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Civil War History 51.2 (2005) 135-150

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The Commemoration of Robert E. Lee's Death and the Obstruction of Reconstruction in New Orleans

On October 16, 1870, New Orleans mayor Benjamin Flanders grew dismayed as he peered from the window of an uptown streetcar. Robert E. Lee had died four days earlier and, in response, businessmen and prominent citizens in New Orleans had draped row after row of stores and homes with black bunting. Portraits of Lee hung in windows of saloons and coffeehouses. Many businesses had closed. Even Northern-born merchants and some wartime Unionists had covered their establishments with somber cloth. To Flanders, a Republican committed to bringing a new political and economic order to the Crescent City, it all seemed counterproductive and annoying. In a voice loud enough to be heard throughout the car, Flanders turned to two neighboring passengers and asked, "Where's the use in all this nonsense?"1

Whether or not he recognized it at the time, Flanders was witnessing a significant historical moment. The orchestrated display of grief for Lee in New Orleans and other Southern cities and towns was an important political and cultural phenomenon. While many Northerners in 1870 still viewed Lee as a noxious traitor, when the general died that October Southerners [End Page 135] deified him. He became the flawless "marble man" that generations of white Southerners would embrace as the symbol of the virtues of the Old South. Although Lee in life could be cold, testy, and stubborn, in death he became the perfect Christian gentlemen, an ideal husband, father, patriot, and military leader whose army lost only because it was numerically and materially overwhelmed.2

The deified Lee proved to be a politically potent symbol. Historians have long noted Lee's central place in "Lost Cause" iconography and how his sainted image facilitated the reconciliation between the North and South on the white South's ideological terms.3 Because many scholars have focused [End Page 136] on the decades-long process that turned Lee into a national hero, however, less attention has been paid to the immediate political impact his death and apotheosis had during Reconstruction. Events in New Orleans in October 1870 demonstrate the skillful way white Southerners used Lee's demise to further their ongoing efforts to drive the biracial Reconstruction regimes from power. Within hours of Lee's demise, Conservative Democrats in New Orleans were already manipulating his image for their own purposes.4

Even before Lee's death, Conservatives in New Orleans had learned that memorializing Confederate heroes could have significant political value. On a cold January day in 1867, for example, thousands of New Orleanians, clad in mourning clothes, lined the streets of the French Quarter to watch a casket holding the disinterred remains of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston carried to the steamboat landing. Johnston's body, first buried in New Orleans after his death at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, now was headed to his home state of Texas. Because federal authorities prohibited Confederate uniforms and martial music at the event, a line of famed Southern generals, including P. G. T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, Richard Taylor, and John Bell Hood, marched silently in civilian dress alongside the cypress hearse. A mile-long procession of prominent white New Orleanians dressed in black followed behind. Onlookers threw flowers and evergreen boughs from lace-iron balconies, and 10,000 thousand mourners filled Jackson Square and the levee to bid final farewell to the fallen hero.5

At a moment when many Republicans echoed Frederick Douglass's call for an "entire purification" of the South, the symbolic pomp surrounding [End Page 137] Johnston's reinterment provided psychological succor to unrepentant Confederates who still defended secession and slavery. It was, one newspaper noted, a ceremony "well-calculated to bring up many bitter and saddening remembrances." The event combined "sorrow for the loss of one so loved," another editor noted, with "sorrow for the loss of the cause for which he fought...


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