Joe Johnston v. Robert E. Lee v. Braxton Bragg:

The Confederacy's three greats and Confederate Defeat:


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Underlankers

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Feb 2013
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As army commanders, each of these three generals had their chances to conduct major strategic operations for the benefit of the Confederacy. Each of them had very distinctive approaches and relationships/issues with their political superiors, their subordinates, and as the commanding general of a Confederate Army. Each of them also has their own and rather crucial contributions to Confederate defeat, in proportions that make it easy enough to ask which of these three deserves the title of greatest general of the Confederacy, and how one rates each of them.

To start with Joe Johnston, as recorded in [ame="http://www.amazon.com/Joseph-E-Johnston-Biography-Paperback/dp/0393311309"]Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography (Norton Paperback): Craig L. Symonds: 9780393311303: Amazon.com: Books@@AMEPARAM@@http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51Ng02VmJNL.@@AMEPARAM@@51Ng02VmJNL[/ame], is one of the generals most famous for what he might have been as opposed to what he was. He was the first commanding general of the Army of the Potomac/Army of Northern Virginia, winning the first major battle of the Confederacy by providing the reinforcements that proved decisive to ultimate Confederate victory, and conducting the defense of the Peninsula. His attack at Fair Oaks and Seven Pines was horrifically mismanaged and led to his wounding and convalescence. Before all this he earned the enmity of Jefferson Davis over a point of military technicality where he was actually in the right but against a man who never conceded error and had the charm and tact of a hagfish. This created one of the deepest and longest-running animosities to dog the Confederate armies, and stands as Joe Johnston's greatest contribution to Confederate defeat. Joe Johnston intersects with Lee in at least some of the high-ranking officers of the Army of Northern Virginia wishing he'd return to command that outfit, and with Bragg in spending part of the time between Fair Oaks and Seven Pines and the Atlanta Campaign going to report on the animosity in Bragg's army to no avail for Bragg or his army.

Johnston's role in the Vicksburg debacle is not to be underrated. His issuing a contradictory set of orders to Pemberton to those of Davis ensured Pemberton's paralysis of action, while his attempts to maintain a force in being got a rude push from Grant at Jackson that kept him primarily a factor in morale to keep Vicksburg holding out for a long period of time. Likewise his role during the broader period was to serve as a prototypical version of what the modern US Army would consider a theater commander. Joe Johnston was too much the 19th Century general to be very good at this and of course the failure was all Jefferson Davis's fault.

What happened with Bragg will be discussed below, but after his sacking Joe Johnston succeeded Hardee in command of the Army of Tennessee, and danced with Sherman in a futile set of mutual attempts to force a decisive battle that turned into a maneuver campaign. Repeatedly claiming his goal was to force this kind of battle, Joe Johnston finally got one at Kennesaw Mountain but retreat anyway once Sherman again outflanked him by a left-flank attack. Repeatedly falling for the same maneuver over and over again, he was driven to the gates of Atlanta and was sacked for preparing either a battle and a retreat or his own equivalent to what John Bell Hood did accomplish. His campaign was as politicized in the Confederate view as Sherman's was for the Union, while his career ended with the partial victory of Bentonville.

To me Joe Johnston is the Confederate McClellan: always known more for what he might have been than what he actually did, and his actual accomplishments are more underwhelming than his critics and supporters alike would allege.

Next is Robert E. Lee, Joe Johnston's successor in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. The views on Lee are derived from these books:[ame="http://www.amazon.com/Robert-E-Lees-Civil-War/dp/158062135X"]Robert E. Lee's Civil War: Bevin Alexander: 9781580621359: Amazon.com: Books@@AMEPARAM@@http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/517XSZ5NW7L.@@AMEPARAM@@517XSZ5NW7L[/ame]. Lee's first campaign in West Virginia produced not victory but a defeat at the hands of McClellan and Rosecrans (mostly Rosecrans) in West Virginia. His second effort, to forestall the amphibious landings of Ambrose Burnside, were completely unsuccessful. He finally secured army command after G.W. Smith had a nervous breakdown when Fair Oaks and Seven Pines ended. His conduct of the Seven Days' was.....indistinguished. He launched a set of poorly co-ordinated attacks on the Army of the Potomac where he won only one partial victory, and sustained higher losses by proportion than his opponent did. If a victory he won in this campaign, it was a purely psychological one.

In the case of his next campaign, Second Bull Run, the main opportunity here was provided by Henry Halleck's decision to move McClellan to join Pope's Army of Virginia, while his strategic goal, the annihilation of Pope's army, was not met in the battle or the campaign. He won his most brilliant tactical victory, though the campaign was not marked by universal Confederate brilliance and was sustained again against staggering Confederate losses. It is against the context of the Seven Days' and the staggering losses in Second Bull Run that his plan for his invasion of Maryland must be rated. The loss of Special Orders 191 does not disguise that in seeking an offensive battle of annihilation against the quantitatively superior army of the extremely cautious McClellan he was asking to play the role of Marshal Kutuzov at Austerlitz.

His Fredericksburg campaign was purely decided by Burnside's mistake of conducting the plan two weeks after his original target date entirely unchanged from when he'd originally designed it, right into the area where Confederate defenses were their strongest. In this regard his most lopsided victory of them all was the pure product of the mistakes of a man who showed he was right in saying he wasn't up to army command.

In the Chancellorsville-Gettysburg Campaign, Lee revealed himself at his most brilliant against the brilliant concept and middling execution of Hooker's grand offensive, and at his least brilliant in the meeting engagement with George Meade, where nothing he did went right, not even on the first day, and where his attacks met with some of their most clear-cut reversals against a powerful and capably-prepared defense on the part of Meade. I personally consider Chancellorsville and Gettysburg to fit into a single campaign, due to Lee's decision to assume the offensive following Chancellorsville and to the precise nature of when Joe Hooker was sacked. Lee's fall 1863 campaigns showed that Meade was by far his superior as a battle commander.

In 1864-5, Lee's army faced an endless grinding pressure that in many ways turned into a prototype of the war of the 20th Century fought with the armies and methods of the mid-19th Century. In it he displayed a tactical virtuosity aided and abetted by a poor Union command structure and good designs scotched by horrible execution. The result was that in six weeks he kept falling for the same maneuver, a left flanking maneuver, sustained staggering losses, had to use his entire reserves to maintain his line, and got snookered by 100,000 men marching right under his nose for several days. In Petersburg he sustained a campaign he knew was lost before it began for months of grinding trench warfare to no gain other than bloating the death tolls of both sides, and in the campaign following Grant's breakout underwent some of the worst shellackings of the entire war at Five Forks and Sayler's Creek.

As Bevin Alexander IMHO very justly argues Lee has the greatest contribution of the Confederate generals for defeat because he fought a war with a reserve three times the size of the one he had against an enemy with the kind of reserves to fight the war he fought.

Then there's Braxton Bragg, viewpoints derived from these books: [ame="http://www.amazon.com/Autumn-Glory-Army-Tennessee-1862-1865/dp/0807127388/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1373133822&sr=1-1&keywords=autumn+of+glory"]Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865: Thomas Lawrence Connelly: 9780807127384: Amazon.com: Books@@AMEPARAM@@http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41C95SPR9HL.@@AMEPARAM@@41C95SPR9HL[/ame] and here: [ame="http://www.amazon.com/Braxton-Bragg-Confederate-Defeat-Volume/dp/0817305459 and http://www.amazon.com/Braxton-Bragg-Confederate-Defeat-Volume/dp/0817305432/ref=pd_bxgy_b_text_y"]404 Looking for Something?[/ame]. Bragg has become something of the go-to scapegoat for Confederate defeat in the West, but as Connelly argued, his role is more complex. He was an indecisive man, but when his army fought he had a record of unbroken tactical victory in battle culminating in the grand victory of Chattanooga. His most serious reverse, Missionary Ridge, owed as much to James Longstreet as anything he did, while he had no consistent supply lines, zones of responsibility, and the misfortune to face very competent enemies very good at what they did and not scared out of their wits against him. Nonetheless he had a personality to curdle milk, deranged his own army by feuding with his subordinates, and his conduct as general-in-chief in practice from the fall of 1863 to the spring of 1865 can be credited to the string of Confederate misfortunes in that era, most egregiously the inability of Confederate generals to work together to the same degree as their Union counterparts did.

As I said, I'd credit Robert E. Lee most for Confederate defeat, though I'd also rate him the best battlefield general of the three, and Bragg as his only real equal in Confederate high command. What do you think?
 
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nuclearguy165

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Nov 2011
4,847
Ohio, USA
I know more about Lee than I do about the others, but from what I do know about all three, I would say that Lee was definitely the best, but still heavily flawed in many ways.

Lee was a very effective commander when he fought opponents who either couldn't figure him out or who were faint-hearted (McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker), but who tended to not be so successful against stauncher opposition like Meade and Grant. A major flaw with him is that, while generally a very talented tactician and battle planner, with a capability of carrying out bold schemes, he sometimes had a false appreciation of what his limited resources could accomplish. In addition, he was very poor with logistics, as the Maryland Campaign (1862) and Overland/Petersburg/Appomattox Campaign (1864-1865) showed.

Another problem is that he was very unassertive in his position as virtual General-In-Chief of the Confederacy (not official, but as one of JD's top military advisors, he had this ability), and saw himself as too much of a servant and not enough of a co-worker of the Confederate government. Thus, he was unwilling to seriously intervene in how the resources of the Confederacy were managed.

He also had what I (and many others) would call strategic tunnel vision, in that he only really saw two things; the defense of Virginia and the threatening of Washington. The significance of the other the western theater and the economic and logistic dimensions of the conflict were lost on him. He also had a problem with relaying clear orders to his subordinates, and this could sometimes lead to a break-down of control and general mis-management.

The most important of all though, he never genuinely learned from his mistakes.

Overall, a very talented commander who could pull off many things successfully, but whose flaws and weaknesses overcame him in the end. A very good, solid commander, but not quite the military genius that many see him as.

For Johnston, I think the biggest problem was that he was inconsistent. He could hatch very good plans and could sometimes perform effectively, as First Bull Run, Kennesaw Mountain, and, to an extent, Bentonville, shows, but whose somewhat weak leadership and timidity screwed him up the rest of the time. Bold sometimes, but generally timid. Solid and competent, but not much beyond that.

Bragg I would have to say is probably the weakest of the three. His major issues were that he tended to lack self-confidence, and was uncooperative, the combination of which made him quite indecisive. His stroke into Kentucky was certainly bold, but was mis-managed, and led to his forces being divided, and he was only saved from disaster and piecemeal defeat at Perryville because he fought an opponent even less able than himself in Buell. His victory at Chickamauga was also impressive, but the decisive attack here was led by Longstreet, and not through Bragg's own orders. Overall, he wasn't incompetent, but still just average at best as a commander. Nothing to brag about (pun intended).
 
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Underlankers

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Feb 2013
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I would argue that Bragg did not so much lack self-confidence as combine the military defects of no eye for terrain whatsoever and inability to adjust to how fluid and chaotic a battle is with recalcitrant subordinates whose inability to obey orders was given free reign for far too long. Bragg had more than failings enough on his own, but the combination of those failings with those subordinates means that they shine less clearly than they would otherwise. Lee, on the other hand, had the most major theater to lose the war for the Confederacy in and exhausted its manpower in a single calendar year. It would seem to me that there had to be at least some alternative to that kind of wanton waste of manpower.
 

nuclearguy165

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Nov 2011
4,847
Ohio, USA
I would argue that Bragg did not so much lack self-confidence as combine the military defects of no eye for terrain whatsoever and inability to adjust to how fluid and chaotic a battle is with recalcitrant subordinates whose inability to obey orders was given free reign for far too long. Bragg had more than failings enough on his own, but the combination of those failings with those subordinates means that they shine less clearly than they would otherwise. Lee, on the other hand, had the most major theater to lose the war for the Confederacy in and exhausted its manpower in a single calendar year. It would seem to me that there had to be at least some alternative to that kind of wanton waste of manpower.
Yes, this is all true. Lee's wastefulness was a consequence of his narrow strategic vision.
 

Viperlord

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Aug 2010
8,109
VA
I'll comment more in-depth later, but while I'm no Bragg apologist, the fact that his theoretical subordinate Kirby Smith (Commanding a large segment of Bragg's forces semi-independently) cheerfully ignored Bragg during the Kentucky campaign certainly didn't help him.
 

Viperlord

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Aug 2010
8,109
VA
His most serious reverse, Missionary Ridge, owed as much to James Longstreet as anything he did
Whoa Nellie. Longstreet has a substantial share of blame in further polarizing the AoT command structure, but you really can't blame him for a battle he wasn't present at, and where Bragg didn't even have his guns or men positioned correctly. Overall I agree on Bragg, though ultimately I'd characterize him as mediocre in most aspects, absolutely terrible in dealing with human beings, and fairly competent in logistics and campaign planning. I'm also not sure what facsimiles of victory his army did win weren't in spite of him rather than because of him.
 
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Underlankers

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Feb 2013
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Whoa Nellie. Longstreet has a substantial share of blame in further polarizing the AoT command structure, but you really can't blame him for a battle he wasn't present at, and where Bragg didn't even have his guns or men positioned correctly. Overall I agree on Bragg, though ultimately I'd characterize him as mediocre in most aspects, absolutely terrible in dealing with human beings, and fairly competent in logistics and campaign planning. I'm also not sure what facsimiles of victory his army did win weren't in spite of him rather than because of him.
I would argue that Longstreet's deepening the animosity within Bragg's army to irrecoverable levels and deepening his animosity with Bragg sufficiently to make Bragg want to divide his army further by sending him to Knoxville qualify as Longstreet's role in the Missionary Ridge debacle. Whatever chance Bragg had was hurt when he had to send away a good portion of his reinforcements to forestall Longstreet's attempt to take over his command.
 

Viperlord

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Aug 2010
8,109
VA
For Johnston, I think the biggest problem was that he was inconsistent. He could hatch very good plans and could sometimes perform effectively, as First Bull Run, Kennesaw Mountain, and, to an extent, Bentonville, shows, but whose somewhat weak leadership and timidity screwed him up the rest of the time. Bold sometimes, but generally timid. Solid and competent, but not much beyond that.
I agree that Johnston was much stronger on planning than execution; he was a big advocate of force concentration and the strategic offensive, but never actually practiced it. What I notice in the three "good" examples for him that you cite is that there were other factors in play with them; at First Manassas, Beauregard was really the field commander. At Bentonville, the actual battle plan was Wade Hampton's, and the strategic situation, for once, actually forced Johnston to attack, though I agree it was one of his better moments. At Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman's impatience is more to blame than anything, and once the roads were dry, he simply went around Johnston yet again.

Also, Johnston was a good writer? I don't know that anyone who's read his memoirs would reach that conclusion.:lol: