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 2021 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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5 Responses to Symposium Spotlight: P.G.T. Beauregard

  1. Beauregard’s greatest achievement may have been the defense of Petersburg when Grant crossed the James.

  2. How do you think Beauregard would have faired if given command of the Vicksburg theater and not Pemberton? This was not going to happen because of Davis’ and Beauregard’s relationship break down, but I wonder if Beauregard would have been more active than Pemberton and identified what Grant was trying to do sooner.

  3. This is a very interesting piece on Beauregard. I think you make a legitimate claim about the reasons why Beauregard was pushed to the sidelines by the Confederate high command. Clausewitz said that warfare is an extension of politics. Both Bragg and Lee knew how to act as politicians which is why they served in high command for so long (they were also very adept commanders). I think the issue with Beauregard at Shiloh was that he did not press the initiative. It was possibly one of his greatest flaws as a general as it is one of the most important elements in warfare.

    Furthermore, you make the claim here that Beauregard was great at “positional warfare.” At the Second Battle of Petersburg it does seem he applied this mode of warfare. Dr. Kaushal states that the operational objective of positional warfare is denial serve to prolong a strategic ‘window of opportunity’ for the attacker’s forces.” Therefore, it looks as if Beauregard absolutely understood the repercussions of losing Petersburg. He had to close that “window of opportunity” for Grant. However, I would make the case that Beauregard prevented Grant from taking Petersburg, but the strategic outcome was still dire for the Confederates. Grant had stated at the beginning of the Overland Campaign that he would most likely not destroy Lee’s army until November. Therefore, Grant was way ahead of his timeline when he was battling Confederate forces around Petersburg. Brooks Simpson also claims that the failure to take Petersburg in June meant nothing if the Union had succeeded at the battle of the Crater. There was a greater chance of success in July than taking Petersburg in June.Secondly, this failure at Petersburg does have something to do with Beauregard’s generalship. Then again, Dr. Sodergren, a professor at Norwich University, stated that the failure to take Petersburg had more to do in part with the effects of the Overland Campaign. Beauregard’s troops were still fresh, and the Union forces arriving had been asked to take fortified positions time and again. You can also tell in the reports of Union officers that the inability to take Petersburg was frustrating, but not winning the Battle of the Crater was much more devestating. Finally, Beauregard does deserve credit for recognizing the strategic importance of the James River peninsula. He did blunt Butler’s forces and “bottled them up.” It is one reason why I stipulate Grant should have been with the Army of the James and not the Army of the Potomac. Nonetheless, he was not able to force them from their position and it later became a very important position for Grant and his armies. The failure to take Petersburg between June 15-June 18 did prolong the war to Grant’s calculations, but strategically, it doomed the Confederacy as Grant successfully negated the Confederates offensive capacity. This is how Gordon Rhea measured the Union Victory during the Overland Campaign. Beauregard deserves credit for bringing Lee to Petersburg and stopping the tactical advances of the Union army. Although, I hesitate to say, he somehow changed the strategic outcome in any dramatic way.

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