We are lucky that we enter this Carnival season with the nation in relative peace (though there will always be some skirmishes somewhere). It is befitting of the season that the first celebrity guest to the first Rex parade, 150 years ago this year, was a Russian. The Grand Duke Alexis did hear the echo of gunfire during his visit to our country, but that was when he went buffalo hunting in Nebraska. (An Army Colonel, named George Armstrong Custer, was assigned to escort him.)

Custer also escorted the Grand Duke to New Orleans, so it may be that that he was the highest ranking military official, up to that time, to witness our fledging Carnival. There would be times ahead, however, when the military would play a more pivotal role in Carnival’s survival.

In 1979, there were no Carnival parades in New Orleans because of a police strike, but Mardi Gras could not be erased 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. Trooper’s, 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.

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 the Carnival. Some examples:

1872. Custer’s Horse – During his stay for that first Rex parade, George Custer entered a horse he owned in a race at the newly opened Fairgrounds. 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 Capitan 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 day. The king was a disabled war vet, the Queen was a member of the armed focus 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 Mardi Gras providing tours and unloading a boat load of happy sailors.

Coast Guard at Lundi Gras – Ever since Lundi Gras started, the Coast Guard has been the official Navy of Rex in most years also providing the transportation for the King of Carnival’a arrival to the city. When Zulu started a similar tradition a few years later it relied on the Coast Guard, too. 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 Rifles – 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 receive 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 Olreans could lift itself from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina 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 could not have happened though 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 ’79, 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, their career is blessed if their biggest battle is getting through the crowds on Bourbon Street.

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Have something to add to this story, or want to send a comment to Errol? Email him at errol@myneworleans.com.

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BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.

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