Braxton Bragg: The Key Figure in the Kentucky Campaign


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

In July 1862, in the wake of the Seven Days Battles and the fall of Corinth, Mississippi, the Confederates were still wary of the Union military presence in Virginia, and Union forces also seemed poised to strike against Chattanooga, Tennessee. At this juncture, in August and September 1862, the Confederates decided to mount twin offensives in the Western Theater and the Eastern Theater. Let’s take a look at who the Confederates put in charge of the offensive in the Western Theater.

A chaotic battlefield scene, with soldiers filling up and firing canons on the left side of the frame, and the cavalry on   the right
Braxton Bragg, a hero of the Mexican War, came back into Confederate service when the civil war started and fought at the Battle of Shiloh in April of 1962, before he was promoted to full general, eventually becoming the commander of the Army of Mississippi. (Image: Adam Cuerden/Library of Congress/Public domain)

Braxton Bragg Replaces P. G. T. Beauregard

After P. G. T. Beauregard had evacuated Corinth, Mississippi, at the end of May 1862, and Henry W. Halleck had followed him in with his huge army of 100,000 men—after those events had transpired—Jefferson Davis replaced Beauregard with Braxton Bragg.

Beauregard, in effect, went on sick leave without telling anybody what he was going to do. He alienated Jefferson Davis tremendously by doing that. He would remain in Davis’s doghouse for the rest of the war.

His replacement was Braxton Bragg, a man who would be a staunch ally of Jefferson Davis through the war. He was a man Davis trusted and liked, a man who was always loyal to Davis, and that was very important to Jefferson Davis.

Bragg is going to loom very large in the military story of the war in the Western Theater for a good long while. We’re going to see a great deal of Braxton Bragg. He is an excellent example of how someone who’s not successful can nonetheless be a very important figure in a conflict.

He’s going to be one of the most important military figures in the Civil War even though he’s going to have virtually no success as a military commander on the Confederate side.

Learn more about the war in the west, winter 1862-63.

Who Was Braxton Bragg?

Braxton Bragg was a North Carolinian. He’d graduated from West Point. He’d served conspicuously in the Mexican War. He was a hero in the Mexican War, in fact. He’d been an artillerist there, and he was one of the bright young officers in the war, in the view of the American people after that conflict.

He had done very well. He’d resigned from the army in the mid-1850s and had become a sugar planter in Tennessee. He had become quite a prominent sugar planter, in fact.

Portrait of Braxton Bragg with Bragg looking to the left of the camera, he has a thick beard and moustache, and both his   hair and beard are salt and pepper, and he is wearing the Confederate uniform.
Braxton Bragg was capable of prodigious amounts of work, but he also suffered from a range of ailments, including migraine headaches, chronic nervousness, rheumatism, and stomach problems, which could have been due to an ulcer. (Image: Unknown author, restoration by Adam Cuerden / Library of Congress / Public domain)

When war came, he came back into Confederate service. He was made a brigadier general, and then he was advanced through the ranks until he became a full general, a four-star general. He’s just after that first group of full Confederate generals that we talked about earlier: Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee, Beauregard, and Joseph Johnston. Those are the first four; Braxton Bragg is next.

He fought at Shiloh in April of 1962, and he was promoted to full general shortly after that, and now he is commander of the Army of Mississippi, as it’s called. It would later be the Army of Tennessee, and it, together with the Army of Northern Virginia, are the two principal field commands in Confederate military service.

But here he is in command of the Army of Mississippi. Bragg in many ways was an able man. He had a high intellect. He was a very stern taskmaster. He wanted troops to toe the line. He really did have a West Pointer’s view of how soldiers should behave.

He was capable of prodigious amounts of work. He also suffered from a range of ailments. He had migraine headaches, he seemed to be nervous all the time, he suffered from rheumatism, and he had problems with his stomach. It may have been an ulcer—we don’t know.

He seemed to be in pain a good deal of the time, and that may have colored his personality. He had a very prickly personality. He was quick to snap at people, quick to take offense, and very argumentative.

Braxton Bragg loved to argue. He was a hairsplitter. There’s a wonderful story from the old army that U.S. Grant related in his memoirs and others related as well. It may be apocryphal, but it gets at the essence of Braxton Bragg, at one part of his personality.

As the story goes, Bragg was out at a small post commanding a company in the west, and, because there was a shortage of officers there, he was also acting as temporary post quartermaster in commissary.

Well, as company commander he made a request of the quartermaster for something. In other words, he wrote it out, and, as quartermaster, he denied it. As company commander he gave a fuller explanation of why he needed it, gave it to the quartermaster, and, as quartermaster, he denied it again and passed it on up to the post commander. The post commander looked at it, really couldn’t believe it, and said, “My God, Mr. Bragg. You’ve quarreled with every other officer in the army and now you’re quarreling with yourself.

Now, this may not have ever happened, but a number of soldiers related the anecdote, and it makes the point that Bragg was an argumentative fellow. He was not popular among his troops. Never during the war was he popular among his troops.

He was seen as a martinet. He could be aggressive on the battlefield, but he’s an officer whose aggression on the battlefield never seemed to yield substantial results. So that is Braxton Bragg, a person we’ll see a good deal of as we go through the course.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Halleck’s Move Against Chattanooga Fails

Before Henry Halleck journeyed east to take up his duties as General-in-Chief, he had planned a movement against Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then against the railroad that ran from there to Atlanta. Don Carlos Buell was to carry out this move, but in a scenario that would be replayed many times in the Western Theater, Confederate cavalry and guerrillas so disrupted Buell’s supply lines that this campaign never really came to anything.

The Federals were not successful in taking Chattanooga, and they learned, as they would learn time and time again, that it was a prodigiously difficult task to move a substantial body of troops through country such as that in east Tennessee and keep them supplied if there were Confederate cavalry and guerrillas operating in their rear. So the Union threat to Chattanooga was not going to come to anything.

Bragg Plans Ambitious Invasions Into Tennessee and Kentucky

Bragg cast his eye toward Chattanooga. He had been retraining and refitting his army near Tupelo, Mississippi, and this is what he planned to do. He planned to leave about half of his army under Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price. Sterling Price we last saw in Missouri. He’s now come to northern Mississippi, and he and Van Dorn will share command of about half of Bragg’s force.

The other half, roughly 35,000 men, would first go to Chattanooga, there to unite with about 10,000 Confederates under a general named Edmund Kirby Smith, and then the joint Confederate force would mount an invasion first into Tennessee and then on into Kentucky.

Bragg had a range of things that he hoped to achieve. He hoped to cut Don Carlos Buell’s supply line back to Louisville. Buell is in Nashville. He hoped to cut that supply line—cut Buell off from Kentucky. He thought he could compel Buell to abandon Tennessee if he did that, that he could make Buell come out of Nashville and head back toward Kentucky.

He thought he could make Buell fight his way back toward Louisville, and Bragg’s force would have the advantage of being in between Buell and Louisville and in a strong defensive position potentially. So that’s one thing he hoped to do.

He also hoped that, by marching into Kentucky, he would rally the citizens of Kentucky to come to the Confederate banner. He and many other Confederates believed that Kentuckians were really Confederates at heart and that they were being held in the Union against their will by Union military might. If we can just take an army into Kentucky, he thought, they will flock to our banners.

He also thought that perhaps if he could remain in Kentucky through the fall—and he hoped to maneuver for a good long while there—he would be in a position to menace Union forces in Kentucky at the time of the Northern off-year elections in November of 1862, and he hoped that his presence would hurt the Republicans and help the Democrats.

Confederates believed that if the Democrats were in control they’d have a better chance of negotiating some kind of peace with independence for the Confederacy. So there were many things that Bragg hoped he might accomplish.

Learn more about the Kentucky campaign of 1862.

Common Questions about Braxton Bragg

Q: What was Braxton Bragg famous for?

Jefferson Davis had replaced P.G.T Beauregard with Braxton Bragg just before the Confederates launched their counteroffensive in the Western Theater. Bragg remained a close ally of Davis through the war, and even though his successes on the battlefield were few and far between, he was an important figure in the Kentucky campaign.

Q: What side is Braxton Bragg?

Braxton Bragg was a general in the Confederate army, and he played an important role in planning and launching the Kentucky campaign in the Western Theater in 1862.

Q: What battles did Braxton Bragg fight in?

Before the Civil War, Braxton Bragg had served in the Mexican War. In fact, he was a hero in the Mexican War. He had resigned from the army in the mid-1850s, but when the Civil War began he joined the Confederates. He fought at Shiloh in April of 1962, then was promoted to commander of the Army of Mississippi, which later came to be known as the Army of Tennessee.

Keep Reading
Civil War: The First Great Union Offensive in the Western Theater
American Civil War: Commanders of the Western Theater
North vs. South: Prelude to the American Civil War

Learn more about the American civil war.