In 1862, Union forces captured the Confederate jewel of New Orleans without firing a shot in the city. That’s a big reason why so many historic buildings here still stand. It would be nice if the 2015 battle over Confederate monuments in New Orleans could proceed so peacefully.
To hear many folks tell it, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposal to take down four Confederate monuments will cause him to be remembered alongside Union Gen. Benjamin “Spoons” Butler, who brought iron-fisted order to captive New Orleans, along with some looting of silverware by his troops.
Yes, some folks still get riled about that. Many more get quite upset at the notion of taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee, saying it’s a local landmark or, far worse, that removing Confederate statues amounts to erasing history.
That Lee is revered by Old South romantics is indisputable. What’s open to debate is whether he and other Confederate leaders should remain, literally, on pedestals along the city’s premier boulevards. That’s the conversation Landrieu officially kicked off last week. Hizzoner has made up his own mind; he wants the statues down.
The strongest argument against removing the statues is that doing so rewrites history. I truly respect anyone’s love of history, but on that note I respectfully disagree. A statue is not history; it’s a monument. It’s possible — easy, even — to move statues while preserving the history they evoke. For example, they could all move to some public space with markers placing them in proper historic context. We could even add statues honoring heroes from the winning side of the war — or other prominent, historic New Orleanians. There are many.
Moving statues is easy; changing attitudes is hard work.
In the late 1800s, shortly after Lee’s death, a monument to him clearly struck white-dominated New Orleans as a great idea. Statues of Lee and other Confederate leaders thus went up all over the South after Reconstruction. Should those same Confederate leaders continue to be venerated 150 years after the Civil War ended? (Remember, the South lost its war against the U.S.) It’s worth discussing. As Landrieu and others have noted, “Symbols have meaning.”
While we’re on the subject of history, let’s get some facts straight. First, the Civil War was not a “war of northern aggression” as some revisionists claim. The South fired the first shots at Fort Sumter from Charleston, South Carolina — site of the racist massacre that triggered the current discussion of all things Confederate.
Second, the war was absolutely about slavery. Although Abe Lincoln did not issue the Emancipation Proclamation until September 1862, his anti-slavery feelings were well known before he became president. It’s why no southern state supported his election. Moreover, American politics in the decade preceding the Civil War was dominated by a single burning issue: slavery — and whether it would expand beyond the Deep South.
Third, New Orleans was a major hub of the slave trade. That fact impacts the city today much more than Robert E. Lee, who never lived or fought here.
As we discuss how best to honor our history, let’s hope the discussion proceeds as peacefully as the last time local Confederates surrendered.