Buckner Assesses Bragg and Longstreet
In 1909 Simon Bolivar Buckner gave an interview later published in Confederate Veteran. His opinions of General Braxton Bragg and Lieutenant General James Longstreet, both of whom he served with closely, are worth noting.
“General Bragg had some merit, a good deal of merit, but was ill balanced. When President Jefferson Davis visited Chattanooga, I was riding with him up Lookout Mountain, when he asked me: ‘What do you think of Bragg?’ I said: ‘Mr. President, I will tell you frankly, General Bragg as a military man, as a commander, is wanting in imagination. He cannot foresee what probably may occur. When he has formed his own opinions of what he proposes to do, no advice of all his officer put together can shake him; but when he meets the unexpected, it overwhelms him because he has not been able to foresee, and then he will lean upon the advice of a drummer boy.'”
“Longstreet was a gallant fighter. He reminds me of Marshal Ney in his character. It was said of Ney that out of sight of the enemy he had not the remotest idea of strategic movements; but when he heard the sound of artillery, he woke up, and on the field of action he was superior to almost any one in tactical movements, but knew nothing about strategic movement before he came in contact. Longstreet reminds me of Ney in that respect.”
These informed opinions are worthy of consideration. In my study of General Bragg’s campaigns in Kentucky and Tennessee, I have come to the same conclusion as Buckner about Bragg’s erratic nature and inability to think ahead.
Anyone interested in reading the rest of the interview, it is in Confederate Veteran Volume XVII.
9 Responses to Buckner Assesses Bragg and Longstreet
I always find things like this interesting, but I put almost no stock in them. This is especially true where the speaker or writer has a vested interest in how something is perceived for posterity’s sae.
Imagine something you were involved in, say, ten years earlier. Can you repeat your conversation with real authority? No. Buckner’s was 55+ years later.
Everything about memory changed with my practice of law and discovery that eyewitness testimony is the least reliable of all.
The other turning point was when I heard a Stanford neuro doc talking about memory, and how every time we conjure up memory X, and then move on to something else, we are overwriting the old X file in our brain, like a hard drive, so that after a while, the memory is absolutely true because it is ours, but it is not always accurate and becomes less so the more we think about it and the more time passes because every time we re-save it, we are adding or changing or modifying something.
Reminds me of a very vivid “event” in high school with me and four buddies and Brian’s yellow goose-down coat. I told the hilarious story to others often over two decades. I could see it all–the car, the chase, the coat, who was with me–everything, like yesterday, and the main facts–I would have bet all the money in the world they were true.
At my 30th HS reunion, we were all together and someone brought up “the event.” Of my four friends who I thought were present–two were not. I could not believe it, but they assured me they were not there, but two others insisted they WERE there. My friend Brian’s bright yellow goose-down coat wasn’t his at all, but it was Mike’s. The car I thought we drove wasn’t even the right make. And I wasn’t even drinking. 🙂
So while these recollections are interesting, and can be insightful and instructive, as a rule, unless they have some contemporaneous diary or other hard proof and are going off that, I just shrug it off and don’t count it for much.
For more on this, I urge everyone to read “The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.” It will blow your mind. http://theinvisiblegorilla.com/
It’s funny you mention that. Because of that concern, the draft presentation of the quote was as follows. I changed it to be less editorial in my selection and more fully express what was presented in the magazine:
“General Bragg had some merit, a good deal of merit, but was ill balanced . . . General Bragg as a military man, as a commander, is wanting in imagination. He cannot foresee what probably may occur. When he has formed his own opinions of what he proposes to do, no advice of all his officer put together can shake him; but when he meets the unexpected, it overwhelms him because he has not been able to foresee, and then he will lean upon the advice of a drummer boy.”
After spending a fair amount of time studying Bragg and Longstreet and arm-chair generalling their careers, I have to say I agree with Buckner’s assessments. There’s plenty of evidence available in their records to back Buckner up.
I don’t disagree with that, Chris. He had a lot of firsthand experience and years to think about it. But reconstructing conversations? Nope. 🙂
I agree about the recollection of conversations, though I suspect that Buckner’s general appraisal of each man was an opinion formed with much reflection.
What is more interesting to me, however, is the date of the interview. Buckner was a relatively obscure figure during the war and in the immediate aftermath. Basically, another failed divisional commander in the Army of Tennessee. His stretches of departmental or quasi-departmental command were few, and mostly in backwaters; his stints at corps command were very limited and largely unsuccessful.
But by the 1890s, as more and more senior officers were dying off, Buckner’s star was rising. He was a Grand old Man of the Confederacy, a popular Governor of Kentucky, and even, in 1896, the Gold Democrat party candidate for Vice President.
Suddenly his opinions mattered more. I find his opinion of Bragg to be tainted by his feuding with that general while he was in command of the Department of East Tennessee, and fighting for command independence; unsuccessfully, as it turned out. So while he is correct that Bragg had a certain tactical inflexibility, I don’t think he is wrong, but the whole “advice of a drummer boy” comment is off the mark. Early in the war, especially in Kentucky, Bragg relied on the advice of his senior officers – who counseled retreat. Then, when they decried his decision to retreat in the press and popular opinion, he quite rightly learned not to trust them.
Thanks for the grist for the Civil War Mill on two of the most controversial Confederate generals Braxton Bragg and James Longstreet.
When I think of Bragg I can’t stop what Peter Cozzens response about what if Stonewall Jackson had replaced Robert E. Lee and he said “Two works: Braxton Bragg.” Neither Bragg nor Jackson were very good at working with their subordinates.
As for Longstreet being like Marshal Ney best on the Battlefield. Ed Bearss declared that four of most devastating attacks of the Civil War were lead by Longstreet: Second Bull Run, Gettysburg’s Second Day, Chickamauga and in the Wilderness. Longstreet’s strategic record is very mediocre especially at Knoxville.
Bragg was the commander of The Army of Tennessee at Chicamauga. Long street’s Corp was on loan for the battle and was light due to traveling by express trains. Try again. Bragg tried to do a siege with 2 armies 10 days from Chattanooga. Bragg was the 2nd best general the Yankees had. Furthermore, Lee ignored Longstreet and Pickett’s charge was on Lee.
Chris – overall, I agree with Buckner’s evaluation of both. Although it is valid in questioning whether he actually made the “drummer boy” comment to Jefferson Davis, I believe Bragg provided ample proof regarding the rest of the evaluation regarding Bragg’s leadership capabilities.
Similarly, Longstreet’s value was in tactically leading men in combat but he was sorely lacking in his strategic capability. Buckner’s use of the Ney comparison is spot on.