Examining Braxton Bragg

Confederate General Braxton Bragg would never make the list of top military commanders to fight for the Southern Confederacy. He argued with everyone, including–if you believe a pre-war account–even his own persona. He distrusted his subordinate commanders and on multiple occasions tried to have a few of them removed or court-martialed. He even had contempt for the volunteer soldier that comprised the rank-and-file. One tale tells of a soldier being ushered in to see Bragg during the Tullahoma Campaign in 1863. The soldier remarked that the Union Army (under General William Rosecrans) was retreating. Bragg became agitated and ask the non-trained West Point soldier how he knew what a retreat looked like. The soldier replied that he had been with Bragg and the army the whole campaign and had experience on knowing what a retreat looked like!

Studying a portrait of Bragg, he seems to hide behind bushy eyebrows and a perpetual scow. This post intends to dig deeper to study the mental make-up of this irascible Southern chieftain. A few historians have taken a peek, without the appropriate amount of caution. Analyzing someone’s mental make-up a century later can stray easily from factual to opinion. But, by studying the tendencies, mood swings, and behavior of Bragg historians have been able to identify some of the mental disorders he may have suffered from and use that as the reasons behind his conduct in the war.

Braxton Bragg
(at the beginning of the Civil War)

Historian Steven Woodworth summarized Bragg as a “complicated personality.” Describing him as “highly self-disciplined” and someone who “valued self-discipline in others,” and “when a person fell short in that trait, as was often the case, Bragg could be a very strict disciplinarian.” He was also a blunt speaker and would let you know if he disagreed with you.

Yet, he was also a very good drill master of troops, and when his reinforcements arrived in Corinth in the spring of 1862, they were the best-drilled in the newly constituted Confederate army. He watched over these men he had led from the southeast states with a paternal hand—visiting them in the hospital when they were sick, joking with the troops in camp, albeit awkwardly, and tending to their welfare as best he could.

Bragg also had a tendency to push himself to the brink of his health—which upped his irascibility. But, he had progressed to at least attempt to accommodate others in command. This would prove disastrous in late 1862 during the Kentucky Campaign as he continued to second-guess himself, change his campaign plans, and give befuddling orders to his subordinates. By 1863 he was done trying to ccomodate others within his command, which caused decisions like detaching General James Longstreet’s corps from his under-manned army at Chatanooga in the autumn of 1863.

The characteristics, according to historian Kenneth Noe, suggest the following hypothesis. The “manic-depression, sometimes called bi-polar affective disorder” is evident in Bragg’s personality. The “negative and well-chronicled manifestations of Bragg’s health and personality…digestive problems, hypochondria, irritability, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior” are all symptoms of bi-polar affective disorder. Furthermore, Bragg was coupled with “delusions of grandeur” and “violent mood springs between mania…overactivity, exultation, overconfidence…and paranoia.” And when does manic-depression become full-blown? After age 40; Bragg was 44 when the war started in 1861.

General Braxton Bragg
(later in the war)

Noe also introduces another possible mental illness that Bragg may have suffered from. This disorder, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), can be traced to who grew up “in households where parents place great demands on children to live up to their grand, predetermined expectations.” Bragg’s father, who himself was always bothered by not being accepted into the aristocratic upper-plantation elite in North Carolina, decided young Braxton’s career for him. In addition, the younger Bragg was “denied the chance to be himself, shamed or humiliated” for any expressions that ran counter to his parents’ ambitions for him.

When a person suffering from NPD veers from periods of high activity and achievement that provides a “false-self” to the world, he secretly doubts himself, afraid that “others will find out his perceived secret failings.” Other traits show periods characterized by competence, being a perfectionist mixed with lack of concern for others, deep depression, anxiety, inertia, and isolation. Lastly, people with NPD desire power and greatness and are have an inability to “accept their real selves…dependent on others’ perceptions for validation and self-worth.”

Noe, writing about the mental make-up of a subject that has been deceased for over a century, did make this disclaimer: “it is impossible to determine which disorder, if any, truly affected Braxton Bragg.” But, “one at least can say..that he exhibited the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.” The characteristics of these disorders reared themselves throughout Bragg’s military career. Unfortunately for the Confederates, Bragg was in a position of great military power as a department commander and an army leader.

Looking back a century and a half to understand the mental make-up of soldiers in the Civil War can lead to better perceptions about why these men did what they did– from commanders like Bragg to the common soldier. Yet there are a few cautions. First, historians can never be completely sure that the particular soldier acted a certain way because of certain factors. Secondly, the level of mental examination of soldiers was, compared to today, poor (to put it nicely). Thus, all historians can do—unless there is a specific reference, which is scarce in itself—is to look at behaviors and primary sources about the case study, and come to educated conclusions.

This is the case with Braxton Bragg. He displayed the characteristics mentioned above by two prominent historians of the Civil War. Were these causes to blame? Or was Bragg just promoted beyond his capability? Or was he incompetent? Understanding the symptoms of these mental disorders sheds light of what was possibly going on with Braxton Bragg during the four years of war.

Noe, Kenneth, W. Perryville, This Grand Havoc of Battle (Lexington, KY; University of Kentucky Press), 2001.
Woodworth, Steven E. Jefferson Davis and His Generals, The Failure of Confederate Command in the West (Lawrence, KS; University of Kansas Press), 1990.

6 Responses to Examining Braxton Bragg

  1. It would appear as if the cause of the Confederacy itself was based in large part on an aggressive insecurity that felt weak but demanded to be seen by others as strong and competent, and that tolerated no dissent or limits on its own behavior, and so it should be no great surprise if many of the generals of the Confederacy were themselves plagued with the same problems on an individual scale that plagued their culture on a larger scale.

  2. I have read Kenneth Noe’s book and found his theory well-thought-out, but don’t believe that Bragg had narcissistic personality disorder. My reason is that someone in my family definitely has this condition, so not only do I know it well, but believe that it likely manifests more acutely in personal, especially familial, rather than professional relationships. Yet General Bragg had a very close, loving, tender, giving relationship with his wife Elise from the early days of their marriage until the end of his life, and even afterwards. (Although she could not afford it, she regularly ordered fresh flowers for his grave until her death decades later.)

    I just finished “Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby” by James Ramage, and something he said about Mosby struck me as true of Bragg as well. Mosby was bullied as a youth, but enjoyed full, warm relationships within his family. The author saw this as having led to a kind of dichotomy in his adult personality, in which he shared his kind, tender side only with the few whom he was close to, while displaying a tough-fighter persona to the cruel, hard outside world. Like Mosby, Bragg was definitely ostracized growing up in Warrenton, NC. While I don’t believe that Braxton Bragg’s early family life was as idyllic as Mosby’s, he seemed to exempt family members from judgments applied to others. (For example, he believed politicians to be “a pack of fools” yet maintained a close bond and shared extensively with, and gave political advice to, his brother, a politician.) As an adult, Bragg also had the soft-on-the-inside-hard-and-crusty-on-the-outside syndrome. In addition to the sweet, caring connection with his wife, others wrote of occasions when the caring side came forth. For example, Dr./Chaplain Todd Quintard related that he felt led by God’s Spirit to share the gospel with General Bragg. He dreaded approaching Bragg because he anticipated repudiation and scorn, but finally got up his courage and went in to see Bragg who in his usual manner growled, “Yes? What do you want?” When Dr. Quintard began to speak to Bragg about his soul and God’s grace, to his amazement Bragg teared up, came around his desk and knelt down, took Quintard’s hands into his own, and said, “I have been waiting for years for someone to come to me about this.” He requested religious instruction which Chaplain Quintard provided regularly over a number of weeks, culminating in Bragg’s baptism.

    We know that Braxton Bragg was extremely intelligent. He was also forthright. Many times people with superior mental ability have difficulty reading social signals and following through on social rituals. Often they are even naive about others’ machinations. They are also perfectionists and push themselves harder than anyone. Bragg was definitely not incompetent (although his complete inaction at Wilmington/Fort Fisher is truly baffling). He clearly suffered from anxiety and many of his multiple physical problems were likely psychosomatic. I think it is possible that he could have had some degree of bi-polar disorder, but not necessarily. Again, this condition usually throws close relationships into turmoil, but he probably had one of the most blissful marriages of the Civil War. I agree with Woodworth that his was a complicated personality, even a problematic personality. I also believe that Woodworth is correct that many historians have mischaracterized Bragg, and others have fallen onto that bandwagon without really bothering to try to understand him. Commendations to you for attempting to do so here!

    1. Thank you for that kind and refreshing look at my Great-great Grandfather. We do come from tough people that are not perfect. We do seem to be workaholics and a lot of us have done and are doing time in the military. We are also perfectionists .To this day I can say in my lifetime, maybe only one person could maybe qualify as Bi-polar so I’m not so sure of that line of thought. I do know he didn’t want to fight. He just wanted to be a farmer.

  3. Phil, having to deal with subordinates like William Hardee and Leonidas Polk would drive anyone into a state of mental instability. I doubt that a single order issued by Bragg or initiative he implemented met their approval and hearty cooperation. I suspect that one could easily cherry pick evidence and come to similiar conclusions about the mental state of that pair, particularly Polk.

  4. He was my ggggggrandfather and I don’t believe he was mentally ill. He wanted to be a farmer ?????????. He did don’t want to fight. So chances were he was just extremely grumpy. Also many in my family are perfectionist. We do have a lot of military people in my family that does seem to be a family trait. And remember it’s not like today’s army where the drill instructor sits there and hold your hand and cuddles you through the experience back then you had to be tough and you had to be mean.

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