance to praise or flatter was exceeded, we are told, only by the tenacity with which, once formed, he clung to an adverse impression of a subordinate. For such officers — and they were many in the Army of the Mississippi — Bragg’s removal or their transfer were the only alternatives to an unbearable existence. (Cozzens, 1990, p. 4)

Other historians have been kinder in recent years, pointing out that Bragg’s failures as an army commander — hardly stellar — were undercut by incompetent underlings as well as simple bad luck. Which of these versions is more correct — McPherson’s condemnation of Bragg as a man with no overt virtues or strengths or other historians’ more nuanced and gentler views — is not the most helpful question to engage in when considering the different paths that historians have taken. Rather, it is important to understand that each historian has a specific goal in limning the details of a time and place and the people who had their turn on that particular historical stage.

While I argued above that leadership skills are to some extent independent of resources, it is important to stress that “to some extent.” Bragg was often the victim of bad luck, and this cannot be dismissed. With the hindsight of historians, which scholars like to believe is better than that of generals, it seems clear that the South could never have won the war, even if the Confederacy had had the best luck possible. The 19th century saw the triumph of the industrial over the agricultural, and this would have doomed the Confederacy even if the 19th century had not also been — at least in the West — the century during which slavery would no longer be tolerated.

Bragg was fighting a war that could not be won. But he also lost battles that could have been won.

Who Gets to Write History?

Bragg’s performance at two key battles placed the permanent stain that exists today on his record. This is a key distinction between history and historiography: While historians (and history) tend even now to depict what they are doing as essentially fact based and objective, historiographers are always attentive to the ways in which history is shaped all along by what has and has been happening. Bragg’s reputation is based in part on his military tactics, in part on his personality (Hallock, 1991).

But his reputation is also based on the fact that he was on the losing side of a terrible war. Had the South won, or had Bragg been more of a gentleman (and had he thus conformed more closely to concepts held then and now of how a Confederate gentleman and officer should behave), the history written of him would be different. The history of a man (or woman) does not end with death. It ends when conflicting models of that person’s life have been resolved. Such a resolution has not yet occurred in the case of Bragg: There are still competing narratives.

There is McPherson’s narrative of a man who was both professionally incompetent and personally inept. Then there are the narratives of more recent historians who have argued that while generals may take the blame for the outcomes of battles and wars (and indeed there is significant justice in doing so), neither generals nor wars can be explained through such a narrow lens. It is hard not to see McPherson’s story of Bragg’s life as a nearly straight trajectory in which he moved from one act of bad judgement to the next as vindictive and as inattentive to the most enlightened military history. While the actions of individuals (whether generals, politicians, or orators) certainly affect the winds of history, history cannot be broken down to the actions of individuals.

Rows and Rows of Bodies

Certainly, it is tempting to blame Bragg when one examines the tactics that Bragg employed at the Battle of Perryville in October, 1862. The battle, although hardly conclusive, was marginally a win for Bragg’s troops. But Bragg felt (not without reason) that the position of his troops was fragile, withdrew through the Cumberland Gap (Cozzens, 1990, p. 119).

This demonstrated one of the tactics for which McPherson and other historians have been most inclined to blame Bragg, that he failed to cement battlefield victories by moving forward but rather fell back. In other words, Bragg pushed his troops forward when he would have been far better advised to avoid full frontal assaults and pulled his troops back after they had an advantage that they could reasonably have pressed against Union troops (Cozzens, 1992).

Bragg’s behavior at the battle of Stones River, which began on the last day of 1862, was key in labeling him at the time, and later by historians like McPherson as a man who arguably did more harm than good to the Confederate cause, a cause to which he was without a doubt authentically dedicated. After Stones River, several of Bragg’s subordinate officers lobbied General Joseph Johnston, the commanding officer of the western Confederate forces, to have him removed from office. Confederacy President Jefferson Davis, acting on Johnston’s advice, refused to remove Bragg.

Davis and Johnston seemed to have been out of step in their regard for Bragg compared to other officials of the Confederacy. General Nathan Bedford, outraged both by Bragg’s battlefield leadership and by his harsh treatment of his soldiers in camp, addressed the following speech to him:

“I have stood your meanness as long as I intend to. You have played the part of a damned scoundrel, and are a coward, and if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it. You may as well not issue any orders to me, for I will not obey them, and I will hold you personally responsible for any further indignities you endeavor to inflict upon me… And I say to you that if you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path it will be at the peril of your life.” (Braxton Bragg, http://civilwar.bluegrass.net/OfficersAndEnlistedMen/braxtonbragg.html)

Davis’s refusal to remove Bragg must put to question McPherson’s assessment of Bragg’s leadership skills should not be lightly put aside. Davis and Bragg were not friends. Indeed, the two of them had built up a personal level of enmity before the war had begun, and there had been no rapprochement in the interim.

Davis relied heavily upon Bragg’s understanding of military affairs and institutions. Although he did not always agree with Bragg, Davis consistently sought his expertise and opinion on a variety of matters. By untiringly assuming many of the duties and much of the criticism that had burdened and perplexed Davis, Bragg eased some of the president’s vexations. In the process he maintained old enmities and created many new ones. (Hallock, 1991, pp. 186-7).

That Davis felt that Bragg should continue in his command (at a time when Davis and the Confederacy were not yet desperate) despite is personal dislike of Bragg must lead one to the conclusion that Bragg was valuable in ways that McPherson does not see. Bragg seems to have been an excellent organizer, a man whose considerable skills to plan somehow failed to translate to military life. Bragg was perhaps more than anything else a man placed in a situation for which he did not have any semblance of the right skills. He caused the death of many who might otherwise have been able to go home to their farms and families at the end of the war.

It seems most appropriate that the last word should be given to one of this privates, Sam Watkins: “None of Bragg’s soldiers ever loved him. 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.” Watkins continued, referencing Bragg’s many executions of his own men, who would face the firing squad for any number of even minor infractions: “We… did not now so much love our country as we feared Bragg. Men were being led to the death stake every day” (Braxton Bragg, http://civilwar.bluegrass.net/OfficersAndEnlistedMen/braxtonbragg.html).


Braxton Bragg, http://civilwar.bluegrass.net/OfficersAndEnlistedMen/braxtonbragg.html.

Cozzens, P. (1990). No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Cozzens, P. (1992). This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hallock, J.L. (1991). Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat. (Vol. 2). Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

McPherson, J.M. (1988). Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press.

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