Editor’s Note: The Rainbow Confederates can’t explain why General James Longstreet was remembered in the South as a traitor for generations, but it was due to his actions in Reconstruction at the Battle of Liberty Place when he fought on the side of blacks and Yankees against his own men.
The following excerpt on the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans comes from Stephen Budiansky’s book The Bloody Shirt: Terror After The Civil War:
“On a late summer day in 1874, General Longstreet rode his horse down Chartres Street through the silent French Quarter, south to the United States Custom House on Canal Street, and could see the barricades in the streets beyond. Every wall he passed was plastered with the placards that had suddenly sprung up across the city the day before.
“CITIZENS OF NEW ORLEANS. FOR NEARLY TWO YEARS YOU HAVE BEEN THE SILENT BUT INDIGNANT SUFFERERS OF OUTRAGE AFTER OUTRAGE HEAPED UPON YOU BY AN USURPING GOVERNMENT. MONDAY THE 14TH OF SEPTEMBER CLOSE YOUR PLACES OF BUSINESS WITHOUT A SINGLE EXCEPTION, AND, AT 11 O’CLOCK, A.M., ASSEMBLE AT THE CLAY STATUE IN CANAL STREET.”
Even the curbs at every street crossing were covered with long strips of paper, pasted there where everyone would see them as they walked about town on their business, repeating the time and place of the meeting.
Five thousand citizens had responded to the call that morning in New Orleans; doctors, bankers, lawyers, journeymen, clerks, and laborers, all gathering there at the foot of the statue of Henry Clay, the same spot made famous in city legend thirteen years before, when a prominent local physician had rallied the citizens of New Orleans to enlist in the Confederate army, leading them in a singing of the Marseillaise.
It had been his place all along to stay at the State House, the palatial old St. Louis Hotel that had been taken over by the state government in June as its new capitol building. He had 475 colored troops of the regular state militia in the State House itself, armed with rifles; he had parked his artillery in Jackson Square nearby; in Pirate’s Alley off the square thirty cavalry horses stood in a row tied to the St. Louis Cathedral fence; in the Cabildo, the old Spanish capitol that anchored the near corner of the square next to the cathedral, the Metropolitans crowded into the Third Precinct Police Station rooms on the ground floor and the Supreme Court rooms on the top. The surrounding streets were closed off. It was a solid defensible position. He would wait for the trouble to come to him, as was his wont.
The trouble in the city had been brewing for days, and Longstreet was well informed about what was afoot. When the Metropolitans were mustered into militia service they brought their thirty detectives with them, and some of them had infiltrated the White Leagues when the clubs began forming that summer, and they knew that the leagues were expecting a large shipment of illegal guns on the steamer Mississippi, which had just arrived that Saturday night and would begin got be unloaded that Monday. Worried about the loss of prestige they would suffer if the state authorities intercepted those arms, the White League leaders had then decided to precipitate a crisis and go for broke. The pretext would be a mass meeting called to deplore the violation of their “right to bear arms”; and in a sense the White Leaguers did want to test the waters to see if they could get a crowd whipped up enough to support desperate action. But in truth their plans had already been well laid. Longstreet was fully expecting an armed attack on the State House. His plan accordingly was to stay there, on the defensive with nearly a thousand men, and wait for them to come.
The mass meeting had broke up around noon with cries from the crowd, five thousand strong, for the “immediate abdication” of the state’s Republican governor, William P. Kellogg. A delegation of five was chosen, and they set off in carriages for the State House.
At one o’clock the milling men broke into deafening cheers as the carriages returned. The delegation read out the governor’s reply. He could not possibly receive a message from an armed assemblage in defiance of law. “Hang Kellogg!” the crowd shouted. “We’ll fight!” “Call out the troops!”
A speaker exhorted the crowd to go home at once, get their arms, and be back by two-thirty. From his headquarters two blocks away the last Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, the loser in the election two years earlier, issued a proclamation calling on Louisianans between the ages of eighteen and forty-five to assemble under arms “for the purpose of driving the usurpers from power”; then issued General Orders No.1 from “Headqr’s. Executive Department of La.,” naming ex-Confederate colonel Frederick N. Ogden as the “Provisional General of the Louisiana State Militia.”
All of this was so much show, since people around town had seen armed men who looked like they meant business gathering since early morning, first by twos and threes, then dozens, then hundreds. They took up posts at every street corner, and built barricades along the key thoroughfares.
At around two o’clock a detachment of the White Leaguers marched over to city hall and demanded the immediate surrender of the building from the mayor; they then marched in and cut the fire alarm and police telegraph wires. The governor then told his militia commander that it was time to take action and to wait no more. So Longstreet had reluctantly ordered the change in plan from defense to offense.
Now as Longstreet’s men approached Canal Street they drove back the pickets that had been posted there and halted in front of the Custom House. Canal ran roughly east-west; so did Poydras Street, a few blocks farther to the south, and that was where the White League barricades had been set up. The barricades, the people in the city amused themselves by saying, were done after the “Parisian fashion.” At Poydras and Camp a fortification of old lumber, barrels filled with earth, and dry goods boxes had been thrown up. A block west, at the corner of Poydras and St. Charles, the men had run a streetcar off its tracks and used that to block the intersection, pulling up the pavement to make a ditch in front. Mattresses, wagons, iron plates prized out of the streets, piled five or six feet high, filled other intersections along Poydras.
Behind the barricades stood hundreds of armed men. Running the whole length down to the levee, eight blocks to the east, Poydras Street was a line of battle. Despite the civilian garb – suits, bowler hats – the armed men were disposed in a manner that, as any trained military eye could see at a glance, spoke of experience and discipline.
Longstreet did no have to look hard to see the trap, either; the one he had spent four hard years of fighting scrupulously avoiding. If he were to attack at the barricades he would be attacking at the center of the enemy lines, leaving his left flank exposed to an enveloping movement and allowing the White Leaguers to roll him up with an open line to the State House behind him.
Longstreet’s men were still facing south, toward the line of barricades, their guns positioned to hurl enfilading fire down the cross streets. One of his horsemen was shot in the leg. Everything then started happening very quickly. The White Leaguers began moving double-time down Poydras Street toward the levee, toward Longstreet’s left. Longstreet wheeled his line left and sent his troops down Canal Street to parallel them and not be outflanked.
A few minutes later he personally appeared at the head of Canal Street to inspect the position the men had taken up. It was all wrong. He told the head of the Metropolitans, General Badger, to get his position right down on the levee and close the flank. But it was already too late, and the shooting began.
From their dangerously exposed spot at the head of Canal Street, the Metropolitans opened up with their Gatling gun and twelve-pounders, firing south toward the White Leaguers at the head of Poydras Street. A rain of bullets came back. From behind cotton bales and piles of freight, from behind a slow-moving freight train they sent creeping along the tracks by the levee, from windows of nearby buildings, the White Leaguers fired on Badger’s gunners, and several dropped dead in an instant. Badger leapt down from his horse to help serve the guns.
Letting out a rebel yell, two companies of White Leaguers charged the guns down the open levee.
Longstreet heard the old Confederate battle cry and turned pale. Badger fell with four bullets in him, a broken arm, and a shattered leg that would shortly have to be amputated.
The Metropolitans ran. One of the White League captains later said that it was only with the greatest difficulty that he had restrained his men from firing particularly at General Longstreet.
Longstreet tried to rally his troops in front of the Custom House, but a company of white Metropolitans went over to the enemy and the sniping from the buildings continued and some of the colored troops took refuge in the Custom House and the rest retreated all the way back to Jackson Square. It was all over in less than fifteen minutes. Thirty-one men lay dead on the streets and close to a hundred were wounded. Most of the dead were White Leaguers, most of the wounded Metropolitans. Longstreet, hit by a spent bullet and slightly injured, galloped his horse back to Jackson Square and took personal command of the artillery he had left there covering the approaches to the State House.
“General” Ogden had his horse shot out from under him on Tchoupitoulas Street, and knocked his head on the pavement, but was all right.
During the night Longstreet inspected the ammunition on hand. There was enough to resist a single assault, no more. The small contingent of United States troops at the Custom House had stayed out of the fight and were still staying out; they would not, or maybe really could not, supply any ammunition to the state troops. The state didn’t have any. The next morning Longstreet surrendered the State House, and went home.
The respectable white citizens of New Orleans and the Democratic newspapers of the city greeted the Fourteenth of September like any other military victory they had cheered during four years of fighting the Yankees. The Democratic lieutenant governor, now installed in the State House, issued General Orders No.2. He congratulated “the troops in the field” and briefly reported what was known of the losses sustained by “our enemies.”
At noon on Tuesday the White League companies staged a victory parade, after ceremoniously escorting the arms shipment from the Mississippi to the center of town. The location where the marytrs had fallen was solemnly noted. The newspapers were filled with reports from the company commanders describing in conventional military terms them role each had played, courteously praising the ladies who had been conspicuous in coming to their aid with food and refreshments, wrangling over any failures to distribute proper credit for the victory achieved.”
The carpetbag government of Louisiana had no legitimacy outside of the occupied Louisiana State House. General Longstreet who had become a Republican during Reconstruction attempted to maintain a government in power which could only be preserved by the force of federal troops. The exact same scenario of Yankees attempting to force their alien way of life on to foreign countries and ending up embroiled in a quagmire fighting off local insurgencies would later play out from the Philippines through Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. It started though here in Louisiana in the 1860s.
The Battle of Liberty Place Monument
The Battle of Liberty Place monument in New Orleans was torn down with three other Confederate monuments in May 2015. I organized a protest with the League of the South and other groups to oppose its removal. In other countries, communists have routinely destroyed historical monuments in campaigns of cultural genocide in order to erase the memory of the past. Fortunately, they haven’t tended to be that successful in the long run as communist misrule invariably tends to run its course and collapse, but not before inflicting great damage on countries like Russia and China.