Postcard of "Lee Circle Showing Library and Shriners Temple" -- the Library was the main branch, whicn opened in 1908. To the right of the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee is the Temple Sinai synagogue, built in 1872. The library was torn down in 1959 when the new main branch opened on Loyola Avenue. In its place the John Hancock building, better known now as K&B Plaza, was built.

This January, Louisianans have the opportunity to connect with history, provide remembrance, and educate on the issues of humans trafficking, modern-day slavery, D-Day, river commerce, and hurricane relief. These issues are connected to Robert E. Lee, whose birthday is January 19th.

The LSU Tigers will be playing for a National Championship. The “Tigers” name comes from a concept by Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat while he was in Sicily in 1860 fighting with General Garibaldi to unify Italy. Wheat and Garibaldi had landed in Marsala on May 11, taking more than 12,000 Sicilians as prisoners of war.

Wheat sensed war was coming to America and suggested Garibaldi allow him to take 2,000 men to New Orleans to fight as Confederates. This would make Wheat a general and remove the burden to Garibaldi of feeding them as POWs.

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Six ships of hand-to-hand combat battle veterans left Sicily with POWs for New Orleans. The Louisiana Tigers would eventually transfer under General Lee with almost all dying in battle. The LSU Song “Tiger Rag” was written in 1915 by New Orleanian Nick LaRocca of Sicilian ancestry.

Then-U.S. Army Lt. Robert E. Lee had been sent to St. Louis in the 1830s to “tame the Mississippi.” His designs on river control were implemented throughout the river valley and increased commerce to New Orleans.

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During the Mexican-American War, Lee was stationed at New Orleans’ Jackson Barracks. Lee was a lead officer of America’s first D-Day landing at Vera Cruz in 1847. On that day, 80 ships landed 12,000 men without a causality.

In early 1861, Lee was stationed in Texas when his commanding officer, General Twiggs, switched sides to the Confederacy, taking troops under his command. Lee refused to switch but was allowed to immediately leave. After boarding a ship to New Orleans, Lee was probably the first Union officer to arrive after Louisiana seceded.

Six Union states including Virginia, who did not support the president’s right to march troops through their states to attack South Carolina, voted to secede. Lee had written in 1847 about the horrors of war on civilians and sided with Virginia. In 1878, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act prohibiting presidents from repeating Abraham Lincoln’s action. The act would later restrict President George W. Bush’s ability to help Louisiana until Gov. Kathleen Blanco approved federal troops after Hurricane Katrina.

In 1856, Lee wrote to his wife during the Dred Scott Case: “Slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” Today New Orleans, our nation, and the world have a modern-day Slavery problem. January is awareness month.

As Lee’s birthday and the LSU Tigers are being celebrated. We can create awareness for our current challenges of ending modern-day slavery and designing diversions for coastal restoration.

Charles Marsala

president, American-Italian Federation of the Southeast

New Orleans