This is Pierre Auguste Gentieu. A really great, great great grandfather of mine.
At age 18, circa 1860, he left Orthez, Basses-Pyrénées, France, for America. He carried a letter of safe passage and introduction with him, which his granddaughter, my grandmother, Harriet Sarah Gentieu, showed to me, when I was very young.
Also, she told me this story...
Upon arrival, he went to live with his uncle’s family, in Brooklyn, above their Bakery. But growing restless, he moved to New Orleans, where many more people spoke French.
Pierre was young and adventurous, so he joined the New Orleans Artillary. After all, his grandfather and granduncle had fought alongside Napoleon!
But he didn’t realize that his regiment had become a Confederate militia. Just then, Farragut, Butler and others began the Siege of New Orleans.
His company was ordered to leave, so they left and hastily bivouacked at a place called Thibodeaux, Louisiana. There, Captain Theard called his men into formation.
He told them that they were about to cross state lines, and that if any had reservations about fighting for the Confederate cause (such as it was), they could leave now.
After some discussion and a little translation, Pierre stepped out. He waited alone, struggling with his conscience, his pride, and his sense of self preservation.
He was ready, at any moment, to receive a musket ball in the back. After awhile, twenty or so more stepped forward, only to be met with jeers and insults. But, the good Captain Theard
held his men in check, until Pierre, with the others following, had disappeared into the woods. Making his way back to New Orleans, he enrolled in the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.
He fought several years for the Union, and saw many men die, much human suffering, and senseless tragedy. At last, he himself was wounded. But, finally the war ended,
as all wars do (only to begin again). Meanwhile, he had taught himself photography and become a skilled draftsman. He married, got a job with Du Pont de Nemours, and settled in Delaware.
In the hallway outside my bedroom, when I was a boy—on windy nights, with the branches of tall oak trees brushing against the sides of my grandparents big, old, victorian house
—I used to stare at his paintings, that hung there, in antique, carved, wooden frames. Depictions of civil war camps, teepees and horse and buggies, muskets and ammunition...
And I always thought, isn’t it a wonder—I’m here at all?
some links to Pierre Gentieu:
::A day after the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.