Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Reading the Fall of New Orleans

William Waud, "Landing of Captain Bailey and Lieutenant Perkins on the Levee, New Orleans [. . .] to Demand the Surrender of the City", from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated History of the Civil War (New York: Mrs. Frank Leslie, 1895)
A century and a half ago, Confederate New Orleans was on the brink of surrendering to a Union naval force under the command of David Glasgow Farragut. As well as being a pivotal episode in the Civil War, it was a moment that left a rich literary record.

I'm sure others will rehearse the events and ramifications of New Orleans' capitulation over the coming days, so instead I thought I'd offer a guide to some of the primary reading surrounding this signal moment both in the life of the city and the unfolding of the war.

The place to start, for pure pleasure, is George Washington Cable's account of the Union invasion published as part of the "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" series produced by The Century Magazine from 1884 to 1887. First appearing in April 1885, and available here, "New Orleans Before the Capture" is based on Cable's own memories of the city before and during the arrival of the Union fleet. At times, it's profoundly vivid - as here, when Cable narrates the appearance of Federal ships on April 25th:
I see them now as they come slowly round Slaughterhouse Point into full view, silent, so grim and terrible; black with men, heavy with deadly portent; the long-banished Stars and Stripes flying against the frowning sky [. . .] The crowds on the levee howled and screamed with rage.
Whilst we're dipping into "Battles and Leaders", then it's also worth checking out David D. Porter's "The Opening of the Lower Mississippi" (April 1885) and Albert Kautz's "Incidents of the Occupation of New Orleans" (July 1886). Kautz, in particular, gives an account of events that provides an interesting counterpoint to Cable:
Here were two factions of the same nation in such close proximity that they could hear each other’s voices and look into each other’s faces. One was in exuberant spirits, with banners streaming over them from every mast-head; the other, depressed and exasperated, was surrounded by the blackened and charred remains of steamers and cotton bales which they themselves had fired.
You can gauge some of the contemporary Confederate despair at the Crescent City's capitulation in Tenella's (really, Mary Bayard Clarke's) "Lament for New Orleans", published in the Southern Literary Messenger in July 1863, and available here. In the same vein, Beauty and Booty, The Watchword of New Orleans, published by Marion Southwood, a self-proclaimed "Lady of New Orleans", in 1867, is notable for its unforgiving, unreconstructed ("my blood boils within my veins") account of the arrival of the Union. Her unrelieved fury makes for some lively reading. Here she is on the first appearance of the occupying force:
To imagine that creatures, such as are seldom seen, unless paying a visit to the penitentiary, should be turned loose upon a wealthy refined and enlightened community! Oh, such looking objects as they were! with old light blue slouched hats, and clothes to match looking as though they had slept in them, and water was scarce; their daguerreotypes should have been taken and sent to Barnum’s Museum [. . .] there was a perfect rush to see this awful representative of human authority.
On the other side of the fence, the fall of New Orleans occupied a central moment in Epes Sargent's now forgotten post-emancipation novel Peculiar: A Tale of the Great Transition, published in 1864. In particular, Sargent imagined the profound effect that the raising of the Union flag must have had on New Orleans’ enslaved inhabitants:
[I]f some hearts were sick and crushed at the spectacle, there were many thousands in that great metropolis to whom the sight of the old flag carried a joy and exultation transcending the power of words to express.
And finally: a rather less partisan account of events can be found in the memoirs of professional gambler, George Devol. At the beginning of the war, Devol and his fellow blacklegs "got up a cavalry company [. . .] the ladies said we were the finest looking set of men in the army." But faced with the enemy in April 1862, Devol and his comrades found discretion to be the better part of valor: "We cut the buttons of our coats, buried our sabres, and tried to make ourselves look as much like peaceful citizens as possible, for we had enough of military glory, and were tired of war."

Further reading: What else? My chapter on New Orleans during war and Reconstruction in Southern Queen: New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century (New York / London: Continuum, 2011).

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