“One damn blunder from beginning to end”
Within only an hour, between 8AM to 9AM on May 13th, 1864, as a part of the so-called Red River Campaign and under the direction of Union Army General Nathaniel Banks, approximately 35,000 of his troops burned 90% of my hometown of Alexandria, Louisiana to the ground. The city, once Louisiana’s second-most populated, had actually surrendered to the Union four days prior, which should not have struck anyone as particularly surprising,
Despite its time and location in the geographic center of Louisiana, Alexandria was a disproportionately, albeit unofficially, pro-Union town. Perhaps put more succinctly, Alexandrians were more concerned with winning business than in winning any war, and the town’s destruction by Banks was seen as an epic disaster by his superiors. Banks was subsequently removed from his command, and by destroying Alexandria, he ensured the Red River remained firmly under Confederate control.
Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman characterized Banks’s command of the Red River Campaign as “one damn blunder from beginning to end.” Sherman had a special affinity for Alexandria; he’d lived there when he was selected as the founding superintendent of a small academy across the river in Pineville that would eventually become known as Louisiana State University.
Yesterday, in the small town of Pineville, Louisiana, a group of dignitaries, local elected officials, historic preservationists, and the President of Louisiana State University, F. King Alexander, gathered to witness the unveiling of what many would understandably characterize as a road sign.
But given its subject matter, the sign- technically a historical marker- made it a much more significant ceremony than one could have imagined only six years ago.
Over the course of those six years, I have followed and, in some small way, facilitated the installation of this particular historic marker.
It is a story I immediately found fascinating because of its subject, its location, the unique coalition that had proposed and championed it, and the ways in which it forces Southerners and students of American history to consider the numerous complications, contradictions, and consequences of the Civil War.
I do not and have never considered myself to be a subject-matter expert on the Civil War, but during the past two decades, I have had the unique opportunity to become a scholar of the history, the land, and the people of my hometown. Perhaps even more importantly, I was able to follow this particular story from the very beginning, and because of what occurred yesterday, it is now a story ripe to be told.
The Most Valuable Real Estate in America
“Do you know what the single-most expensive piece of real estate is in the country?” James Carville asked a packed room of Rotarians gathered in Alexandria City Hall. I’d taken the drive up to Alexandria with Carville that morning. It was an Election Day, actually, Nov. 7th, 2017.
For most of our journey to Alexandria and then back to New Orleans, I had the unique fortune of witnessing the Ragin Cajun work the phones as the reports began to spill in about a Democratic landslide in Virginia, the highlight of which was the election of Danica Roem, and as people on-the-ground were cautiously optimistic that Doug Jones would indeed pull off a miracle in Alabama.
But I already knew the answer to Carville’s rhetorical question, because I’d heard him repeat the line on the drive up.
He brought his laptop with him, so that he could show the assembled Rotarians a few pictures he’d made into a slideshow. When he got to that question, he revealed the answer.
“Central Park in New York City, directly across from the Plaza Hotel,” he said. “It’s a monument to General William Tecumseh Sherman.”
I have no way of independently verifying whether or not this particular patch of land is, in fact, the most expensive in the country. To borrow from the parlance of realtors and appraisers, there simply isn’t a “comp.” But it’s as good of an answer to what, ultimately, is a rhetorical question than I’d ever heard.
The monument, shimmering in bright gold, is opulent and elegant at the same time, a combination that the former owner of the Plaza Hotel and current President of the United States has repeatedly attempted and failed to replicate.
It’s stunning, as is the monument to Sherman in Washington D.C.
Make no mistake, though, Carville was not there to sell locals on a historical marker in Pineville, and he was not suggesting property values would increase if only we erected more ornamental statues. His point was simple: If New York is willing to give Sherman the most prime real estate in the country, why was it still so difficult for LSU to acknowledge they were founded by- gasp- a Union Major General? Carville had been lobbying for a more formal recognition on the school’s main campus- renaming the field grounds or a street, something ministerial, inexpensive, and entirely symbolic- in Baton Rouge since early April, and, suffice it to say, his provocative idea wasn’t universally embraced.
But it caught the attention of a friend of mine, Alexandria attorney and Pineville resident Mike Tudor. He asked if I could help convince Carville to challenge the Alexandria Rotary Club to consider the local significance of Sherman as a part of a larger discussion on monuments, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he was up for the challenge.
Only a few months before our brief visit to my hometown of Alexandria, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu had ensured that four monuments to the Lost Cause were finally vanquished. On May 19th, the statue of Robert E. Lee was hoisted off its alabaster pedestal and what became its petard- a city that celebrates a vibrant and diverse democracy Lee had fought against.
For a few brief minutes, the entire city of New Orleans either witnessed personally or watched on television as this visage of Lee swung clumsily from its perch and descended ignobly back to the ground and was then whisked away, forever out of sight, in the flatbed of a pickup truck.
It was the final, major symbolic defeat against those who were still fighting for the Lost Cause and who believed the deification of men who betrayed their nation in order to maintain the horrific system of slavery- America’s “original sin”- was somehow a relevant and appropriate way to curate history.
Saints and Sinners, Falcons and Tigers
Given the context, it may strike some as astonishingly ironic, perhaps even hypocritical, that while we debated the merits of removing monuments either intended to glorify white supremacy or excuse the brutalities of the Civil War, there was a small group of people, including James Carville, who championed the recognition of a leader that most whites in the Deep South regarded as deplorable: Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, the man responsible for destroying Atlanta, a type of warfare we now simply call “scorched earth,” before his infamous March to the Sea.
Sherman was brutal and cruel and murderous.
He is not a sympathetic character, as his own biographers acknowledge. Yet his outsized influence in the life and legacy in Louisiana cannot be ignored, though it also should not be glorified either.
The city he destroyed, Atlanta, has proven itself to be resourceful and is now a vibrant hub for African Americans entrepreneurs, innovators, and musicians; it became the epicenter of the civil rights movement. After Banks burned Alexandria to the ground, he worked in New Orleans and helped to enshrine and protect the rights of African Americans during Reconstruction.
Today, both Atlanta and New Orleans are led by black women, and New Orleans, against profound odds, remains a global treasure and the nation’s best example of cultural resilience.
Alexandria never regained the same prominence it once had, but for the past two decades, it has asserted itself as a leader in progressive policymaking; last year, the city elected its first-ever African American mayor.
“History did not end in 1965.”
As far as I can tell, the first time I wrote online about Sherman’s connections to my hometown was on Nov. 7th, 2013, exactly four years to the date of Carville’s speech to the Alexandria Rotary Club. I was responding to a reader who criticized the film 12 Years a Slave, which was set and based on Solomon Northup’s experiences as a free man who had been captured and enslaved in Central Louisiana. The reader was upset the film unfairly (or too realistically) depicted the brutality of slavery.
Here’s what I wrote then:
There are only five scenes of violence in the entire movie, and all told, those scenes take up less than ten minutes of a 134 minute-long film. No doubt, those scenes are each jarring, and McQueen’s direction was unflinching. But they are all powerful, important, and necessary in understanding Solomon’s experience.
As a white man born and raised in Central Louisiana, the setting for most of the film, I have heard, for much of my life, a variation of the argument you seem to be making: That when we tell the history of American slavery, we must somehow “balance” the brutality of the institution with the stories of noble white folks who also fought against it, that an uncompromising depiction of the brutality of slavery may somehow foster hatred against white Southerners of today, that a film like this only throws salt into the wounds that we’ve been trying to heal for more than 150 years.
To that, I guess my response is: So be it. Obviously, not every white person in the American South supported slavery. My hometown, Alexandria, was actually founded by Northerners and, prior to the Civil War, was home to a large number of abolitionists, including William Tecumseh Sherman. Yes, the truth is complicated and nuanced, but that, in and of itself, doesn’t provide us with any rationale in denying or censoring or “balancing” our presentation of past atrocities with feel-good or redemptive anecdotes or soaring, uplifting music.
If, as you suggest, people in the North watch this film and take away from it that white folks in rural Louisiana are all and have always been evil racists, then they are guilty of misappropriating a brilliant movie in order to justify their own ignorance and misplaced sense of cultural superiority.
But honestly, I don’t think that is likely at all. What I hope, instead, is that people will see this and contemplate how the legacy of slavery continues to affect our entire country, the ways in which multi-generational, institutionalized discrimination relates to education, social class, privilege, access to health care, and incarceration rates.
In his opinion striking down part of the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “History did not end in 1965,” implying that America no longer tolerates institutionalized discrimination. A few weeks later, more than a dozen states, mainly in the South, began introducing legislation aimed at burdening older, primarily minority Americans from voting.
No, history didn’t end in 1865 or in 1965, but those, like Chief Justice Roberts, who glibly and naively deny the reality of institutionalized discrimination are not living in the present; they’re living in a privileged bubble.
So, I applaud 12 Years a Slave for forcing a conversation. It may make some folks uncomfortable, but it’s long overdue.
I stand by those remarks, and I applaud civic leaders like Mayor Clarence Fields, Charles Charrier, Megan Lord, and particularly Mike Tudor who understood that a historic marker was the appropriate honor and that monuments built for men- and not ideas– too often take up valuable public spaces.
As a postscript, James Carville has another proposal for LSU, and it would also require little money but carry substantial meaning: Rename this building after Dutch Morial, the very first African American to earn a law degree from Louisiana’s flagship institution.