See biography by D. C. Seitz (1924, repr. 1971); study by G. McWhiney (2 vol., 1969-91).
Bragg served in the Second Seminole War in Florida and took part in the occupation of Texas. He won promotions for bravery and distinguished conduct in the Mexican-American War, including a brevet promotion to captain for Battle of Fort Brown (May 1846), to major for the Battle of Monterrey (September 1846), and to lieutenant colonel for the Battle of Buena Vista (February 1847). Bragg was also promoted to captain within the regular army in June 1846. His conduct in Mexico had gained the respect of his commander, Gen. Zachary Taylor.
Bragg had a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian and one who adhered to regulations literally. There is a famous, perhaps apocryphal, story about him as a company commander at a frontier post where he also served as quartermaster. He submitted a requisition for supplies for his company, then as quartermaster declined to fill it. As company commander, he resubmitted the requisition, giving additional reasons for his requirements, but as the quartermaster he denied the request again. Realizing that he was at a personal impasse, he referred the matter to the post commandant, who exclaimed, "My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarreling with yourself!" It is alleged that some of his troops attempted to assassinate him on two occasions in August and September 1847, but he was not injured either time. In the more serious of the two incidents, one of his soldiers exploded a 12-pound artillery shell underneath his cot. Although the cot was destroyed, somehow Bragg himself emerged without a scratch.
Bragg brought his forces to Corinth, Mississippi, and was charged with improving the poor discipline of the Confederate troops already assembled. He commanded a corps at the Battle of Shiloh and attacked the Hornet's Nest with piecemeal frontal assaults. After the Confederate commander, General Albert Sidney Johnston, was killed at Shiloh, General P.G.T. Beauregard assumed command. On that day, April 6, 1862, Bragg was promoted to full general, one of only seven in the history of the Confederacy, and assigned to command the Army of Mississippi. The next day the Confederates were driven back to Corinth. After the Siege of Corinth, Beauregard departed on account of illness, although he failed to inform President Davis of his departure and spent two weeks absent without leave. Davis was looking for someone to replace Beauregard because of his poor performance at Corinth, and the opportunity presented itself when Beauregard left without permission. Bragg was then appointed his successor as commander of the Army of Tennessee in June 1862.
Kirby Smith pleaded with Bragg to follow up on his success: "For God's sake, General, let us fight Buell here." Bragg replied, "I will do it, sir," but then displaying what one observer called "a perplexity and vacillation which had now become simply appalling to Smith, to Hardee, and to Polk, he ordered his army to retreat through the Cumberland Gap to Knoxville. Bragg referred to his retreat as a withdrawal, the successful culmination of a giant raid. He had multiple reasons for withdrawing. Disheartening news had arrived from northern Mississippi that Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price had been defeated at Corinth, just as Robert E. Lee had failed in his Maryland Campaign. He saw that his army had not much to gain from a further, isolated victory, whereas a defeat might cost not only the bountiful food and supplies yet collected, but also his army. He wrote to his wife, "With the whole southwest thus in the enemy's possession, my crime would have been unpardonable had I kept my noble little army to be ice-bound in the northern clime, without tents or shoes, and obliged to forage daily for bread, etc.
The invasion of Kentucky was a strategic failure, although it had forced the Union forces out of northern Alabama and most of middle Tennessee; it would take the Union forces a year to regain the lost ground. Bragg was criticized by some newspapers and two of his own generals, Polk and William J. Hardee, but there was plenty of blame to spread among the Confederate high command for the failure of the invasion of Kentucky. The armies of Bragg and Kirby Smith suffered from a lack of unified command. Bragg can be faulted for moving his army away from Munfordville, out of Buell's path, a prime location for a battle to Confederate advantage. Polk can also be blamed for not following Bragg's instructions on the day before and of the battle.
In December, Bragg fought the Battle of Stones River, and nearly defeated Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, but withdrew his army from the field to Tullahoma, Tennessee, after the urgings of corps commanders Hardee and Polk. The attacks upon Bragg started anew and several of his supporters now turned against him. James M. McPherson wrote about the aftermath of Stones River:
Stones River was also another in which blame can be spread beyond Bragg alone. Bragg has to be faulted for the ground on which the battle was fought, which offered few advantages to the attacking Confederate army and offered more advantages to the defending Union army. He also selected his military objective poorly, resulting in a Union defensive line that became more concentrated and stronger as Bragg's became spread out and weaker. The ill-advised assaults he ordered John C. Breckinridge to make on January 2, 1863, weakened his army without gain. But his subordinates were at various degrees of fault. The inexperienced Maj. Gen. John P. McCown was found guilty by court-martial of disobedience to Bragg's orders, which diluted the force of his division's attack and possibly cost the Confederates a victory. The charge of drunkenness pressed against division commander B. Franklin Cheatham was merited, as there were claims that he was so drunk during the battle that he fell off his horse while leading his men forward. Both Polk and Hardee can be faulted for not coordinating their attacks, but instead choosing to attack en echelon, which led to much of the confusion. Fault is also given to Jefferson Davis, who sent Maj. Gen. Carter L. Stevenson's division to the defense of Vicksburg. The loss of these troops weakened Bragg's army and if Bragg had had these troops victory might have been possible.
Many members of Bragg's army sought to get him transferred after the battle, citing the failure of the Kentucky invasion and the recent defeat at Murfreesboro, as well as the lack of faith the army had in Bragg, as reasons to remove him. Polk became the ringleader and tried to influence his friend Jefferson Davis through a series of letters explaining to Davis about why Bragg needed to go as the commander of the army. Hardee became Polk's second-in-command, so to speak, as he went about trying to influence the officers in the army against Bragg, while presenting a friendly face to him. Davis was unwilling to choose between Bragg and Polk, so he empowered Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, commander of all Confederate forces in the Western Theater, to relieve Bragg of command. Johnston visited Bragg, found general morale in the army to be high, and decided to retain him. Bragg was then driven from Tullahoma to Chattanooga and into Georgia during Rosecrans's Tullahoma Campaign in late June 1863, during which he constantly outflanked the Confederate army out of their positions.
After William S. Rosecrans had consolidated his gains and secured his hold on Chattanooga, he began moving his army into northern Georgia against Bragg's army. Bragg began to suffer from inattention to his orders on the part of his subordinates. On September 10, Maj. Gens. Thomas C. Hindman and D.H. Hill refused to attack the outnumbered Federal column under Brig. Gen. James S. Negley, as ordered. On September 13, Bragg ordered Leonidas Polk to attack Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden's corps, but Polk ignored the orders and demanded more troops, insisting that it was he who was about to be attacked. Rosecrans used the time lost in these delays to collect his scattered forces. Finally, on September 19 and September 20, 1863, Bragg, reinforced by two divisions from Mississippi, one division and several brigades from the Department of East Tennessee, and two divisions under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet from Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, turned on the pursuing Rosecrans in northeastern Georgia and at high cost defeated him at the Battle of Chickamauga, the greatest Confederate victory in the Western Theater during the war. After the battle, Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland retreated to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Bragg laid siege to the city. He chose to use the victory to rid himself of his enemies within the army and managed to get Polk and D.H. Hill transferred. Bragg blamed Polk for the numerous occasions on which he disobeyed instructions. Hill, one of the many generals who were allies of Polk, spoke out against Bragg so much that Jefferson Davis removed him from command and canceled his endorsement of Hill's promotion to lieutenant general.
Things came to a boil in the Confederate high command in the aftermath of Chickamauga. Some of Bragg's subordinate generals were frustrated at what they perceived to be his lack of willingness to exploit the victory by driving the Union Army from Chattanooga and pursuing them. Polk in particular was outraged at being relieved of command. The dissidents, including many of the division and corps commanders, met in secret and prepared a petition to the president. Although the author of the petition is not known, historians suspect it was Simon Buckner, whose signature was first on the list. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet wrote to the Secretary of War with the prediction that "nothing but the hand of God can save us or help us as long as we have our present commander." Nathan Bedford Forrest, dissatisfied after a long association with Bragg, and bitter about his failure to pursue the defeated Union forces after Chickamauga, refused to serve under him again. He told Bragg to his face, "You have played the part of a damned scoundrel. ... If you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path it will be at the peril of your life. With the Army of Tennessee literally on the verge of mutiny, Jefferson Davis reluctantly traveled to Chattanooga to personally assess the situation and to try to stem the tide of dissent in the army. Although Bragg offered to resign to resolve the crisis, Davis eventually decided to leave Bragg in command and denounced the other generals and termed their complaints "shafts of malice".
Finally reinforced and now commanded by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the Union Army broke the siege by driving the Confederates from their commanding positions on Lookout Mountain (the famous "Battle Above the Clouds") on November 24, and Missionary Ridge the following day. The Battle of Chattanooga at Missionary Ridge resulted in a rout, with the Confederates narrowly escaping total destruction and retreating into Georgia. The loss of their hold on Chattanooga is partially attributed to poor placement of artillery; instead of locating the guns on the military crest, they were placed on the actual crest of the ridge, allowing the approaching infantry to remain in defilade. Bragg, on the advice of Davis, sent James Longstreet and his divisions, as well as Simon B. Buckner and his division, to Knoxville, Tennessee, to lay siege to Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside and his forces in the city. This move was gladly accepted by Longstreet, and Bragg believed he could prevent Burnside from marching to Grant's aid. Only after the Confederate collapse at Chattanooga did Davis accept Bragg's resignation and replace him with Joseph E. Johnston, who commanded the army in the Atlanta Campaign against Sherman.
Bragg was walking down a street with a friend in Galveston, Texas, when he suddenly fell over dead. A local legend holds that there is a mysterious light near the place of his death, which is called Bragg's light. He is buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Mobile, Alabama.
Some counterarguments have emerged in recent years. Judith Lee Hallock called the blaming of Bragg for Confederate defeats in the west the "Bragg syndrome." While most agree he was a poor army commander, historians such as Hallock and Steven Woodworth cite his skills as an organizer and that his defeat in several battles can also be partially blamed upon bad luck and incompetent subordinates, notably Polk. Of his troublesome subordinates, Hardee was considered to be a solid soldier even by Bragg. Polk, although personally brave and charismatic, was simply an average tactician known for insubordination and piecemeal attacks. Unfortunately, he was a close friend of Davis, who was unwilling to relieve him. Bragg also never got the support Davis gave to Robert E. Lee and Sidney Johnston. That his abilities were only properly utilized in 1861 and 1864 also shows the inability of the Confederacy to make proper use of many of its generals. Despite his faults, Bragg was able to impress on occasion his superiors, such as Taylor, Davis, Beauregard, and Sidney Johnston.
Historians Grady McWhiney and Steven Woodworth have pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, Davis and Bragg were not friends, having bitterly quarreled during the antebellum years. Davis was impressed with Bragg, but was willing to relieve him in early 1863. He did not relieve him, in part because no suitable replacements could be found, a consistent problem for Davis. Even Bragg's harshest critics have generally failed to suggest a suitable replacement.