Local News

November 17, 2013

Civil War anniversary: Confederate generals and the blame game

It was no surprise that the Union’s defeat at Chickamauga on Sept. 19-20, 1863, and the ensuing besiegement of its army in Chattanooga prompted Northern military authorities to pin responsibility and take corrective action. Hence they replaced Gen. William Rosecrans with Gen. George Thomas on Oct. 19 and incorporated his reinforced army into a larger command under Gen. Ulysses Grant.      

Ironically, far more complex and acrimonious finger-pointing and command-shuffling occurred on the winning side. Discord among its leadership did much to set the stage for the Confederate army’s defeat in the fighting around Chattanooga in late November and its strategic loss of southeastern Tennessee. At the center of this debacle in the Southern high command, both as subject and as object, was the apparent victor of Chickamauga, Gen. Braxton Bragg.  

Bragg was a hero of the Mexican War who had gained respect for his ability to train troops, using strict discipline and rigid adherence to regulations. Well before joining the Confederacy in 1861 Bragg had also become notable for his sour disposition and uninhibited challenges to superiors. Nevertheless, he won praise for his conduct at the battle of Shiloh in April 1862, and in June he was appointed by President Jefferson Davis to succeed P.G.T. Beauregard as commander in the Confederate Western Department.

Bragg’s career as a high-level commander soon developed a recurring pattern that frustrated and angered many of those who served under him. During a poorly organized invasion of Kentucky, he won a tactical victory in October 1862 over part of the Union army at the battle of Perryville. But he failed to follow up his success, showing “a perplexity and vacillation,” according to one observer, which was “simply appalling” to his subordinates, Gens. Edward Kirby Smith, William Hardee and Leonidas Polk. Their demands for his replacement led to his being called to Richmond to explain himself, only to be retained at his post by Davis. Similar discontent, with a similar outcome, followed the Southern defeat at the battle of Stones River, outside Murfreesboro, in the first days of 1863. When fighting resumed the following June, Rosecrans forced Bragg from his base at Tullahoma, and in early September he drove him out of Chattanooga.

Bragg successfully counterattacked at the battle of Chickamauga, using reinforcements brought from Virginia by Gen. James Longstreet and others from Tennessee and Mississippi. Almost immediately afterward, however, his failure to prevent the Union army’s escape into Chattanooga led to renewed attacks from the generals under him, whom Bragg was already blaming for the incompleteness of the Confederate victory. On Sept. 29 he suspended Gens. Thomas Hindman and Leonidas Polk from their commands for refusing to attack in a timely way as ordered during the battle. He also alienated Gen. Nathan B. Forrest by clumsily transferring Forrest’s cavalry to Gen. Joseph Wheeler, whom Forrest despised. Forrest rushed to confront Bragg in person, telling 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 ... 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.”

Less than a week later, Davis received a petition signed by 12 of Bragg’s generals — including Longstreet and corps commanders D. H. Hill and Simon Bolivar Buckner — again requesting his replacement. “Whatever may have been accomplished heretofore,” they wrote, “it is certain that the fruits of the victory of the Chickamauga have now escaped our grasp.”  The president was asked “to assign to the command of this army an officer who will inspire the army and the country with undivided confidence.” In private correspondence, Longstreet bluntly told the Secretary of War that “nothing but the hand of God can save us or help us as long as we have our present commander.”

Receiving the petition on Oct. 5, Davis left for Bragg’s headquarters the next day. Like Longstreet a few weeks earlier, he was forced by Union positions in eastern Tennessee to take a circuitous route from Richmond to Atlanta and then northward through Marietta and Dalton to Chickamauga Station. On Oct. 9 he met Bragg on Missionary Ridge. After a lengthy recitation of his officers’ alleged shortcomings, Bragg made an offer to resign his command, which the president refused. Over the next several days Davis interviewed Bragg’s generals individually, finding little ground for harmony. Buckner told him that Bragg was “wanting in imagination” and when forced to a hard decision would “lean upon the advice of a drummer boy.” Longstreet recommended that the army be turned over to Gen. Joseph Johnston — whom Davis disliked intensely — and was met, he later said, with a “severe rebuke.”

Fortified by Davis’ support, Bragg began a series of organizational retaliations. Hill was relieved of his corps and given no new command, while Buckner saw his corps dispersed and himself demoted to division commander. Longstreet was sent with 15,000 men — a quarter of Bragg’s strength — to try to recapture Knoxville, a move authorized by Davis who cooperated with Bragg in other reassignments and dispositions intended to reduce the friction among the army’s leaders.

None of this worked. Frustration seeped to the lowest levels, with a young Tennessee lieutenant writing, “Everyone here curses Bragg.” The general’s reconfigurations broke apart longstanding units and threw men together with unknown and untested comrades. Davis remained with the army until Oct. 17, reviewing, inspecting and conferring, but while he was cheered by the troops he also heard their cries of “Send us something to eat, Massa Jeff! Give us something to eat!” To this evidence of the army’s deprivation was added a different agony of his own: he saw no alternative to leaving Bragg in charge. Any possible replacements were either unwilling, such as Longstreet and Hardee, or were to his mind unacceptable, such as Polk, Buckner and Johnston.  

Davis’ intervention thus worsened the already bitter relations between the Army of Tennessee’s commander and his subordinates. It also wasted some of the South’s scarce military resources and most talented officers while seriously demoralizing the army’s rank and file. More by default than by merit, Bragg remained in place another six weeks, during which he lost all hope of retaking Chattanooga and his force was driven deep into Georgia. At its winter quarters in Dalton, Bragg finally resigned his command on Nov. 28, though with characteristic swipes at several of his subordinates. Pressured by the Confederate Cabinet but still with grave misgivings, Davis appointed Johnston as his successor.

This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton Civil War 150th Commission. To find out more about the commission, go to www.dalton150th.com. If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article, contact Robert Jenkins at (706) 259-4626 or robert.jenkins@robertdjenkins.com.


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