Here’s a proposal for the current controversy about removing monuments linked to the Civil War: keep the Lee and Beauregard statues. If something must be done, and once these types of issues start it is hard to reverse them if for no other reason than media coverage, remove the monuments to Jeff Davis and Liberty Place.
Lee is a complex figure who, as it is well documented, opposed slavery. He was in the war because he would not take up arms against his native Virginia at a time when states were given higher status than their nation. (Hence the name “United States.”) After the war, he worked diligently to get Confederate soldiers to lay down their arms and to restore the Union. His life represents the changes from an Old World agriculture economy to the emerging Industrial Age. To dismiss him because of stereotypes is unfair; to understand him in the context of the times is enlightened.
P.G.T. Beauregard, the one person represented among the endangered monuments who was a native of the New Orleans area, proved to be a good citizen after the war. He worked diligently for unification including desegregation of schools and transportation. He helped build streetcar lines and railroads. He was selected to be a supervisor of the Louisiana lottery partially because his name evoked so much trust. Later in his career he was appointed adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard.
Beauregard’s equestrian statue at the entrance of City Park is among the most handsome of all local monuments. Esteemed New York artist Alexander Doyle agreed to create the statue. (According to a newly formed group trying the save the statue, Doyle accepted a low fee because of his acquaintance with the general.)
To generations of New Orleanians, the statues of Lee and Beauregard are not about a long fought war rather they are part of the backdrop of two grand vistas in the city, St. Charles Avenue as seen from Lee Circle; the gateway to City Park, as seen from Beauregard Circle.
Less can be said about Jeff Davis, the President of the Confederacy. He did spend his last days in New Orleans, where he died and was entombed briefly at the Metairie Cemetery. General Beauregard, we suspect, would have been fully supportive of removing Davis’ monument because the two men despised each other, each blaming the other for losing the war. Beauregard, as the ranking former Confederate general in town, was asked to lead Davis’ funeral procession; however, he refused by pointing to their mutual dislike. Other than his having purchased the Beauvoir mansion in Biloxi, there is little about him that speaks of the history or culture of the city.
By contrast, the monument of the Battle of Liberty Place does speak of an historic showdown, which was really about locals trying to regain control from the rule of carpetbaggers and northern Republicans – some of whom were black, thus giving the incident a racial edge. Through the years some unfortunate language about white superiority was etched in, though later removed. Originally on Canal Street, the monument has already been punished for its mixed message and removed to a spot between Canal Place and the railroad track. At that time more politically correct language was added, but the monument cannot escape its past – especially among those who really do not understand what it is all about. Sooner or later, it is doomed.
Finally, we question the use of the word “nuisance” when applied to this debate. That word has been given legal standing from previous discussions involving the Liberty Place moment. Merriam-Webster defines the word as “harm, injury. : one that is annoying, unpleasant, or obnoxious : pest.” A true nuisance is a pot hole in the street; a broken pipe; an over-eager parking ticket writer, a missing street sign. The monuments might be controversial, but they are not nuisances.
We urge that the debate be reopened.
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 web sites.