Braxton Bragg and the Tupelo Revival

    At the end of May 1862, the Army of Mississippi abandoned its positions surrounding Corinth, Mississippi and conducted a 50-mile march to go into camp near Tupelo. The army was in ragged condition: a field return from June 9, 1862 shows that of the total force of 94,756 officers and men on the rolls of the army, only 45,335 were in condition for duty. As a matter of fact, nearly a quarter of the army was sick either in the hospitals or absent from the army. The poor health conditions at Corinth contributed to widespread demoralization and by the time the army marched into Tupelo, one veteran noted that “it was a perfect rabble that would have done much more running than fighting if they had been put to the scratch.”

          Sickness was no respecter of rank, and in this case the commander of the army General Pierre G.T. Beauregard was just as sick as his many of his men. The Creole had been battling poor health for months and the strain of assuming command of the army in the wake of General Albert Sidney Johnston’s death at Shiloh exacerbated the severity of his condition. By mid-June, Beauregard was completely wiped out and “after delaying as long as possible to obey the oft-repeated recommendations of my physicians to take some rest for the restoration of my health” Beauregard left the army in command of General Braxton Bragg and set out for a rest cure at Bladon Springs, Alabama. Beauregard’s action, taken without the consent of his superiors, led to his prompt removal from command and made Bragg’s temporary appointment a permanent one.


General Braxton Bragg inherited command of the Army of Mississippi in June 1862 when his predecessor, at frequent odds with President Jefferson Davis, was unceremoniously removed from command when he went on an unauthorized leave. Bragg despaired of assuming command of an army he considered little better than a mob. "Our failure at Shiloh is due entirely to the want of discipline and a want of officers," he complained to his wise Elise. "Universal suffrage, furloughs, and whiskey have ruined us. If we fail, it is our own fault." 


          Bragg inherited an army in shambles, “one great tangle of difficulties” as remembered by historian Stanley Horn. The men had shown that they could fight, but known nothing but defeat, retreat, and suffering since the start of the year. Morale was low, sickness and desertion widespread, and the men were indifferently armed and poorly equipped. The impact of the Conscription Act and reorganization of the army’s regiments had further eroded morale and presented the new commanding general with a set of problems as impenetrable as a briar thicket. As Bragg complained in a letter to his wife, this wasn’t an army, it was a mob. Regardless, the command was now his and Bragg went to work with a will to turn things around.

          Fortunately for the army, General Henry W. Halleck did Bragg a solid favor by giving him the dual gifts of time and space. Despite amassing an army of 125,000 men around Corinth, Halleck chose not to pursue his Confederate opponents when they marched for Tupelo. “Old Brains,” always consumed with logistics and with an eye on future promotion, elected to spread his army out across the region and focus on pacifying the population while repairing the railroads to ensure a steady supply during the dry months of the summer. Logistically, it may have been the right move, but it took the pressure off the Army of Mississippi and granted the army a lengthy respite that Bragg put to good use.

          First and foremost, efforts were made to improve the health and well-being of the men. Getting out of the unhealthy environs of Corinth proved a tremendous boon in itself, and army’s camps at Tupelo were located on sandy ridges “covered with a growth of oak, black-jack, and hickory,” recalled Colonel William P. Johnston. “The position is healthy, pleasant and capable of defense.” The men spread their tents among the shade of the trees and set to work digging wells. One veteran remembered that the wells were “about 25 feet deep with a sugar hogshead on the bottom with the tops surrounded and covered by rails.” Located along the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, the supply situation started to improve and soon the men were enjoying increased rations, particularly of beef which was issued five days per week and corn meal in lieu of flour. “The soldiers prefer corn meal to flour,” Colonel Johnston noted and while he observed that most of the men were poor cooks, they were learning from experience.

These soldiers of the 9th Mississippi pose in camp at Pensacola, Florida in April 1861 still dressed in civilian clothing, the soldier at left front likely cooking some bacon in his skillet. The quality of food improved at Tupelo as the army was based along a secure railroad line and received beef on the hoof on a regular basis. The 9th Mississippi later served in Bragg's army in General James Chalmers' "High Pressure Brigade" and took part in the bitter fighting at Shiloh, Munfordville, Murfreesboro, and Chickamauga. 


          The next order of business was to instill Bragg’s own brand of discipline on the “mob.” He cut his inspectors loose and shook up the army from stem to stern. Bragg insisted on a strict observance of military law and customs, punished deserters with public executions, and set the army to work learning to be soldiers. Lieutenant Colonel Camille de Polignac, one of Bragg’s inspectors, wrote that “the men have been accustomed for years to have no check put on their proclivities. Evils in this army have to be corrected partly by persuasion, partly by compulsion.”  It was once a common occurrence to hear the discharge of firearms within camp at all hours of the day, but Bragg clamped down hard on that, even having a man shot for discharging his weapon without orders. “Since that time, the discipline of the troops was improved very much,” John Buie of the 23rd Mississippi wrote. “Men are not apt to disobey orders when they know that death is the punishment.” “We are going to have no more playing soldier in General Bragg’s army,” one officer commented. These strong measures are the only ones that will do the army any good.”

          Earlier that spring, the Confederate Congress had inadvertently added to General Bragg’s command woes by passing the Conscription Act, a necessary but wildly unpopular measure that extended the term of service of every soldier in the army to the duration of the war. It also forced each regiment to reorganize along with new elections for officers; the measure led to the election of many officers that Bragg found totally unfit to command and had to remove via boards of examination. “The elective feature of the conscript law has driven from the service the best who remained and to a great extent demoralized the troops,” Bragg complained. William Watson of the 3rd Louisiana remembered that one Tennessee regiment who insisted on their right to go home at the end of their term of service “laid down their arms and refused duty. Bragg then brought up a strong force and surrounded them, and then directed a battery of artillery against them and gave them five minutes to take up their arms. The men sullenly obeyed, each muttering to himself that it would be but little service he would ever get out of them. A good many deserted but some were caught attempting to desert and were summarily executed without any trial.”

Private Sam Watkins of Co. H of the 1st Tennessee Infantry was a frequent critic of Bragg and thought him a poor general, little better than a whipper of deserters. "As a general, he was a perfect failure, but as a shootist he was a perfect success," Watkins complained. "Had General Robert E. Lee been the commander in chief of our armies, General Joe E. Johnston our commissary and quartermaster, General Stonewall Jackson and General N.B. Forrest our field commanders, then let Bragg be the disciplinarian, shooter, and hanger of evildoers, then our cause would have been a success."


          Roughly 3% of the army were listed as deserters and as the men were caught, Bragg resolved to make an example of them. The first one executed was a solider in the 7th Arkansas was refused to do any duty of any kind, essentially a mutineer. On June 17th, the man was shot in front of his brigade. “Our whole brigade was ordered out to see the execution,” stated Lieutenant Frank Denton of the 8th Arkansas. “I saw him shot when the ball struck him. The men were very clamorous about going home when their time is out until this youth was shot. Now they are taking it easy.” Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee recalled that two soldiers from the 23rd Tennessee received a public whipping and provided a graphic description of the proceedings. “The man who did the whipping had a thick piece of sole leather the end of which was cut into three strips and this tacked to the end of a paddle. The whipper let in. I do not think he intended to hit as hard as he did, but being excited himself, he blistered Rube from head to foot. When he struck at all, one lick would make three whelps.”

Supplies of army uniforms at Tupelo included jackets from the Columbus Depot as well as uniforms made by aid societies. "Beautiful silk dresses had been cut up and made into tunics for the soldiers," one Louisianan remembered. "Our regiment came in for a fair share of these articles and when the regiment turned out for inspection, they certainly presented a clean and neat though somewhat fantastic appearance." Most of the men were happy to receive a lined shell jacket and kepi like that shown above. 


Bragg worked incessantly at Tupelo to obtain new clothing for his men since so much had been lost during the previous two months of active campaigning. “Our regiment as gone to nothing,” complained one soldier in the 14th Arkansas. “Our report to General Hebert this morning was 225 men in all, 82 without shirts, 96 without shoes, and 38 without hats.” Bragg secured 140 boxes of newly made clothing from the Columbus, Georgia depot in early July and distributed it amongst him troops. “Goods uniforms add immensely to the make and esprit de corps of soldiers,” noted the Mobile Advertiser & Register. “A good bath and a clean shirt raises every man in his self-respect and is the basis of all virtues, heroic and civil. If the Confederate troops had been disciplined, armed, and equipped like those of the Yankees, they would have been waving the Bonnie Blue flag in Boston before now.”

          Another article required by the army was wagons- to sustain an active campaign, the Army of Mississippi needed a much larger fleet of wagons to haul supplies, but since the Confederate government wasn’t able to furnish them, Bragg’s army was forced to “impress” them from the civil populace. “We were often compelled to take such articles wherever they could be found without regard to the wishes or desires of the possessors,” Quartermaster Silas Grisamore of the 18th Louisiana stated. “It was always an unpleasant business.”

"Instead of a pale face, feeble gait, and dejected appearances of the invalid, I met with the clear complexion, elastic step, and cheerful countenance which betokens health and vigor," one Mississippi artillerist recounted of his comrades at Tupelo. "Our army is recruiting so fast that it will not long remain inactive." By the end of July, thousands of troops were on the road to Chattanooga and plans for an audacious campaign to invade Kentucky were being developed. 

Drill, the bane of a soldier’s existence, became a constant feature of the camp at Tupelo. Bragg, operating under the credo that a busy crew is a happy crew, ordered that five hours a day six days a week, the new soldiers and the veterans went through the monotonous exercise of the manual of arms, company drill, and battalion drill.  John Jackman of the 9th Kentucky commented that “or battalion drill at 2 p.m. was hot work. All the while encamped at Tupelo, we had regular drills and the weather could not have been hotter.” It was hard and grueling work, but an essential element in hardening the troops for the challenges and hardships of the upcoming campaign. And the impact on the vigor of the army quickly drew notice. “Instead of a pale face, feeble gait, and dejected appearances of the invalid, I met with the clear complexion, elastic step, and cheerful countenance which betokens health and vigor,” Corporal Benjamin W.L. Butt observed in July. “Our army is recruiting so fast that it will not long remain inactive.”

Most of Bragg’s efforts to improve the discipline of his army met with scarcely feigned disgust from his men, and the stridency with which his measures were adopted led some to view Bragg as “a merciless tyrant. He loved to crush the spirit of his men. The more of a hang-dog look they had about them, the better,” complained Sam Watkins. General Alexander P. Stewart averred that Bragg was an able officer but “he did not win the love and confidence of either the officers or the men.” Stanley Horn commented that “despite its antagonistic attitude towards its commander, the army at Tupelo…was ready to take the field.”

          But by late July when Bragg put the army on the move to Chattanooga, it hardly resembled the rag-tag force that marched into Tupelo a month earlier. In a word, the army had been revived. The Bragg touch, rough-hewn, severe, and harsh as it was, turned the army into a well-crafted instrument of war. More importantly, the army began to believe in itself again. “There has been a marvelous change for the better in condition, health, discipline, and drill of the troops since this army left Corinth,” one officer noted with pride. Another soldier noted that “the troops are all in fine spirits and seemed perfectly willing to fight on till the last invader is driven from Southern soil. When our boys breathe the fresh mountain air of Tennessee, they will soon be prepared to ensure every toil and danger incident to the long fatiguing marches they will be called on to make in the campaign before them.”

Source:

Masters, Daniel A. Adrift in a Sea of Blood: A Narrative History of the Stones River Campaign. Savas Beatie, 2024


Comments

  1. What is surprising is how many men Johnston had executed in 1864, and yet the men remembered him fondly. What a difference two years made.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Really, wasn't aware of this, about how many did Gen. Johnston execute?

      Delete

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