Braxton Bragg has generated much outrage this summer, though few Californians knew who he was until recently.
Born poor in North Carolina, he yearned for social acceptance. When he didn’t get it, he made the military an outlet for his ambition. In 1847, during the Mexican-American War, he heroically manned an artillery battery under Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor, but peers also recalled his abrasiveness, insubordination and obsession with protocol and detail. Ulysses S. Grant joked that Bragg sent himself memos. In Mexico, he sent a soldier back during a bloody retreat to retrieve a dead man’s sword because it was government property.
He retired in 1856 to become a slave-owning Louisiana planter. At about that time, a former underling was establishing a military outpost at the Mendocino Indian Reservation, and decided to honor his old commander. Thus did California get Fort Bragg, though the man never set foot here.
The good deed was soon punished. When the Civil War started in 1861, the 54-year-old veteran came out of retirement to be a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. His old war pal, Jefferson Davis, had asked, and he still craved belonging.
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He was a disaster. The tactics that had worked in his heyday didn’t work in this new war, and Bragg’s failure to adapt got his troops slaughtered. His fellow generals despised him; rumor had it his subordinates tried to frag him. When he died in 1876, he was remembered as a bully and a blunderer.
Lessons abound here, though his failures, like his triumphs, faded. As North and South sought reconciliation, the sense was that all who served were Americans in the end, and merited honor. Bragg became little more than a historical marker in California, but in 1918, a North Carolina U.S. Army base was named for him – incredibly, it seems now, though numerous Confederate leaders have been similarly honored.
This brings us to Bragg’s moment now, and the broader national debate over memorials and who should have them. Set off by the slaughter at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston that forced the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state Capitol, it is also fueled by demographics that are making us a majority-minority nation.
Latino lawmakers want to get rid of a statue of the controversial and soon-to-be-canonized missionary Junípero Serra that now stands in Congress. Democratic legislators want to ban the naming of schools after Confederate heroes.
Black lawmakers want Fort Bragg to be renamed because Bragg owned 105 slaves and, like other Confederate generals, betrayed the union. But whether to purge this era’s objectionable names from public spaces isn’t the right question.
More pressing is whether we’re doing all we can to understand all of our stories, from resisting efforts to dumb down AP History standards to truly examining what’s behind all those statues and street names. Like Braxton Bragg, we are all complex and human. It’s time we embrace the fact that our history is, too.