Yale’s David Blight is asked if New Orleans should rewrite its Civil War legacy

Historians in the News
tags: Civil War, New Orleans, David Blight, Confederate Monuments

On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine black parishioners at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That hate crime prompted South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol, and communities throughout the country debated the continued presence of monuments to the Confederacy in the public square.

That December, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed an ordinance to remove four monuments. These include statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as a commemoration of those who opposed Reconstruction. Over the past several weeks, after one monument was removed, a number of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations have rocked the city; at least five people have been arrested, and law enforcement has expressed concern over the number of heavily armed demonstrators. Landrieu says he plans to take down the remaining three.

David W. Blight is a professor of American history and the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University.

What strikes you as new about this particular controversy in comparison to other flare-ups in the past?

What does seem unique about the New Orleans case is that they managed to get an ordinance or resolution through the city council and supported by the mayor. That's unusual — for a major city to take it upon itself to decide to move such big monuments. I don't know of many other cases where that has happened. But, of course, the broader context here is everything we have been living through since the massacre in Charleston, and to some extent before that because of protests against police shootings and so on. We have never before experienced a wave of concern about Confederate iconography, flags, memorials, etc. like we have in the year [plus] after Charleston. No one could have predicted it. You have a real resistance to this sort of thing that may not have materialized without that event.

What was unique about New Orleans' war experience and the way the war is remembered there?

For one thing, New Orleans was occupied by the Union forces very early in the war, as early as April of 1862. So for most of the war, the city was occupied. However, after the war and during Reconstruction, New Orleans saw some of the worst violence against Reconstruction.

And one of the memorials being removed is,  in effect, a memorial to a massacre that occurred in New Orleans during Reconstruction. This is as much about the way Reconstruction is remembered or forgotten as it is Civil War heroes and iconography. New Orleans was a special case. There was a huge riot in New Orleans, which really turned into a massacre against the black community in 1866, and then there were acts of mob violence against black voters. ...

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