Marching Orders: Mardi Gras and the Military
ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION
If you had to keep the peace, this was the way to do it. In 1979 there were no Carnival parades in New Orleans because of a police strike. But the Teamsters Union, which was behind the strike, couldn’t erase Mardi Gras from the calendar, so on that day, revelers gathered in the French Quarter, working extra hard at being festive as if to defy the strikers.
Without a working police department, the Louisiana State Police patrolled the streets, but the most visible presence was the Louisiana National Guard. Troopers, mostly young men, stood in groups at key corners in the French Quarter. As they tried to look solemn and military-like, they couldn’t help smirking as girls danced around them and placed flowers on their helmets. From their duty stations they could glance at the balconies and see things that basic training had not prepared them for. Never had service to one’s country been as titillating.
What happened that day was one of many examples of how the military have been part of the Mardi Gras celebration. They are an overlooked factor in Carnival. Some examples:
1872. The Grand Duke’s Escort. That year, when Rex made its debut, the Russian Grand Duke Alexis happened to be in town as part of his national tour.
Escorting him was a young Army Major named George Armstrong Custer. While here, Custer entered a horse he owned in a race at the newly opened Fair Grounds. The U.S. Army band also marched in the first Rex parade, even though the times were still tense as Reconstruction continued.
Parade Marshalling. Military expertise has long been a part of running a parade, many times at the hand of former military personnel. The late Carl Smith, a retired National Guard Brigadier General, was a classic example having been Captain of his own Krewe of Pegasus and helping put together other parades, including super-sized Bacchus.
1951. Krewe of Patria. Because of the Korean War (President Harry Truman had declared a “limited emergency”) and a fire in the Rex den, several parades, including Rex, were canceled that year. However, some krewes chipped in floats to create the one-time Krewe of Patria that marched on Mardi Gras. The King was a disabled war vet; the Queen was a female member of the armed forces; and the theme reflected the mood: “The freedoms, historic traditions and other national heritages worth fighting for.” Zulu, at the time a smaller parade, also took to the streets that day, as did some marching groups, including the Jefferson City Buzzards.
Navy ships. Frequently they have come to town during Carnival, providing tours and unloading a boatload of happy sailors.
Coast Guard at Lundi Gras. Ever since Lundi Gras started, the Coast Guard has been the official Navy of Rex, bringing the King of Carnival for his arrival to the city. When Zulu started a similar tradition a few years later, it relied on the Coast Guard as well. Coast Guard helicopters add to the excitement as they circle overhead. A Coast Guard honor guard escorts the royalty to the stage.
Texas A&M Ross Volunteer Company. This precision marching group has long been at the head of the Rex parade.
Rex Ball Presentation. Rex has had a long relationship with the military. Each year selected military brass receives special recognition at the Rex ball.
The Marine Band. There is no greater band in all of Mardi Gras than that of the locally based Marine Forces Reserve Band. The group marches in parades and performs at several balls, including the televised Rex ball, where they are the featured entertainment.
Mardi Gras 2006. This was arguably the most important Mardi Gras ever, because it would be the proof that New Orleans could lift itself from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which occurred only five months earlier. The krewes came together, some with abbreviated schedules, and New Orleans celebrated not only to prove a point but also to soothe its soul. It couldn’t have happened without the National Guard. With the New Orleans police department still depleted, the guard, not just from Louisiana but from throughout the country, once again provided a presence. As in 1979, the revelers were determined to celebrate in peace to defy yet another demon. The military and the public rejoiced together.
Those who organize Carnival parades tend to have a patriotic streak that extends to the military. As for the troops – such as the National Guardsmen and the sailors at liberty – if your biggest battle is getting through the crowds on Bourbon Street, then the spirit of Mardi Gras has touched you, too.