The Battle for Memorial Day in New Orleans

A century and a half after the Civil War, Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked his city to reexamine its past—and to wrestle with hard truths.

Library of Congress / Harper's Weekly

Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans has revived the genre of Memorial Day orations. In his widely read and re-played speech of May 19, 2017, defending his leadership of the removal of four prominent public monuments, one to Reconstruction era white supremacist violence, and the other three to Confederate leaders, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P. G. T. Beauregard, Landrieu eloquently tried to pull the Confederacy once and for all – at least in New Orleans – down from its pedestals. He beautifully labeled his city “a bubbling cauldron of many cultures,” expressing its ancient roots in many Native American peoples; in at least two European empires; in African, Irish, Italian, French, and many other ethnic lineages; and of course in cuisine, jazz and “second lines.” New Orleans, he said, is a city made by all the nations of the world, but one great “gumbo” made from many. The speech was as deeply patriotic as it was also deeply political—“e pluribus unum” carries a weight right now in Trump’s America that makes most politicians shy from such fulsome embraces of pluralism and brutally honest historical consciousness. Indeed, any historical consciousness, save for toxic forms of nostalgia, is out of style among Trump’s supporters as well as his cowed, silent enablers in the Republican Party.

Delivered a week and a half before Memorial Day, but during the stunning dismantling of the huge Lee monument in the heart of the city, Landrieu’s speech should be read against the grain of the 152 years of Decoration Day rhetoric. Wittingly or not, the mayor gave the whole country a serious lesson in how Americans should contemplate their war dead, indeed their broader past, in this divided and quarrelsome nation. He suggested they learn some good history first, face its most troubling parts however painful, and separate “remembrance of history and reverence for it.” It is an extraordinary act for a Southern white politician to ask his fellow citizens to seriously separate heritage from history, to look down the dark tunnel of slavery and New Orleans’s infamous “slave markets,” and the “misery, rape, and torture” that followed for so many unnamed individual Africans, Creoles, and African Americans sold as property into the Mississippi River valley. Landrieu argued that ignorance or denial of this past for so long had been collective “historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.” He called New Orleanians, and thereby all Americans, to an alternative kind of remembrance for this Memorial Day. He asked his auditors to learn a more complex past and to grow some historical and moral backbone as they think about memorialization.

As a ritual of decorating the graves of the dead on both sides, Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was known for generations, began with the ending of the Civil War. Its deepest roots lay in the dreadful task of women going to battlefields to seek remains of their dead loved ones during the war, but its most remarkable formal beginning occurred in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865, in an astonishing parade and cemetery dedication enacted by some 10,000 people, mostly African Americans, about which I have written elsewhere. The last Monday in May gained official recognition as Memorial Day in the North in 1868, led by the Grand Army of the Republic, the most prominent Union veterans association. And in the South, a Confederate Memorial Day took root as early as 1866, recognized in different regions on April 26 (the day of General Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender to General William Tecumseh Sherman); May 10 (the anniversary of General Stonewall Jackson’s death); and June 3 (Confederate president Jefferson Davis’s birthday). By the early 1870s, and for at least two decades thereafter, as late spring arrived and flowers were in full supply, in every city or village, North or South, Americans by the thousands engaged in ever more elaborate rituals of decorating the graves of the more than 700,000 Civil War dead. Those dead still haunt us, even as we ignore them and most of their monuments, which are ubiquitous all across our civic landscapes.

Sorrow and loss, the mourning of the dead and missing, dominated these events for decades, until at least the 1890s when amusement and sport also penetrated the gloom on this holiday; picnics, bike races, and baseball games emerged as equally popular Memorial Day practices, and of course still are to this day with the addition of department store sales and auto races. On many an outdoor platform or in church pulpits, Americans took up the ancient art of the funereal oration and made it their own. Decoration Day speeches by ministers, politicians, and countless former soldiers remained first an act of sacred bereavement, but they also widely assumed a political character. The dead and their monuments—to the ordinary and the famous, in cemeteries and on town greens and in city squares—along with the lilacs and roses aplenty were together useful to the politics of memory as well as policy. Memorial Day speeches served Southerners in the development of what Landrieu called the “cult of the Lost Cause,” a cluster of ideas forged to help face defeat, construct a story of noble sacrifice for a holy cause of home and independence, and especially in the service of a racial ideology that would sustain white supremacy. At the heart of the Lost Cause was the claim that white Southerners never fought for slavery, but only for their home, hearth, and “liberty.” The Lost Cause was a set of beliefs, painful experiences, and sheer grief in search of a past. It evolved into a deep mythic story of loss in search of justification. And it provided a foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system

In the North, lines of orphans and young girls in white dresses often performed as the bearers of flowers to the graves of the dead on Memorial Days. Yankee orators, soldiers or not, used Memorial Day rhetoric to pronounce their sense of victory over the rebellion and often over slavery. Northern volunteers had saved the Union and rid the nation of slavery. Their cause had won with a sense of completion. But the ritual also served as the occasion for some to begin to forge a spirit of reconciliation with their defeated foes. Northerners began to find ways to accept reunion with the South as necessity while they also still voted for the Republican “bloody shirt,” keeping alive for several election cycles a strong sense of just who was responsible for all the blood shed between 1861 and 1865.

Above all a deep tradition of martial heroism manifested in the Memorial Day rhetoric of the late 19th century. Many a mother or widow at Decoration Day observances strained for forbearance of endless expressions of joyous death on the altars of national survival or Confederate glory. At Gettysburg in 1869, the great preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, drew apocalyptic imagery, “heroic devotion,” “mothers,” and “orphans” into a prayerful message to the next generation. “May the soldiers’ children never prove unworthy of their fathers’ name,” said Beecher, “let them be willing to shed their blood, to lay down their lives, for the sake of their country.” Martial glory and its terrible expectations were not out of style, at least rhetorically, six years out from the carnage at Gettysburg.

The huge Lee monument in New Orleans was unveiled on February 22, 1884, George Washington’s birthday, a linkage already laid deep as a kind of cornerstone of the Lost Cause tradition. Confederate memorialists as well as the creators of the Lee mythology—the Christian soldier, genius on the battlefield, and the man who never really fought for slavery but only for his state and his new country—had long placed the Confederate general in the direct line from Washington. They were the father and the son-like defender of American “liberties” in this odd version of history, each achieving a godlike character in their own time. Lee was related by marriage to the Washington family and indeed grew up in a famous military clan. The huge crowds that gathered for the original unveiling were dispersed by an untimely deluge of a thunderstorm, and the long oration by Charles E. Fenner had to be delivered indoors. From 1884 forward until May 19, 2017 there stood Lee atop the Crescent City, surviving hurricanes and many a scowling Louisianan offended by his presence, his arms folded, looking out majestically on his defeated but unbowed cause.

Today’s context for Confederate monument reckonings is at once completely different from when the Lee statue was unveiled in 1884, and yet also resonant with similar lessons. The Lost Cause took root after the war in a Southern culture awash in an admixture of physical destruction, the psychological trauma of defeat and loss, a Democratic party increasingly successful in resisting Reconstruction’s experiment in racial equality, in racial terror and violence, and with time in an abiding sentimentalism. On a broad level the Lost Cause became a mood, or a disposition toward the past. The South, the story went, was conquered, occupied by a form of Yankee colonialism, put under despotism led by Northern carpetbaggers bent on power and fortune, and all made possible by the voting and economic activity of the inferior and barbaric former slaves in their midst. Or so the story went as it sank deeper into the national historical imagination.

As early as an 1877 Decoration Day celebration in Brooklyn, New York of all places, a former Confederate general and now lawyer living in Gotham, Roger A. Pryor, delivered an especially forceful speech, “The Soldier, the Friend of Peace and Union.” Pryor, a Virginian and fiery secessionist in 1861, was among the “Confederate Carpetbaggers” who had moved to New York to make new lives and fortunes. Known to some in the press as the “rebel Pryor,” but welcomed by the local Democratic Party, which hosted Union veterans in his audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Pryor argued aggressively for equality between the Confederate and Union soldiers. All had fought with valor and devotion. He went even further though, declaring the “bloody work of secession” never the solders’ doing, but “wholly the act of … politicians.” Pryor believed Confederate veterans especially deserved the sympathy of the American people for their steadfastness in a cause against overwhelming odds, an idea in which the Lee cult also rested. In twisted but common logic, the greatest heroes were those who fought for the cause lost. History contains many grand causes, even empires, glorified by defeat and destruction. Here surely was one, whether commemorated in the common soldier on hundreds of local monuments leaning on their muskets, or Lee standing high above a city or on a rearing horse.

Most eagerly Pryor, the Confederate partisan speaking in a Northern, albeit Democratic stronghold, delivered a full-throated condemnation of Reconstruction. He called the era “that dismal period—massacres of the helpless, violations of the ballot, usurpations of force on the popular will and the independence of the States.” Pryor, like many other Lost Cause advocates, fashioned a beguiling version of the evil image of Reconstruction. It had been, he claimed, a time of “alien rule and federal domination by which sovereign states were reduced to the impotence of satrapies.” The national reunion now possible after the political compromise of 1877 was, therefore, a victory over Reconstruction, over racial equality, and over federal enforcement against the South. “Fallen it [Reconstruction] is at last,” Pryor declared, “fallen like Lucifer never to hope again; fallen by the thunderbolts of the people’s wrath.” In this Memorial Day voice, the Lost Cause was the South’s vindication and the North’s triumph.

In such rhetoric and soon in reality, the Lost Cause emerged as a story and a set of rituals not about loss at all, but a narrative of victory, a victory over Reconstruction. In a speech to Confederate veterans in Mississippi in 1878, Jefferson Davis made this equation of Lost Cause ideology explicit. “Well may we rejoice in the regained possession of local self-government,” Davis proclaimed, “in the power of people to legislate … uncontrolled by bayonets. This is the great victory … a total non-interference by the federal government with the domestic affairs of the States.” Protected by this victory over Reconstruction, Southerners forged their story of redemption, and the large monuments they erected all over their land over the coming decades pronounced such a victory resoundingly and with presumed permanence.

But why hasn’t something that only lasted as a four-year insurgency against the life of the American nation just gone away? Why are its symbols, especially flags, still so controversial?

Landrieu pointed in several ways to the answer. Everyone has his or her own “journey on race,” he remarked. Imagine an American nation without slavery and race and there would have been no Confederacy, no insurgency, no flags, no Lost Cause, no R. E. Lee, no massive monuments of generals, farm boys, and politicians musing down and out at us all over the land. The Confederacy will and should remain an enduring subject of study and teaching. Just how reverentially it should be treated, and where in our public memory it ought reside, are the questions.

Landrieu is right to associate Lee and the other major statues of New Orleans with the Lost Cause tradition. Those tall memorials adorning so many Southern cities, often equestrians, were not only honors to individual men and heroes. They were erected, as Landrieu said, “to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.” One might wish that the word “truth” would not be so easily thrown around, slipping in and out of everyone’s grasp. But Landrieu is right; the monuments now removed were there to “purposely send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.”

Different constituencies have had wildly opposite reactions to that Lee statue over the years; Landrieu offered a bold hope of squaring those opposites. There are no utopias in the politics of historical memory. Each person holds a treasury in his or her mind when it comes to the past, and historians are far outnumbered by public memory. But we are a learning species, despite how we behave. Eloquence alone cannot solve these dilemmas, but Landrieu at least made a start.

It is difficult for historians to favor monument destruction or removal. We worry endlessly about historical erasure or purposeful ignorance of any kind. We favor debate however conflicted, and new memorials that augment or change the narratives told on our public landscapes. But I nod with understanding and approval when the mayor asks: “Why are there no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans?” For half a century and more American historians of all stripes have written and taught newer, more inclusive, and yes, often darker histories such as Landrieu advocates. But it is essentially true that these histories of pain and tragedy, destruction and survival, do by and large await public memorials. They are receiving public museum exhibition and exposure. But in great civic monuments, not so much. The massacre in Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston in June 2015 took America on this new tortured, surprising path to Confederate flag and monument removals. Where and when it ends Americans do not know. More than any other Southern politician, Landrieu has expressed this reckoning with the Civil War’s legacy in a newly eloquent honesty. Americans ought to debate how best to take up his call. Many great and challenging monuments, both old and new, exist in the United States. The world wars, the Irish famine, the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, the attacks on 9/11, the Holocaust, and even the Civil War itself have inspired brilliant works of public art. But Americans have to know more history in order to learn to think about them more imaginatively.

The monuments in New Orleans, relocated to warehouses or holding stations and gone from view, are now the subjects of a new time, new imperatives, indeed even alternative victory narratives. Landrieu and the forces of popular support as well as the City Council have just declared the Confederacy, as the mayor put it, “lost and we’re better for it.” The “four year aberration called the Confederacy,” Landrieu said, ought never again to be celebrated even if never forgotten. His city, he maintained, ought never to embrace publically a “sanitized Confederacy,” held together by Orwellian language about history and “marinated in historical denial.” These are high ambitions about how America can actually heal the past and find justice. Much higher even that Lee’s statue stood. Landrieu invoked many of the best voices possible to his cause: Thomas Jefferson’s preamble in the Declaration of Independence, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln from the ending of the Second Inaugural, and George W. Bush as he honored the opening of the new African American history museum in Washington, DC.

It remains to be seen how neo-Confederates will take their latest defeats. They have a fledgling, unsteady, ahistorical victory narrative to follow now in the presidency and the White House. But Landrieu, with Dylann Roof and a host of many other major players, progressive and regressive in their aims, may have taken America into a truly new era of Civil War remembrance. Americans may never find e pluribus unum in their political lives. But we can surely keep striving to write, teach and know about our pluribus. American politics is an impossible distance from ever knowing how to be “out of one, many,” but the history keeps changing on us, keeps becoming many, forcing us to, as the mayor suggested: “By God, just think.”. Monuments, those removed after more than a century of struggle, or those erected in a new era with new histories, may never accomplish as Mayor Landrieu hopes, “making straight what has been crooked and making right what has been wrong.” But if this process makes Americans learn and think about our history more knowingly and reflectively, if painfully, it is all for the good.