Tag Archives: New Orleans

“He Was a Man of His Time”

From journalist Adam Serwer’s two essays (here and here) on the now-removed statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans:

[Robert E.] Lee was a man of his time. So was George Henry Thomas, a son of Virginia who chose to fight for the Union over fighting for slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a man of his time, as was Frederick Douglass. Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln were men of their time. Wesley Norris, whom Lee had tortured for escaping his plantation, was a man of his time. The hundreds of thousands of men who fought for the Union, including the black soldiers murdered and humiliated by Lee’s lieutenants, were men of their time. We do not, in the main, build statues to people about whom the best that can be said is that they were of their time. We build them to people who rise above their times, and like many other men of his time, as a farmer, a general, a statesman, and an educator, Lee failed this test in every respect.

Food for thought.

Cheers

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Reflections on the Battle of Liberty Place Monument and the Political Nature of Public Iconography

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When I visited New Orleans a few weeks ago, I made a point of seeing a monument dedicated to the Battle of Liberty Place. Following a close gubernatorial election that the Republican Party narrowly won, roughly 5,000 angry Democrats, including many ex-Confederates and white supremacists, organized as the self-proclaimed “White League” and stormed Canal street in downtown New Orleans on September 14th, 1874, engaging in ugly violence with black and white city officers and state militia members. Eleven police officers were killed and a temporary state of anarchy existed until federal troops could restore order to the city three days later. This monument is one of several throughout New Orleans and the country as a whole that have been seen as prime candidates for removal from public spaces in recent years, although they’ve always been controversial and contested.

Over the past two years I’ve heard many impassioned pleas online and in face-to-face conversations to not remove these monuments commemorating Civil War era figures and events. The decision of the New Orleans City Council in 2015 (which is still currently being decided in court) to remove four Confederate monuments, including the aforementioned monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, has garnered particular criticism from monument defenders who see the city’s historic landscape being destroyed (although most folks I’ve talked to have no idea what the Battle of Liberty Place was about). History is history, they say, whether we agree with the particular person or event being commemorated. To remove any icon will lead to the erasing of history and the potential for more collective ignorance of the past.

This position is unavoidably short-sighted in my view. It fails to thoroughly interrogate what the purposes of public iconography should be. It assumes that public iconography only intends to commemorate and teach us lessons about the past and is not a statement of contemporary values; that something like the Liberty Place monument is merely a tribute to events in 1874 and not also a symbol of events in 1891–the year the statue was dedicated–when racial segregation, Jim Crow, and lynchings became commonplace throughout the South; when blacks were being disenfranchised and removed from political office; and when the very same White League again took the law into their own hands and lynched eleven Italian immigrants without ever being charged for their crime. It also assumes that public iconography can exist without interpretation and act as a “neutral,” self-evident symbol of historical commemoration of which we all agree about its true meaning.

The Liberty Place monument is a case in point. The text, part of which has been recently broken off, attempts to play the role of an objective symbol through the use of vague, passive language that gives equal honor to all involved in the battle: “In honor of those Americans on both sides of the conflict who died in the Battle of Liberty Place. A conflict of the past that should teach lessons for the future.” But what was the conflict about? What lessons should we learn about the future from this event?  The text, it seems, obscures more than it educates.

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

In 1932, local leaders decided to clarify what the conflict was about and what lessons should be learned from this monument. Additional text was added stating that “United States Troops Took Over the State Government and Reinstated the Usurpers But the National Election 1876 [sic] Recognized White Supremacy in the South and Gave Us [i.e. the whites] our State.” The lessons of the monument for these leaders was that armed revolt against the democratically elected Republican governor and state government was justified because the “usurpers”–white and black Republicans and the federal government at large–took power and attempted to instill a new order of biracial governance in the South on the basis of political equality. With the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and the removal of federal troops from the South, the Battle of Liberty Place contributed to the eventual restoration of white political, cultural, and economic supremacy in the South. This revised text has since been removed, but it clarified the purpose of the Liberty Place monument for viewers in the 1930s and beyond, demonstrating that the commemoration of history is also a political message and that this particular text was a statement of values in New Orleans during the Jim Crow era.

In the 1990s the city of New Orleans attempted to remove the Liberty Place monument. After the Ku Klux Klan protested its removal, a compromise measure was enacted and the monument was relocated from Canal Street to a remote spot at the intersection of Iberville and Badine streets, where it is now located next to a public parking garage and large electric poles that look more majestic than the monument itself.

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

Marker Text Commemorating members of the Crescent City White League

Marker Text Commemorating members of the Crescent City White League

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

As I walked around the monument one night during my trip, I couldn’t help but think about the numerous families I saw walking by the monument and what they were thinking as they made their way towards other activities in the city. Black, White, and Asian families walked past the monument and took short glimpses at it, probably focusing on its aesthetics or wondering what the monument intended to commemorate. And as I analyzed this neglected, broken monument to white supremacy–a monument that probably has less of an excuse to remain in a public space than just about any other Civil War era monument in the country–I wondered if leaving it in this remote location could actually be a fitting symbol to the history of racism, white supremacy, and the Lost Cause in the United States. Maybe the true lessons of the Liberty Place monument are different than the ones originally envisioned in 1891 and 1932.

Cheers

Confederate and American Heritage Side-by-Side in New Orleans

In my last post I argued that the National World War II museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, is openly nationalist and Ameri-centric in its interpretive focus. It might very well be one of the strongest symbols of Americanism in the entire city. What I mean by this statement is that the museum’s exhibits and programming do not simply tell the story of World War II (admittedly from a U.S. perspective) but also encourage loyalty to the country today and adherence to the idea of using America’s position in world affairs to export American freedom and democracy around the globe. The museum avoids making any specific statements on contemporary politics or politicians, but it subtly advocates the idea of a strong, “more perfect” union to promote American ideals today, just like we did in victory during World War II.

If you look out the museum’s windows towards the western part of the city, however, an icon with a remarkably different symbolism emerges nearby: the famous Lee Circle and giant statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. This statue was erected in 1884 to commemorate and celebrate General Lee and the Confederacy. The statue has always had a modicum of opposition, but in 2015 the New Orleans City Council voted 6-1 to remove the statue. Since then four separate lawsuits have been filed in opposition. The case currently remains in court and the statue, of course, remains standing. Putting aside the question of whether or not the statue should come down, it is nevertheless interesting to see contradictory symbols of Confederate nationalism and American nationalism so close to each other.

The view of Lee Circle from the National World War II Museum. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

The view of Lee Circle from the National World War II Museum. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

As historian Gary Gallagher and numerous other historians of the Confederacy have argued, General Lee was the epitome of Confederate nationalism. Confederate supporters viewed him in the same light as George Washington and took inspiration from his determination on the battlefield. As Gallagher argues, “to be able to wage war, the Confederacy was willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of its young men and suffer the destruction of its economy. In terms of military casualties, Confederates sacrificed far more than any other generation of white Americans in U.S. history. Yet the South still fought.” That fight, of course, aimed to achieve disunion with the United States in the hopes of creating a new, independent slaveholding white republic. The erection of a statue to honor that fight in the heart of a major Southern city, just like the creation of the World War II museum to honor another fight eighty years later, was not just an act of remembering and commemorating history but an expression of contemporary values by political and cultural leaders in New Orleans.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Counterfactual history is always a risky proposition when trying to achieve historical understanding and in this case we’ll certainly never know the right answer, but you can’t help but wonder what the fate of the world in 1939 would have been if the cause of Confederate disunion would have been successful in the 1860s.

Cheers

Change and Continuity in United States Cultural Geography

One of Colin Woodard’s central theories in American Nations predicates that the first social group with guns, germs, and bibles to successfully settle in a given area holds a significant and enduring degree of “cultural capital” in that area. So much so, in fact, that future waves of immigrants who attempt to shape their new homelands in their own image fail to make as a strong an impact as the land’s original settlers. Hence, the “dominant” cultural values of “Yankeedom” and the “Deep South” today, for example, are largely reflective of the Puritan and white Barbadian settlers who first emigrated to these areas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In making these claims Woodard relies on cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky, who mapped out these ideas in a theory he described as the “Doctrine of First Effective Settlement.”

While I believe Zelinsky’s theory is strong and mostly accurate, Woodard’s study cast doubts about the applicability of the “Doctrine of First Effective Settlement” to Woodard’s self-defined nations. In this post I will provide three case studies that I believe complicate the usefulness of this theory.

Kansas: Woodard largely ignores settlement patterns in antebellum Kansas in his study, perhaps because the history of this area defies easy explanation. In a recent essay titled “Before the Border War: Slavery and the Settlement of the Western Frontier, 1825-1845,” Kristen K. Epps demonstrates how Kansas was originally settled by Southern slaveholding emigrants from Missouri, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and various states in the Deep South. Many of these emigrants settled around Fort Leavenworth and along the present-day border between Missouri and Kansas. If we used Woodard’s self-defined nations to describe Kansas during most of the antebellum period, it would be safe to say that the area combined “Deep South” and “Greater Appalachian” cultural values.

With the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, however, Kansas became a U.S. territory eligible for statehood. The act stipulated that the question of slavery in the area would be determined by the voters of the territory, and many settlers believed Kansas would become a slave state. Kansas-Nebraska, however, set off a second wave of immigration to Kansas by New England abolitionists and Free-Staters like Indiana native James Lane who feared the admittance of another slave state to the Union. The tension between pro and anti-slavery forces in Kansas set off several years of nasty crime and violence, presaging the horrors of the American Civil War in the 1860s. For our purposes it should be pointed out that Kansas was admitted as a free state in 1861 and, equally important, today one would be hard-pressed to argue that Kansas reflects Southern values. In this case, the values of the region’s first white settlers have not sustained the cultural geography of Kansas today.

Midlands culture and St. Louis: As mentioned before, Woodard argues that “Midlands” culture originated in Pennsylvania with the Quaker values of William Penn and spread itself West into Ohio, Northern Indiana, Illinois, and, curiously, St. Louis, Missouri. Penn’s vision for religious tolerance, equality, and pluralism, argues Woodard, transferred itself into the “Heartland,” where “a collection of mutually tolerant enclaves . . . [developed] as a center for moderation and tolerance, where people of many faiths and ethnicities lived side by side, largely minding their own business.”

With regards to St. Louis, Woodard states that:

Northern Missouri became a Midland stronghold . . . with St. Louis supporting two German-language daily newspapers by 1845. Bavarian immigrant George Schneider founded the Bavarian Brewery there in 1852, selling it to Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch a few years later. Continued immigration from Germany enabled Midland civilization to dominate the American Heartland despite competition from aggressive Yankees and Borderlanders. By midcentury, German immigrants were arriving by riverboats in St. Louis and from there fanning out across northern Missouri and the eastern prairies.

While these facts are all true, Woodard conveniently leaves out that St. Louis was not originally settled by Germans and that the city was already approaching 100 years old by the time of the Civil War. Woodard makes no mention of the French settlers who first arrived in 1764, the Spanish settlers who emigrated after the territory was transferred to Spain shortly thereafter, the Irish immigrants who moved starting in the early 1800s, or the emigrants from both the South and New England who began to settle in the 1820s and 1830s. If Zelinsky’s Doctrine of First Effective Settlement rings true, St. Louis should reflect Woodard’s nation of “New France,” not the Midlands. While St. Louis certainly maintains parts of its French heritage (look no further than the naming of neighborhoods and streets throughout the city for tangible examples), it’s evident that the pluralism of the city makes any endeavor into defining the region’s cultural history frustrating.

Indeed, if St. Louis should be considered a part of the Midlands because of its pluralism, then Woodard’s very definition of the Midland “nation” reflects the lack of a regional identity in America’s Heartland rather than something reflective of an easily definable “dominant culture.” And let’s do away with this notion of St. Louis as reflective of a “mutually tolerant enclave.” French, Germans, Southerners, and Yankees did live side by side, but these groups lived in uneasy harmony and often expressed outright hostility towards one another due in large part to disagreements about slavery. Recent German immigrants who were particularly vocal about their hatred for slavery and support for the Republican party were often derisively referred to as “Black Dutch.” During the Camp Jackson Affair of 1861 nativist and pro-secession whites took to the streets to hurl stones, rocks, and racial epitaphs at the mostly German Missouri Volunteer units marching through the city. So much for “tolerance.”

New Orleans: I don’t have much to say about New Orleans because it’s an area I don’t have much knowledge about. Nevertheless, I believe Woodard to be slightly incorrect in his interpretation of the city’s history. Woodard argues that during the nineteenth century, Deep Southerners moved westward, with many moving to New Orleans. Woodard argues that “Deep Southerners were disgusted with New Orleans, where a more lenient French and Spanish form of slavery and race relations had produced a far less rigid slave society . . . Tension between the white Franco-Spanish residents of New Orleans—the ‘Creoles’—and the ‘new population’ continued throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.”

These statements are true, but several important components are ignored. For one, no distinction is made between “Cajuns” (the original white French Acadians who emigrated from Quebec to the area in the seventeenth century) and “Creoles” (Franco-Spanish and Franco-African residents today). Second, Ned Sublette demonstrates that Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana territory from Napoleon Bonaparte meant that “New Orleans was on its way to becoming the largest slave market in the United States.” Yes, there was a large free black population, but New Orleans was built on slavery, an institution embraced by many whites in the area, regardless of ethnic heritage. For example, one of the most prominent Southern magazines in the nation, DeBow’s Review, was published out of New Orleans and frequently published articles defending slavery, advocating secession, and calling for the return of the African slave trade to America. Finally, the agency of black New Orleans residents is not acknowledged by Woodard besides a protest they held for being excluded from a Congressional election in 1812. In sum, strong tensions existed between a wide range of groups in a pluralist society. The Acadian culture first established by Cajuns remains, but to suggest that this culture remains “dominant” in the area seems to be a stretch to me.

I’ve attempted to outline three case studies that challenge Wilbur Zelinsky’s Doctrine of First Settlement. How useful is this doctrine for understanding cultural geography? I’m not totally sure, but I question how effective these ideas are in explaining the significant cultural transformations that took place in several prominent areas of the United States during the antebellum era.