Robert E. Lee and the Redemption of White New Orleans

The unveiling of the Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans on February 22, 1884 did not proceed according to plan. An immense crowd of 15,000 guests, who hoped to honor the former Confederate general-in-chief, had assembled for the sacred event at Lee Place right before 2:00 p.m. Among the many luminaries in attendance were former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Lee’s two surviving daughters, Mildred and Mary. Just as the ceremonies were about to begin, it started raining in torrents, dispersing the crowd and ending the proceedings prematurely. As everyone ran for shelter, a private soldier from Lee’s army unveiled the 18-foot bronze statue, which stood high atop a 90-foot column of Tennessee marble. The grim-visaged image of Lee faced north.

Charles Erasmus Fenner, who had been chosen as the orator for the occasion, never got a chance to deliver his laudatory address on that February day, which was also the 152nd anniversary of George Washington’s birthday. The choice of date was not coincidental — connecting Lee, who died in 1870, to another esteemed general from Virginia added luster to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Fenner, who was both President of the Robert E. Lee Monumental Association and an Associate Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, had been preparing his address on the southern hero for two years.

After the rains came, the directors and officers of the Monumental Association went indoors at the Washington Artillery Hall to complete the ceremonies. There, it was decided Fenner’s lengthy oration would be published in the local newspapers. Fenner then ceremoniously presented the statue to New Orleans Mayor William J. Behan, a Civil War veteran who had fought under Lee. Behan graciously accepted the monument on behalf of the Crescent City, while also noting Lee’s greatness did not require a monument, “His deeds are his monument, and they will survive and continue in remembrance long after this marble shall have crumbled into dust; his great example will outlive the brush of the painter and the chisel of the sculptor, for great examples are indeed imperishable.”

Today’s defenders of General Lee’s memory may take comfort in Behan’s words, especially after the Lee statue was removed in New Orleans on May 19, 2017 — 133 years after it was first unveiled. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, in remarks made immediately before the removal of the statue, stated that the Lee monument was “not just stone and metal,” nor was it merely an innocent remembrance of a “benign history.” No, the Lee monument, Landrieu believed, purposely celebrated “a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” Proponents of the monument vehemently disagreed, believing Confederate monuments were an important part of their heritage and that Lee remained an American hero. Passions got so heated that work crews wore face masks and tactical vests during the removal of the statue in order to protect themselves from potential violence.

The decision to take down the Lee statue was a complicated one. Mayor Landrieu noted it took hearings and approvals from three separate community led commissions as well as a 6–1 vote by the New Orleans City Council. Later, the decision for removal was reviewed by 13 different federal and state judges.

Now that the question has been finally decided and the statue has been taken down, perhaps there’s an opportunity to dispassionately reexamine what we — both the citizens of New Orleans and the United States — have lost by this action. This is an especially timely question in the aftermath of recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. What were the members of the Monumental Association and their guests trying to achieve on that February day in 1884? What can we learn by taking a closer look at this heritage?

On the day of the monument ceremony, The Daily Picayune, a conservative newspaper serving New Orleans, attempted to explain why it was important to Southerners. An editor for the newspaper argued that the story of the Confederacy lived in history only and its commendable attributes would be “forgotten or obscured unless the children of its defenders learn from friendly sources the true story of its brief but brilliant existence.”

The Picayune’s editor also addressed the “dishonoring charge” of treason, lamenting that “the purest and bravest men in the South have been denounced as guilty of a shameful crime.” Instead of offering a passing protest against the accusation, the editor urged his fellow Southerners to use literature and art to show future ages they have no sense of guilt, but instead, “a profound reverence for those who bore the battle flag of Dixie, or who fought and fell beneath its tattered folds.” The editorial concluded by rhetorically asking if there was a better way to show reverence for the Confederacy than by “rearing monuments” like the one honoring Lee.

Judge Charles E. Fenner also delivered a robust defense of Lee and the Confederate cause in his oration that was published in The Daily Picayune and other local newspapers. A native of New Orleans, Fenner had joined the Confederate Army in 1861, serving as a captain of a Louisiana artillery unit that fought with the Army of Tennessee. After the war, he returned to New Orleans to practice law. He was close friends with Jefferson Davis who died at Fenner’s house in the Garden District in 1889.

In 1880, Fenner was appointed to the Louisiana Supreme Court. His most famous decision as a judge was Ex parte Plessy in 1893, which affirmed the principle of “separate but equal” that had been established in the local case, Plessy v. Ferguson. The United States Supreme Court eventually upheld Judge Fenner’s ruling in 1896, using many of his arguments in support of its final decision.

Fenner began his speech on Lee with heaps of praise usually reserved for mythological gods and heroes. After two years of research on General Lee, the awestruck judge sat back in “growing wonder at the purity of his life, the moral grandeur of his character and the splendor of his achievements.” Lee possessed good looks, moral character, and a “grand physique.” After achieving high honors at West Point, he earned laurels as one of America’s top soldiers during the Mexican War. Throughout his career, Lee loved the Union deeply, said Fenner. During the secession crisis of 1861, Lee wrestled with arcane constitutional questions before deciding to follow his native state of Virginia in leaving the Union. Surely that couldn’t be treason, Fenner asked his audience.

At this point in the oration, Judge Fenner launched into a long, tedious discussion of states’ rights, a well-known topic at the time that had been studied in excruciating detail by former leaders of the Confederacy such as Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens. Lee and his fellow Southerners, Fenner proposed, had made a perfectly reasonable decision to join the Confederacy given the differing views on the right of secession prior to the war. He then added, “And here I leave the cause of Lee to be judged at the bar of impartial history.”

After a discussion of Lee’s military exploits, Fenner concluded, “Proudly, then, we unveil this monument, fearless of any denial that it perpetuates the memory of a man justly entitled to rank as one of the princes of his race, and worthy of the veneration of the world.” Like the editorial from The Daily Picayune, Fenner was unapologetic in his vindication of Lee and the Confederate cause. The Lee Monument was an expression of pride in his achievement and that of the Confederacy.

Fenner’s address had all of the usual elements of the Lost Cause tradition — a set of beliefs that helped Southerners make sense of the war. The cardinal principle of the Lost Cause was that the war wasn’t fought over slavery. Instead, it was about states’ rights. Throughout the course of his long oration, Fenner did not mention the subject of slavery once. In addition to his lengthy remarks on states’ rights, he also touched on another common theme when he explained that the South wasn’t actually defeated, but rather, was overwhelmed by the North’s endless supply of soldiers and resources. Finally, he devoted considerable attention to elevating Lee high above all other Civil War soldiers. This too was a central pillar of the Lost Cause edifice.

Lee himself did much to shape the Lost Cause outlook during the last five years of his life. In one respect, the Lost Cause was an elaborate defense by former rebels against a broad indictment of their actions handed down by Northerners soon after the war. In another sense, the Lost Cause tradition represented a longing for an idealized prewar South that was prosperous and governed by orderly relations between master and slave. Edward Pollard, the journalist who coined the term “Lost Cause” shortly after the war, believed slavery had been entirely justified and denying African Americans political rights in the future would be necessary. This was a view shared by many Southerners in the 1880s.

Even though Fenner never mentioned slavery in his oration, the subject of race was a preoccupation of the officers and directors of the Robert E. Lee Monumental Association. Fenner, Mayor Behan, and several of the association’s directors had been members of the Crescent City White League — a paramilitary organization founded in 1874 in response to fears of “Negro domination.” Mayor Behan had been an organizer of the group, while Fenner had been made a colonel.

The White League’s platform from 1874 is shocking by modern standards,

Disregarding all minor questions of principle or policy, and having solely in view the maintenance of our hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization, we appeal to men of our race, of whatever language or nationality, to unite with us against the supreme danger. A league of whites is the inevitable result of that formidable, oath-bound, and blindly obedient league of the blacks, which, under the command of the most cunning and unscrupulous negroes in the State, may at any moment plunge us into a war of races…It is with some hope that a timely and proclaimed union of the whites as a race, and t heir efficient preparation for any emergency, may arrest the threatened horrors of social war, and teach the blacks to beware of further insolence and aggression, that we call upon the men of our race to leave in abeyance all lesser considerations; to forget all differences of opinion and all race prejudices of the past, and with no object in view but the common good of both races, to unite with us in an earnest effort to re-establish a white man’s government in the city and the State.

By the time of the unveiling of the Lee monument in New Orleans in 1884, white elites had successfully reestablished “a white man’s government in the city.” The Crescent City White League had played a supporting role in that process by committing acts of violence and intimidation against African Americans and white Republicans in 1874 and 1875.

The Crescent City White League is nowadays remembered for the pitched battle it waged on the streets of New Orleans on September 14, 1874. The skirmish later became known as the “Battle of Liberty Place” — a hallowed event for many whites in New Orleans at the time and in subsequent decades. In 1891, the city created a monument to the Battle of Liberty Place. It was only just taken down in April 2017, a month before the removal of the Lee statue.

The experience of the war had left white New Orleanians bitter and humiliated in the weeks and months after 1865. The men of the Robert E. Lee Monumental Association hadn’t forgotten those trying days. White Southerners had risked all on their independence and lost. Upon returning from the battlefields to their homes, they saw former slaves — who fought for and supported their enemies — gain civil rights and political power for the first time. One former rebel soldier, quoted in John W. Blassingame’s Black New Orleans, said in 1865, “It is very hard to get back home after four years of hardships and find niggers with arms in hand doing guard duty in the city and to see a white man taken under Guard by one of those black scondrels [sic].” He then added, “I hope the day will come when we will have the upper hand of those black scondrels and we will have no mercy for them, we will kill them like dogs. I [was] never down on a nigger as I am now.”

The Reconstruction era — that period from 1865 to 1877 when the federal government attempted to return the Confederate states to the Union — was perceived in an especially harsh light by whites in New Orleans. In an essay honoring a Civil War general, Judge Fenner wrote,

He devoted himself to efforts to serve his people by exerting all the influence he could bring to bear to secure an amelioration of the conditions under which they were suffering and some relief from the gross injustices which were being inflicted upon them under the infamous regime of reconstruction. His efforts secured many incidental benefits, but they were powerless to arrest the resistless tide of oppression, which ran its predestined course to the bitter end.

Former supporters of the Confederacy viewed African Americans and white Republicans as dominating state and local governments and making a sham of true reconciliation between North and South. The vast majority of white Southerners, who supported the Democratic Party during Reconstruction, vowed to restore the traditional political leadership of the South, when given the opportunity. With the Compromise of 1877, which resulted in the withdrawal of federal troops from the former Confederate states, white Southerners would get their chance. The Lee monument would be erected just seven years after the South regained its autonomy.

During Reconstruction, African Americans had attempted to integrate schools and other public services. White New Orleanians vehemently opposed such efforts. When an attempt was made to integrate a school for girls in 1874, a writer for the New Orleans Bulletin promised, “that the Caucasian race of this city will resist, nay, will even become aggressive, if the attempt is again made to degrade the white pupils of our public schools…” The writer concluded his remarks by declaring, “The white race rule the world, the white race rule America, and the white race will rule Louisiana, and the white race shall rule New Orleans.”

After the “Redeemers” — white Southerners who overthrew what they perceived to be regimes run by outsiders — took power in 1877, African Americans gradually lost many of their modest gains. In New Orleans, the trend toward segregation increased during the 1880s. By the 1890s, white Democrats were firmly in charge of Louisiana’s government.

In 1890, the General Assembly of the state of Louisiana passed the Louisiana Railway Accommodations Act, which segregated railway cars by race. According to the new law, railway companies were required “to provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races, by providing separate coaches or compartments so as to secure separate accommodations.” This legislation would soon become one of the most famous “Jim Crow” laws of the era.

Homer Plessy, a mixed race man residing in New Orleans, challenged the new railway law in 1890. The resulting case, Plessy v. Ferguson, made it to the Louisiana Supreme Court before ultimately being decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1896. The Plessy decision would supply the judicial foundation for Jim Crow segregation in the South. Judge Charles E. Fenner — who had been the driving force behind the Lee monument in New Orleans in 1884 — wrote the most influential decision in the Plessy case and thereby was a central figure in upholding Jim Crow laws that would prevail in the South for over a half-century.

Fenner’s decision in the case, Ex parte Plessy (1893), provided most of the main arguments that would appear in the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). He felt the case ultimately came down to whether or not the new law violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Believing that those dissatisfied with the law were “unreasonable,” Fenner ruled that the “separation of the races in public conveyances…is in the interest of public order, peace and comfort.” Indeed, the Judge thought the statute applied to the two races with “perfect fairness and equality.”

A closer look at the ruling shows Judge Fenner was a dedicated believer in the separation of whites and African Americans in Louisiana. At one point, he posited that if it were true that the statute was prompted by prejudice, then “one would suppose that to be a sufficient reason why the pride and self-respect of the other race should equally prompt it to avoid such contact.” He added further that the “insistence upon thrusting the company of one race upon the other” would only serve “to foster and intensify repulsion between them rather than extinguish it.” Fenner, who had been a fierce opponent of Reconstruction, had become a leading spokesman of the Redemption era in Louisiana and his ruling would result in the “separate but equal” principle being applied to schools, water fountains, and restrooms. “Separate but equal” was misleading, however. In many cases, the facilities for African Americans would be of a dramatically inferior quality.

While Jim Crow laws were being rapidly established across Louisiana and the South, a strategy for disenfranchising African Americans was also carried out during the 1880s and 1890s. In 1898, Louisiana’s white legislature passed a new Constitution that added a strict literacy test. A grandfather clause was also included so the test wouldn’t apply to white voters. When asked by fellow delegates about the unfairness of the literacy test, the author of the legislation replied, “Doesn’t it meet the case? Doesn’t it let the white man vote, and doesn’t it stop the negro from voting, and isn’t that what we came here for?”

According to historian Michael Perman, there had been 130,334 African American voters on the rolls in Louisiana in 1896. After the passage of the new Constitution, there would be just 5,230 registered black voters. African Americans had been effectively disenfranchised in Louisiana. The Lost Cause goal of restoring the South’s antebellum social hierarchy had been realized after all.

In The Lost Cause Regained in 1868, Edward Pollard had argued that if the South, despite her defeat, could secure the supremacy of the white man, then “she really triumphs in the true cause of the war, with respect to all its fundamental and vital issues.” Given Pollard’s view, the Lee monument in New Orleans in 1884 wasn’t only a symbol of defeat. It was also a testament to the victory of white supremacy in the South after the war. As Mayor Landrieu wisely noted, the Confederate monuments in New Orleans “were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge.” The city decided, correctly in my judgment, that this wasn’t a heritage worthy of being displayed in public spaces. For Landrieu, New Orleans now has “a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people.”

Author of “A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.”

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