So it’s April. Quick, what does that make you think of?
I’ll bet you didn’t say “war.”
Sure, we’ve got Jazz Fest here in town, coinciding with Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette. April 30 marks the anniversary of Louisiana statehood, and French Quarter Fest begins on the 11th.
But April also marks the anniversaries of the beginning and ending of the American Civil War, as well as the fall of New Orleans to Union troops in the same conflict. This April in particular, Navy Week – held here in New Orleans – will commemorate the decisive American victory at the Battle of New Orleans (which, to be fair, took place in January). April served as the build-up to V-E Day (May 8), the result of a campaign made possible by our homegrown Higgins boats.
Beginning with the milestone that goes the furthest into New Orleans history, 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the War of 1812, to which, three years later, the Battle of New Orleans became a stupendously victorious coda for American forces. Regulars and militia, including the aristocratic Beale’s Rifles, routed British troops at Chalmette Plantation in early January 1815 following a British victory on Lake Borgne. The well-fortified American troops achieved an astounding ratio of inflicted to sustained casualties, nearly 10 to one, despite being outnumbered almost three to one. It was, in part, the Americans’ willingness to adapt to terrain and circumstances that helped them through the battle. By comparison, nearly 80 percent of an overly disciplined Scottish regiment, the 93rd Highlanders, perished while simply standing out in the open, awaiting orders after their commanding officer was slain.
The National Park Service maintains Chalmette Battlefield, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. The impressive battleground (roughly the size of Audubon Park above Magazine Street) retains most of the features that distinguished it in 1815, with an early American flag flying over the reconstructed (to scale) American battlements and a Union Jack from the Brits’ rallying point. The American battle line is truncated at St. Bernard Highway, but the actual entrenchment ran much further north. Even the plantation house abutting the levee is largely untouched, and the stewards have gone so far as to remove additions that had cropped up in the intervening years to retain the farmhouse’s striking French Colonial architecture (the house is now approximately 60 percent porch).
Adjacent to the visitor’s center – which displays original and recreated clothing and weapons from the battle and shows video presentations on the battle – is a memorial obelisk. “They finished it in 1909,” says Park Ranger Kristy Wallisch, but it was “halfway done at the time of the Civil War.” She says that historians have unearthed letters home from Civil War soldiers, describing camps set up under the unfinished memorial.
Along the eastern edge of the battlefield is National Cemetery. Of the 15,000 United States combat veterans buried there, almost 7,000 are unknown. “The cemetery was established during the Civil War,” says Wallisch, which explains why there are only four War of 1812 veterans buried there, including “one fellow who died at the Battle of New Orleans.” But what of the hundreds of British casualties? “Nobody actually knows,” says Wallisch. “There are conflicting stories … but nobody has ever found that out.”
The Park Service leads a live presentation on the battle every weekday at 2:45 p.m., and the park is also open to field trips and children’s groups. They host yearly encampments on the anniversary of the battle, but don’t host actual reenactments. Wallisch explains that, “to a lot of people, it’s very disrespectful.” History buffs will have to settle for running mock drills.
More information is available on the Park Service’s website, NPS.gov.
In remembrance of the Battle of New Orleans, the U.S. Navy will put on a Navy Week (the second of 15 scheduled for 2012) April 16 to 23. According to Stephen Strickland, a civilian public affairs specialist for the Navy, “New Orleans was chosen because it’s the site of what’s widely viewed as the greatest American land victory of the war.” He adds that, “It is only fitting that the bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812 begins and ends in New Orleans.”
As of press time, the rangers at the Chalmette Battlefield are in the planning stages for an event to coincide with the passing tall ships. “It’s traditional to salute a Navy ship as it sails by,” says Wallisch, “so we’re hoping to fire cannons and let people sit on the levee and watch the ships go by.”
According to Strickland, the three “tall ships” will be the Coast Guard cutter USS Eagle, the Guayas of Ecuador and the Dewaruci of the Indonesian Navy.
There will also be vessels of more contemporary design powering up the Mississippi River, including French, British and Canadian ships, in addition to the origins listed above. According to Strickland, there will be amphibious assault ships, guided missile cruisers, frigates and more. The armada will float pierside all along downtown, from the Thalia Street Wharf to the Esplanade Avenue Wharf. The ships will be open to the public.
Since it would probably be in bad taste to demonstrate shelling and anti-aircraft fire, the Navy has agreed to only launch fireworks. There will also be a seafood cook-off in Woldenberg Park on April 20 and service bands performing around the city throughout the week.
If all this is somehow not enough, the Blue Angels, the Navy’s crackerjack air show squadron, will perform an air show at the University of New Orleans Lakefront Campus on April 21 and 22.
Although New Orleans fell to a Union naval advance in April 1862, it’s the Battle of Shiloh that will inspire this month’s exhibits at the Civil War Museum at Confederate Memorial Hall (929 Magazine St.). Fought on April 6 and 7 at Pittsburgh Landing (namesake of the battle’s second moniker), a New Orleans native, General Pierre G. T. Beauregard – the same Beauregard who drained the city, built the Custom House and devised a plan for the city’s defense from river assault – held nominal command over Confederate forces, assuming battle command when his superior, General Albert Sidney Johnston, was mortally wounded. In two days of ferocious land battle, both sides suffered casualties in the amounts of one-fourth of each side’s total numbers. The eventual Union victory consolidated its major land forces, dispelled doubts that its volunteer army could prove effective, galvanized two of its generals (Grant and Sherman) and impressed upon both the Union and the Confederacy the reality that the war was going to be longer and bloodier than either had anticipated.
The Civil War Museum’s April exhibit, one installation in a rotating schedule, will exclusively feature weapons, uniforms and standards used by soldiers at Shiloh, according to museum director Patricia Ricci. Besides the standard walk-through tour, which is open daily to the public (other events are available to museum members only), “we have school groups and kids’ parties,” says Ricci, “And books and literature on Louisiana’s role in the war.”
Military Bad Boys Around Town
Confederate General Robert E. Lee stands guard at the traffic circle named for him stoically facing north. The bronze statue atop a Doric column was constructed in 1884 on what was originally Tivoli Circle, and the monolith has been terrorizing unsuspecting Yankee guests on the top floors of the Hotel Modern since its opening this year (and at Hotel Le Cirque before that).
On the 3800 block of Burgundy Street in what’s now the Bywater, the World War I Memorial “Victory Arch” stands a few yards away from where it originally stood. Built in 1919, the arch commemorates local residents who went to fight in The Great War (which, incidentally, contained a period known as Bloody April, during which the Royal Flying Corps suffered devastating losses).
General P.G.T. Beauregard sits astride his horse at the entrance to City Park from Bayou St. John. Beauregard ordered an attack on Fort Sumter, opening the Civil War, and was known as “Napoleon in Gray.”
Andrew Jackson, commander of the United States troops in the War of 1812, enjoys a place of honor in Jackson Square, formerly Plaza de Armas.