P.G.T. Beauregard, born in St. Bernard Parish in 1818, was among the first prominent generals of the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard was a Louisiana-born American military officer, politician, inventor, writer, civil servant, and the first prominent general of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. Today he is commonly referred to as P. G. T. Beauregard, but he rarely used his first name as an adult and signed correspondence G. T. Beauregard.
The man who would someday lead troops into battle was born on March 28, 1818, at Contreras plantation in St. Bernard Parish. Descended from French-Italian colonists and proud of his Creole heritage, Beauregard cut a chivalrous and exotic figure among the Confederacy’s leadership. He was one of the South’s eight full generals and held six independent commands, including the Army of Tennessee, one of the Confederacy’s two principal field armies. He fired the Civil War’s opening shots on Fort Sumter and surrendered only after Robert E. Lee offered his sword to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.
Beauregard was attended by slaves in childhood and was imbued with French-colonial culture. He first learned English fluently at age eleven, when his father, Jacques Toutant-Beauregard, sent him to the French School in New York City. The headmasters had been officers under Napoleon, and their stories inspired Beauregard to a military career. Admitted to West Point in 1834 at age sixteen, Beauregard shared the classroom with most of the officers he would serve with or fight against during the Civil War including William Tecumseh Sherman, Joseph Hooker, and Braxton Bragg. He was an outstanding cadet, graduating second in the class of 1838.
As a lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, Beauregard was responsible for constructing and maintaining the army’s chain of coastal forts. After being assigned in 1840 to survey Barataria Bay on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, he spent the next five years in his home state. While visiting the plantation of a friend in Plaquemines Parish, he courted the friend’s sister, Marie Laure Villere, a descendent of Jacques Villere, Louisiana’s first Creole governor. They married in 1844 and had three children, but Marie died in childbirth in 1850. Ten years later Beauregard married Caroline Desplonde, from a family of sugar cane planters in St. James Parish. She died in New Orleans 1864, separated from her husband by the Union occupation of the city. They had no children, but the marriage allied Beauregard with Caroline’s brother-in-law, U.S. Senator John Slidell.
During the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), Beauregard built fortifications, conducted reconnaissance, and served under the campaign’s commander, General Winfield Scott. He is credited with devising the strategy that captured Mexico City and led to the U.S. victory. He ended the war as a brevet major but returned to peacetime service as a captain. From 1848 through 1860, Beauregard was in charge of federal engineering projects in Louisiana, including forts intended to protect New Orleans from naval attack. Working with a limited budget, he was unable to complete the fortifications satisfactorily, leaving Louisiana vulnerable during the Civil War.
Always sensitive about his dignity and position, Beauregard fretted over what he deemed the snubbing of his superiors. Pondering alternatives to the dead end of his military career, he considered joining American freebooter William Walker’s campaign to seize control of Nicaragua and ran unsuccessfully in the contentious 1858 New Orleans mayoral election. In January 1861, Beauregard finally received the recognition he craved in his appointment as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, but by the time he arrived at West Point, Louisiana had seceded. He was asked to step down only one day into his tenure. When Louisiana Governor Thomas O. Moore asked him to return home, Beauregard resigned his commission in the US Army. With his prickly personality bringing him in conflict with others seeking high rank in the nascent Confederate army, he cloaked his indignity in martyrdom by ostentatiously enrolling as a private in the Louisiana militia. With the aid of Senator Slidell, Beauregard was finally commissioned by President Jefferson Davis as brigadier general and sent to Charleston to take possession of Fort Sumter. He became the first hero of the Confederacy after Fort Sumter fell in April 1861.
Beauregard’s stature increased when he defeated Union forces in the Civil War’s first pitched battle at Manassas (Bull Run). The dashing Creole cut a Byronic image in the press; he was beloved by Southern editors as well as women, who showered him with letters, gifts, and flowers. Grateful crowds gathered whenever Beauregard appeared in public, and enlisted men were proud to serve under “the little black Frenchman,” as they sometimes called him. His popularity reinforced his otherwise precarious standing with Jefferson Davis. The two men were temperamentally incompatible: Both considered themselves military geniuses and neither tolerated criticism.
Beauregard was assigned to many fronts from 1862 to 1865. He led the South at the indecisive battle of Shiloh (1862), repulsed a Union naval attack on Charleston (1863), held back Union forces landing at the James River, and mounted an effective defense of Virginia (1864). Beauregard was unable to halt Sherman’s March to the Sea and surrendered to him on April 26, 1865. The imperious Beauregard was an imaginative and bold general, a brilliant if sometimes distracted strategist who squandered time quarreling with colleagues and superiors. His astute understanding of the power of image and the mass media served him well through the war and in civilian life. One of his legacies was to approve William Porcher Miles’s design for the Confederate battle flag, which never officially replaced the banner of the Confederate States but came to symbolize the Southern cause.
Returning to New Orleans, he reluctantly swore an oath of loyalty to the United States and accepted a pardon from President Andrew Johnson in 1868. He considered pursuing military commissions from foreign armies but elected to stay in Louisiana. Although the general took for granted the racial mores of his times, he sought to build an alliance between white and black Southerners by supporting voting and other civil rights for African Americans, in order to undermine Radical Republican control of Louisiana during Reconstruction. Beauregard enjoyed a prolific career as a writer, sparred publicly with Jefferson Davis over responsibility for the Confederacy’s defeat, and was often present at events honoring Confederate veterans. Unlike many officers of the defeated Southern army, he became wealthy after the war’s end by putting his reputation as an engineer to good use. Beauregard held numerous positions with transportation companies, including chief engineer and president of the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern Railroad and president of the New Orleans and Carrollton Street Railway. He was instrumental in rebuilding the state’s rail network, which had been wrecked during the war. He also served as adjutant general of Louisiana from 1879 to 1888, was elected commissioner of public works in New Orleans in 1888, supervised the Louisiana Lottery, and was active in many Crescent City cultural organizations.
Beauregard died in his sleep on February 20, 1893, and was given a state funeral at Gallier Hall, New Orleans city hall. Beauregard Parish was named for him, as was the Louisiana National Guard base at Pineville, Camp Beauregard. One of his Crescent City residences, the Beauregard-Keyes House, is maintained as a museum.