South seeks aid from French Emperor
By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Camille de Polignac - National Archives
On March 16, 1865, Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, mentioned in a letter to a Confederate senator that Gen. Camille Polignac (pol-leen-YAK) was in France. Smith did not elaborate, but Polignac had been sent to convince Emperor Napoleon III to come to the Confederates’ assistance. Polignac seemed to be a good choice for the mission because he was a French prince serving in Louisiana’s Confederate army.

Camille Armand Jules Marie, Prince de Polignac was born on February 16, 1832, at Millemont, Seine-et-Oiose, France, to an English mother and an aristocratic French father. Well educated at the best French schools, he once won first place in a European math competition. Polignac went on to serve as an officer at the Battle of Sevastopol during the Crimean War but then resigned his commission and sailed to Central America to study botany.

When he passed through New York City, Polignac became acquainted with the Louisiana Creole and future Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard. Polignac offered his services to the Confederacy when the Civil War began soon afterward and was appointed Beauregard’s chief of staff with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

One soldier described Polignac as being a “fiery little man, erect in figure, with keen black eyes, white teeth that showed brilliantly when he smiled, and a dark waxed moustache which lent a fierceness to his expression. . . .” He spoke fluent English, could swear “like a trooper,” and sometimes broke out in song when he was drinking. Recounting an occasion when General Polignac had too much eggnog, one man claimed “the gallant little French General . . . enlivened the house by singing every few minutes a verse of song, which had reference to one ‘Madame Gregoire’ whoever she may have been.”

Polignac served Beauregard well at the battles of Shiloh and Corinth, and then joined Gen. Braxton Bragg’s staff when he replaced Beauregard as army commander. At the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky, Polignac’s superiors praised his bravery when he picked up one regiment’s flag and called on the men to stand firm and fight. Promoted to brigadier general, he was transferred to the Trans-Mississippi Department and took command of a Texas brigade in Gen. Richard Taylor’s army.

The Texans, however, were not happy at being placed under what they called “a damn frog-eating Frenchman.” Unable to pronounce his name, they began referring to Polignac as “polecat” and held their noses when he passed by. To placate the Texans, Taylor promised to transfer Polignac if the Texans were still dissatisfied with him after their first fight together.

At the Battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864, Polignac’s Texas brigade participated in Gen. Alfred Mouton’s famous charge across an open field. Polignac took over the division when Mouton was killed, and, just as he did at Perryville, grabbed a battle flag when the attack stalled and led the men forward. Taylor wrote, “The gallant Polignac pressed the shattered division stubbornly and steadily onward.” The next day during the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Polignac’s division was again sent forward to support the front line. Upon receiving his orders, Polignac stood up in his stirrups and called out, “My boys, follow your Polecat!”

Polignac’s men came to love their Frenchman during the Red River Campaign, and the officers of the Texas brigade demonstrated their admiration by presenting him with a horse. In recognition of his service, Polignac was promoted to major general and was given permanent command of Mouton’s division.

By 1865, the Confederates were on the verge of defeat, and Polignac offered to go to France to make a personal plea to Napoleon III for aid. He successfully ran the blockade in March, but never fulfilled his mission. While traveling through Spain the following month, Polignac learned that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox and realized the war was lost.

Polignac retired to his French estate and resumed his academic career. He studied math and political economy and found time to write numerous articles about the Civil War. Polignac married twice (his first wife died in childbirth) and had four children. When the FrancoPrussian War erupted in 1870, he was appointed a major general and was awarded the Legion of Honor for leading the 1st French Division in several battles.

Polignac survived three wars, served as a major general in two armies, and was the last surviving Confederate major general. He died on November 15, 1913, from a cerebral edema while working on a math problem that had perplexed him for years.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.