Can We Understand the Bragg-Johnston Switches in the Western Theater?
by Gordon Thorsby
Albert Sidney Johnston died early. His strong abilities had previously been demonstrated as possibly the best, but nobody really knows what his presence would have done. This is not the Johnston referred to in the heading. In his place came the Bragg-Joe Johnston leadership that reads like a TV mini series summary. It would be laughable if the collateral damage through lost lives wasn't one possible outcome.
Lt. Generals Joseph E Johnston and Braxton Bragg traded places commanding the Army of Tennessee during the war. Bragg had some tactical victories at Perryville, Stones River (see note) and Chickamauga, and was universally disliked by almost every subordinate officer and soldier. There was Johnston who was loved and respected by officers and soldiers. He never seriously lost but had only one true victory during his tenure in command of the Army. Confederate President Jefferson Davis made the situation worse by liking Bragg despite his toxic personality, and hating Johnston who everyone liked. A real conundrum. Did Davis understand the problem and try to resolve it?
After Perryville, Johnston was ordered to relieve Bragg from command of the Army of Tennessee. Johnston, at the time, was head of the Department overseeing Pemberton’s defense at Vicksburg and Bragg’s operations in Kentucky and Tennessee. Bragg had put a huge scare into the North with his Kentucky invasion but the subordinate sniping raged. Davis ordered Bragg’s removal and Johnston (see below) was to replace him. However, Johnston wouldn’t relieve Bragg and didn't inform Bragg. Johnston did Bragg a favor and Bragg did not know about it.
You might say: “He didn’t do it?”
You: “Just like that?”
“Yup, pretty much.”
You: “Wouldn’t ignoring an order like that get a man fired?”
“You would think…Richmond essentially followed up by not following up.”
Along came 1863 and Vicksburg was taken by Grant. Though Johnston was nearby to support Pemberton. Johnston wouldn’t move to relieve the siege at Vicksburg (IMHO, it was a losing fight anyway.) Davis relieved Johnston of his duties in the Department.
“Oh, did I forget to mention, Davis disliked Johnston. Let me continue.”
Anyway, Bragg routed the Union Army of the Cumberland at Chickamauga. During the entire time, Bragg bickered with his generals and Bragg actually thought he lost.
You: “Was Bragg a glass half-empty kind of guy or simply have low self-esteem?”
Me: “Please don’t interrupt, the drama involved lives. It was serious and you would think Richmond might fix it. The Western Theater was the place the War was eventually lost anyways. I digress.”
Bragg’s melodramatics with his subordinates included a new general from the east, Longstreet. The situation was now absolutely toxic. President Davis went to check the matter out. He cleaned out some of the worst troublemakers by moving them to other commands. Longstreet took his Corps to Knoxville. Bragg then was trounced at Missionary Ridge and bad. The problem was apparently not the troublemakers.
You: “What did Davis do?”
“He replaced him with Johnston.”
You: “The guy Davis hates?”
"Yeah. Go figure? Historians understand why Johnston was placed back in command... or do they? (Davis should have looked in the mirror about this time.) Oh, there I go again."
Anyway, Johnston started not winning again, and not really losing as usual and does his “retreat” thing. Davis (see right) quickly concludes Johnston is living down to his expectations so Davis sent his Military Advisor, Bragg on down to Georgia to verify the situation. Bragg relieved Johnston without hesitation and replaced Johnston with Hood who many feared would not bode well. With the announcement, Bragg repaid Johnston’s good deed of keeping Bragg in power in 1862 by relieving Johnston in 1864.
"Yeah, I know. Let me continue."
With Hood, he attacked just like Richmond wanted but the results were mostly death and defeat. Three months later the army was greatly reduced in size from casualties and desertions and many generals were gone (dead or wounded). Davis put Johnston back in command. Bragg was also given a subordinate command both in the Army in North Carolina.
You: “You’re kidding! You have to be?”
“Nope. The guy Davis hates more than just about anyone else, he places in command again and for the third time.”
The questions that bubble up are:
Question:- What was Davis’ thinking for returning Johnston back to command at this point is something that needs a serious explanation. The usual answer of "he was the only one" seems insufficient.
Question: Would the Confederate problems in the West have been prevented if there was a military head in Richmond that managed the Armies instead of a political one at the head? Would Johnston have been that right military man in Richmond?
Question: Could Bragg have been a military head in the West while another commander managed the commanders; a Grant/Meade like situation?
Was the reason Davis gave this last command to Johnston simply that Davis didn't plan to win. It was unwinnable so give it to Johnston to be labeled the one to lose. Johnston thought so.
“Pure Chaos: Braxton Bragg’s Subordinates,” By Edwin L. Kennedy Jr. and Jerry Morelock, History.Net, 1/1/2019.
“The Wrong Man,” by Philip Leigh, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com, 11/21,/2012.
Hearts Torn Asunder, by Dollar Jr., Ernest A., Savas Beatie, 2022.
- https://www.minecreek.info/southern-states/johnston-replaces-bragg.html, 12/17/20.
- https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/braxton-bragg, A&E Television Networks, May 16, 2022, Original Published Date, November 9, 2009.