NEW ORLEANS – The tense and often divisive removal of four Confederate-era monuments from prominent displays around New Orleans came to an end Friday as a crowd estimated at about 1,000 people watched while workers took down the iconic statue of General Robert E. Lee from atop a 60-foot column at Lee Circle.
The removal ended 133 years for the statue at the piece of land that connects New Orleans' Uptown and Garden District areas with the CBD and French Quarter.
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The statue of the general beloved by fans of the Confederacy was plucked from atop the obelisk, swung through the sky and put down onto a flatbed truck, strapped down and driven off to a city maintenance yard to join the other parts of the monuments to General P.G.T. Beauregard and former Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
The city appeared to be building a temporary structure to cover and protect the monuments at that location until a final resting place is decided upon. The city plans to take RFPs for a destination for the statues.
"These men did not fight for the United States of America, they fought against it," said Mayor Mitch Landrieu. "These monuments celebrate a fictional account of the Confederacy. These monuments were erected purposefully to show who was still in charge of the city."
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A crane arrived to remove Lee early Friday morning, about 15 hours after police detoured the streetcar around the circle. Equipment began showing up around 4 a.m., but not until around 7 a.m. was there actual activity with workers, cranes and backhoes being used.
'I can't believe it's down'
The moment the statue was toppled from its spot atop the column, just a few minutes after 6 p.m., the largely anti-monument crowd burst into cheers and song.
“I cannot believe that it’s down,” said a choked up Reverend Marie Galatas, a civil rights leader who was instrumental in the movement to remove the monuments. “This is the one I was focused on… there had been monumental obstacles against me from ’73 until now, but they are down now.”
The mood of the crowd on hand at the end differed greatly from the mood on social media. WWL-TV’s Facebook page was rife with comments against the removal and the people they believed were behind it. Many of the comments were what is now referred to as NSFW. Anger would be a mild word to describe the level of upset of those who felt that part of their heritage was being ripped away on a whim.
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“Robert E. Lee stood atop New Orleans for 133 years as one of the most well-respected men and military minds of American history until a politician with self-serving motives launched a toxic crusade to rewrite the city’s history,” said a statement from the Monumental Task Committee, who has challenged the statue removals at every turn, through legal and legislative channels.
“We’re from here,” said Robert Bonner, a monument supporter. “My son was born here. My grandson was born here. I’ve lived here 50-something years. My dad was in the Army, that’s why I wasn’t born here. I tell you, with the other ones (the first 3 removed statues), I cried. It’s so sad.”
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Overnight there was an incident where someone in a car took a flag from a monument supporter. There was a tense exchange as fellow monument supporters demanded the return of the flag. Police eventually moved in to quell the incident between the weary people from both sides.
One man who circumvented the barricades and went atop the statue steps to celebrate the impending removal was arrested after police tried several times to get him to step down quietly. As he approached the police car he declared that he was the Messiah.
In a strongly-worded defense of the removal of the monuments, Landrieu slammed the defenders of the Confederate monuments for romanticizing what they believe are the heroic actions of the South during Civil War times and beyond, but forgetting about the terrible things that also occurred.
“For those self-appointed defenders of history, and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to historical malfeasance – a lie by omission. There is a difference between the remembrance of history and the reverence of it… The Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. These men did not fight for the United States of America. They fought against it.”
By Friday afternoon, more than 24 hours after it became apparent the statue would be taken down as ‘No Parking’ signs, barricades and police officers appeared around Lee Circle, the crowd had changed from a 50-50 mix of those for and against, to an overwhelmingly Take ‘Em Down crowd.
The night before it was anything but, as a couple hundred people gathered around Lee Circle, anticipating another takedown in the wee hours. That crowd included several flag waving and confederate-era clad people getting in their final say, and a boisterous, drum-beating crowd of Take ‘Em Down folks who at one point danced and chanted just inches from the stoic pro-monument group in a scene that seemed destined for trouble, but which resulted in few arrests or altercations.
The monuments are gone from their former locales, but there is more to be decided. Where will the monuments end up? What was the cost of the ‘middle-of-the-night’ removals that included large police and fire presence and mostly masked workers from an unknown company or companies?
The removal of the Lee statue brings to a close a process that began more than two years ago and included taking down three other Confederate monuments amid fruitless legal challenges to keep them in place.
The most recent removal prior to Lee happened early Wednesday morning, when the 102-year-old bronze statue of Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard was removed from the Bayou St. John entrance to City Park.
HISTORY OF LEE CIRCLE STATUE
While efforts to erect a monument in Lee’s honor began almost as soon as a month after his death in November 1870, it wasn’t until the windy, rainy afternoon of Feb. 22, 1884, that idea became a reality.
Built in the center of a traffic circle once known as Tivoli Circle, the Lee statue was unveiled to a crowd The Daily Picayune estimated to number 15,000. Among those in the crowd were Lee’s daughters. A 100-gun salute happened as the monument was unveiled as “a mighty shout went up from the soldiers of the Confederacy” The Picayune reported the next morning.
Lee, his arms crossed and dressed in his Confederate general uniform, is said to face the north, so as to keep his eyes on the enemy. The statue, designed by New York-based sculptor Alexander Doyle, was placed atop a 60-foot-tall granite column and cost $10,000. It was a project of the R.E. Lee Monumental Association.
Veterans marched by a window where Lee’s daughters watched the dedication ceremony. “They cheered the daughters of the Confederate chief, who seemed much affected by this mark of respect, and wave their handkerchief to the ex-soldiers as they passed,” The Picayune account reads.