Reclaiming history in New Orleans
Another defeat for Robert E. Lee
Reclaiming history in New Orleans
By Rick Holmes
June 9, 2017
It’s been a tough month for Robert E. Lee. He was knocked off his pedestal twice: first by the people of New Orleans, then by a writer for The Atlantic.
Since 1884, Lee had stood atop a 60-foot column in one of New Orleans’ busiest intersections, his arms folded, staring defiantly North to his adversaries. It’s not a pose Lee struck in real life, at least not in New Orleans. The commander of the Army of Northern Virginia doesn’t even have a cameo role in the long, dramatic history of the Crescent City.
But the 2015 church massacre by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., focused the nation’s attention on the hatred that still clings to old symbols of the Confederacy. Inspired, he said, by jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the statue of Lee, along with three other Confederate memorials, to be taken down. The City Council agreed, and after long debates in the state Legislature and the courts, the Confederacy’s top general was removed from his perch in May.
But it wasn’t Lee’s actions in the Civil War that finally caused his downfall at the hands of the City of New Orleans – it was the post-war campaign his statue represented.
Lee was elevated to his prominent spot 14 years after his death as part of an organized campaign to rewrite history. The “Lost Cause” school of popular history rebranded the Confederacy as a defender of freedom – ignoring the fact that the only freedom it defended was the freedom to own slaves. It redubbed the Civil War the “War of Northern Aggression,” when it was in fact an armed rebellion against Constitutional law. Confederate soldiers were patriots, not traitors, it argued, and none was more noble than Lee. According to the story still told in popular history and in classrooms - even well outside the South - Lee was a military genius who disliked slavery but chose his beloved Virginia over the call of the Union.
Two weeks after Lee’s statue came down amid protests and cheers, Andy Serwer took a shot at his reputation. Writing in The Atlantic, Serwer argued that Lee wasn’t the “good Southerner” he was turned into by Lost Cause propagandists. Serwer uses Lee’s own writings to show him to be a white supremacist who believed slavery was in the best interest of the Negro race.
As a slave-owner, Lee reversed a family policy against breaking up slave families, a tradition that dated back to when George Washington ran the Mount Vernon plantation that later became Lee’s. As a general, Serwer writes, Lee condoned the massacre of black Union soldiers. As a college president – and the most revered figure throughout the South - he did nothing to discourage reign of terror waged against former slaves by the KKK, or to stop his own students from participating in it.
But the myth of the Lost Cause was about more than burnishing Lee’s reputation. Its effect – some would argue its intent – was to restore the moral legitimacy of the South’s white supremacist elite. By retroactively making the Civil War into a battle over states’ rights as opposed to slavery, it laid the groundwork for the Jim Crow laws that perpetuated the oppression of southern African-Americans for another century.
The problem isn’t just that Lost Cause gets history wrong; it’s that it swept so much real history under the rug. Real history is the far more modest, and only recently erected, plaque I stumbled on while waking through New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood earlier this year. It marks the site of “Theophilus Freeman’s notorious slave pen.”
New Orleans was America’s largest slave market, a key link in the chain of bondage for hundreds of thousands of men and women. Thousands more were terrorized after emancipation, as white supremacists regained power and imposed Jim Crow segregation.
In a well-received speech marking the removal of the Confederate monuments, Landrieu criticized the hypocrisy of those who pretend to care about history and heritage but have nothing to say about slavery and segregation.
The four monuments New Orleans dismantle "celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for,” Landieu said. “And after the Civil War, these monuments were part of that terrorism as much as burning a cross on someone's lawn."
History is the story we choose to tell, and it’s a choice made by every generation. When crowds in the former Soviet Union took down statues of Vladimir Lenin or crowds in Iraq tore down statues of Saddam Hussein, they weren’t rewriting history. They were reclaiming it. By taking Robert E. Lee off his pedestal, the people of New Orleans reclaimed theirs.