Apr 3, 201711:26 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Lincoln's Last Speech
And Why He Spoke About Louisiana
On April 11, 1865, Abraham Lincoln stood at the window above the White House’s north door to deliver a speech to the crowd below. Two days earlier Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army to Gen. U.S. Grant at Appomattox. Other than a few scattered skirmishes, the fighting was done.
This could have been a moment for great joy but the message was subdued, except for the opening paragraph: “We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart,” said the president. “The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression can not be restrained.”
Yet the president was restrained: He began speaking somberly about rebuilding the southern governments, or what he called “reconstruction.”
There were nine more paragraphs in what was a legally intricate address. Louisiana, the only state referred to, was mentioned seven times; New Orleans, once. The White House knew that of all the states of the Confederacy, Louisiana was the least passionate about the war. There was more pro-union sympathy there, not only in the cosmopolitan port of New Orleans, but also in the rural areas where poor whites regarded the disruption as a plantation owner’s war. Louisiana’s people were different too. There were more diverse; not so overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon as was the rest of the south but with more mixtures of French, Spanish, Caribbean and African. New Orleans was the only city in the nation where the word “Creole” was part of the ethnic discussion. Louisiana did send its sons to war but that was more because of the neighborhood that the state lived in rather than for the cause.
New Orleans, because it controlled the Mississippi River, was captured early, so most of the wartime was spent under occupation. The Union Commander, General Benjamin Butler was regarded as ornery and as a thief, but that was about as bad as the war got in the city; far more peaceful than in Atlanta which was torched by General Sherman.
As the war ended Lincoln felt that his best chance at Reconstruction was through Louisiana.
Tragically, because of his assassination, there would be bitter days ahead including, in Louisiana, at one time having two state governments; one Pro-Union, the other that feared the loss of home rule. The arguments were not about slavery but about who was in control. This same division; the native white middle class at odds with what it regarded as outside influences would continue, in different contexts, through the years.
Louisiana was never a Confederate flag- waving state, neither in its celebrations nor its politics: Instead of incorporating the stars and bars into its flag, Louisiana chose motherhood, a momma pelican with three chicks at its breast.
In the crowd for Lincoln’s speech that April night was a young actor from Baltimore who was a white supremacist and a Confederate activist. He was incensed by Lincoln’s talk about unity. Of Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth muttered, “That is the last speech he will ever make.” Three nights later both Booth and Lincoln headed to Ford’s theater.
We don’t know if Booth heard another of Lincoln’s White House speeches earlier that week when the President was more jovial. Lincoln even made a surprising request that in modern times would be pummeled by political correctness: He asked the band to play “Dixie.”
“I have always thought `Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard,” said the president. “Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. [Applause.] I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. [Laughter and applause.] I now request the band to favor me with its performance.'”
As the band played and with the president looking on, the crowd was happy that night. The war was over. In other ways, though, the battles had just begun.
This article was adapted and substantially modified from a blog that first appeared in 2015 at a time when the monuments removal controversy was first introduced.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7PM, REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.