In posing the question of whether Braxton Bragg was the Confederate George Meade, I don’t mean to imply they were alike in general terms. Rather, I’m focusing on each man’s most celebrated battle in his Civil War career, and the way he reacted to it.
For Meade that battle was, of course, Gettysburg in July of 1863. In three days of some of the most bloody fighting of the war, Meade won a decisive victory over Robert E. Lee and forced that greatest of Confederate generals into inglorious retreat.
Braxton Bragg’s signal victory was at Chickamauga in north Georgia. In September of 1863 Bragg had one of the greatest Confederate triumphs of the war when he effectively routed the Union’s Army of the Cumberland under General William Rosecrans and forced it to retreat helter-skelter to Chattanooga.
What do these battles and their victorious commanders have in common? Each general had his opponent on the run, but failed to follow up his triumph and effectively destroy the enemy army.
That’s what no less a personage than Abraham Lincoln thought about Meade when that general allowed Robert E. Lee, decisively defeated at Gettysburg, to get his shattered army safely across the Potomac River and back home to Virginia without being attacked. In a letter to Meade that Lincoln finally decided not to send, the anguished President expressed his dismay at what he considered a great opportunity forever lost by Meade’s unwillingness to take the fight to Lee:
Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war.
Bragg, too, was accused of missing an opportunity that, if successfully pursued, might have brought the war to an early and victorious close. But in Bragg’s case, it wasn’t so much his President as his own subordinate generals who held that view. With a demoralized Federal army in disorganized retreat after the Battle of Chickamauga, Bragg’s generals urged him, in fact pleaded with him to launch an immediate attack before the enemy had opportunity to reorganize and prepare defenses.
But Bragg refused. Instead he allowed Rosecrans and his defeated army to retreat unmolested into Chattanooga. Bragg then placed the Federals under siege, but did not dare to attack them in the formidable defenses he allowed them time to build.
When Ulysses Grant took command of the Union forces in Chattanooga, and proceeded to turn the tables on Bragg, breaking the siege and sending the Confederates scrambling southward in their own humiliating retreat, all the fruits of Bragg’s Chickamauga victory evaporated.
As both Bragg and Meade would later explain, each hung back instead of launching an immediate attack on a foe fleeing in disorderly retreat because he felt that, though victorious, his own army had been rendered too disorganized and vulnerable to risk renewing the battle.
Both these generals are described by contemporaries as personally extremely brave. But when faced with the enormous responsibility of deciding whether to put the victory they had achieved at risk by aggressively following up an enemy that, while wounded, was still capable of hitting back with devastating power, each man hesitated.
That’s how I think Bragg and Meade were alike. Each weighed the risk versus reward equation, and decided that prudence was the better part of valor. And I don’t think either general can be faulted for being prudent rather than rash with so much at stake.
On the other hand, I can’t imagine that had Robert E. Lee been in Bragg’s place, he wouldn’t have gone all out to destroy Rosecrans when he had the opportunity. And if Ulysses S. Grant had been in charge of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, I’m pretty sure Lee would have had to fight every step of the way to make it back to Virginia. There was an aggressiveness in both Lee and Grant that, I believe, would have impelled them to go after a dangerous but vulnerable enemy, while neither Bragg nor Meade dared to do so.
So it was in their lack of the instinct to take ultimate risks, and go for the enemy’s jugular when they had the opportunity, that Bragg and Meade were alike.