Malbreaux: The Battle of New Orleans

We must fight the war against memorializing contentious historical figures.

by Tyler Malbreaux | 5/11/17 12:35am

Many Southerners remain confused about the Civil War, its origins and the implications it bore for the Confederate States. Harvard professor John Stauffer reported in a 2011 Harvard Gazette article that nearly 70 percent of white Southerners believe that states’ rights were the underlying cause of the war, while slavery was only a secondary cause.

Historians believe this misinformed position originates from the ideological school dubbed the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” which contends that the Confederacy, while a dismal failure, sought to preserve the idyllic antebellum South. This school allows neo-Confederates to defend a weak position by appealing to a type of Southern exceptionalism — sprawling plantations enclosed in forests of magnolia, planter-families that valued gentility and virtue and small communities hidden miles away from the unsightly, industrialized North.

This picture of a prosperous Dixie — which, for most people at the time, never existed — helped Southerners cope with identity issues in the aftermath of Reconstruction. Vestiges of the South’s bitter defeat were evident for the next hundred years of Jim Crow segregation. The Confederate States of America may have been a temporary fire, but white supremacy was, and is, an inextinguishable flame.

It should come as no surprise that the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans has been met with violent protests. In December 2015, the New Orleans city council voted 6-1 to remove an obelisk on Canal Street that commemorated a failed insurrection by the White League to overthrow the Republican-controlled Louisiana government in 1874. However, the contractor hired by the city to complete the removal project refused the job after his $200,000 Lamborghini suspiciously burned to a crisp in January 2016. The city also faced pending litigation after various white supremacist groups sued over the planned removal, which also included statues of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis. After arrangements were made with a new contractor, the city commenced the second attempted removal this past April. The mayor’s office plans to remove all of the city’s four Confederate monuments by the end of May.

As a Louisiana native, I must admit that I am ashamed by this public reaction. Pro-Confederate groups have issued death threats to the mayor of New Orleans and city officials. The second group of contractors who removed the obelisk had to wear bulletproof vests and masks to conceal their identity, surrounded by police barricades and protected by rooftop police snipers. While I am sure Dartmouth students may be convinced that the city’s actions are indeed long overdue, many people in my home, some of whom are my acquaintances, neighbors or even friends, hold the removal to be an abomination. To those actively protesting the removal — who believe the monuments are symbols of Southern pride, a memorial to ancestors who proudly wore that gray uniform or a reminder that the “South will rise again” — I say to you: What you label as a symbol of “heritage,” I consider to be a symbol of treason.

At no point in history was the Confederacy ever about states’ rights, economics, government intrusion or whatever contrived reason white supremacists decide to propagate. Rather, when the continued subjugation of some four million enslaved peoples and the profit it bore to the elite few was threatened by abolition, figures like Davis rallied and attacked Fort Sumter. Men like Davis, Beauregard and Lee came very close to ending the greatest democratic experiment the world has ever seen, subverting every liberal value espoused by the founding documents. As Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens said weeks before the Civil War’s outbreak, “That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men.”

Even by 19th century standards, the Confederacy espoused a perverted worldview that was morally abhorrent. Some believe the removal of New Orleans’ monuments may set a dangerous precedent for the removal of other historical markers. For instance, who is to say that the statue of former President Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square will not be removed? While not a Confederate general, he would be, by today’s standards, a war criminal for his role in moving thousands of Native Americans in the bloody “Trail of Tears.” In fact, a small minority may even make the argument that the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. ought to be removed because they commemorate the lives of slaveholders.

While I would be against such measures, I do not see any reason for immediate concern for two reasons. First, there are no major movements to remove monuments in dedication to American heroes. Second, even if there was one, it is unlikely it would be powerful enough for policymakers to consider, because it would cause major political backlash, and it would be a significant departure from American tradition.

What lays before the city of New Orleans, though, is a battle for its soul. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the city council, along with the citizens that voted them into office, are winning a decisive victory this year against the vicious legacy of white supremacy. However, a group that continues to mistake an old, hateful regime for a righteous one threatens to bring New Orleans back to the 1800s through violence in the city streets. I continue to have faith in the civic leaders and the counter-protesters back home who have demonstrated immeasurable courage in supporting the rule of law by a democratically elected government. Ultimately, their side will end up on the right side of history.