I’ve been listening this week to the audiobook version of Greg Mertz’s Attack at Daylight and Whip Them: The Battle of Shiloh (one of my jobs, as series editor, is to listen to and approve all the books before they’re released). Historian Timothy B. Smith, in his foreword to the book, pointed out that because of Albert Sidney Johnston’s death during the battle “Confederate command in the West was left for the remainder of the war in a state of turmoil.” Greg’s book sets the table for that larger story by introducing a lot of the key Confederate players.
Of particular interest to me have been the army’s corps commanders.
John C. Breckinridge was a former vice president of the United States and presidential candidate. William Hardee literally wrote the book on infantry tactics, popularly known as Hardee’s Tactics. Leonidas Polk was the Episcopal bishop of Louisiana. Braxton Bragg was…well, Braxton Bragg.
I called my Polish brother, Chris Kolakowski, ECW’s chief historian, and laid this out to him. He’s used to random calls like this from me, when I barely have “hello” out of my mouth before I start bouncing ideas off him.
“Of course, all these guys have egos—that’s kind of the story of the command structure of the Army of Tennessee—but it seems like these guys in particular have rock star-sized egos,” I said of Breckinridge, Hardee, and Polk. They all had accomplishments not just of note but of real significance.
“Polk’s a special case,” Chris noted. “He’s always a special case.” While being bishop of the diocese of Louisiana might not sound to modern readers like a big deal, it’s worth noting that New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy. Polk’s position gave him a noteworthiness that he parlayed into actual celebrity. “He laid the cornerstone of the University of the South as recently as 1860,” Chris said. “His name was all over the South because of similar dedications he was involved with.”
And let’s consider, just for a moment, Albert Sidney Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard. Johnston had been the South’s most famous military figure at the start of the war, and subsequently Confederate President Jefferson Davis gave him the most difficult assignment: defense of the vast Confederate west between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River. Johnston certainly had his ups and downs—mostly downs—during his tenure, but despite his setbacks, Davis stuck by him unconditionally. “If [Johnston] is not a general,” Davis told detractors, “we had better give up the war, for we have no general.”
Think about that for a second: If Johnston isn’t a general, we don’t have one.
That’s a bold declaration of faith. Whether he would have ever lived up to that, we’ll never know, but that’s a post for a different day. I’m interested in Johnston’s position in that particular historical moment: Jefferson Davis saw Johnston as the premier general of the South.
Beauregard did not enjoy the same level of support from Davis. But as the Confederacy’s first national hero—first for his successful bombardment of Ft. Sumter in April of 1861, then his victory at First Manassas in July of that year—he enjoyed broad public adulation.
Now into this mix—two men of significant military stature above him and three “rock-star” peers—let’s consider Braxton Bragg.
“He had Buena Vista,” Chris Kolakowski said, referencing the battle from the Mexican-American War. “Of the heroes to come out of Zachary Taylors army, Bragg is one of the most prominent, maybe the most.” The Chris pauses. “But, that was 1847.”
“So, there’s a ‘what have you done for me lately’ factor at play,” I suggest. “He was a war hero—but a lot of guys we know of today were war heroes. And it was a while ago.”
I posit my theory about the extraordinary level of achievement enjoyed by Bragg’s peers. Chris adds more to the mix to think about. “Bragg’s older brother was the Confederate attorney general and later governor of North Carolina,” Chris said. “And there were rumors that Bragg was born while his mother was in jail.” Because of those rumors, people picked on Bragg as a child.
“So he always had an inferiority complex,” Chris said.
The other thing he had—again, dating back to his service at Buena Vista—was the support of Jefferson Davis. Bragg’s artillery fought in support of Davis’s infantry, a connection Davis forever after honored.
But Davis was friends with Polk, too. And Breckinridge would have so much influence he would eventually become the Confederate Secretary of War. So friendship alone wasn’t enough to save Bragg, even if it did sustain him far longer than it should have.
Bragg performed reasonably well at Shiloh (but not without fault). Importantly, it perhaps looked like the old hero of the Mexican-American War might be prepared to replicate his heroics.
With Johnston dead and Beauregard in command but in questionable health, Bragg also had seniority, which made him the ersatz “first among peers” despite the rock-star reputations of the other corps commanders. When Beauregard took a convenient absence without leave in June 1862, citing health problems, Bragg ascended to command over corps commanders who all felt themselves to be his better.
Bragg’s promotion might just as well have come with a sign that said, “Kick me.” The angling that went on behind the scenes between him, Davis, and Beauregard cast a shadow of controversy over Bragg’s ascension from day one, and it foreshadowed things to come. Jealousies, petitions, investigations, cabals, and reassignments—controversies, controversies, controversies—would embroil the Army of Tennessee’s leadership for the next twenty-one months. His harsh disciplinarianism would likewise make him deeply unpopular with his men and, through their letters and through press reports, on the homefront. The grief wouldn’t end until Davis finally promoted Bragg to a desk job in Richmond in February 1864.
In his 2016 biography of Bragg, Earl Hess credibly called him “The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy.” (I highly recommend Hess’s book, by the way.) I think of that title now in the context of my Shiloh musings. If we consider the most notable achievements of the four Confederate corps commanders—vice president, tactical authority, Episcopal bishop, “most hated”—Bragg achieved a superlative every bit as memorable as his peers, although his ultimate claim was to infamy, not fame.