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 General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army to General U.S. Grant at Appomattox. Other than a few scattered combat groups, 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,” the President said. “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 states’ 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 even 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, and included 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.
Instead, without him, there would be bitter days ahead, including 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.
What a curious state Louisiana was. Consider the parish names in the northern part of them state which included: Union, Lincoln and Grant. (Colfax, Grant’s parish seat of government, was the site of an 1873 riot triggered by Reconstruction politics. It was named after Grant’s Vice President Schuyler Colfax.)
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 Lincoln’s speech a night earlier when he was more jovial as he spoke to that evening’s crowd. The President even made a surprising request that would be politically impossible in modern times. He asked the band to play “Dixie.”
“I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard,” the President said. “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’s 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. Though with peace would come its own battles.
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.
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