Monday, May 28, 2018

This Day in Civil War History (Birth of P. G. T. Beauregard, ‘Napoleon in Gray’)

May 28, 1818— Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, perhaps the most multi-faceted, colorful, and ubiquitous senior commander in the Confederate Army, was born in St. Bernard Parish, La., 45 miles from the New Orleans that would be his base for much of his civilian life.
 Although he won the South’s first two military encounters at Fort Sumter and Bull Run and directed sterling defenses of Charleston and Petersburg in the late stages of the Civil War, he saw his hopes for greater glory dashed because of his conspicuous vanity, a troubled relationship with President Jefferson Davis, and an inability to produce results equal to his schemes. 

Three decades ago, a co-worker of mine told me she had a cat, Beauregard. I don’t know the reason that my colleague and her husband called their pet that, let alone their Civil War interests. But the name conjures up something exotic, intent on its prerogatives and full of self-regard—not unlike how detractors (and even some defenders) might view “The Little Creole.”

That latter nickname did more than indicate an ancestry; it pointed to a Continental appearance and cast of mind for this Zelig of the Civil War who seemingly popped up everywhere, from the first shot at Fort Sumter that he directed at his old artillery instructor and friend, Major Robert Anderson, to final surrender in the Carolinas four years later. Not for nothing did T. Harry Williams subtitle his biography “Napoleon in Gray.”

This scion of the Louisiana plantocracy was practically silky, with smooth olive skin, half-lidded eyes, and a moustache that, according to Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic, was waxed daily by a faithful attendant. He grew up with French as his primary language, not even learning English till the age of 12, when he was in private school. Even as an adult, wrote John Sergeant Wise, a VMI cadet, “his voice was pleasant and insinuating, with a foreign accent.” 

It was a voice made for seduction—not merely of women (his post-Appomattox possessions, scoured by Union forces for evidence of treason, largely comprised “mash notes from the general's female admirers,” wrote biographer Williams), but of men he sought to convince that he was just the person to serve in office, lead an army, or head up a commercial enterprise. 

It was all facilitated by undoubted energy and intelligence. Familiarity with French gave Beauregard an affinity for the writings of Antoine Henry Jomini, a member of Napoleon’s staff, and the little Louisianan graduated second from his West Point class of 1838.

“On casual meeting the Louisiana soldier could be impressive: his flamboyant martial air, his hauteur, his infectious zest for war combined to give him stature greater than his five foot seven inches,” observed Frank E. Vandiver in Their Tattered Flags: The Epic of the Confederacy. “In moments of public enthusiasm his rhetoric rang Demosthenic periods and his self-confidence ran beyond decency. At such times he bordered on self-caricature. But never quite sure of what he wanted, he could never quite win against himself.”

What began as a clash of cultural and temperamental opposites between Beauregard and Davis ended as a nasty multi-decade public feud over strategy, honor, responsibility and recrimination.  The Protestant, humorless, ascetic, Confederate President could only have cringed at the sight and sound of his Catholic, bon vivant general opposing his policy of dispersing troops rather than concentrating them at a strategic point—then of Beauregard urging that his self-aggrandizing proposals should be implemented “at once.”

Annoyance turned to apoplexy when Davis read Beauregard’s official report on the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run, to Northerners) in 1861. The account, printed in an anti-Davis newspaper, implied that Davis almost lost the battle by tardily reinforcing Beauregard with the troops of Joseph Johnston, and gave further fuel to a controversy over whether Davis was responsible for the failure to pursue the fleeing Union troops. Understandably, Davis scolded his general for “an attempt to exalt yourself at my expense.”

The following year, a failure to pull out a victory seemingly within his grasp at the end of the first day of battle at Shiloh, Tenn., followed by Beauregard’s taking of medical leave without asking prior permission, gave Davis the excuse he needed to relieve Beauregard of command in the West.Their quarrel continued with self-serving memoirs that each wrote in the 1880s.

For years, because of the loss at Shiloh, I believed Beauregard was not a particularly good commander. But when I voiced that view on a trip to Charleston some years, my tour guide strongly contended that was not the case. 

Even my sense that the guide may have held at least some residual sympathy for the South could not argue against his central point: At a time when the rest of the Confederacy was reeling from the blows of the Union Army, and Charleston was facing vastly superior Northern naval and land forces, Beauregard masterminded defenses that enabled the men in gray to hold out for two years. 

He performed equally capably by helping Robert E. Lee hold off Ulysses S. Grant for the second half of 1864 in the siege of Petersburg, preventing the immediate collapse of Richmond and the end of the Confederacy.

One other Beauregard contribution to the Confederate cause was devising the Confederate flag now most recognized by posterity. Though the flags initially used by the rebels in the Eastern theater already incorporated “stars and bars,” they still looked enough like the Stars and Stripes to cause confusion on the battlefield.

Beauregard’s solution—inserting the St. Andrews’ cross—solved the problem. But, though created for largely utilitarian reasons, the “Southern Cross” ended up creating a longer-lasting symbolic problem, with military sacrifice merging into the original religious martyrdom signified by the Cross. Descendants of these soldiers did not want to hear that their symbol of ancestral heroism could signify inherited hatred to African-Americans.

In the postwar era, Beauregard sought to integrate back into larger national life and move beyond the agricultural economy envisioned by the Confederate States. For a short period, he rented rooms on New Orleans’ Chartres Street, and today the Beauregard-Keyes House functions as a museum that offers insight into the general and a later occupant, Frances Parkinson Keyes, who wrote a fictionalized biography of the “Little Creole,” Madame Castel's Lodger.

But his principal activity was business, as he promoted the Louisiana Lottery and became president of the Jackson and Great Northern Railroad as well as the New Orleans and Carrollton Street Railway, for which he invented a system of cable-powered streetcars. 

The Confederate statue-removal movement that spread nationwide after nine worshippers were shot at an African-American church three years ago in Charleston has now ensnared Beauregard. Last year, the equestrian statue at the entrance to New Orleans’ City Park was removed and carted off in the middle of the night.

The problem with this move was that a blatant attempt to whitewash history by honoring a cadre of traitors who led their people into a war that devastated their way of life and destroyed their young sons was followed by a more recent trend toward making these leaders Soviet-style “non-persons” removed from history. My own preference is for signage that establishes a fuller understanding of the motives and consequences of these soldiers’ and statesmen’s actions. 

Such a context would not turn General Beauregard into a saint or sinner, but it would establish him as a recognizable human being rather than a bronze figure lacking his considerable conceit and charm.

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