Few people today recognize just how devastating the Civil War was, especially for the South. The war resulted in over 750,000 deaths. The South lost roughly a quarter of its male population of military age — 4 percent of its total population. It constitutes the largest mortality event in American history.
Set against this backdrop, it comes as little surprise that memorials were built throughout the population centers of the South to commemorate the military and political leaders of the Confederacy and the soldiers who served under them. Though the war was lost, the memories remained.
Yet, according to Mayor Landrieu, the days of Civil War Memorials in New Orleans are numbered. In the wake of the recent mass shooting in Charleston, perpetrated by known Neo-Confederate and white supremacist Dylan Roof, virtually anything associated with the Confederacy is seen as a target.
Landrieu has specifically focused on the statute of General Robert E. Lee, the famed commander of the primary military force of the Confederacy, which adorns Lee Circle on the edge of the CBD. At the end of a ceremony celebrating the one-year anniversary of Welcome Table New Orleans, a racial reconciliation forum, Landrieu explained his reasoning with a highly dubious anecdote:
“I began to envision myself as an African-American man driving down the street with my little girl behind me, approaching Lee Circle,” the mayor said. “And her saying, ‘Hey daddy, that’s a really nice statue, what is that? It’s so pretty.’ I say, ‘ Well, honey, that’s General Lee.’
He improvised the exchange, leaning in toward the audience, his voice soft and theatrical. “And she says, ‘Well, who was General Lee?’,” he continued. “‘Well, he was a great general. He fought in great wars for great things.’ ‘Well what kind of great wars for great things?’ ‘Well, the one we know him for is the Civil War.’…’Wow. He fought for me?’ ‘No, no, no baby, I’m sorry. I wasn’t clear with you. He didn’t fight for you. He was for the other side.’ ‘Oh, well why is that there? Is there another circle in the city, that’s for me?’
“And you see, right now I can’t answer that question, as a dad.”
Landrieu’s cloying, saccharine thought exercise belies the fact that neither he nor his hypothetical black father are capable of describing the Civil War to anybody.
Any fair-minded person would admit that Lee was a creature of his time, a time when most Americans tended to be more loyal to their state than to the federal government. The issue of slavery was the greatest single catalyst for the war, thought ultimately the North and South had grown apart socially and economically, leading to ongoing discord culminating in most of the South seceding from the union.
Irrespective of their personal circumstances or political views, the typical 1860s citizen viewed themselves as honor-bound to fight for their state.
Lee, the most respected American general at the time, was not a supporter of slavery or secession. Nevertheless, when he was offered command of federal forces determine to fight secession, he turned down the offer because it would force him to fight against Virginia — his home. Instead, he followed his loyalties and took command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
The war was lost by the Confederacy from the beginning, with a massive loss of life on both sides. Many of Louisiana’s young men were casualties.
For his part, Lee surrendered at an appropriate time and promoted the reintegration of the former Confederate states back into the union. He successfully pushed for the establishment of state-funded schools for blacks. As president of what is now Washington and Lee University, he repeatedly expelled racist white students for attacks on local black citizens.
Following Lee’s death in 1870, he was remembered fondly in both the North and the South as a capable military commander and a man of strong character.
Given this legacy, if Landrieu’s hypothetical father can only meekly explain that Lee “fought for the other side” to his son, then he doesn’t know much about Lee or the Civil War. And that fault rests with Landrieu’s ignorance, not Lee’s statue.
The South is dotted with Civil War memorials containing statues of famous Southern leaders because it was a major event in our collective history and a complex one that defies simplistic explanations. These memorials should remind us of the central figures of the war and the sacrifice of soldiers on both sides. Scrapping them reeks of addled thinking and whitewashing.
Landrieu argues that getting rid of Civil War memorials is not about erasing history, but his explanations fall flat. “We should never forget our history, just like we would never ignore the concentration camps in Auschwitz, just like you could never deny that the Confederacy existed,” Landrieu recently remarked.
“[T]he question that’s confronting the country today is whether or not those symbols should be on prominent places of adoration that reflect who we are today as a people.”
Comparing the mere existence of the Confederacy to a Auschwitz, the notorious murder-factory of Nazi Germany, is inflammatory in and of itself. But the worse issue here is Landrieu’s suggestion that the presence of any memorial or statue commemorating a Southern leader from the Civil War is necessarily an endorsement of the Confederacy and racial subjugation. Again, that’s a very simplistic notion.
Worst of all, it’s a distraction. It’s a distraction from the failure of our city to create memorials of comparable quality to the Civil Rights movement. As I’ve previously written, the city’s first memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., unveiled in 1974, is a bizarre-looking, egg-shaped, Lovecraftian grotesque.
Landrieu’s hypothetical father would probably drive by it with his son asking, “what’s that?” The father could only respond: “Heck if I know, but it’s sure weird-looking.”
Likewise, the only new Civil Rights memorial constructed during the Landrieu Administration is that cheap, tubular-steel gazebo on South Claiborne. It’s pathetic. If you want to see the degree to which Landrieu genuinely wants to commemorate contemporary advancements in racial equality, look no further than the gazebo-with-no-roof.
Ever the notorious hack and panderer, Landrieu always seems to know just how to capitalize off of tragedy while simultaneously promoting discord and division.
Although there are no doubt many people who oppose the presence of Confederate Civil War memorials in the city, there was no massive public push to topple Lee’s statue before Landrieu’s public statements. Now, it’s a major source of public tension.
Worse, it’s all for nothing. The Lee monument is on the National Register, and Lee Circle has likely been maintained with federal funds. It’s doubtful that Landrieu or the council could successfully navigate a legal removal of Lee’s statue. Even the notorious Liberty Place obelisk, removed in 1989, had to be replaced in a less conspicuous location following litigation. And that was literally a monument to a state takeover perpetrated by the New Orleans “White League.”
Landrieu knows he can’t succeed, and he also knows that for an overwhelming majority of New Orleanians Lee’s statue is far from a serious concern. His pitch for revamping Lee Circle into some sort of Kumbaya-writ-large icon of tolerance is just a cynical political ploy to bolster his bona fides in the black community after years of fighting against their interests. Symbolism costs less than substantive policy.
Personally, I don’t think it’s going to work. I think most New Orleanians can see through Landrieu’s shenanigans and aren’t about to stand for bulldozing our history.
Only time will tell, but as another great (and relevant) leader once said: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.