Question of the Week #4

“Who was a larger failure as a battlefield commander, George McClellan or Braxton Bragg?”

Braxton Bragg

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14 Responses to Question of the Week #4

  1. mende says:

    George McClellan, the greater the man the greater the failure

  2. Perhaps you should list the generals’ greatest failures and the consequences in order to get an accurate judgment.

  3. Amanda Warren says:

    What a rich question, and I especially like mende’s point. But in my opinion, General Bragg is the greater failure of the two. Interestingly, McClellan and Bragg, both extremely intelligent men, displayed similar talents for organization and soldier training. But they operated under extremely different circumstances. McClellan had almost unlimited manpower and material resources at his disposal, whereas Bragg was faced with building an army from the ground up out of nothing. Yet the latter enjoyed full support of Jefferson Davis, whereas General McClellan’s military and philosophical approach to the war ran counter to the Lincoln administration. (One might argue that Lincoln was right and McClellan wrong, but I have read experts who convincingly showed that McClellan’s peninsular approach to Richmond made much more sense militarily than the overland route insisted upon by Lincoln.) McClellan shone as a natural leader who took care of the soldiers and cultivated the loyalty of subordinates, whereas Bragg alienated many, from immediate subordinates to deprived privates. Bragg struggled with multiple, significant health problems while, as far as I know, McClellan did not. Both were seemingly stymied by something intangible and internal. Ironically, it was perhaps McClellan’s fear of failure that led to his failure. While his results rarely seemed to match his perceived ability, at least he never presided over such a complete disaster as did Bragg on more than one occasion. Just taking into account Bragg’s maddening inaction at Fort Fisher, this one failure exceeds anything McClellan ever did or didn’t do. And then there was Missionary Ridge…. While I believe that Bragg has been misunderstood and unfairly lambasted by historians, his faults undeniably contributed to the failures that occurred under his leadership. As to McClellan, he simply did not see it as a total war in the way that Grant and Sherman did, and the approach he took was at least consistent with his viewpoint, whereas General Bragg seemed to fight primarily against himself.

  4. joe truglio says:

    George B. McClellan. Interesting points made here but still go with Mac. He worked very hard to believe in his sobriquet,’Young Napoleon’ and fought often with superiors to have his way regardless. I must admit that either choice has merit but still believe Mac’s failures prolonged the War, especially Antietam. Peninsula was a close second.
    As an aside, Styple’s new book McClellans Other War sheds light into this dilemna.

    • mende says:

      I agree with joe truglio.Being a good and popular organiser is no excuse for the Dead at Antietam,just because he was much to slow to act after finding RE Lee’s Order and unable to use all the units the President and Congress had entrusted him with

  5. Good points, all. However, If the operative word is “battlefield commander,” that’s a more narrowly defined question than one of overall command abilities (i.e., logistical, strategical, personal)—though, of course, these other factors aren’t completely exclusive; they do feed into each other.

    Looking purely at the battlefield, one could say that Bragg was the larger failure of the two. He had two tactical victories that accomplished little (Perryville and Chickamauga), one costly battle that can be viewed variously as a stalemate or a narrow defeat (Stones River) and one clear, overwhelming loss (Missionary Ridge). If one were to grade these numerically (a doubtful proposition at best), Bragg would have gained 2 and lost at least 1 (possibly 2) ending up with a score of 1 or 0.

    McClellan does a bit better; he has five major victories/costly stalemates to his credit—Rich Mountain, Williamsburg, Seven Pines, most of the Seven Days’ Battles, and Antietam. Again, if one were to assign these battles numerical values, McClellan might have at least a 3, if not a 5.
    The trouble with this kind of comparison, though, is that Bragg was at least present and in (some degree of) control of what his army did, whereas McClellan was absent in most cases. So how much credit should McClellan get for his wins?

    To be sure, this is an interesting question, but I’m not at all certain whether there can ever be a clear answer to it.

  6. Robert Gode says:

    I feel it must be McClellan… short answer – a general’s main purpose is to fight and at least Bragg did that (not very well but he did it). McClellan acted most of the time like he didn’t really want to get his hands dirty (ie fight a battle). For that he is the much bigger failure.

  7. Zac Cowsert says:

    I’ve got to say McClellan. Bragg was aggressive and had to deal with THE most insubordinate commanders any leader had to deal with on either side of the war. Granted, he wasn’t likable, but regardless, the fact that he managed to scrape out victories in a theater with marginal support and a fractious corps command is commendable. Plus, McClellan generally folded when it mattered. Lost the Seven Days’ and essentially had Lee trapped on the ropes and failed to deliver the knockout blow at Antietam.

  8. Amanda Warren says:

    Here’s the tally so far: McClellan gets 4 votes as the greater failure, and Bragg gets 1 for-sure vote, and I think 2 if we go by guitarmandanga’s numerical score.

    I am touched that Bragg has done so well here so far. Judging from the usual treatment of him, I really thought that he would be unanimously stomped on! Even though I voted for him as the greater failure, I have a soft spot for Braxton Bragg, perhaps partly because my great-great-grandfather was his surgeon, but mainly because I think he has been grossly misunderstood and mischaracterized. (Please see my way-too-long post in the “Examining Braxton Bragg.”)

    • mende says:

      I understand your “soft spot” for Bragg.He was no “public relation expert” (he seems to have had poor relationships with his subordinates) and he had to deal with a major piece of work (having Polk as a wing commander is like having to fight an extra Union Corps).He had real qualities as an officer.I may be wrong, but the man who appointed him is equally to be blamed for his failure.Among the “duties of leadership and command” is the ability to choose the right person and the right means to perform any task.The Confederate President was a West Pointer,he had experience in combat duty.Bragg might have been much more successful in supervising the training of new recruits.I can’t understand why Jefferson Davis had a soft spot for some questionable officers to the detriment of men like Joe Johnston,Beauregard and a few others.

      • mende says:

        I may add a quotation from a 17th-century play (I can’t remember which one,sorry)_”Quand le bras a failli, on en punit la tĂȘte”_When the arm fails, the head is to be blamed.

      • Amanda Warren says:

        I agree with you completely!!

  9. Lee White says:

    I am also impressed that we have kept things civil to Bragg. Im a ranger at Chickamauga and Chattanooga NMP and try to treat him fairly. An area that Ive been working on is debunking the notion that he was hated by everyone, I have found many accounts of soldiers and subordinates that liked him.

    • Amanda Warren says:

      I long to visit the Chickamauga battlefield! Hope to do so soon. I will come armed with “The Maps of Chickamauga” which I found indispensable to follow the battle. I really like Peter Cozzens’s “This Terrible Sound.” Are there other books on that battle that you can recommend? I am particularly interested in it because my great-great-grandfather, Bragg’s surgeon mentioned above, amputated General Hood’s leg when he was wounded there. I would be fascinated if the location of the hospital where that occurred is known, or if there is any other information regarding Dr. T. G. Richardson in the battlefield archives. After the war in New Orleans, he continued as Hood’s personal physician, and Hood named one of his (many) daughters after Dr. Richardson’s wife.

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