The Letter of Grief-Stricken General Beauregard
By Joel Kolander
Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard (a.k.a. “PGT”) is a name so distinct that it is readily recognizable to most Americans, even if little can be recalled. Best known for his service as a Confederate General in the Civil War, PGT also served admirably in several battles during the Mexican-American War. Born to parents of proud pedigree in French Creole Louisiana, Beauregard’s family was hardly ever in want. He attended private schools in New York and finally learned to speak English at age 12, having been raised speaking French.
The bilingual young lad eventually made his way to West Point, where he often went just by “G. T. Beauregard” to better fit in with his classmates. He graduated second in the Class of 1838, and then began his storied and controversial military service, which includes such deeds as ordering the first shots fired in the Civil War upon on Ft. Sumter, the First Battle of Bull Run (earning him the title of General), the Battle of Manassas, and several successful coastal defenses.
But before he became the man known to U.S. history, he was the man known to Marie Antoinette Laure Villeré, whom he married in 1841 after an “overwhelming” courtship while stationed at Barataria Bay, LA. She was the daughter of another well-respected French Creole family who found their fortune in the sugar cane fields. The fact that her great-grandfather was the second governor of Louisiana didn’t hurt either. Their marriage was a happy one with two boys, René and Henri, whom PGT would steal away from the fort to see at every available opportunity. Their marriage was unfortunately short, when Marie died giving birth to their third child on March 21, 1850, a day short of her 27th birthday. Her tombstone bore the following epitaph in French, “Spirit from Heaven, there you have returned. Sleep in peace, daughter, wife, and dear mother.” Her grave stands alone to this day since Beauregard would eventually be buried in New Orleans. The third child, his daughter Laure Villeré Beauregard, lived and is said to have been the apple of the General’s eye.
He continued his engineering duties that he had begun in 1848, renovating coastal forts, building new ones, as well as improving and stabilizing the shipping channels in the Mississippi River Delta despite the river’s silt and mud. He was even promoted to the superintending engineer for the U.S. Custom House in New Orleans, whose large granite bulk had begun to sink dramatically and unevenly in the soft Louisiana soil. He served the position well until 1860, until his ambition carried him further (and with a paycut) to take the job as the Superintendent of his alma mater, West Point. Appointed in 1860, he would not officially assume the position until January 23, 1861. A known secessionist, he only held the position for five days. Louisiana had voted to secede on the 26th and it wouldn’t take long for Beauregard to receive letters from both Chief Engineer of the U.S. Army, Brigadier General Joseph Gilbert Totten (his recent boss), as well as the newly appointed Secretary of War Joseph Holt. He willingly relinquished the position on the 28th.
Earlier that year, and nearly 10 years after the death of his first wife, Beauregard remarried. He and Marguerite Caroline Deslonde were married in a quiet ceremony in May. She too came from sugar cane money but also gave Beauregard powerful connections; her brother-in-law John Slidell was a U.S. Senator. The afterglow of their wedded bliss was to be short-lived as Beauregard was soon called to service for the Confederacy. He was its first general officer.
The war raged on, and in the spring of 1864, Beauregard had finished a long winter of testing submarine designs and writing whiny letters to political allies expressing his displeasure with President Jefferson Davis. He had even written, but not sent, a detailed letter in preparation of leaving the army. In March of 1864 Beauregard was in Florida inspecting forts that had recently repelled a Federal attack, when he received a telegram from Mobile, Alabama, stating that his wife had died on March 2, 1864, in New Orleans, a city then under Union occupation.
He left immediately for his post in Charleston, since he could not return to New Orleans, and knowing that her family would send him letters there. The couple had regularly written each other during the war, but she had been seriously ill for two years and he had received no communication from her since December. Finally, a letter came from his sister-in-law, Julia Deslonde, relaying his wife’s final hours.
Rock Island Auction Company will make available this December, a letter written by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard on this dark day in his life. The letter reads,
“By letters I received today from home, I am informed that Mrs. B was confined to her bed two months before her death –during all that period and in her last moments of consciousness, she begged and entreated the members of her family (even my little daughter), not to mention her condition to me saying, ‘In this hour of danger to our country, it has more claims to his service than I have.’ Words which I shall order to be engraved on her tombstone.”
Far from the only letter he wrote on the subject, other writings can be found in the War Department Collection of Confederate Records. One he sent to Julia reads as such:
“My poor Caroline must have often asked herself on her bed of pain if she would ever see me again, and, more than once in her agony, her wandering thoughts must have directed themselves toward these battle lines in order to bid me an eternal goodbye. I well know that her beautiful soul, her generous and patriotic heart preferred the salvation of the country to the joy of seeing me. She must have said ‘The country comes before me’ – sublime words which I desire that you have carved on her tomb.”
A Northern-sympathizing newspaper indicated in no uncertain terms that Mrs. Beauregard’s illness had been exacerbated by her husband’s absence, stating,
“…This woman has, we learn, been in poor health for the past two or three years, and has required, what has been denied her, the care and attention of the man who gave his word at the altar to cherish and protect her. he also swore at one time to support the constitution of the United States. He does not hold his oaths in very high estimation, as we find him not only plotting for the destruction of his country, but deserting his invalid wide for years together, and leaving her dependent upon others for those acts of kindness and support that should be given by a husband. We know very little of the life or character of the deceased, further than that she was an invalid, neglected by her sworn protector, and left by him under the powerful protection of the flag whose glory he is devoting his puny energies to sully…”
Needless to say, that an such an article, written the day after the death of such a beloved and important pillar of the New Orleans and Creole communities, did not go over well with the local population. The “This woman” remark, which many believed a reference to an earlier insulting ordinance penned by Major General Benjamin Butler, in particular incensed the female readers, who made up the majority of the 6,000 funeral goers. Many believed that Butler himself penned the offensive letter.
Thankfully, New Orleans was also under the eye of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, whom President Lincoln had given command of the Army of the Gulf in 1862. Banks, perhaps in a show of respect, and perhaps to quell the growing civil unrest of the occupied city, provided a steamer, the Nebraska, to carry her mortal remains north so that she could be interred in her native parish of St. John the Baptist.
The funeral was a huge, lavish event described as,
“A larger throng was never assembled at any private funeral in this city. As early as eight o’clock the street in the vicinity of the [Mrs. Beauregard’s] house was crowded with people – a very large number of whom were ladies – who came from every part of the city. The house was filled and the adjacent streets were thronged. The Archbishop of the diocese and several priests were in attendance to perform the funeral rites, and the coffin was profusely decorated with beautiful wreaths of flowers. After the prayers, the body was taken to the boat which lay at the foot of Esplanade Street, and the coffin was followed by a procession that fairly filled the street from the levee to Rampart Street… There is much more to be said about this funeral procession. The French Consul and Spanish Consul were among the mourners. The French gunboat Catinat made the usual demonstrations of respect when the coffin was carried on board the Nebraska.”
Other accounts detail, “The procession of priests in their robes, with Bishop Odin at the head; the array of youth and age; the sad regard that each face wears; the silent tear coursing down the cheek; the flower-covered streets which lead from her mansion to where the steamer lay; the almost audible beating of hearts as the burial casket comes in view of the multitude on its bed of lilies, roses, and orange blossoms; the bowed heads of the awe-inspired thousands… is demonstration, such as no tyrant can suppress, and beyond the power of language to portray.”
Mrs. Beauregard was buried in the cemetery of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Edgard, Louisiana. Her grave marker once bore a marble slab with the inscription so desired by her husband, however it has since been lost to time and her grave remains unmarked.
One could readily write a lengthy chapter of a book on the death of dear Caroline with the amount of surviving documents that strove to cover the event. Yet, to have a document, nay, an artifact written in the hand of the man undoubtedly most affected by the tragedy, is truly special. This letter is written by a man still in the earliest throes of grief, and remains a document unravaged by time or lost to history. Not only is Gen. PGT Beauregard a vital part of American history, the passing of his wife was an important event for many in her own state and city, and even earned press coverage in Europe. It is a gem of Civil War and American history, and a rare opportunity to own a tangible piece of a historic figure’s most intimate moments.
Other letters and artifacts from Beauregard’s life also appear in this sale and we could not be more pleased to include them in this December’s comprehensive offering of Confederate firearms, knives, swords, and artifacts.
O’Connor, Florence J. Heroine of the Confederacy; Or: Truth and Justice. London: pp. 394-397., n.d. Print.
Williams, T. Harry. P.G.T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2015. Print.