If you read Foote closely you can begin to tell which generals he is especially fond off, his disappointment and elation with their characters and performance both at particular instances as well as across time. So it is with all of the major characters in his trilogy. Foote can recite and respect the virtues of Jefferson Davis, for example, but he never really warms to him even as the reader can feel his unfruitful efforts and frustrations. Perhaps in the end the President of the Confederacy is too sanctimonious, too dogmatic and too rigid; this notwithstanding his immense education and experience that should have peppered him with more wisdom and humility, virtues that would have dulled the pride that too often impaired his judgment. More interesting is that mythology and hero-worship does not cloud his judgment of Lincoln; Foote was all too familiar with his Machiavellian steel and ruthlessness for those clouds to form. Nevertheless, he loved Lincoln best. As I have argued before, the Mississippian’s portraits of Lincoln are the finest devoted to any single character, and this includes books that bring to life colorful soulful Southern characters like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Peter Longstreet, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Foote does warm too these, sometimes a little too well as in the case of the devil Forrest, the war’s peerless fighting general.
But I digress. I simply wanted to post today that Foote can be as merciless in dressing down characters he frowns upon as he is in praising the virtuous. Georges Clemenceau, in one of the best insults ever uttered, once said of one of France’s most renown Generals, Fernidad Foch: “He was an average specimen of humanity whose main weakness was to imagine himself greater than he was.” No doubt Foote could have drubbed General Braxton Bragg with such a mighty club if he had chosen to. It’s a good thing that he did not for his best instruments were sharper and just as lethal. Witness here the dissection of poor Braxton Bragg:
“So [Bragg] said. But it seemed to others in his army that there was more to it than this; that the trouble, in fact, was personal; that it lay not within the situation which involved a shortage of rations and a surplus of bluecoats, but somewhere down deep inside Bragg himself. For all the audacity of his conception, for all his boldness through the preliminaries, once the critical instant was at hand he simply could not screw his nerves up to the sticking point. It was strange, this sudden abandonment of Stonewall as his model. It was as if a lesser poet should set out to imitate Shakespeare or Milton. With luck and skill, he might ape the manner, the superficial arrangement of words and even sentences; but the Shakespearian or Miltonic essence would be missing. And so it was with Bragg. He lacked the essence. Earlier he had said that the enemy was to be broken up and beaten in detail, Jackson-style, “by rapid movements and vigorous blows.” Now this precept was revised. As he left Munfordville he told a colonel on his staff: “This campaign must be won by marching, not fighting.”
It’s a pity that this general got a fort named after him.