Confederate Monuments Will Come Down in New Orleans

The city council decides to remove four memorials that offered a distorted picture of the city’s past.

Michael “Quess” Moore leads a rally during the Confederate monument debate in New Orleans. (Gerald Herbert / AP)

On Thursday, the New Orleans City Council voted 6-1 in favor of an ordinance that paves the way for the removal of four Confederate monuments. They include monuments that honor Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, one for President Jefferson Davis, as well as a monument to the postwar battle of Liberty Place. In that 1874 uprising, the Crescent City White League, a white-supremacist group, briefly overthrew an integrated Reconstruction government. This decision constitutes the most sweeping removal of Confederate iconography since the lowering of the Confederate battle flag in Columbia, South Carolina, this past summer, and offers the clearest evidence yet that the Lost Cause view of the Civil War has finally lost.

In the wake of Confederate defeat in the spring of 1865, white Southerners sought to vindicate their lost cause as well as generals such as Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Among other things, Lost Cause writers insisted that the overwhelming resources of the North brought about defeat on the battlefield, and not the failure of its generals or the wavering of support among the enlisted soldiers and broader populace. Slavery, they argued, benefited the black race and functioned as the foundation of a peaceful society before the war—one that was superior to the violent and industrial North. African Americans were remembered as having showed unwavering support for the Confederacy right through the very end. In contrast with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who spoke for many when he argued early in the war that slavery constituted the “cornerstone” of their new government, Lost Cause writers now insisted that the Southern states seceded in defense of states’ rights.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Lost Cause was the dominant narrative of the Civil War in the South, and served as the backdrop for the rise of Jim Crow segregation and the dedication of numerous monuments in cities across the former Confederacy, including Kentucky and Maryland, which never seceded from the Union. Most Confederate monuments include inscriptions that commemorate a vaguely defined cause that avoids the goal, and ultimate failure, to establish a new slaveholding republic in the western hemisphere. This is true for the three monuments in New Orleans honoring Lee, Beauregard, and Davis. But the choice to memorialize the violent street fighting at Liberty Place complicates this particular commemorative landscape.

The lengthy occupation of New Orleans during the war fueled resentment among its white citizens and led to numerous economic problems that plagued the city's transition from slavery to freedom. Violence was a continuous presence. New Orleans witnessed multiple street battles that occurred between 1865 and 1877, pitting a Republican Party coalition of African Americans, white northern newcomers, and southern Unionists against the state's white ex-Confederates, who organized behind the Democratic Party. By 1866, conflict over home rule and the push to return African Americans to a position as close to slavery as possible helped Republicans obtain the necessary Congressional majorities to pursue radical change in the South. In Louisiana, General Philip Sheridan and Republican Governor Henry Clay Warmoth protected black political action and passed legislation, by relying on military support capable of subduing the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups.

In April 1873, three whites and 150 African Americans were killed when a white militia attacked freedmen defending Republican officeholders in Colfax, Louisiana. Many were executed after they surrendered, a decision that was consistent with the way uniformed black men were often treated on Civil War battlefields. The following year on September 14, 1874, over 5,000 members of the White League—including former Confederates who served in the local Washington Artillery—battled 3,600 black and white members of the New Orleans Metropolitan Police, and state militia for control of the state government. The fighting resulted in 100 casualties and left the government in the hands of the White League for three days until federal troops were able to re-establish control. Federal occupation lasted for three years following the battle of Liberty Place.

In some sense, the Civil War ended in New Orleans in 1891. That year, the Democratic-controlled state legislature passed a constitution that effectively disenfranchised most black citizens. The war successfully brought about the emancipation of 4 million people, but the broader struggle for black civil rights that was waged during the Civil War and in the streets of New was defeated.

That same year, a monument commemorating the fighting at Liberty Place was dedicated to the men who helped to restore white supremacy to the state. In 1932, an inscription was added that read in part: “United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.” By then the monuments to Lee, Beauregard, and Davis had been dedicated. White New Orleanians understood all four monuments as constituting a coherent historical narrative that justified their new racial order.

In the past few decades, the city government has fought a rear-guard action over this monument in an attempt to avoid controversy. The monument has been moved to a less prominent location, inscriptions have been removed, and a plaque was added at the base of the monument to provide historical context. In 1993, the city council voted overwhelmingly to declare the monument a "nuisance.” But that has proven to be insufficient within the wave of new calls to remove Confederate monuments across the country.

Defenders of the city's monuments have offered a compromise position that involves removing the Liberty Place monument and maintaining the other three. Such a position assumes that the monuments to Lee, Beauregard, and Davis can be understood apart from the cause for which they struggled. They cannot. This would involve a mental leap that few white residents of the city would have been willing to make 100 years ago—and it is unreasonable to ask it of residents today. In New Orleans, the presence of the Liberty Place monument serves as a constant reminder of the city's divisive racial past and the challenges it faces moving forward.

The monuments targeted for removal by today's vote were erected to remind its residents of the men who struggled, both during and after the war, to defend white supremacy. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, in a city where fewer than half of the city's working-age African American men are employed and over 50 percent of African Americans live in poverty, there is an opportunity for a new reconstruction. Perhaps the public spaces opened up can be used to connect its residents to a past that more accurately reflects the city's shared values and points to a more promising future.