The Decisive Battle of the Civil War: An Unlikely Nomination

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014-2015, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the January 2015 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


One of the topics that Civil War enthusiasts enjoy debating is the question of which Civil War battle was the decisive one. As a way of delving again into the thorny subject of the Civil War’s decisive battle, a nomination for this distinction is made herein. It is likely that no one will agree with this choice for the Civil War’s decisive battle, but if nothing else, the selection of this battle as the decisive one can be taken as an example of how a seemingly distant and unrelated occurrence can have a profound effect on subsequent events. The two Civil War battles that are most often mentioned as the war’s decisive battle are Gettysburg and Vicksburg. However, to give consideration to the nomination proposed herein, then it is necessary to accept that the decisive battle of the Civil War did not occur in 1863 in Pennsylvania or Mississippi or, for that matter, anywhere else during 1863. The decisive battle of the Civil War also did not take place in 1864 or 1865. Nor did it occur in 1861 or 1862, and it did not happen in Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, or Tennessee. The decisive battle of the Civil War happened in 1847, and it took place in Mexico. The decisive battle of the Civil War was the battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican-American War.

Jefferson Davis
Braxton Bragg

The battle of Buena Vista took place in February 1847. A U.S. army under the command of future president Zachary Taylor was advancing south in Mexico. Taylor received word from a scout that a much larger Mexican army under Antonio López de Santa Anna was moving to oppose him. Taylor positioned his army in a mountain pass to give his smaller force the benefit of terrain. Part of Taylor’s army was positioned on high ground on the left. Santa Anna’s battle plan was to try to move against and around this left flank, and he sent elements of his army to do so. In spite of the advantage of the high ground, the Mexicans were driving the Americans back, and the left flank of Taylor’s army was on the brink of collapse. At this point Taylor sent forward a Mississippi regiment, the Mississippi Rifles, which was under the command of Taylor’s son-in-law, Colonel Jefferson Davis. Davis’ regiment managed to hold off the Mexicans, but the battle was far from over. A renewed and fierce Mexican attack led to the American lines once more being on the verge of crumbling. To drive off the enemy force Taylor sent in an artillery unit under the command of Captain Braxton Bragg with explicit orders from Taylor to “maintain the position at every hazard.” What is remarkable about Bragg’s artillery unit rushing forward is that it was done with no infantry support. Only 50 yards from the enemy, Bragg’s unit unlimbered and drove canister into the advancing Mexicans, which brought the attack to an end.

Zachary Taylor

Several anecdotes from the battle of Buena Vista are noteworthy. For example, Zachary Taylor was reputed to be astride his horse near the front when someone shouted to him that a cannonball was heading toward him. Supposedly Taylor timed the flight of the cannonball and lifted himself off his saddle to allow the projectile to pass under him and above his horse. While it is true that Taylor remained near the front in harm’s way, it is almost certain that that incident is apocryphal. Also apocryphal is the purported admonition that Taylor made to Bragg to give the Mexicans “a little more grape, Captain Bragg.” Since Bragg’s guns were firing canister, not grapeshot, this exhortation is almost certainly inaccurate, but it was used in various forms as a slogan during Taylor’s successful 1848 campaign for the U.S. presidency. One anecdote from the battle of Buena Vista that is true, and is also relevant to the Civil War, is that Jefferson Davis witnessed Braxton Bragg’s bold and unsupported movement against the Mexican attack, and this incident colored Davis’ opinion of Bragg to the eventual detriment of the Confederate cause.

A painting depicting Zachary Taylor exhorting Braxton Bragg to use “a little more grape”

During the Civil War, when it became clear that Braxton Bragg was wholly incompetent as an army commander, Confederate President Jefferson Davis continued to leave Bragg in command of the Army of Tennessee while that army lost more and more southern territory in the western theater. It was not until the disaster at Missionary Ridge demonstrated convincingly that the men in the Army of Tennessee had lost all respect for Bragg and all willingness to follow his orders that Davis finally made the decision to remove Bragg from command. But by then Bragg’s incompetence had solidified the outcome in the western theater. A number of Civil War historians, such as Richard McMurry, have argued compellingly that the Civil War was decided not in the East, but in the West, and Jefferson Davis’ reluctance to remove Bragg was instrumental in allowing Bragg to sow disaster for the Confederacy in the western theater, which ultimately led to overall Confederate defeat. Davis’ sustaining of Bragg in the face of evidence that such support was not warranted had its genesis in 1847 at the battle of Buena Vista.

There is a short story titled “A Sound of Thunder” by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. The premise of the story is that a futuristic and beneficent society has developed the capacity for time travel, and this is used for tourism. One type of trip is to go back in time on a safari for the thrill of killing a dinosaur. The company that operates the service is careful to select only those dinosaurs that were about to die from some other cause in order not to disrupt the future by altering the past. A participant on one safari panics at the sight of the Tyrannosaurus rex that is the target of the group, and this person jumps off of the time travel platform on which everyone is supposed to remain in order to prevent potentially disastrous contact between the people from the future and the world of the past. After this person jumps off of the platform, he steps on and kills a butterfly. When the safari group returns to its own time, the beneficent, enlightened society from which they departed has been replaced by one that is despotic and oppressive. The lesson of this short story is that a seemingly miniscule occurrence can have substantial consequences when the effects of that occurrence become amplified through the course of time.

And so it was with the battle of Buena Vista. Jefferson Davis was so struck by the bravery and daring of Braxton Bragg that Davis continued to have faith in Bragg during the Civil War, even after all the evidence indicated that Bragg was woefully ineffective as commander of the Army of Tennessee. Davis’ misplaced faith in Bragg thus played a major role in determining the outcome in the western theater and thereby in the Civil War itself. This misplaced faith grew out of Davis’ observations of Bragg at the battle of Buena Vista, and the effects of those observations and of the opinion that arose from them rippled through time and played a decisive role in the Confederacy’s defeat.

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