Symposium Spotlight: P.G.T. Beauregard

Pierre G.T. Beauregard

Welcome back to our yearly spotlight series, highlighting speakers and topics for our upcoming symposium. Over the coming weeks, we will continue to feature previews of our speaker’s presentations for the 2020 Emerging Civil War Symposium. We’ll also be sharing suggested titles that you may want to read in preparation for these programs. This week we feature Sean Chick.

Few Civil War generals have attracted as much debate and controversy as Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard. He combined brilliance and charisma with arrogance and histrionics. He went from the heights of fame to be relegated to subordinate commands. He was reviled by Jefferson Davis and often mocked by Mary Chesnut in her diary. In 1861 cartoons in Northern newspapers depicted him as a menace. By 1863 he was a joke and in 1865 he was hardly mentioned.

While hardly ranked as among the South’s worst generals, Beauregard lived in the shadow of others, and in the Lost Cause mythology, he became a second-rate figure. Gamaliel Bradford Jr., an essayist of the early twentieth century, surmised that Beauregard “lived in an atmosphere of dreams unrealized, of marvelous things that General Beauregard would have done, if only the thoughtless world would have stood by admiring and watched him do them.” Bradford preferred “the laurelled grave of Stuart or the last heroic sacrifice of Sidney Johnston” to Beauregard’s dreams of victory. Most adherents of the Lost Cause agreed with Bradford. On the other end, the Just Cause had little use for the man who fired the first shots of war and won its’ first major battle, while military historians have not considered worthy of special mention.

As a commander, Beauregard had very real strengths. He was popular with his soldiers and subordinates. He grasped the importance of entrenchments before most of his peers and was adept at defensive and positional warfare. Outside of Lee, he was the South’s most consistently successful independent field commander. However, by Beauregard’s own reckoning he only commanded a field army for a scant five months.

Beauregard’s lack of field command had to do in part with personal and physical shortcomings. He became ill in times of stress. His ambition and arrogance made it hard for him to be a subordinate. For all his skills on the battlefield, he was unsuited to the game of politics and conciliation. He was also an oddity given his Louisiana Creole upbringing, Catholic faith, and slight French accent, all of which contrasted with a society of Anglo-American Protestants. Most of all, he lost at Shiloh, a battle that saw the death of Albert Sidney Johnston, Davis’ favorite general. Davis, already wary of Beauregard after his peevish letters in 1861, became bitterly hostile. The result was one of the Confederacy’s best commanders, while not inactive, spent the rest of the war in secondary commands. Given his fame in 1861, few fell as hard as Beauregard.

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