As the Confederate Army of Tennessee took up winter quarters at Tullahoma, several officers expressed dissatisfaction with their commander, General Braxton Bragg. This reached the southern press, and many newspapers began reporting that Bragg had lost his army’s confidence. The Chattanooga Rebel went so far as to allege that Bragg had gone against his officers’ advice by retreating after the Battle of Stones River.
On January 11, Bragg issued a circular to his two corps commanders (Lieutenant-Generals William J. Hardee and Leonidas Polk) and his top three division commanders (Major-Generals John C. Breckinridge, Benjamin F. Cheatham, and Patrick R. Cleburne). In it, Bragg wrote, “It becomes necessary for me to save my fair name,” and “stop the deluge of abuse which destroy my usefulness and demoralize this army.”
Regarding the rumor that he decided to retreat on his own, Bragg wrote, “Unanimous as you were in council in verbally advising a retrograde movement, I cannot doubt that you will cheerfully attest the same in writing.” Bragg then asserted that those in the army who resented him probably did so only because they “have felt the sting of discipline,” and not because of poor leadership. He also acknowledged that Lieutenant-General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Department of East Tennessee, had been called to Richmond “it is supposed, with a view to supersede me.”
Bragg concluded, “I desire that you will consult your subordinate commanders and be candid with me. I shall retire without a regret if I find I have lost the good opinion of my generals, upon whom I have ever relied as upon a foundation of rock.” If Bragg wrote this to get a vote of confidence from his subordinates, he would be sorely mistaken.
Hardee replied that he had not advised Bragg to retreat, but he agreed with the decision. Then came a shocking addendum to Hardee’s reply: “I have conferred with Major General Breckinridge and Major General Cleburne… and I feel that frankness compels me to say that the general officers, whose judgment you have invoked, are unanimous in the opinion that a change in the command of this army is necessary. In this opinion I concur.”
Breckinridge, whose division was decimated in the second day of fighting at Stones River, wrote that he had been a leading supporter of Bragg’s decision to retreat. But then he backed Hardee in asserting that Bragg should resign. Cleburne did not address the retreat and only wrote that Bragg should resign. Polk went so far as to join with Hardee in asking President Jefferson Davis to replace Bragg with General Joseph E. Johnston, currently commanding the entire Western Theater. Cheatham and Breckinridge despised Bragg to the point that Cheatham refused to serve under him any longer and Breckinridge wanted to fight him in a duel.
When news of this army turmoil reached Davis, he was bewildered by Bragg’s decision to send out such a circular in the first place. He wrote Johnston, “Why General Bragg should have selected that tribunal and have invited its judgments upon him is to me unexplained. It manifests, however, a condition of things which seems to me to require your presence. Although my confidence in General Bragg is unshaken, it cannot be doubted that if he is distrusted by his officers and troops, a disaster may result.”
Davis directed Johnston to inspect the Army of Tennessee at Tullahoma and determine if he “had so far lost the confidence of the army as to impair his usefulness in his present position…” Davis added:
“You will, I trust, be able, by conversation with General Bragg and others of his command, to decide what the best interests of the service require, and to give me the advice which I need at this juncture. As that army is part of your command, no order will be necessary to give you authority there, as, whether present or absent, you have a right to direct its operations and do whatever else belongs to the general commanding.”
Davis’s vague instructions seemed to imply that Johnston could take over the Army of Tennessee if he chose, which seemed to be what most of the army’s officers wanted. Many Confederate politicians in Richmond felt the same. But even though Johnston personally disliked Bragg (like most others), he respected Bragg’s abilities as commander and did not want to take his job from him.
Johnston was inspecting the defenses at Mobile, Alabama, when he received Davis’s message on the 22nd. He arrived at Tullahoma two days later and spent the last week of January assessing the condition of Bragg’s 42,000-man army. Johnston’s reluctance to remove Bragg from command most likely influenced his findings.
Johnston did not consult with anyone except Bragg, Polk, Hardee, and Tennessee Governor Isham Harris. He also conceded that “incessant rain has permitted me to see but a fourth of the troops as of yet.” But Johnston reported that those he did see were “well clothed, healthy, and in good spirits,” which was “positive evidence of General Bragg’s capacity to command…”
Regarding the overall lack of confidence in Bragg’s leadership, Johnston stated that this was no longer an issue, and had been “confirmed by his recent operations, which, in my opinion, evince great vigor and skill. It would be very unfortunate to remove him at this juncture, when he has just earned, if not won, the gratitude of the country.” Bragg’s “recent operations” amounted to little more than allowing a battered army to rest, but apparently that was enough to impress Johnston.
In closing, Johnston advised Davis that if he still insisted on removing Bragg, he should not replace Bragg with anyone who took part in the inspection. This was intended by Johnston to take himself out of consideration for the job. Although Johnston resented his role as Western Theater commander and wanted to return to field command, he considered it an affront to his “personal honor” to replace Bragg. Johnston still privately hoped to regain command of the Army of Northern Virginia, but Robert E. Lee’s performance had rendered that impossible.
Davis would review Johnston’s inspection report in early February, and January ended with the command situation in the Army of Tennessee still uncertain.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
- Cozzens, Peter, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (Kindle Edition), 1990.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.