Custer at Mardi Gras
ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION
Mardi Gras 145 years ago: The year 1872 was that of the first Rex parade. Also causing buzz was the arrival of real royalty, the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich.
By then, on the last leg of his Untied States tour, Alexis’ presence at the first Rex parade, though coincidental, would add a touch of legitimate royalty to the day. Of those in his entourage, however, the one whose name would become the best known over time was his military escort, General George Armstrong Custer.
New Orleans was where the Grand Duke’s visit would be best remembered. From Nebraska, where Custer and the Duke hunted buffalo, the entourage took a steamboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, arriving at a dock near what’s now the intersection of S. Carrollton and St. Charles avenues.
For Custer, returning to New Orleans must have been a treat. He had visited the city before, most notably in May 1865, escorted by his wife Libbie. Here he was to meet with Army General Philip Sheridan.
Author Kevin Sullivan in his book, Custer’s Road to Disaster: The Path to Little Bighorn, would write that New Orleans held “a great deal of fascination for the Custers.” After dining in some of the city’s restaurants, Libbie wrote that “we saw eating made a fine art.” Custer, a Union General, was enamored of the local coffee, saying that even the best northern blend was “almost equal to the French Market.”
By 1872, when Custer returned to New Orleans with the Grand Duke, he had some celebrity status as a hero of the Civil War Battle of Bull Run. (Though New Orleans had been a Confederate city, Union officers were part of the landscape in this town that was still under Federal occupation.)
Mardi Gras that year was Feb. 13, a historic day in the festival’s history because of Rex’s debut parade. The Grand Duke and his group saw the parade from box seats at Gallier Hall. Earlier that week the visitors were entertained with a dinner at the posh Jockey Club located near the site of the Fair Grounds racetrack that would open that year. Horse racing was a topic that interested Custer. He owned several racehorses including one, Frogtown, which would race at the Fair Grounds later that season.
Since the most information was written about the Grand Duke’s schedule, we can assume that it also applied to Custer. They would have stayed at the St. Charles Hotel, which was the city’s most elegant place to stay. On Mardi Gras night they would have moved to a series of parties and balls. Both were witness to Rex’s nativity.
From there, Alexis would return to Russia and obscurity; Custer would achieve immortality, ironically, because of his mortality.
America should have been a happier place in the summer of 1876. The nation, now united after the Civil War, was only nine days away from celebrating the centennial of its Declaration of Independence, but on July 25 the country suffered a loss. General Custer’s army was entirely eliminated by a union of Indian tribes led by chiefs Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.
News of the massacre created national outrage. Also receiving the message, though from a distance, was the Grand Duke, now 26. He, too, would have a military career, though his would befit someone whose dad was the Czar. He would eventually be put in charge of the Russian Navy, for which he was given credit for modernization. He was later blamed, however, for a key naval defeat. His last years were spent in Paris, away from the Russian revolution. Curiously, though French in origin, Mardi Gras was never an extravagant celebration in the French capitol. Most likely it was New Orleans that provided the Grand Duke the best Carnival he had ever seen.
Perhaps his friend General Custer also taught him to appreciate really good coffee.