Monday, August 29, 2011

Braxton Bragg still sucks

I just finished Failure in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joseph Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign, by David A. Powell.  Powell, a nationally-known expert on the Chickamauga Campaign, also wrote The Maps of Chickamauga.

To make a short story long, the Chickamauga Campaign of the Civil War involved the Union Army of the Cumberland under William Rosecrans maneuvering the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Braxton Bragg out of the critical transportation center of Chattanooga, without fighting a major battle and basically without firing a shot.  The loss of Chattanooga was a major defeat for the Confederacy, which most Confederate officers as well as most historians have blamed on the incompetence and temperament of Bragg. 

Rosecrans pursued the retreating Confederates into northern Georgia, but Bragg managed a counterattack near West Chickamauga Creek.  Because of a(n un)timely mistake in Union communications that opened a major gap in the Union line just as an attack column commanded by James Longstreet, recently arrived from the Army of Northern Virginia, launched an attack in that very spot, the Union suffered a major defeat.  The defeat, however, was a only tactical, not strategic, which most Confederate officers as well as most historians have blamed, again, on the incompetence and temperament of Bragg.

Confederate General Braxton Bragg.  Rumors that Tina Brown of Newsweek Photoshopped this picture to make Bragg look angry or psychotic remain unconfirmed.

Braxton Bragg's reputation in history is not good.  To say that he was hated by his army, from the enlisted troops to the senior officers, is an understatement.  His corps and divisional commanders repeatedly tried to get him removed from command.  They often ignored his orders, knowing that if they misinterpreted anything in his often poorly-written or poorly-thoughtout missives they would be scapegoated.  (I have a lot of sympathy for people who lack social skills, but blaming an innocent person for your own mistakes is inexcusable.)  His issues with his own troops may have been longstanding, but it took only a few days and one battle for Longstreet to become disgusted with Bragg.  Bragg did not have his troops' backs; rather, Bragg was at their backs.  A very unhealthy situation.

Bragg's Wikipedia entry sums it up pretty well:
James McPherson's reference to "the bumblers like Bragg and Pemberton and Hood who lost the West" sums up the judgment of many modern historians. Bragg's shortcomings as an army commander included his unimaginative tactics, mostly his reliance on frontal assault (such as the Hornet's Nest at Shiloh, Breckinridge's assault at Stones River, and numerous instances at Chickamauga), and his lack of post-battle followup that turned tactical victories or draws into strategic disappointments (Perryville and Chickamauga). His sour disposition, penchant to blame others for defeat, and poor interpersonal skills undoubtedly caused him to be criticized more directly than many of his unsuccessful contemporaries. Peter Cozzens wrote about his relationship with subordinates:

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.

— Peter Cozzens, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River
Some counterarguments have emerged in recent years. Judith Lee Hallock called the blaming of Bragg for Confederate defeats in the west the "Bragg syndrome." While most agree he was a poor army commander, historians such as Hallock and Steven Woodworth cite his skills as an organizer and that his defeat in several battles can also be partially blamed upon bad luck and incompetent subordinates, notably Polk. Of his troublesome subordinates, Hardee was considered to be a solid soldier even by Bragg. Polk, although personally brave and charismatic, was simply an average tactician known for piecemeal attacks and was seriously insubordinate. Unfortunately, he was a close friend of Davis, who was unwilling to relieve him. Bragg also never received the support Davis gave to Robert E. Lee and Sidney Johnston. That his abilities were only properly utilized in 1861 and 1864 also shows the inability of the Confederacy to make proper use of many of its generals.
In Failure in the Saddle, Powell attempts to add to that list of "incompetent subordinates" with Bragg's cavalry commanders, Joseph Wheeler, and, surprisingly, Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Powell's hypothesis is that, whatever Bragg's other shortcomings, he was badly hamstrung by the poor performance of Wheeler and Forrest.  That poor performance centers around the inability and/or refusal of the cavalry commanders to perform essential screening and reconnaissance duties.

In the case of Wheeler, Powell makes a very good case.  Powell had been ordered to picket the Tennesee River get early warning of Union attempts to cross it.  Wheeler assigned far too few troops to the task, and Rosecrans' crossing of the river was missed entirely, a failure that set the stage for the entire campaign.

Wheeler repeatedly did not deploy his troops in their proper reconnaisance and screening capacities, resulting in Bragg operating with at best incomplete information and sometimes no information at all.  Wheeler was also very lethargic in responding to Bragg's orders and acting on them, if at all.  In one instance, a badly-needed reinforcement of the Confederate right wing was delayed because Wheeler simply refused to reposition his troops.  It got so bad that Bragg had to spell out where he wanted the cavalry to patrol and under what circumstances, which Wheeler, as a trained, experiened cavalry commander, should have known.

In Failure in the Saddle, Wheeler comes off as lazy, and perhaps somewhat villainous.  In fairness to him, Wheeler's behavior as Powell describes it strikes my experienced but untrained eye as symptomatic of clinical depression, not uncommon in war.  Bragg kept Wheeler in his position not because of his competence, but because of his loyalty to Bragg, which, again, does not speak well of Bragg.

Powell's case against Forrest is not as strong as that against Wheeler, but cetainly merits examination.  Nathan Bedford Forrest was a millionaire businessman -- a slave trader -- not a trained cavalryman.  He raised his own cavalry troops, basically taught himself how to fight with cavalry, and fought largely hit-and-run actions.  He proved himself to be tough and brave, perhaps too much so.  He also proved himself to be very talented as a cavalry commander -- many consider Forrest to be the best cavalry commander of the war -- and equally temperamental, as the most talented people often are.

The Chickamauga Campaign was Forrest's first as a corps commander.  That is the basis for Powell's criticism of Forrest's performance, and it is sound.  Forrest also did not have his cavalry perform many of their normal screening and reconnaisance duties, but it was not becaue he was lazy or broken down, but because he did not know any better.  He was used to attacking, charging, engaging the enemy from the front.  He was not used to commanding from behind the front, gathering information to make sound tactical decisions.  Forrest would learn, in time, and it would burnish his reputation as a great cavalry commander, but not in time for Chickamauga.

Powell hits Forrest especially hard for his conduct after the Battle of Chickamauga, and this part I have a hard time swallowing.  Forrest made some probing attacks on the Federal defense on Missionary Ridge in which he was repulsed.  He also did some scouting personally.  He reported to Bragg that the Federals could be driven from Missionary Ridge and Chattanooga, but did not report that he had been repulsed in his probing attacks.  Powell cites this as a reason why Bragg did not attack when he should have.  He does not explain why at first, but later says Bragg was suspicious of Forrest's reconnaisance reports.  With good reason, as Powell explains it.  I'm not sure I agree.

Failure in the Saddle is an excellent if somewhat uneven read.  The book could perhaps have used some better editing.  For instance, in a few cases I would see a command specially identified (as you would when you identify it for the first time) in a paragraph, and then see it specially identified again in the next paragraph.  In another, West Chickamauga Creek is said to flow from north to south -- except it flows from south to north, as a later paragraph acknowledges, because it joins with the Tennessee River at the creek's northern terminus.   And Powell, an expert on the Chickamauga battlefield itself, definitely knows this.  It was just a bad edit.  There were a few other directional issues.  Additionally, there was inconsistent proper identification, as, for example, Lee and Gordon's Mill, one of the central locations of the campaign, is inconsistently identifed as singular and plural.

Powell also seems to assume the reader has knowledge of the Chickamauga battlefield itself.  There were too many times I came across a battlefield location such as "Jay's Mill" or "Glass Mill" with little in the way of a description of what or where it was, or the significance of the position.  If I had not already had knowledge of the Battle of Chickamauga (including a visit there when I was 11), I would have been lost. 

The maps are all taken from Powell's acclaimed The Maps of Chickamauga, but I still had issues with them.  For example, the Battle (or lack thereof) at McLemore's Cove is discussed as a major failure of the Confederate command, which is true -- except in none of the maps is McLemore's Cove identified.  Powell notes the location of the incident at the Davis Crossroads, and even shows a map of it -- but the map is tactical in nature.  Nowhere in the operational maps is the Davis Crossroads identified, so you can't tell precisely where it is in relation to the campaign.  There are a few locations with this problem.

From a content standpoint, I have very few major issues.  The most serious problem with the Battle of Chickamauga, as the Confederates fought it, was that their tactical plan called for the rebels to attack from their right wing, driving the Army of the Cumberland away from, and perhaps cutting them off from, their base at Chattanooga.  Instead, the Army of Tennessee attacked from its left, driving the Federals toward Chattanooga.  Powell does not make clear how the failures of Wheeler and Forrest contibuted to this, perhaps the biggest Confederate failure at Chickamauga.

Finally, there is Powell's treatment of Bragg.  Since the book is focusing on the failures of Wheeler and Forrest, it is somewhat understandable that he does not spend too much time on Bragg's own failures.  Indeed, Powell is far more critical of Bragg in The Maps of Chickamauga than he is in Failure in the Saddle.  Powell makes a very good case that the cavalry's inability or unwillingness to provide adequate and timely reconnaissance and screening contributed to Bragg's poor decisions.  And I agree with him.  But I do not believe it contributed as much as Powell seems to believe.  Whatever information Bragg had, it does not excuse the horrible atmosphere that he was responsible for creating within the Army of Tennessee, which was by far the bigger cause for its lousy peformance. 

Still, those are just minor, minor quibbles.  Failure in the Saddle is a great read overall.  I read it cover to cover in a few days.  Powell's narrative both engaging and fascinating.  A great "sniper book" as I termed it earlier. I would call it an essential addition to any serious Civil War library and a reason to re-examine the performances of both Joseph Wheeler and Nathan Bedford Forrest. 

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