New Orleans has a complicated past, a reality made evident in a politically manufactured controversy that has been building since last July. Our mayor, a term-limited white Democrat and the flickering end of a political dynasty, asked the city council to consider removing four prominent monuments shortly after the murders of black members of a Charleston church last summer. The removal would ostensibly be justified under a city “nuisance” law.
Far from being “nuisances,” the monuments in question boast a fascinating history. Among them is a 131-year-old statue of General Lee that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Created by a respected sculptor of the 19th century, New York’s Alexander Doyle, this bronze statue stands 16 feet tall atop a 60-foot fluted Doric column of Georgia granite.
Another target is a sculpture of arguably the most significant figure in the history of New Orleans—P.G.T. Beauregard. An engineer who served in the Mexican War and later as superintendent of West Point, Beau regard was one of the most colorful commanders of the Confederacy. The Gallant Creole astride his bounding steed is the largest equestrian statue in the city, outsizing Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square. Beauregard’s statue is prominently located at the main entrance of City Park and is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
The mayor and the city council have taken aim as well at Jefferson Davis’s statue, which is currently in the process of being added to the National Register of Historic Places. The statue sits on the mid-city intersection of Jeff Davis Parkway and streetcar-lined Canal Street.
The fourth monument targeted by the mayor is to the Battle of Liberty Place, off the beaten path between the Vieux Carré and the Mississippi River. One would never find it unless he purposely sought it out on a map. The debate over the Liberty Monument is by far the most contentious.
The monument commemorates the 1874 struggle that took place in the heart of the Crescent City and features the politically incorrect Crescent City White League, which was composed of Confederate veterans and other local citizens disenfranchised during the federal military occupation after the Civil War. The League sprang up in response to the denial of citizens’ right to bear arms, voting irregularities, and taxes that had jumped several hundred percent under radical Reconstruction rule. The Metropolitan Police, an occupational military force created outside of the city charter by the Reconstruction government, stood in place of the city’s police department and was rife with corruption.
A fraudulent election installed a controversial governor who ordered the confiscation of a train car carrying arms to a local gun store—an act aimed at preventing the sale of arms to the citizens of New Orleans. In response, the League called for the people to assemble publicly and decide if action should be taken. Literally having their constitutional rights taken away, the citizens called for an uprising. And so the League overthrew the Metropolitan Police and installed the man who had lost the controversial election for governor. Several days later, heavily armed federal troops arrived and reinstated the winner of the corrupt election. The news spurred national sentiment in favor of restoring Louisiana to the same political autonomy that other states enjoyed.
Instead of acknowledging that history, respecting the events memorialized in bronze, admiring the artistic value, or encouraging the public to study and interpret them, the mayor and the city council convened a kangaroo court. Committees appointed by the mayor rubber-stamped tearing the monuments down. The mayor favors “donating” them to a “private park” where they can be “put in proper context.” Rumors suggest that a major political ally of the mayor aims to build a “Civil War park” and plans to charge admission.
During public comment, a great number of locals argued that, rather than devoting resources to tearing down historic landmarks, the city should focus on its murder rate, drug-dependent neighborhoods, broken infrastructure, and feeble economy. Every nonpartisan and apolitical preservation organization that took part in the debate favored keeping the monuments in place. These organizations are long-standing parts of the community. They have helped maintain the historic and cultural integrity of New Orleans. But the city simply ignored the preservationists and academic historians; none was given genuine consideration during public comment.
The comments in favor of keeping the monuments were as varied as the individuals expressing them. Some pointed out that it is likely impossible even to create works like this today; certainly, if they could be created, they would cost millions. Should their rarity and artistic value be taken into consideration? Some members of the black community spoke in favor of keeping the monuments as teaching tools, even though they aren’t fond of the people or events displayed. Some citizens argued that tearing down monuments deemed offensive would eventually leave nothing historic in the city, since anything can be interpreted as offensive in light of ever-evolving public sensibilities. Many argued that the answer is to encourage tolerance and respect for all of our history, regardless of the people or stories portrayed. George Schmidt, a renowned local artist, even quoted the former editor of this magazine about the extremism exhibited by Jacobins tearing down monuments around the world. I spoke of how Charlemagne’s equestrian statue, which stands in Paris outside Notre Dame, was erected far after the French Revolution in spite of the Bourbon defeat, and noted that the Coliseum’s continued presence in Rome does not amount to a call for feeding Christians to the lions.
The opposition responded with emotional rhetoric. “If not now, then when?” The mayor stated these monuments “do not reflect and never truly reflected” New Orleans. One has to admire the audacity of a two-term mayor who has set himself up as the arbiter of what reflects the true New Orleans.
Sensing victory, those in favor of removing the statues announced their next targets: the antebellum statues of Andrew Jackson, arguably the city’s most recognizable monument, and Henry Clay. They also want to destroy the statue of the city’s founder, Bienville, and see no irony in the fact that, if it weren’t for the founder, they wouldn’t have a city to try to reconstruct today.
The final vote was six to one in favor of removal, with the only nay vote coming from an urban liberal white Democrat. She is no Confederate sympathizer. She simply possesses the rational qualities that allow one to see this cultural atrocity for what it is.
The council justified removal by stating that the monuments were built during the Jim Crow era and must therefore have been meant to honor white supremacy, rather than simply to commemorate the men and events depicted. It apparently meant nothing to them that, were it not for the men commemorated, who worked for harmony and racial reconciliation after the war, the path to national reconciliation would have been much more difficult. Union veterans stood as esteemed guests at the unveiling of the Lee statue, an historical fact dismissed since it does not serve the mayor’s sweeping narrative. Does the council believe destitute war widows and veterans would sacrifice for decades to raise funds simply to send a hateful message in the form of a statue? If Southern racism was the reason for Civil War statues, why did Union towns build monuments honoring their soldiers? I wonder if New Orleans’s iconoclasts would be capable of working and sacrificing for 10 or 20 years to commemorate something they believe in. Of course, they would actually have to believe in something worth building up, rather than tearing down.
The preservationists have filed suit. There is much left to fight for, and there is some hope that the state legislature will intervene. The Monumental Task Committee, a small local nonprofit that has cleaned graffiti and restored all city monuments at no cost to taxpayers for the past 26 years, has, along with three other plaintiffs, risen to the task. They have fought to save all of the city’s monuments from the elements and from vandals. Now they find themselves fighting to save New Orleans’s monuments from the city itself.
Two centuries ago, the first Battle of New Orleans united soldiers, civilians, slaves, nuns, and pirates on the front lines. Today, those who truly love New Orleans—a diverse contingent of preservationists, historians, urban liberals, descendants of Confederates, black and white, old and young—are uniting to fight for our city’s history in the Second Battle of New Orleans.
Should the day come when the monuments are removed, true New Orleanians will have a hard choice to make: Do we stay where we are no longer wanted and work to preserve the rest that remains? Or do we finally retreat the way so many others have since the mid-20th century to safer, suburban higher ground? The romanticism of being one of the last thorns in the iconoclasts’ side is enticing; but at some point resignation sets in. This raises the question of what our duty is and when we can conclude it has been faithfully and honorably executed—a quandary our opposition would never think to consider in their mad rush to destroy the reminders of men who agonized over such questions.