The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—the Slave Market and the Civil War
There were many flags over New Orleans and more nationalities than flags—and a color palette that would confuse the makers at Crayola.
There were French in the city, of course. A lot of prisoners—convicts given a newlife—as in much of the New World and Australia. There were Frenchmen, Spaniards, Englishmen, Scots, Irish, Americans, and Islanders, so many from Haiti, especially after the Haitian Revolution.
Pre-Civil War days, New Orleans has the largest New World slave market going. One of the markets was at the corner of St. Louis and Chartres Streets at the old St. Louis Hotel and Slave Market. It had an elaborate rotunda where every afternoon, slaves went up for sale. It could be a brutal market; slave traders wanted to make sure that they sold their human “goods” before summer. Summer could bring on malaria and all kinds of other diseases and God forbid your income up and die on you!
As mentioned before, it was while seeing the activity at the slave market—while staying at the Cornstalk Hotel—that Harriet Beecher Stowe became compelled to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” (There were other slave markets; this was the largest.)
But nothing is black and white. Well, some were legally white, and some were legally black. But there was also a curious system of colors, and names that more or less went with NOLA more than any other place.
Because in this same space where human souls were bought and sold, balls often went on. Quadroon balls. So, how does one become a quadroon? I’ll begin at the curious beginning of color-coding that went on at the time. First, if you were of mixed race, you were a femme de colour or gen de colour. Now, if you were half white and half black, you were a mulatto. If you were half mulatto and half black, you were a griffe. If you were mulatto and white, you were a quadroon. See? Easy.
Many blacks and mulattos and quadroons and griffes in New Orleans were free men or free woman. As such, they sometimes owned slaves as well. Quadroons were frequently prized as mistresses. Now, that’s not hard to comprehend if we look at the multitude of Americans of mixed race—they are some of our most beautiful people.
But it was a hard and confusing social life. Some men of color might do business with their white neighbors—and yet never sit down to a meal with them.
Just as some men were cruel and wickedly beat their slaves and wrenched families apart, some were kind, and saw their slaves as part of their own extended families with all on the plantation or in the home working for the best of everyone there.
Oh, I forgot one of the other colors in the palette—you could be rouge! Yes, sounds lovely. That’s what you were if you were mixed with Native American blood.
So much that we look at in the past is so horribly ugly. But, sadly, we can never erase the past. To forget history is so wrong. In the words of the great philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
We need to learn from the past.
Now, I’m not saying that things are always rosy-cheery in New Orleans or that old prejudices don’t raise their ugly heads now and then. But I am saying that it can be one of the most wonderful cities in the world because it’s certainly one of the most mixed cities in the world. I can tell you that my friends there cover just about every shade in that palette I was talking about. They are of black, white, Spanish, French, Italian, African, you-name-itdescent.
But back to the slave market.
It’s gone. After the war, it was used for a while by the state legislature. By 1915, it was abandoned and a haven for rats and roaches and . . . yes. It was condemned.
Today, the beautiful Omni Royal Orleans stands where it once stood.
And guests of every color in the palette are welcomed and enjoy the hotel’s hospitality.
But back when the Civil War fell upon the country, New Orleans was the biggest city in the South. It had those horrible slave markets. But, to a Union fighting to keep the country together, it was most important as the main port along the mighty Mississippi. The river was a life line for Confederate troops. It was imperative that the Union take NewOrleans. Admiral Farragut set out to win the city; gunboats sailed the Mississippi and by the end of April, 1862, New Orleans was forced to surrender.
It would remain in Union hands for the duration of the war. The General who would become known as “Beast” Butler would wield military rule with a brutal hand. His worst offense was issuing Butler’s General Order #28. It was wordy, but basically it said that any woman who insulted a Union officer was to be treated as if she were a prostitute. That brought about a lotof anger—from the North and South! He was also known as “Spoons” Butler—that was for all the looting the man did.
I guess the thing to really remember here is this—the good, the bad, and the ugly came on both sides. It’s easy today to wonder how anyone could have condoned such an inconceivable notion as slavery. But, back then, it was as old as the Bible, as old as time. Just as Union generals left the Federal military to join their states—they were Louisianans, Virginians, Georgians, Floridians, etc., first—loyal to their states before their Federal government. We still hear a lot about states’ rights, and they remain incredibly important in our politics today.
But if you are a Civil War buff like me—intrigued, like me, by some of the incredible, honorable and dedicated men and women of the time—there are some sites you can visit. First, to me, and the most gut-wrenching, is to stand on that corner and imagine the human misery of the slave market. Then, you can check your times and head on over to see the Museum of the Confederacy. (See previous blog!) To view the forts that were important, you have to travel a bit out of the city.
Fort St. Philip is only accessible by boat or helicopter, is privately owned, and in a bad state of disrepair. Fort Jackson, however, can be visited, though it, too, sustained heavy damage during the summer of storms. Check with any of NOLA’s fine tour companies if you want to see it.
Chalmette Battlefield is a great day trip for history buffs. While the Union prettymuch sailed by the Chalmette defenses during the taking of New Orleans and you’ll learn more about the War of 1812, excellent guides who love history can make you see just how important the city of New Orleans was to the North—and just how they maneuvered to take the city.
I love New Orleans for all its wonderful colors. While the past was sometimes horribly ugly, it leads to our present, and a city as beautiful as all the shades in a rainbow.