Decommissioning Lee

The controversial removal of a prominent New Orleans statue

(Infrogmation of New Orleans/Flickr)
(Infrogmation of New Orleans/Flickr)

As midnight approached on May 18, 300 to 400 people, in various states of agitation, gathered at Lee Circle in downtown New Orleans. Atop a 60-foot fluted column stood the center of their attention: tall, bronze Robert E. Lee, arms crossed, countenance stern, facing north, looking as if he had unfinished business to attend to.

Three smaller Confederate monuments—statues of P. G. T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis, and an obelisk marking the Battle of Liberty Place—had already recently come down. These unannounced removals had taken place late at night, with crews wearing bulletproof vests, helmets, and scarves or masks to hide their faces. Lee’s was the last of the monuments to be “decommissioned,” and its removal was also the most controversial. Earlier attempts had resulted in death threats, along with the torching of a contractor’s sports car. (As we would later learn from Charlottesville, violence was not threatened idly.) So before arriving at Lee Circle on May 18, workers covered the names on their trucks with cardboard and tape. They had hoped to work in quiet anonymity.

Lee’s retirement party had been likewise unannounced, but that afternoon I’d seen reports on Twitter that workmen were taking down streetcar cables around Lee Circle and diverting passengers to buses. It was pretty clear what was up.

When I got to the site, the crowd had loosely divided into two camps: “Take ’Em Down” and “Heritage, Not Hate.” Those in favor of keeping Lee on his perch had occupied the high ground, standing amid Confederate flags on the steps just below police barricades. Those who wanted to see Lee toppled outnumbered the pro folks by two or three to one and were scattered down the low hill built in 1884 to give the statue added prominence. A number of monument foes strode up to face the phalanx of arm-crossed Lee supporters. One middle-aged black man repeatedly yelled, “He’s coming down!” into the face of an older white man who, with a Johnny Reb cap and a scraggly beard, looked as if he’d stepped out of a daguerreotype. The white man, in turn, responded by barking, “I know!”—like a recruit answering a drill sergeant. After 15 or 20 repetitions, the exchange petered out and the two stood silently next to each other, firmly but a little awkwardly.

A 40-something woman with unnaturally red hair and a floral dress then loudly announced with impressive authority that the Beauregard statue, which had stood in a prominent spot in front of City Park until two days earlier, had been relocated atop the general’s gravesite, so the removal was an act of desecration. A man in a ball cap turned to me, eyes wide, and asked, slowly, “Did you just hear that? They disturbed Beauregard’s grave!” He let out a theatrical sigh, as if some serious Ghostbusters-level chaos would soon be unleashed upon the metropolis. (Nothing happened, perhaps because Beauregard is actually buried in Metairie, a few miles away.)

A man with a sousaphone then walked up St. Charles Avenue and joined the crowd, followed by people with drums and trombones and trumpets. Four of the drummers made their way up the steps and stood a yard or two from the neo-Confederates, and started beating out a loud, tight Mardi Gras Indian beat and chanting, “Lee’s gotta go!” Then brass instruments started up below, as if attempting to weave the chaos into some semblance of order.

And so it went until a little after 3:30 A.M., when a contingent of New Orleans police officers ordered the crowd to retreat a block in every direction, behind a new row of metal barricades. People griped but cooperated, and large cranes and bucket trucks and a flatbed drove in.

That a crowd would stay up all night arguing over the fate of a bronze statue seemed pleasingly archaic in the age of Kardashian and Snapchat. Statues have been virtually invisible for decades—they’d lost their power to inspire and incite long ago, and had become, like rock formations, part of an inert landscape. But here in New Orleans, the invisible had been made visible again, and the permanent impermanent. Newspaper letters to the editor and op-ed sections were filled with both reason and invective as people grappled over questions such as, Where does it end? Do we rename our streets and tear down the iconic statue of Andrew Jackson?

But as I walked back a block and turned to look at Lee, another vexing question came to mind again: Since when did those who lost a war get their own monuments?

In February 1884, a far larger crowd—an estimated 15,000—came out to see Lee’s statue dedicated. That day began with pomp and promise, but moments before the ceremony commenced, the sky opened and sheets of rain drove spectators under awnings and into nearby buildings. Dignitaries hastily regrouped in a nearby hall, where a few speeches were delivered. Most of the planned remarks were published by newspapers the following day.

Since his death in 1870, Lee had been enjoying an apotheosis, and the tributes honored him lavishly. Louisiana Supreme Court Associate Justice Charles Fenner began by tracing the general’s ancestry back to Launcelot Lee, who accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066. Fenner heralded “the purity of his life, the moral grandeur of his character and the splendor of his achievements … every record of which indicates a race of hereditary gentlemen.”

“General Lee was not only illustrious as a great commander,” said New Orleans Mayor William J. Behan, who had served under Lee, “but he was also great in all those attributes which might constitute a brilliant exemplar of the highest civilization.”

What wasn’t mentioned in any remarks was that Lee had lost a war and surrendered up the South. A hapless wayfarer coming upon the dedication would have assumed this to be a victory rally. Which it essentially was. Lee may have lost the War of Northern Aggression, but after his death, New Orleans (and the South) was winning the Reconstruction, and residents were eager to claim the spoils previously denied.

In the two decades following Appomattox, writes Teresa Barnett in her 2013 study, Sacred Relics: Pieces of the Past in Nineteenth-Century America, bereavement had been transformed into celebration, in turn elevating “The Lost Cause,” a cultural phenomenon that conceded defeat on the battlefield but claimed victory in the battle for nobility and all that was right. Historian Edward A. Pollard, in his 1866 book, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates, gave life to the phrase, arguing that slavery had been cynically used by the North for political gain, and that save for “a few thousand persons of disordered conscience,” nobody in the North cared a whit about slaves. Slavery in the South was “really the mildest in the world,” he insisted, and “did not rest on acts of debasement and disenfranchisement, but elevated the African, and was in the interest of human improvement.” Pollard went on: “The South had an element in its society—a landed gentry—which the North envied, and for which its substitute was a coarse ostentatious aristocracy that smelt of the trade, and that, however it cleansed itself and aped the elegance of the South, and packed its houses with fine furniture, could never entirely subdue a sneaking sense of its inferiority.” Pollard was deftly laying the foundation for the historical narrative of the South that would reach its zenith in Gone with the Wind.

Reconstruction, born of northern ideas of justice and fairness, was in full retreat. The first White League formed in Louisiana in early 1874, and in September of that year, a militia of armed white supremacists overthrew the New Orleans municipal government, attacking an integrated police force in a skirmish that cost 35 lives and holding on to city hall for a few days. (The obelisk commemorating this so-called Battle of Liberty Place was the first monument to be taken away this year.) In 1877, federal troops departed New Orleans as part of a political horse-trading deal, and racially progressive politicians and laws were invited to leave with them. Within a decade after the Lee statue was dedicated, Jim Crow was firmly in control of Louisiana.

Those gathered under rainy skies in 1884 to hail Robert E. Lee weren’t only honoring a descendant of a man who fought alongside William the Conqueror. They were celebrating a victory against the North in morals and values.

May 19, 2017, began hazy and humid as the temperature quickly neared 80 degrees. As the sun rose, Lee still stood atop his pedestal, now surrounded by dozens of police officers and heavy equipment. It was official: the statue was coming down that day. Much of the pro-monument crowd seemed to have dispersed in the dark. A block away on Howard Avenue, a low-key street festival bloomed: a boom-box trailer behind a bike blared hip-hop, a unicyclist worked his way through the crowd, and a man dressed like a harlequin danced ineptly. People along the barricade chanted, “Take ’em down!”

A few blocks downriver, Mayor Mitch Landrieu—who had started the removal proc-ess nearly two years earlier, after the murders at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church—had joined a group of invited guests inside the old city hall on Lafayette Square. In remarks that gained national attention, Landrieu noted that these monuments had been erected to honor not just men but the “Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal—through monuments and through other means—to rewrite history to hide the truth.” As he saw it, the monuments represented hate, not heritage.

Landrieu also said aloud what these monuments had silently denied for generations: “The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it.” He, too, had passed by the monuments “a million times” without giving them much thought until acquaintances, including musician Wynton Marsalis, asked him to view them through their eyes. Keeping them upon their pedestals “is an affront to our present,” he said, “and it is a bad prescription for our future.” Pro-monument supporters claimed to be rallying in support of noble icons, and many were; but Landrieu looked beyond the icons to what art historian Erwin Panofsky defined as “iconology”—the context in which these statues went up. These statues represented both men and, in Panofsky’s interpretation, “those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion.”

As a warm afternoon edged into evening, a crane moved into place. Straps were affixed to Lee by masked men atop a bucket truck; the cable went taut. Lee resisted for a moment or two, then came unplugged from his mount, swinging jerkily before ceasing to move. He was then slowly lowered to a flatbed. The crowd at Howard Avenue blared air horns and sang, “Na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye.”

Later, many compared the scene to a lynching, and it’s hard to avoid that comparison. But what struck me was just how small Lee seemed while hanging in space a few yards from his pedestal. He finally looked like a man who’d lost a war.

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Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails and The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco and Why It Matters Today. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Imbibe, The Daily Beast, and Garden & Gun, among other publications.


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