Journal of a graduate student in military history and the American Civil War

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On Braxton Bragg – 1

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W. J. Wood called Braxton Bragg the “most complicated of all the Confederacy’s generals.”(1) A graduate of the academy, where he excelled, he displayed skills as an administrator and adept trainer of troops. He had seen action in the Mexican War and was heralded as a war hero for his actions commanding artillery during the Battle of Buena Vista. Bragg was a stern disciplinarian, which Wood attributes to his experiences in Mexico where volunteer units ran when under fire from the enemy. He could be brusque even to the point of being rude.(2) He also shared his opinions freely, often too freely.

Library of Congress: Battle of Buena Vista, fought Feb. 23rd, 1847. Lithograph by N. Currier, 1847. Reproduction number: LC-USZC4-2957

(1) W. J. Wood, Civil War Generalship: The Art of Command [book on-line] (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1997, accessed 29 November 2009), 118; available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=30549970; Internet.


Book Review: Jefferson Davis and His Generals – The Failure of Confederate Command in the West

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STEVEN E. WOODWORTH. Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. 1990. Pp. xv, 380. $16.95.


Much has been written about the political and military genius of Abraham Lincoln and the successful leader he grew to be while Commander in Chief of a fractured union.  But as the country divided and civil war became a reality, a new leader was called upon to assume the role of Commander in Chief for the Confederacy, the seasoned Jefferson Davis.  At the precipice of war, betting men looking at the comparative qualifications of the two presidents could easily have predicted that Davis would outshine Lincoln. What kind of leader did Davis prove to be and how did he recruit and manage those men who would become members of his high command? What kind of generals were they and how did their personalities and actions impact the outcome of the war?

Steven E. Woodworth’s monograph answers those questions and others through examination of Jefferson Davis’ handling of the generals who defended the newly formed Confederacy in the Western theater of the American Civil War. Against a chronology of key events, each commander is introduced with information essential to understanding the skills they brought to war. Woodworth gives us their respective birthplaces, education, military and political experience, and reasons for consideration as senior leaders. Their performances in command roles are examined along with their interactions with Davis. There is brilliance to be sure from both Davis and some of his generals. But there is also incompetence, jealousy, loss of nerve, and even a propensity toward sabotage of brother commanders. Varying degrees of analysis are given to among others: Leonidas Polk, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Albert Sidney Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, Early Van Dorn, John C. Breckenridge, Edmund K. Smith, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Patrick R. Cleburne, Sterling Price, William J. Hardee, John C. Pemberton, Joseph E. Johnston, Benjamin F. Cheatham, James A. Seddon, Daniel H. Hill, James Longstreet, Gideon J. Pillow, David Twiggs, and John Bell Hood. Woodworth pulls no punches.

Woodworth concludes that Davis was highly trained, skilled from a breadth of experience in the militarily and in politics, and eminently qualified to assume the role of Commander in Chief of the Confederacy. He was also flawed. His imperfections are revealed as the war in the West is traced from beginning to end. Davis is shown to be incapable of judging objectively the performances of personal friends. He both trusts and delegates too much to his leaders. This trait worked to the detriment of some of the most exceptional men like Albert Sidney Johnston, who accomplished miracles in the defense of western borders despite unanswered requests to fill and equip his ranks. It also left incompetents like Leonidas Polk in power, impairing more talented men like Braxton Bragg. Davis becomes consumed by the war emotionally and physically. In the end, failure in the West is seen to have contributed significantly to the failure of the Confederacy. Woodworth posits that the faults of Davis himself, stemming from a deep-seated insecurity, are contributory to this failure.
Woodworth brings to the work the credentials of a seasoned historian. He holds history degrees from Southern Illinois University (B.A. 1982) and Rice University, where he received a Ph.D. in 1987. At the time of the book’s publication, he taught history at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia. He now teaches U.S. history, Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Old South at Texas Christian University. He also teaches military history at the American Military University. He is a prolific and award winning author.
Woodworth provides an insightful contribution to our understanding of the Civil War by revealing the best and the worst of the Confederacy’s senior military leadership in the West.
Particularly helpful to an understanding of the challenges faced by Davis’ high command is Woodworth’s campaign analysis. Also exemplary is the concise summary he provides of key points at the end of each chapter. This important study in leadership fills a gap and stands equal to and complementary of the T. Harry William classic,  Lincoln and His Generals. It is both highly readable and academically rich.


Book Review: Lincoln and His Generals

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Lincoln and His Generals1T. HARRY WILLIAMS. Lincoln and His Generals.  New York: Random House, 1952. Pp. viii, 363, $2.40.

T. Harry Williams

T. Harry Williams

Over half a century ago, T. Harry Williams wrote an exceptional work with as major theme that the performance of President Abraham Lincoln as commander in chief during the American Civil War positioning him as the true director of the war efforts of Northern armies and the progenitor of the country’s first modern command system. He shows Lincoln to be an able student of military strategy who ramped up quickly, grasped the end game and generally how to reach it, but struggled to find the right executioner of those plans. That he was even more skilled as a politician meant that he functioned superbly as leader in both political and military spheres throughout the conflict.

This is a work about the challenges of leadership set against what Williams calls the first of the “modern total wars.” (3) Williams chronicles the war from Lincoln’s perspective presenting the strengths and, more notably, the many foibles of the men who served the North in senior military positions. Their relative caliber appears to have been directly correlated to the attention Lincoln had to give them. More attention from and scrutiny by Lincoln was thus not a mark of achievement. Williams’ work reflects that relative attention. For example, he begins his discussion of McClellan in Chapter 2 and does not finish with him until Chapter 8 at which point Lincoln finally dismisses McClellan in disgust. (179) Williams takes his readers through the agonizing months Lincoln spent attempting to manage McClellan and his paranoia regarding enemy troop strength and inability to execute when it would put his men in harm’s way or there was the potential to fail. Grant, by contrast to McClellan, received some but not extensive coverage by Williams reflecting Lincoln’s own confidence that Grant could carry forward Lincoln’s strategic aims effectively. Williams concludes that in the waning months of 1864, Lincoln had sufficient trust in Grant to intervene little in the war’s management. That is not to say that Lincoln shrugged off any responsibility in setting strategic direction or in monitoring closely “and sometimes anxiously” the conduct of the war. (336) He was quick to reset direction when required.
Williams’ organization of the book is driven largely by the order of his encounters with senior military leaders. He begins with the infamous but corpulent and declining General Winfield Scott. We are given images of Lincoln chatting by the fire in Scott’s drawing room about daily reports and strategic options. Lincoln begins to reveal his own nascent military strategies and to measure those proposed by the militarist Scott against civilian and political realities. Lincoln also demonstrates an important resolve to make and stand by decisions even if they go against those of senior military advisors. Williams provides illustration of this by pointing to Lincoln’s grasping of the strategic golden nugget within Scott’s Anaconda Plan of control of the Mississippi but Lincoln’s rejection of its execution because it risked a drawn out and uncertain resolution.

Regular army man Irvin McDowell is then tagged by Lincoln to take command of the swelling number of troops in and around Washington, a number that by the summer of 1861 exceeded 30,000 men. Lincoln pushes McDowell, of course, into an offensive movement at Manassas to disastrous results. While the mark against McDowell’s mediocre reputation is severe, Williams allows us to see that Lincoln is willing to bear some of the blame.

The scene is thus set for the summoning of McClellan to Washington. This begins Lincoln’s relationship with “the problem child of the Civil War.” (25) Williams chronicles the early months of McClellan’s experiences in the East, his messianic complex, disrespect for Lincoln and others with whom he had to deal, and the efforts that Lincoln had to make to manage a man who held such promise but failed to deliver. It is clear that Lincoln, to this credit, attempted many different techniques in his efforts to supervise McClellan.

John C. Fremont, McClellan’s peer in the Western Department and a political appointment made by Lincoln himself, proves disastrous in his mismanagement of Missouri and a bitter disappointment. Williams captures well the odd quirks of both Fremont and the Blair family, his patrons, and the lengths to which Lincoln had to go to remove him.

Halleck is portrayed as only marginally effective and jealous enough of Grant’s successes in the field to take credit for them. (61) His self-directed shift to subordinate role as coordinator and communicator between Lincoln and his staff is fascinating.

Other commanders are mentioned primarily for their lack-luster performances including Rosecrans, Buell, Thomas, Banks, and Butler to name a few. Williams’ provides an excellent summary of each man including physical characteristics, approach to command, reputation, and personality traits. He often reveals the quirks or failings that made them less than acceptable as senior command candidates. For example, he describes Benjamin F. Butler as “ingenious, resourceful, and colorful, but …no field general.” (188) Williams’ description of Rosecrans reveals a well researched sum of the man from his “intensified Roman nose” to his “good strategic sense and aggressive instincts.” (186-187) But he is thorough enough to point to Rosecrans weaknesses including a lack of “balance and poise that a great commander should have” which revealed a man unable to “control himself and the situation.” (187)

Clearly apparent in this history is that Lincoln, while climbing a steep learning curve, became an astute war strategist. In fact, Williams contends that the notion of “total war” as a means of destroying the Confederate Army was identified earliest and most enthusiastically as a strategic plank by Lincoln who “saw the big picture” better than most of his commanders and staff. (7) He further asserts that no one in the military leadership of either side had the experience to wage war at the scale that would be America’s Civil War. Both sides shared an equal innocence of the knowledge war making. (4) That said, Lincoln’s performance when viewed against that of Davis is all the more impressive.

Williams points out that Lincoln exhibited many good qualities as a leader. By example, he was not quick to claim credit for the successes of Sherman, even though he would have been justified to do so given the strategic direction he provided. Rather, Lincoln showered praise on men whose efforts were successful. He seemed to simply want vigilance and self-reliance from his commanders, both qualities he saw in Grant. (315)

Williams’ use of primary sources is impressive and adds credibility to his conclusions. Many citations were from actual correspondence or official records of exchanges between Lincoln and his team or Halleck and the field commanders. This depth of research adds much to the work.

At the time of publication, this book was the only one to fully examine Lincoln’s performance as commander in chief and stood as such for many years. Interestingly, in 2009, historian James McPherson visited the same topic and drew much from Williams’ foundation in his work, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. While good, I find it no better and in many ways a rehashing of  Williams’ work, one that continues to stand on strong scholarship and goes far toward explaining Lincoln’s brilliance as both politician and military strategist.