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"Your Sister is Married"

The Roman Senator Pliny the Younger (AD 61-c. 113) once complimented the Emperor Trajan (r. AD 98-117) by noting “you can call nearly all your soldiers by name, and know the deeds of bravery of each one . . . .” Trajan is not the only Great Captain said to have displayed this talent. Similar tales are told of other notable commanders, Mithridates VI of Pontus, Caesar, Hadrian, Gonzalvo de Cordoba, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, and more. These men seemingly could spot old soldiers in the ranks and would sometimes exchange pleasantries with them, often mentioning little details of a man’s service or family, thus letting the troops know that their commander knew them personally and worried about their well-being. A powerful gift for a commander, this talent may have involved less talent than artifice.

Elzear Blaze (1788-1848) served as an officer in Napoleon’s Grand Armee from 1807 through 1814, and later rose to major in the Royal Guard during the Bourbon Restoration. In his memoirs, Military Life Under Napoleon, Blaze mentions that from time to time, when Frederick the Great was reviewing his troops, he would to stop and address one of them.

“Good morning, So-and-so. Well, have you had the news, your sister is married. I received word of it from Breslau yesterday. This marriage pleases me very much. You will inform your father of my pleasure about this matter at the earliest opportunity.”

“Yes, Sire.”

“He was a brave fellow, your father, one of my old soldiers of Molwitz. Tell him also, in your letter, that I have appointed him doorkeeper at Potsdam. I never forget old soldiers.”

The King continued in this way, and stopped further on, in front of an officer. He spoke to him of a lawsuit his family had just won, of the death of a relative who had left a rich inheritance, and so forth.

Blaze went on to note that he had made the acquaintance of some of Frederick’s old officers, who had explained how the King accomplished this seemingly remarkable feat of memory.

When he was preparing for a review . . . he was given a dozen notes relating to divers officers and soldiers. On a slip of paper, which he held in his hand, were given the name and biography of an individual in his army, the number of his regiment, battalion, and company. The King knew in what line the man stood, and what place he occupied in the line.

And, although without actually saying so, Blaze strongly implies that Napoleon himself was also quite aware of Frederick’s little morale building trickery, a technique that was probably almost as old as organized armies.

 

Bashing Braxton Bragg

A while ago we ran a piece called “Rating the ‘Big Bugs’” with rude comments about Civil War generals, both North and South, made by their comrades, subordinates, contemporaries, or historians. At the time, we noted that there were so many negative remarks about one general in particular that we were reserving them for a later date. That time has come.

So here is a similar “OER” (Officer Evaluation Report) for one of the Confederacy’s most senior, least successful, and most decidedly disliked generals, Braxton Bragg (1817-1876).

  • “ . . . simply muddle headed.” – Brig. Gen. Edward P. Alexander, C.S.A.
  • “Irritable and quarrelsome, he made many enemies.” – Dictionary of American Biography
  • “ . . . as baffling a mixture of high ability and sheer incompetence as the Confederacy would produce.” – Bruce Catton, historian
  • “Even Bragg's staunchest supporters admonished him for his quick temper, general irritability, and tendency to wound innocent men with barbs thrown during his frequent fits of anger.” – Peter Cozzens, historian.
  • “ . . . a remarkably intelligent, and well-informed man, professionally and otherwise . . .” with “ . . . an irascible temper and was naturally disputatious.” – General Ulysses S. Grant, U.S.A.
  • “I doubt Bragg has confidence in his troops or himself either. He is not likely to do a great deal for us.” – Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, C.S.A.
  • “Too ambitious to be satisfied with himself or with others; he sought perfection, and was disappointed when he failed to find it or achieve it. Authoritarian himself, he nevertheless resented his superiors’ authority.” – Grady McWhiney, historian.
  • “. . . tyrannical, impetuous, narrow minded . . . unfit for command” and “. . . too weak to fight, too unpopular to run.” – Brig. Gen. William Preston, C.S.A
  • “Goodbye Wilmington” – The Richmond Examiner, in an editorial published late 1864, on the news that Bragg had been assigned to command the coast defenses of North Carolina, covering the Confederacy’s last port.
  • “ . . . [an] able officer . . . . [His] greatest defect was that he did not win the love and confidence of either the officers or men.” – Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart, C.S.A.
  • "None of Bragg's soldiers ever loved him. They had no faith in his ability as a general. He was looked upon as a merciless tyrant . . . . He loved to crush the spirit of his men." – Pvt. Sam Watkins, 1st Tennessee
  • “ . . . a good officer, a man of fair capacity, [but] self-willed, arrogant, and dictatorial.” – Maj. Gen. Jones M. Withers, C.S.A.

Now objectively, Bragg was actually a pretty able guy. He was very energetic, a hard worker and good administrator, with a fair grasp of the strategic problems confronting him. Bragg was also an excellent organizer and planner, and arguably a good tactician as well. His personality, however, militated against his attaining greatness as a commander. Most people who knew Bragg considered him abrasive, prone to caustic comments, quarrelsome, as sensitive about himself as he was insensitive toward others, self-centered, and occasionally mendacious.

In his Memoirs, U.S. Grant, mentioned a tale about Bragg that circulated in the “Old Army” before the war.

On one occasion, when stationed at a post of several companies commanded by a field officer, he was himself commanding one of the companies and at the same time acting as post quartermaster and commissary. He was first lieutenant at the time, but his captain was detached on other duty. As commander of the company he made a requisition upon the quartermaster—himself—for something he wanted. As quartermaster he declined to fill the requisition, and endorsed on the back of it his reasons for so doing. As company commander he responded to this, urging that his requisition called for nothing but what he was entitled to, and that it was the duty of the quartermaster to fill it. As quartermaster he still persisted that he was right. In this condition of affairs Bragg referred the whole matter to the commanding officer of the post. The latter, when he saw the nature of the matter referred, exclaimed "My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarrelling with yourself!

Grant’s anecdote is probably not true, but that it circulated suggests the degree to which Bragg was, as Grant put it, “disputatious.”

Despite occasional efforts to rescue Bragg’s reputation, usually by shifting blame for his command and staff problems to his subordinates, some of whom were inept and insubordinate, such as Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, it’s hard to dispute that his personality prevented him from effectively demonstrating his very real talents.

--With thanks to the denizens of Study of the Civil War

 


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