Chris and Andrew and Pierre’s bullet

I’m descended from two Civil War Yankee soldiers. Well, that is, one Yankee soldier, Pierre Gentieu, and Binie Weed, the sister of Yankee soldier Frank Weed, who was Pierre’s closest comrade in the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry and his tent mate.  Had it not been for a split second decision made by my great great grandfather, enroute to Vicksburg as a Confederate soldier in April 1862, Pierre and Frank would never have met on such agreeable terms, Pierre would not have been introduced to Binie after the war, and there wouldn’t be me! I suppose that’s why I felt compelled to find out all I could about the inspiring story of courage that he left for us.

While researching my great great grandfather’s Civil War story in Louisiana, March, 2000,  I met two very special Civil War historians, Chris Pena and Andrew Capone, who lived in the area of Pierre’s first battle, an hour up the river from New Orleans in Donaldsonville and Thibodeaux.

They gave us a tour of the area, showing us where Pierre’s camp was, where his first battle was. Later, they treated us to a delicious Louisana home cooked dinner of sauce piquant at Andrew and Judy’s house in Donaldsonville, the town where Pierre Gentieu took his stand.

Site of Pierre Gentieu’s first battle at Georgia Landing, between Donaldsonville and Thibodeaux. The road here separates the two plantations where the battle lines were drawn in the Fall of 1862.

I told them the story of  how in 1861, Pierre initially signed up with a Louisiana militia, but ended up fighting in the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.

It was April 1862, and Colonel Theard of the New Orleans Guards was leading the militia to Vicksburg from Fort Livingston. Half way to Vicksburg, in the very town of Donaldsonville, he lined up his men and gave them a speech.

Colonel Theard told them of his orders to go to Vicksburg, but explained that he had no right to take them outside the state without their consent. He hoped they would go, but he didn’t want to force anyone. The Colonel then offered any man an opportunity to declare if they were against the cause of the Confederacy. If any man had any scruples about it, that man was free to step out of the ranks.

Pierre Gentieu’s painting of his 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry,  Company B encampment at Camp Hubbard in Thibodeaux, La.

In Pierre’s own words, as he recalled the moment 50 years later in a letter to his nephew, Frank Weed’s son:

Then came the time for me when I had to decide at once.  My conscience and pride were struggling; one was saying you ought not accept the cause of slavery; and the shame to appear before my comrades, as if I were afraid because we would have to fight, was a struggle indeed; but I made up my mind now or never whatever happens—I stepped out the first one in my company with cries of coward from the rear.

There I stood for a few long moments until Albert Fest stepped out from the right of the company. A very tall man compared to me, he said, ‘Pierre, I am with you on this!’ Then 30 German men stepped out soon after that. As we were the butt of all insults from behind, the Colonel put a stop to that very quickly, saying ‘None of that, men, it takes more moral courage for those men to step out as they have done than to stay in the ranks’; and closing the few of us near him he spoke kindly, but sadly, saying to leave all our equipments, taking only our personal property—-that New Orleans was so many miles off, in such a direction—-we could get there the best way possible—-that we were free;  and so we left worrying whether or not some of the hot headed ones might shoot at us; but the Colonel kept them in line until we disappeared in the woods.

Back in New Orleans, the trip of which was not without adventure, Pierre signed up with the 13th Connecticut. One reason was that the great looking uniforms appealed to his sense of style, with the dark blue trousers and polished brass buttons. He survived nine battles.

Pierre Gentieu in his uniform of the 13th Connecticut Infantry Volunteers. This regiment featured dark blue pants, as opposed to the common light blue of most of the rest of the Yankees. Because the 13th Connecticut was so well dressed and polished, they were called the “dandy regiment.”

After dinner, Andrew took us into his workroom. He excavated battle grounds, including the site of Pierre’s first battle as a Union soldier. Andrew looked through the baggies of bullets, then handed me a bullet covered in white rust and dust, saying, it was Pierre’s bullet. Pierre dropped it during his first battle. The bullet never hurt anyone, Andrew pointed out, and it was mine now because Pierre wanted me to have it.

I gladly accepted the bullet for all of its poetry and brought it back up north. I arranged it in my studio along with some toy soldiers that I bought in New Orleans, one to represent each of five generations, and a broken brick Chris and Andrew gave me from the ruins of Fort Butler, and some spanish moss.

The soldiers were slightly precarious on the brick, because some mornings I would come in to find that the soldiers had fallen on the floor or into the spanish moss, from the vibrations of the Six train that ran through the basement of the Lafayette St. building. But never Pierre, and never the bullet.

Pierre Gentieu’s Camp of the 13th Reg’t Conn. Vols.

My great great grandfather, Pierre Gentieu, was a Civil War soldier and a Civil War artist. The surviving works that I have, that he made during the Civil War, are a lithograph of a drawing and a watercolor or gouache painting, both of Camp Hubbard in Thibodeaux, Louisiana. I also have a War photo of the same encampment. I think the photo was used as reference. The photograph (a mounted 8×10 albumen print) shows Pierre actually in his tent, on B Street. (A regiment has about 1000 men, divided into about 10 companies, and Pierre was in Company B.)

Pierre, 18 years old, came to Brooklyn, New York from France in 1860, where he lived for a year. When the next winter came, he moved to New Orleans, where the climate was closer to what he was used to in his homeland of Orthez in the Lower Pyrenees, France. He made some friends who were in the New Orleans Artillery, a state militia, and so he joined for the fun of it. They were learning heavy artillery drill at Fort Livingston, at Baratiara Bay, when the war broke out and when Farrugut came up the Mississippi. The order soon came to the colonel for them to spike their guns and go to Vicksburg, and so they left.

At the first stopping point, in Donaldsonville, up the Mississippi, Colonel Theard lined up his men in dress parade, and gave a speech. He told them of his orders, but that he had no right to take them across the state line without their consent because they were enlisted as militia for the state of Louisiana only. The Colonel said, of course he himself would go to the uttermost, and he hoped his men would too, but if any man was against the cause of the Confederacy, and if he had any scruples about it, that he was free at that time to step out of the ranks.

In regard to this moment of decision, here are Pierre’s own words, written in a letter to his nephew, Willie Weed, in 1915:

Then came the time for me when I had to decide at once. My conscience and pride were struggling; one was saying, you ought not accept the cause of slavery; and the shame to appear before my comrades, as if I were afraid because we would have to fight, was a struggle indeed; but I made up my mind now or never whatever happens — I stepped out the first one in my company, with cries of coward in my rear.

So I stood for a few seconds when Albert Fest, whom you know, stepped out from the right of the company, as he was a tall man, and turning towards me, said, “Pierre, I am with you on this.” Then three more came out, and several Germans in the company next to us. As we were the butt of all insults from behind, the Colonel put a stop to that very quickly, saying, “none of that, men; it takes more moral courage for those men to step out as they have done, then to stay in the ranks,” and closing the few of us near him he spoke kindly, but sadly, saying to leave all of our equipments, taking only our personal property— that New Orleans was so many miles off, in such a direction—we could get there the best way possible—that we were free; and so we left worrying whether or not some of the hot-headed ones might shoot at us; but the Colonel kept them in line until we disappeared in the woods.

What I think is really interesting about what has survived of Pierre’s Civil War artwork is that it was all created in Thibodeaux, the location of Camp Hubbard, which was only a few miles down the bayou from Donaldsonville, the stopping place where Colonel Theard lined up his men and gave them the opportunity to step out of the ranks. The camp was the home-base of the 13th Connecticut for several months, while the regiment swept down the Bayou Lafourche, liberating hundreds, maybe thousands of slaves from plantations.

Here’s the poster that was made to sell the lithograph edition of Pierre’s Camp of the 13th Reg’t Conn. Vols., in 1870, issued by Francis Weed:

Here’s a picture of Pierre’s friend, Albert Fest, who was the first to step out of line with him in Donaldsonville. It is from around the turn of the century and Fest is posing on his stoop with his family in Brooklyn, a large American flag flying above them. Perhaps it was Memorial Day.

Here’s a picture of my first get-together with newly-discovered cousins, at my New York City, Lafayette Street studio in 1994, cousins I met through my discovery of Pierre’s photography: Elizabeth is holding a photo of Pierre, Vivian is holding a photo of Francis Weed, Jeanne Duff is holding a mural of the Pyrenees; all these cousins were/are keepers of Pierre’s family memories; I’m holding a hand-made album I just completed of 50 silver gelatin prints I had just printed from Pierre’s original glass plate negatives, and my daughter, Anna Friemoth, age 4, is holding a French postcard of a French cousin.

Happy Memorial Day, cousins!