The statues of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis have been in limbo for months, the city's effort to remove them from public view hung up in the courts until recently. City Hall may finally swoop in and take them down any day now — or not, depending on whether you believe the rumors.
But no statue in New Orleans has had as slow or tortured an exit from the public stage as the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, a Reconstruction era skirmish that briefly ousted Louisiana’s governor in 1874.
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A 35-foot stone obelisk erected in the middle of Canal Street in 1891, it’s been the subject of strong emotions for decades. In 1932, city leaders added an inscription explaining that the battle represented the triumph of “white supremacy,” then a plaque in 1974 noting that the monument no longer reflected modern attitudes. Finally, in 1993, it was relocated from Canal to an obscure grassy patch on Iberville Street next to a parking garage.
Needless to say, the idea of removing any monument — however controversial — remains up for debate. Some argue that all four should remain in place, if only so the history they represent isn’t forgotten.
But if the Liberty Place obelisk does finally come down altogether, as Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration insists, it will be a final symbolic victory for a historical interpretation that won out among scholars decades ago.
Historians used to view the Reconstruction era, the decade or so after the Civil War, as a “tragic” mistake, when newly enfranchised but hapless former slaves handed political power in the South to unscrupulous Northern "carpetbaggers" and a few Southern white "scalawags," backed up by Union bayonets.
For many decades, the Battle of Liberty Place represented the moment when the people of Louisiana had finally had enough.
One day in September 1874, a few thousand armed men from a paramilitary group called the Crescent City White League, many of them former Confederate soldiers, squared off on Canal Street against a contingent of mostly black police and state militiamen.
The White League demanded the resignation of the state’s governor, a former Union colonel named William Pitt Kellogg. After he refused to meet with them, they charged, routing the governor’s forces and leaving him holed up in the Customs House near the foot of Canal Street. Federal troops arrived a few days later and restored Kellogg’s government.
Up through the 1970s, respectable opinion held that the battle really had nothing to do with race. As one newspaper editorial put it after the obelisk was defaced with black paint in 1970, it was a battle against “interlopers … sent to the community to loot, to confiscate lands and to otherwise misrule Louisiana.”
Like the obelisk itself, this view has been largely discarded, at least among professional historians.
“The old myth that Reconstruction was just a time of corruption and misgovernment — the sort of ‘Birth of a Nation’ view — there is not a single historian in the country who still adheres to that,” said Eric Foner, a Columbia University professor widely regarded as the pre-eminent historian of the period.
“The historical consensus shifted a long time ago,” he said.
Ironically, the “Birth of a Nation” consensus — a reference to D.W. Griffith’s famous 1915 film extolling the activities of the Ku Klux Klan — was established exactly where Foner now sits, by two Columbia University historians named William A. Dunning and John W. Burgess.
Writing around the beginning of the 20th century, members of the so-called Dunning School acknowledged that slavery had been the ultimate cause of the Civil War, but they viewed the decision to grant former slaves voting rights as a mistake and the governments they helped establish as fundamentally corrupt.
For a long time, popular history books depicted the Battle of Liberty Place as a triumph for representative government and "home rule," and denounced President Ulysses Grant’s decision to send in federal troops as an act of despotism.
“Grant had crushed the rising of the people,” wrote Claude Bowers, in his 1929 bestseller, “The Tragic Era.”
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As the decades went by, popular accounts of the era and the battle in New Orleans shifted dramatically.
Bowers wrote matter-of-factly that Kellogg had stolen his election in 1872. His book relates that a committee that was supposed to certify the vote handed Kellogg the governor’s office without so much as counting the ballots.
Then a “drunken” federal judge, Edward H. Durrell, signed off on the result “with the trembling fingers of inebriety.”
In fact, that account is mainly true, if incomplete.
Writing in 1974, Joe Gray Tayor of McNeese State University in Lake Charles offered an account that filled in the blanks. In his book, “Louisiana Reconstructed,” he concludes that Kellogg did in fact steal the election of 1872, but only after his opponents stole it first.
The registrars in charge of voting in each parish were appointees of the sitting governor, Henry Clay Warmoth, an erstwhile carpetbagger who had more or less changed sides and thrown in with Kellogg’s election opponent, John McEnery. Together they formed the "Fusionist" party.
Under Warmoth’s control, they cut back on the number of polling places in Republican areas — the Republicans then being the party of abolition and black voting rights — registered as few black voters as possible and simply stuffed some ballot boxes with Fusionist votes.
“The election of 1872 was so shot through with fraud that no one ever had any idea who had actually won,” Taylor concludes.
In any case, corruption seems not to have offended supporters of the Fusionist ticket at the time so much as the presence of black politicians in state and local offices.
Congress in 1868 had compelled Louisiana to draft a state constitution granting black citizens equal rights, and black candidates had taken more than a quarter of the seats in the state Legislature.
New Orleans had a kind of dress rehearsal for the 20th century civil rights era. Public schools were officially integrated, white families pulled their children out, and the number of private and parochial schools exploded.
In the months leading up to the 1874 skirmish on Canal Street, the vitriol aimed at Kellogg’s government was openly racist.
One prominent New Orleans Democrat, politician and historian Charles Gayarré, wrote at the time, “We are completely under the rule of ignorant and filthy negroes scarcely superior to the orang outang.”
A newspaper founded by three former Confederate soldiers in Alexandria — notably called The Caucasian — declared that “there will be no peace and no prosperity for Louisiana until … the superiority of the Caucasian over the African in all affairs pertaining to government, is acknowledged and established.”
When the White League chapter formed in New Orleans, it published a statement in The Daily Picayune declaring, “The negro has proved himself as destitute of common gratitude as of common sense.”
Anti-Kellogg partisans in the state had already resorted to violence and intimidation against black and Republican office-holders, most infamously during the Colfax Massacre of 1873, when some 150 black men were killed in Grant Parish, many after they had surrendered.
Bowers never mentioned those killings in his 1929 history, while modern accounts tend to place Colfax, rather than the contested election or the skirmish on Canal Street, at the center of Louisiana's Reconstruction experience.
Charles Lane, in his 2009 book, “The Day Freedom Died,” argued that it was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to let the perpetrators of the massacre go free that emboldened whites across the South to employ violence in winning back political power and establishing Jim Crow regimes.
Federal troops were pulled out of Louisiana after the highly disputed election of President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. As the old inscription on the Liberty Place monument noted, the "national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy and gave us back our state."
No African-American was elected to the Louisiana Legislature again until 1967.