Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Noble, Grand, Généreux

Dernier Tribut
Au Général Toutant Beauregard
by Victor Ernest Rillieux

Oh! chez lui l’on peut dire avec toute franchise,
 Qu’en tout temps l’on trouvait un [vrai]ment beau regard
Pour l’humble vétéran, pour la veuve soumise
Aux coups du dur destin, frappant sans nul égard!
 Noble, grand, généreux; durant sa longue vie
Jamais le noir soupçon par son fatal venin
Ne put même effleurer sa gloire, son génie,
 Lui donnant l’une et l’autre un prestige divin!
 Tendre époux, bon soldat et chevalier créole,
 Son nom, dictame saint aux cœurs louisianais,
 Resplendira toujours, ainsi que l’auréole
Qui partant d’un ciel pur brille et ne meurt jamais!
 Sur la tombe où repose un guerrier magnanime,
 Près de ses compagnons morts en braves soldats,
 Je viens y déposer pour tout gage d’estime
Une modeste palme à leur noble trépas!

Victor Ernest Rillieux was a Louisiana Creole poet; while an important poet of his day, he fell into such oblivion after his death that many of his poems do not survive, and we know relatively little of his life. His most famous poem is "Amour et Devouement", dedicated to Ida B. Wells. Note the play-on-words between Beauregard's name and the beau regard that Rillieux ascribes to him as his clearest characteristic. My very rough translation:

Last Tribute
To General Toutant Beauregard

by Victor Ernest Rillieux 

Oh! of him one can say with full frankness
That one always found a truly beautiful concern
For the humble veteran, for the widow submitting
To the blows of hard fate, striking without regard!
Noble, great, generous; during his long life
Never dark suspicion by its fatal venom
Could ever touch his glory, his genius,
Giving to him for both a divine fame!
Loving spouse, good soldier and Creole knight,
His name, holy balm to Louisianan hearts,
Will always shine, as the sun-halo
That from a pure sky shines and never dies!
On the grave where lies a magnanimous warrior,
Near his companions who died as brave soldiers,
I come to deposit there as a proof of esteem
A modest palm to their noble passing!

Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard, or G. T. Beauregard, as he usually went by in his lifetime, is an interesting person in himself. His first language was French, but he picked up English while attending a private school for children of Creole background in New York City. He attended West Point, which seems to be when he quietly dropped the 'Pierre' and started treating 'Toutant' as a middle name; being Creole was not exactly a boon to one's career in the U.S. Army. He was brilliant, though, and became a military engineer in the Mexican-American War; it was at this point that a rivalry developed between him and Robert E. Lee, one in which Lee, a much better military politician from a highly pedigreed very non-Creole background, would consistently come out on top. His career as a military engineer, however, was filled with successes and engineering innovations invented by him. He was interested in politics, but his political career stuttered, so eventually he become superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy. Unfortunately for him, Louisiana seceded soon after, and the Union Army immediately and summarily removed him, despite Beauregard's protest that such an act cast aspersions on his honor. So he went back to Louisiana. He tried to get a position as commander of the Louisiana state army, but was beat out by Bragg, who had better political connections; he enlisted as a private, but applied for a higher-ranking position, and Jefferson Davis eventually put him in charge of the defense of Charleston, and along with that posting made him one of the Confederate Army's seven full generals. He was the one who designed the Confederate Battle Flag, and his generalship was often innovative (although he also often took risks), but his career was rocky. He was not particularly liked by other generals, and his tendency to take clever risks made many of his decisions controversial; at several points, he was engaged in a sort of tug-of-war with Lee over strategies. 

After the Confederate loss, he was given a pardon by Andrew Jackson, and was allowed to run for political office by Congress on recommendation of Ulysses S. Grant. And his post-bellum career was in many ways more striking than his military career, because after a few years he became one of the South's most active advocates for equal rights. This seems to have been a turnaround for him; he had not before that point showed much sympathy for the cause, but his unceasing advocacy in this regard is one of the things that likely led to him receiving this last tribute from one of Louisiana's most important black poets.