Jefferson Davis served as the first and only president of the Confederate States of America, although his legacy as rebel leader does not exactly shine in the historical record. The Civil War Trust notes that “Davis’ popularity and effectiveness were not enhanced by the growing number of Confederate defeats,” and that Davis was captured in the waning days of the war by Union soldiers after he fled the Confederate capital in Richmond.
“His cause went down in disastrous defeat and left the South impoverished for generations,” Smithsonian Magazine noted, adding: “Many Americans in Davis’s own time and in later generations considered him an incompetent leader, if not a traitor.”
Still, Davis is celebrated in pockets of the South, with highways, high schools and other things named in his honor.
For more than 100 years, there was also a prominent statue of Davis in New Orleans.
A handful of protesters lined up beneath it before dawn Thursday, chanting “President Davis” as city workers removed it.
Monument supporters chanting “President Davis” as police presence increases at statue pic.twitter.com/faSpCUJ3lN
— Jeff Adelson (@jadelson) May 11, 2017
After days of tension and protests, crews strapped the 116-year-old statue beneath its arms and wrapped its waist in plastic, according to NBC affiliate WDSU, and just after 5 a.m. hoisted it from its longtime perch — along Jefferson Davis Parkway, no less.
“A cheer went up from some of the dozens of protesters on the scene who have been pushing for the monument’s removal,” the Associated Press reported. “It was then lowered behind trucks encircled around the monument’s base and out of view of media gathered on the scene.”
As the Davis statue came down, a group of proponents for removal who had been largely absent from the area around the Davis memorial since a series of verbal clashes and minor skirmishes with monument defenders, chanted “Na-na, na, Naa-na, goodbye,” according to people at the scene.
The group stood behind police metal barricades, near the corner of Canal St. and Jefferson Davis Parkway, on an expansive grassy median known in New Orleans as “the neutral ground,” a reference to the way that the space once served as a conflict-free zone where the Spanish and French settlers who once battled for political, economic and social for control of this city engaged in trade.
Across the intersection, monument defenders watched in a state of sad disbelief. Some jeered and booed the removal crew as it worked. Others, waved confederate flags, a blue Trump banner and groaned as Davis was wrapped in protective sheeting and encased in a wooden frame then wrestled from his perch on the neutral ground with the aid of a massive crane.
“These monuments are symbols, symbols of hate and white supremacy that we simply, as a city cannot continue to honor this way,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu in an interview with The Washington Post a Wednesday before the statue came down. “So while this process has not been easy, we intend fully to move ahead.”
The Jefferson Davis statue was the second monument to rebel heritage to come down in New Orleans in the past month; in late April, workers dismantled the Battle of Liberty Place monument, which honored members of the Crescent City White League who died trying to overthrow the local government after the Civil War.
“Three weeks ago, we began the process of removing statues erected to honor the ‘Lost Cause of the Confederacy,’ ” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D). “This morning, we continue our march to reconciliation by removing the Jefferson Davis Confederate statue from its pedestal of reverence.”
As happened with the previous monument’s dismantling, the city’s actions provoked immediate condemnation from defenders of Confederate history.
“Landrieu cannot be inclusive, tolerant, or diverse when he is erasing a very specific and undeniable part of New Orleans’ history,” Pierre McGraw, president of the Monumental Task Committee, said in a statement.
The committee, which takes credit for restoring the Davis memorial three decades ago, is part of a sprawling statue defense movement in New Orleans that spans from white supremacists such as David Duke to residents who condemn slavery while honoring Confederate soldiers who fought to protect it.
Since the first Confederate monument fell last month, all of these factions have been united in anger against Landrieu, the majority-black city’s first white mayor since the 1970s.
“Another historic monument was removed under the cover of darkness using amateur, masked workers in armor, unmarked vehicles and equipment, and with a heavy law enforcement presence,” reads the Monumental Task Committee’s statement.
Four memorials — including the Davis statue and the Liberty Place monument — were ordered removed in 2015 after city meetings that the Times-Picayune described as rowdy and sometimes racially divided.
Two other memorials to rebel leaders — Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard — also have been condemned, although the city has not said when they will be removed. In fact, city officials have declined to provide precise dates, because of threats made against contractors involved in removing the statues.
The Liberty Place monument was taken down by masked workers operating under the cover of darkness — and the protection of police snipers.
The removal process has been stalled in courts, although a Louisiana judge on Wednesday rejected a last-ditch effort to block the removal of the Beauregard monument, the AP reported.
“This has gone on an inordinate amount of time,” Judge Kern Reese said as he outlined reasons for his refusal to grant an injunction protecting the statue of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. It was a reference to state and federal court battles that delayed removal of the Beauregard monument and three others for more than a year.
The huge bronze image of Beauregard on horseback sits in the center of a traffic circle at the entrance to New Orleans City Park. Those who don’t want it removed argued that it belongs to a park board and, therefore, the city has no authority to remove it.
Reese’s rejection of an injunction means the city can remove the statue pending further proceedings in his court. Richard Marksbury, a New Orleans resident and monument supporter, said he may go to an appeal court to block removal.
Tensions have been high as the city continued preparations to topple more monuments.
Scenes around the city’s last few Confederate statues had taken on a certain battlefield air since Landrieu ordered one dismantled, without advance public notice, and promised that the others would soon fall, too.
Sympathizers of that “lost cause” have risen up in response.
“A man points at a machine gun held by a statue supporter” was how the New Orleans Times-Picayune captioned a recent photo from a protective vigil around the monument to Davis.
“The Battle of New Orleans,” they call it — the statues’ defenders and detractors alike.
But on Sunday, as plans for rival demonstrations provoked pleas of “reinforcements” from across the country, the scene remained largely nonviolent.
Some of those adversaries marched in a second-line parade to the traffic circle where Lee’s statue stands — centurion-like, stationed above the tree line atop a white stone pedestal — to protest the monument’s place in the circle and to bury Lee’s place in history, which some revere and others revile. They were met by Confederate-flag wavers keeping vigil there, some wearing riot gear or motorcycle helmets.
Three people were arrested, all men defending the monuments, and charged with disturbing the peace after getting into a skirmish.
At Lee Circle, there was some yelling between the pro-monument and anti-monument crowds and some icy stares. Much of the fury and the verbal challenges came from the monument defenders, who appeared to be outnumbered by the second-line participants by at least two to one.
Four days later, as the Davis statue was coming down, an op-ed by Landrieu was published on The Washington Post’s website.
“Getting here wasn’t easy,” he wrote. “It took a two-year review process, a City Council vote and victories over multiple legal challenges. The original firm we’d hired to remove the monuments backed out after receiving death threats and having one of his cars set ablaze. Nearly every heavy-crane company in southern Louisiana has received threats from opponents. Some have likened these monuments to other monuments around the world from bygone eras, and have argued that civic resources would be better spent trying to educate the public about the history they embody. Respectfully, that’s not the point. As mayor, I must consider their impact on our entire city. It’s my job to chart the course ahead, not simply to venerate the past.”
He added: “The record is clear: New Orleans’s Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were erected with the goal of rewriting history to glorify the Confederacy and perpetuate the idea of white supremacy. These monuments stand not as mournful markers of our legacy of slavery and segregation, but in reverence of it. They are an inaccurate recitation of our past, an affront to our present and a poor prescription for our future.
“The right course, then, is to excise these symbols of injustice.”
Hours after the statue was removed by crane, the Times-Picayune reported that crews were still at the site, “attempting to move the pedestal on the statue sat. … It appears the pedestal is turning out to be a difficult task.”
The statue itself, the newspaper reported, was “packaged and waiting to be taken away to an undisclosed location” — another remembrance of Confederate history to be hidden from public view.
Southern cities and states have been wrestling with how to remember their Civil War legacies after a self-described white supremacist massacred black churchgoers in South Carolina two years ago.
The deadly church shooting led to a backlash against Confederate imagery across the South — most notably when the rebel flag fell after 54 years outside the South Carolina statehouse.
Charlottesville was sued in March by a group trying to stop a similar purge of Confederate imagery there.
“In the immortal words of President Jefferson Davis, please just leave us alone,” a chaplain for a Confederate heritage group in Alabama wrote for AL.com last month, defending a state holiday to honor fallen rebel soldiers. “Let us honor the valor and bravery of our Southern heroes without intimidation and insult,” Barry Cook wrote.
In his op-ed for The Post, Landrieu wrote that “we must always remember our history and learn from it. But that doesn’t mean we must valorize the ugliest chapters.”
He added: “History, unfortunately, has seen great nations become lost, isolated and ultimately extinct by refusing to confront the sins of the past and evolve to meet the demands of a changing world. If we don’t want to be forever held back by our crushing history of institutional racism, it’s time to relegate these monuments to their proper place.”
This post has been updated.