Symposium Spotlight: From Stones River to Chattanooga—Braxton Bragg and the Struggle for Tennessee in 1863

Welcome back to our spotlight series, highlighting speakers and topics for our upcoming symposium. Over the coming weeks, we will continue to feature previews of our speaker’s presentations for the 2023 Emerging Civil War Symposium. This week we feature Cecily Nelson Zander’s topic.

There a few Civil War figures more certain to elicit guffaws of laughter or cries of derision than Braxton Bragg. The frequently maligned general of the Confederate Army of Tennessee posted an abysmal record as a Civil War commander, counting only one victory – Chickamauga – to his name at war’s end. A cantankerous and difficult individual, Bragg feuded with his subordinate officers almost as often as he did with Union armies – and many have historians have seen his failures as integral to Confederate defeat.

1863 was a decisive year in Braxton Bragg’s Civil War career, though he played no part in the calendar’s two most significant campaigns. 1863 was the year that Bragg and his army lost Tennessee, as they retreated from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga in the face of a coordinated Union advance though one of the most strategically significant regions in the Confederacy. With the help of James Longstreet’s corps on loan from the Army of Northern Virginia, Bragg did briefly stifle Union troops in the battle of Chickamauga – though there is no monument to his achievements on that battlefield, or any other.

Bragg’s shortcomings insured that 1863 would be a year of decision for Confederate president Jefferson Davis – as the embattled executive sought a general for the Army of Tennessee who could match the sterling record of victories compiled by the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Amid his despair Davis remarked to his brother that great generals only come around once in every generation. The problem was, he lamented, the Confederacy needed a half a dozen.

Throughout 1863, Davis debated and decided not to remove Bragg from command, while Bragg’s subordinates teetered on the edge of mutiny. Davis’s decision to back Bragg has since been questioned by generations of historians, who wonder whether Davis’s stubbornness and loyalty to Bragg led the Confederate president to compromise his cause. Other scholars ask, with good reason, whether there was any Confederate officer capable of meeting the challenge Bragg faced.

When most of us think of 1863, our minds turn to Vicksburg or Gettysburg – the decisive campaigns of the summer of the war’s mid-point. Decisions made in Tennessee, however, were equally instrumental in shaping the conflict’s outcome. Perhaps none moreso than the puzzle of what to do with Braxton Bragg. The failure to solve that puzzle (or the lack of any effective solution) played a determinative role in Confederate defeat – and could be viewed as one of the war’s least-understood turning points.

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