In the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, symbols of the Confederacy have suddenly, belatedly, become the subject of national debate. Unlike the Confederate flag, however, monuments are fixtures on the landscape of our cities and their fate should be part of a communitywide discussion. According to The Advocate, there is already a growing initiative in New Orleans to remove the statue of Jefferson Davis from Jefferson Davis Parkway. And this week, Mayor Mitch Landrieu questioned whether a towering column topped with Robert E. Lee should still be in place for the city’s upcoming 300th anniversary celebration.
Rather than remove these monuments from sight, as some have proposed, we ought to do what is much more difficult: reimagine these symbols of the Confederacy in a public way to reflect the totality of the Civil War and its place in the city’s history.
The city’s Confederate monuments, as they currently stand, are an affront to many in New Orleans, ourselves included. Without these monuments, however, it will be difficult for future generations to understand how the regime of white supremacy, built on the violent suppression of black people, governed the South for generations, often through symbols like these. The artifacts should not be enclosed in a museum, but instead fully explained and countered with more inclusive representations of the Civil War’s meaning and its legacies. What we cannot continue to do is allow them to stand unanswered, with their claims to the memory of the Civil War uncontested.
New Orleans’ Confederate monuments are part of a national struggle over the meaning of the Civil War that began with the surrender at Appomattox. Frederick Douglass, as historian David Blight has pointed out, saw early on that a war waged to defend slavery, one that brought freedom to millions of African-Americans, was being spun into something else. After great strides toward civil rights for African-Americans were overshadowed by the bitter failures of Reconstruction, the Civil War began to be recounted as a struggle between white men only, a war over “states’ rights” rather than slavery and a tragedy that once passed could now make the nation whole again.
Prominent white citizens of New Orleans were leading the charge to commemorate the war and celebrate Confederate heroes even before Reconstruction ended. The Robert E. Lee monument association was founded in 1870, in the midst of continued political clashes and violence against black citizens. By the time the association reached its goal in 1884, most of the veterans had been replaced by their sons and daughters, who were ready to put their fathers, literally, on a pedestal. Throughout the South, statues of men like Lee, Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard underscored the return to “Home Rule” that followed the end of Reconstruction.
Ironically, they also reflected great concern for how New Orleans was perceived by the rest of the nation. Civic leaders at the turn of the century saw Confederate reunions as opportunities to boost the city’s burgeoning tourist industry. They actively recruited Confederate veterans organizations and sponsored cemetery tours and parades down Canal Street with brass bands. Such reunions were part of the city’s reinvention as the brightest gem in a fictional “Old South” and rivaled Mardi Gras in the numbers of visitors drawn to the city.
In today’s New Orleans, although the impulse is strong to eliminate these divisive symbols, it is better that we rethink them instead, much in the way that the recently opened Whitney Plantation is reframing the public history of antebellum slavery. We need well-researched markers that put these monuments in proper historical context.
And the city should commission monuments that memorialize the Civil War from the perspective of the four million enslaved people who gained their freedom, and black New Orleanians who fought and died in the war. Let’s make room in Lee Circle (which could return to its original moniker “Tivoli Circle”) for a monument to Andre Cailloux.
Born enslaved in Plaquemines Parish, raised and freed in New Orleans before the Civil War, Cailloux was one of the first black soldiers to die fighting for the Union, in 1863, at the attack on Port Hudson.
Right now, we have the opportunity to respond to the Civil War monuments in New Orleans collectively and with new vision. Instead of removing these memorials (two of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places) from the landscape, we should engage them directly, thus creating new sources of meditation on the Civil War and its deep legacies.
Mary Niall Mitchell is Ethel & Herman L. Midlo Chair in New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans. Amber Nicholson is a doctoral candidate in Urban Studies at UNO.