To a large extent, Gen. Braxton Bragg’s calamitous defeat at Missionary Ridge came about as a culmination of his inability to get along with his subordinate generals. Bragg had become so caught up with this internal clash that he appeared to lose track of what Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the Federals in Chattanooga could and would do. It was as though Bragg expected that the Federals would stay quiescent through the winter. Thus, the Federals’ November offensive came as a surprise.
This occurred despite the fact that Bragg had finally been able to rid himself of his bête noire, the Bishop General Leonidas K. Polk.
Their enmity went back to before the battle of Shiloh. Its origin began because Bragg saw Polk as a slovenly soldier. Bragg saw the troops under Polk as poorly trained and even more poorly disciplined. Prior to Shiloh and the Kentucky campaign, Bragg had tried to get Confederate President Jefferson Davis to let him get rid of Polk.
Polk was aware of Bragg’s attitude and resented it. Furthermore, Polk considered Bragg his social inferior. It rankled him that Bragg had command over him, since in terms of seniority, he outranked Bragg. Polk’s resentment didn’t manifest itself in open rebellion. It was more insidious than that. He tended to take Bragg’s orders as mere suggestions, and then the Bishop General did pretty much what he himself thought best.
Polk also undermined Bragg both with the troops and with his fellow officers. As an Episcopal Bishop, Polk was smooth, gracious and kindly. His kindness was part of the reason the troops under Polk were poorly disciplined, and it was also one of the reasons Polk tended to be popular with the troops. This contrasted sharply with Bragg, who was an abrupt and strict disciplinarian.
Bragg had a problem reading people and was also poor at reading their capabilities and reliabilities. On numerous occasions Bragg placed Polk in positions of high responsibility, such as during the Kentucky campaign and at Murfreesboro, and on neither occasion had Polk performed well. Yet on the second day at Chickamauga. Bragg entrusted Polk to deliver the decisive stroke for a “day-dawn” attack on the Federals’ north wing — an attack that didn’t materialize until around 10 a.m.
By the time of Missionary Ridge, Bragg had managed to rid himself of that pestilent priest, Polk.
Despite the absence of Polk, Bragg’s troubles with his subordinates was not over. On Missionary Ridge, high-ranking officers submitted a petition to Jefferson Davis requesting Bragg be relieved of command. Officers signing the petition included Gens. James Longstreet, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Daniel Harvey Hill, Patrick R. Cleburne and nine others.
This was the second time Bragg’s subordinates had given him a vote of “no confidence.” The previous occasion followed Murfreesboro, and that group included Gens. William J. Hardee, John C. Breckinridge and also Cleburne. Cleburne, the only officer with enough fortitude to twice ask Bragg to give up command.
Oddly, Polk was not present at either of those censures.
Breckinridge, despite his intense confrontations with Bragg after Murfsreesboro, did not sign the Missionary Ridge petition. In fact, by the time of the battle for Missionary Ridge, Bragg had surprisingly upgraded Breckinridge to corps commander.
The elevation of Breckinridge highlights Bragg’s difficulty reading people and being cognizant of who could provide him with good advice. After the Federals overran Lookout Mountain, Bragg held a council with Hardee and Breckinridge to decide whether or not to retreat.
Hardee advised retreat, but Breckinridge was adamant to hold this position. Bragg accepted Breckinridge’s advice, and the next day the Federals routed the Confederates off Missionary Ridge.
Later, after the abysmal failure in the Confederate center section (under Breckinridge’s corps command), Bragg asserted that Breckinridge had been drinking. This may or may not have been true, but if Bragg thought Breckinridge was drunk, why was he so willing to accept his advice?
Glenn Robins, the biographer of Leonidas Polk, wrote: “In the politics of command, Bragg’s inability to control his subordinates and his inability to fashion an effective command relationship were major factors in the defeat of the Confederates in the West.”
Dr. R. Smith Murray is a retired urologist and past president of the Chattanooga Area Historical Association. For more, visit www.chattahistoricalassn.org, www.chattahistoricalassoc.org or contact LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090.