Ask McGehee

Construction of the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion began in 1855, but it was not built by the famed general. It was actually erected by his brother, Judge John Bragg. At that time, the property was technically beyond the city limits of Mobile, in the suburban district of Summerville. John’s last surviving daughter later reminisced about the 14-room house, describing the “upholstered rosewood in the parlors, mahogany in the library and walnut in the dining room.”

The Bragg family hailed from North Carolina, where another one of the Bragg brothers, Thomas, was elected governor in 1855 while Braxton, a West Point graduate, achieved victory during the Mexican-American War despite being outnumbered five to one. Braxton left his Louisiana sugar plantation at the outbreak of the Civil War and was one of only seven men to achieve the rank of full general during the conflict. 

John Bragg attended the University of North Carolina and was admitted to the bar in that state in 1827. During the 1830s, he followed the trail of settlers heading west and ended up in Mobile by 1835. Besides practicing law, he briefly served as editor of The Mobile Register before being appointed circuit court judge in 1843 and elected to Congress in 1852.

During this time, John made it no secret that he didn’t enjoy his time in Washington, D.C. and would never again serve in public office. He returned to Mobile to practice law and build his handsome home in 1855, which some speculate was designed by yet another Bragg brother, Alexander. John Bragg and his wife, Mary, lived quite comfortably in the home with their seven children.

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Portrait of John Bragg / Photo courtesy of Alabama Dept. of Archives and History


Escape and Disaster

When the Civil War broke out, John Bragg was “physically disqualified” for military service, possibly as a result of an altercation in North Carolina before his departure for Mobile. Angered by articles published in the local newspaper, Bragg violently confronted the local editor, using his cane. The editor pulled out a knife and slashed his assailant’s throat, nearly killing him. John miraculously survived and left town with a single suitcase in hand while the editor was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.

It was widely believed that Mobile, an important port city, would surely come under attack early in the war. The Braggs packed up their most prized possessions and moved up to bucolic Lowndes County where Mary had been raised. It was there, in Lowndesboro, that their luck worsened.

In the spring of 1865, Union Gen. James Wilson led more than 13, 000 cavalry troops across central Alabama, purportedly targeting industrial sites. Along the way, they burned most of the University of Alabama and marched through Lowndesboro, where they looted and burned the Bragg home, leaving the family to watch the fire. According to family lore, upon discovering that John was the brother of a Confederate general, the troops were readying a noose, but his crying children and wife persuaded them to spare him.

Upon their return to Mobile, the Braggs were in for another shock. In preparing the city for a possible attack from the west, the Confederates had mowed down John Bragg’s proud grove of live oak trees for a clear line of sight. Luckily, the house had survived intact, and in the late 1860s, the distraught homeowner planted the trees that now frame this Mobile landmark. John
died in the house in 1878, and two years later, the property passed out of the family.

The judge’s more famous brother, Braxton, dropped dead from a heart attack on a street in Galveston, Texas, in 1876 and is buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile.

text by Tom mcgehee • photo by chad riley

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