Welcome back, guest author Sean Michael Chick
For Civil War historians living outside of Louisiana, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard is a colorful figure. For many, he is an underrated commander. For others, a figure who is exotic and comical, particularly given his overly dramatic statements and pronouncements. In Louisiana though he is something more, one of the state’s most famous natives. His roots go back to the founding of the colony.
Beauregard’s family were the Toutant-Beauregards. The French Beauregards married the last survivor of the Toutant family, Welsh refugees from Edward I’s conquest of Wales (1277-1283). The first to arrive in French Louisiana was Jacques Toutant-Beauregard, who led a convoy that brought supplies to Louisiana during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). Jacques brought back timber to France and won the Cross of St. Louis for his actions. He moved to Louisiana after the war.
In 1766 the Spanish took possession of Louisiana after France gave the unprofitable colony away in the Treaty of Fontainebleau. Louis, Jacques’ son, allied himself with the Spanish and became a wealthy planter in St. Bernard Parrish. He also became an officer in the Spanish army. In 1779, Élie Toutant-Beauregard, a relative of Louis, ran supplies to the Americans during the American Revolution. This assistance was one reason P.G.T. Beauregard was accepted into West Point.
Beauregard’s mother was Hélène Judith de Reggio, descended from the illustrious Modena family. His father, Jacques Toutant-Beauregard, was the master of a profitable Toutant Nord sugar-cane plantation in St. Bernard Parish. Although Louisiana had been American since 1803, St. Bernard was still thoroughly Creole in culture and language. Beauregard was born at Toutant Nord on May 28, 1818. The plantation was eventually dubbed Contreras, in honor of Beauregard’s role in the battle in the Mexican-American War.
In 2017 New Orleans’ removed a grand statue of Beauregard at the entrance of City Park. Of all the removals, it was the most divisive given Beauregard’s local accomplishments as an engineer, civic leader, and businessman. Yet, it is not the only monument to the general in the region. Tucked away on the edge of the state, in a place closer to the Gulf Mexico than it is to New Orleans, is a pyramid dedicated to Beauregard. It is also dedicated to his family, naming his children, first wife, parents, and grandparents.
The monument was designed by Earl Desselles, sometime after World War II but before Richard Nixon became president. It was subsidized by Judge Leander H. Perez. He was a controversial figure, an ally of Huey P. Long who ran Plaquemines Parish with a tight grip and was willing to defy anyone who trampled on his truf. During the fights over de-segragation in Louisiana, Perez took a hard-line. He infamously threatened to jail Civil Right activists in Fort St. Philip. One of the only things he did that drew wide support was the restoration of Fort Jackson, which was a museum until it suffered major flood damage in Hurricane Katrina.
I wanted to find the monument but was unsure exactly where it was located. Instructions were vague and merely placed it on Bayou Road. I also wanted to find the grave of his first wife, Laure Villeré, and his son Henri, who served on his staff during the Civil War. Along with Andrew Simoneaux, an old friend and photographer, we set out down river, passing Arabi, the Chalmette Battlefield, Meraux, and Violet to St. Bernard, the oldest community in St. Bernard Parish.
I was not sure of the exact location of the St. Bernard Cemetery. Google Maps placed it behind the St. Bernard Church. Find A Grave had it on Kenilworth Street (which is actually Drive). It was instead across from the church. The cemetery is among the oldest still active in Louisiana. We very quickly found the grave of Laure. On the tomb, and in French, was Beauregard’s heartfelt farewell: “Spirit from Heaven you have returned. Sleep in peace, daughter, wife and dear mother.”
The surprise across from the Laure/Henri tomb was the tomb of Beauregard’s parents, Hélène and Jacques. I had found Jacques’ short obituary, but I found nothing for Hélène’s death. The tomb indicated that she died on October 5, 1848. Also buried there, with a worn down plaque, were Hélène’s parents.
While Andrew took pictures I stopped in the St. Bernard Church to ask a few questions. It is a small and simple structure. The inside was quiet and quaint. Unfortunately, there was no rector, despite the office hours posted. I was wondering if we would find the Contreras monument as easily as we found the resting place of Laure and Henri, and hoping the rector could help.
Driving down Bayou Road, we saw a road closed sign. An earlier one had forced us to a detour, but just there at the end was the Beauregard monument. It is intimate, if lacking in the artistic grandeur of the New Orleans one. The spot is now a private park. The flag poles have been abandoned, but there are benches and some of the most lovely oaks I have ever seen, one of them sprawling on the ground and creaking as the breeze brought much needed cool air. Confederate monuments have been coming down, mostly in America’s big cities and universities. Yet, tucked away in the small town and the countryside are places where removal is unlikely to ever happen, due both to money and memory. Sadly, it reminds one of the general drifting apart in contemporary America.
Contreras is a desolate space, fenced off from private property with barbed wire. A nearby fire pit is filled with trash, including beer cans that have been blown away by shotguns. I found shotgun casings nearby and one road sign had been used as a target. Looming overheard were vultures. I was reminded of the closing of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”
“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
We left the monument and grabbed snowballs, a New Orleans favorite, from a small roadside stand. We had just enough time to photograph the home of René Beauregard, the general’s older son. During the war he commanded an artillery battery. After it he became a judge, historian, and quixotically a Republican. His home, which is at the Chalmette Battlefield, can be visited but is currently closed for repairs. Thus ended a day of accomplishment cut with a streak of melancholy.
 Leon, Beaux, Belles and Brains of the Sixties, 293.