June 17, 1862 – General P.G.T. Beauregard left his Confederate Army of Mississippi due to illness, causing controversy over whether he had gone absent without leave.
President Jefferson Davis had struggled to get along with Beauregard ever since the general had been stationed in Virginia. These difficulties intensified when Davis learned that Beauregard had given up Corinth without a fight; Davis disagreed with Beauregard’s assessment that Corinth’s evacuation had been necessary. Just over a week after losing that town, the Confederacy lost both Fort Pillow and Memphis as well.
During this time, Davis was dealing with another problem, as South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens expressed dissatisfaction with the department commander in his state, General John C. Pemberton. Davis tried solving both problems at once by asking Pickens if he would be willing to allow Beauregard, the hero of Fort Sumter, to replace Pemberton. Knowing Beauregard had been ill for several months, Davis explained that the sea air might help him recover.
Pickens agreed and wrote to Beauregard asking him to come east, enjoy the sea air, and “fight our batteries again.” Beauregard initially resisted, replying from his Tupelo, Mississippi, headquarters, “Would be happy to do so, but my presence absolutely required here at present. My health still bad. No doubt sea-air would restore it, but have no time to restore it.”
Beauregard’s deterioration began accelerating, and when doctors urged him to take a rest, he finally consented. Meanwhile, Davis dispatched Colonel William P. Johnston, son of the late General Albert Sidney Johnston, to ask Beauregard a series of questions about the health of his army, his plans to regain Nashville, why he hadn’t done more to save Memphis, and what resources he had lost during his retreat.
Davis also sidestepped military protocol by directly ordering Major General Braxton Bragg, Beauregard’s subordinate, to report to Jackson, Mississippi, and take command of the military department under General Mansfield Lovell. This included the former New Orleans garrison and the Vicksburg defenses. Davis wrote, “After General (John B.) Magruder joins, your further services there may be dispensed with. The necessity is urgent and absolute.”
Bragg, adhering to the chain of command, forwarded the message to Beauregard, who replied to Davis that Bragg’s “presence here I consider indispensable at this moment, especially as I am leaving for a while on surgeon’s certificate… My health does not permit me to remain in charge alone here… I must have a short rest.” Beauregard then sent the endorsement of two physicians:
“We certify that, after attendance on General Beauregard for the past four months, and treatment of his case, in our professional opinion he is incapacitated physically for the arduous duties of his present command, and we urgently recommend rest and recreation.”
Without authorization from Richmond, Beauregard transferred his command to Bragg and left Tupelo for the health spas at Bladen Springs near Mobile, Alabama. Beauregard felt he had done everything possible to notify his superiors that he was leaving, and they knew where to find him. Davis felt that Beauregard was absent without permission.
Beauregard had once been hailed as the hero of Fort Sumter and Bull Run. But after questionable performances at Shiloh and Corinth, Davis was fed up with him, and now Davis had the chance he needed to get rid of him permanently.
Davis temporarily placed Bragg in command of the Confederate “Western Department,” or Department No. 2. This included the area from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi River, but it mostly pertained to the Army of Mississippi at Tupelo. Major General Earl Van Dorn was assigned to the command at Jackson and Vicksburg instead of Bragg. Davis made the moves permanent in a message to Bragg on June 20:
“You are assigned permanently to the command of the department, as will be more formally notified to you by the Secretary of War. You will correspond directly and receive orders and instructions from the Government in relation to your future operations.”
This was Bragg’s first assignment to full army command. He was an excellent strategist and logistician, but he lacked decisiveness, and his nasty disposition alienated everyone around him. Many of his officers and men openly detested him.
Meanwhile, W.P. Johnston met with Beauregard at Mobile and learned of the army’s condition as Davis had requested. Beauregard rejected rumors that he had lost large amounts of men and supplies. He also did not know that he had been permanently replaced by Bragg; he only thought he was going to the spa for a week to 10 days before returning to command. But Davis did not want him back.
Davis left it to Bragg to tell Beauregard that he had been removed from army command. On the 21st, Bragg wrote him, “I have a dispatch, from the President direct, to relieve you permanently in command of this department… I envy you, and am almost in despair.”
Beauregard, knowing that the decision had been Davis’s and not Bragg’s, replied, “I cannot congratulate you, but am happy for the change. It will take me some time to recuperate. I will leave my Staff with you until required by me. You will find it very useful.”
Part of the reason Beauregard could not congratulate Bragg was because Federal forces were slowly closing in on the army at Tupelo. In spite of this, Davis directed Bragg to regain the initiative by moving north, breaking through Major General Henry W. Halleck’s spread-out army, and liberating Nashville.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13260-73; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 183-84; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 390; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 169-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 227-28; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 416, 515; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 814