Louisiana’s Civil War Museum at Confederate Memorial Hall is the oldest operating museum in Louisiana. Originally opened in 1891 as the Confederate Memorial Hall, the museum served as a meeting space for Confederate veterans and a repository for the personal effects of soldiers after they passed. In the early 2000s, during a legal battle over the museum’s right to remain in the space, despite losing legal title to the Foundation of the University of New Orleans, a deal was struck that included the renaming of the museum. Regardless of the change in name, the museum’s main focus continues to be the Confederacy, and only a small piece of its history at that.
It’s a museum centered on belongings, the things that Confederates owned. Yet, the museum does not talk about the ownership of human slaves; the founders of the museum were instead more interested in creating a clubhouse dedicated to a defeated oligarchical cult. The awkward exhibits housed within the museum today illuminate how hard it is to update public memory when such an insufficient narrative has been dominant for so long.
The Confederate Memorial Hall was the brainchild of Frank Howard, who used some of his considerable family fortune to build the Romanesque church-like rectory on Camp Street. His father, Charles Howard, chartered the Louisiana State Lottery company in 1868. It was a sinkhole of corruption, launched and maintained by corrupt state legislators. Charles hired two Confederate generals, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jubal Early, to pick the winning numbers. Each month they dressed in their Confederate uniforms and presided over the drawings. The generals were paid handsomely to lobby the state legislature on the lottery’s behalf.
Charles Howard was a notoriously strong-armed political operator who held his grudges dear. Upon being refused entry into the prestigious Metairie Jockey Club, he vowed to turn it into a graveyard. When the club went bankrupt, Charles bought the land, razed the club, and turned it into Metairie Cemetery. His own tomb is built on what was once the racetrack. Within Metairie Cemetery, there is a monument to the Army of Tennessee, Louisiana Division, which Charles claimed to have served with. This proved to be untrue; records indicate that Charles never fought in the war.
Today, the Civil War Museum is akin to a reliquary of a church displaying the personal objects owned by saints, offering tangible objects for veneration by worshipers. It is not a museum, it is a sanctuary—down to the beautiful stained glass window depicting the “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy,” Reverend Abram Joseph Ryan, dressed as a monk and levitating above the Confederate flag.
Many of the objects are indeed relics. A large amount of space is dedicated to the personal possessions of Jefferson Davis. One of the most curious items is a hand-woven crown of thorns gifted to Davis while he was imprisoned for treason following the war. According to a woman I spoke with at the museum, it was either woven by his wife, Varina, or by Pope Pius IX. While he may not have sent Davis the crown, the Pope had sent Jefferson a portrait of himself, also on display, with the inscription, “Come to me all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest, sayeth the Lord.”
A tremendous amount of space is dedicated to the personal possessions of Davis’ daughter, Winnie. There’s a tea set she played with as a child and a collection of ostentatious baubles and jewelry she wore when she was crowned Queen of Comus during Mardi Gras of 1892. An oil portrait of Winnie hanging high on the wall commemorates her coronation.
In fact, more space is given to Winnie Davis’ toys and jewelry than is given to any mention of slavery. Winnie Davis was not even born until after the war was over. Although the majority of the items on display are artifacts of Confederate soldiers, from uniforms stained with blood to solemn daguerreotypes, the museum serves as a temple to an aristocracy whose glaring flaws are erased by omission. The fact that the war was fought to preserve slavery—an institution from which the Davis family, like so many other prominent families of the South, made their money—is absent.
I thought about the Louisiana Civil War Museum as I sat in New Orleans’ City Council chambers for the first public meeting on whether or not four statues should be removed from prominent display. Up for debate were statues of two Civil War generals (Lee and Beauregard), another of Jefferson Davis, and a monument commemorating the White League, a group of white citizens who killed Black police officers during Reconstruction. Those against the removal of these monuments, almost entirely white and over the age of 40, kept griping about history—that if we remove these statues we would be erasing history and doing the public a disservice.
But history cannot be fully understood through singular, monumental depictions. The problem is that the monuments have no historical context, and this is partially because we exist in a culture that finds it permissible to tell the story of the Civil War through Winnie Davis’ knicknacks. Recently, the school board of Texas approved new history textbooks that diminish the role of slavery in the causes of the Civil War, preferring instead to focus on the much less offensive concept of “states’ rights” as the underlying cause.
This is a despicable re-telling of history, one that deletes the Confederate government’s own declaration that “Our new government… foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
That the Confederacy was racist is inarguable and it is an injustice when that fact is not engaged, discussed, taught, and tied irrevocably to the Confederacy. It is an injustice that we do not scrutinize the oligarchy that continued to exist following the war, raising money to build monuments to commemorate their fallen heroes. It is not just the Confederacy that these monuments represent, but the power structure that was able to shape how the public would understand the context of the war in generations to come. The slogan “heritage not hate” derives from that ability to control context.
The fetishized aristocracy lovingly doted upon by the Civil War Museum was fueled by gains made at the expense of their human chattel.
The history of the Confederacy is a difficult one. The narrow focus of Louisiana’s Civil War Museum on the belongings of Civil War soldiers fails to wrestle with the full scope of this deeply troubled past. If New Orleans’ monuments are placed in a similar ahistorical vacuum as the lost cause detritus littering the Civil War Museum, it will only further replicate a whitewashed and idealized past that fails to account for its true origins.
Last July, I went to the Whitney Plantation in St. John the Baptist Parish. The Whitney is a private museum that seeks to elevate the narratives and daily realities of those who were enslaved on its grounds. It is a contemplative space where you are taken on a walking tour through the physical landscape of plantation slavery. The objects on display include work tools, beds, and a terrifying set of metal cages where Black men and women were held prior to being auctioned off. A carved marble wall in the fields holds the names of the many enslaved men, women, and children that were held on the Whitney. One inscription is a record of a debt settlement wherein the planter’s son settled a personal gambling debt totaling in the thousands with a payment entirely composed of living human bodies.
The people I walked through the Whitney Plantation with were almost entirely Black. The people I walked through the Civil War Museum with were almost entirely white. That the Whitney is the newest museum in Louisiana and the Civil War Museum is the oldest speaks to how desperate the need is to rectify the narrative of how the South tends to be depicted. The fetishized aristocracy lovingly doted upon by the Civil War Museum was fueled by gains made at the expense of their human chattel. This underlying truth should not be excluded from historical sites. Its grave omission only makes the Confederacy, and their modern apologists, more of a disgrace.