Portraits of Privates, Traveling Tidbits

Confederate Memorial Hall – Civil War Material Culture History in NOLA

New Orleans draws tourists from all over the country and the world for its unique and diverse cultural experience. The city itself changed hands between the French, Spanish, and Americans enough times that a bit of each of them rubbed off on the Crescent City. Not to mention the Irish and the German played important parts in developing the early economy and infrastructure of the city. If you know where to look, you can find traces of these influence pretty much everywhere.

One “country” can also be named amongst the previously mentioned. While New Orleans fell to Union occupation fairly early in the war, a sizable portion of the active military in the east and west came from Louisiana, and later called it their home after the surrender. I, myself, have ancestors who fought in Mississippi and Alabama who later moved to Louisiana shortly after the war. These defeated Confederate veterans – included John Bell Hood – flocked to the Big Easy and began to rebuild their lives. In the late 19th century, with Reconstruction at its end, these veterans felt moved to try and preserve their stories and contributions to the war effort. Though this is steeped in Lost Cause dogma, one benefit came out of these efforts.

The Confederate Memorial Hall was founded on January 8th, 1891 and to this day, it’s the oldest museum in Louisiana. The genesis of the museum came a couple of years earlier when Frank Howard, a local philanthropist, gathered together 25 men, five from each local Confederate veteran association and five from the Board of Directors of the Howard Memorial Library. They created a new entity, the Louisiana Historical Association. Their mission: to gather as many Confederate relics and artifacts as possible and put them all in one place. The charter, also signed by Colonel William Miller Owen of the Washington Artillery, was drafted on April 11, 1889, its members a mix-match of veterans from just about every Confederate army that served in the war.

A new building was constructed near the Howard Memorial Library to serve as this repository of artifacts, then referred to as the “Howard Annex”. It was constructed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style (try saying that five times fast!) by the architectural firm of Sully and Toledano and took two years to build. The New Orleans Daily Picayune recorded the building’s dedication:

“Today the repository of the archives and relics of the Louisiana Historical Association will be formally dedicated… ‘The Howard Annex’ adjoins the Howard Library and faces Camp Street while the rear windows afford a pretty view of Lee Circle. Brown stone steps head gently upward to the entrance, a massive door constructed of southern cypress, finished in oil, and suspended with antique hinges. Within is a wonderland. There is not another building in this city like it in interior finish and contents. The hall is open and continuous, with several heavy trusses transferring [sic] the width of the building. The walls are paneled with cypress without paint and the rich yellow oil showing the beauty of the wood. Above are the beams giving an impression of strength and fixity, [sic] and above them a lengthwise ridge with glass windows on both sides, affording a plentiful flow of light.” One distinguished veteran present at the dedication stated, “Here the old soldiers will meet and, in social intercourse, tell their stories of personal adventure and fight their battles o’er again!”

Medical supplies (author photo)

Today, the rear view from the Confederate Memorial Hall does not look upon Lee’s Circle, nor do veterans come to rehash their battles (now their descendants do). However, it does remain the largest collection of Confederate artifacts in the country, with special attention given to Louisiana. For that alone, their efforts and mission are admirable. Walking into the hall, one is swept away by the sheer volume of relics. Glass cases line the walls and middle of the floor, a visual and intellectual feast for any historian.

Various hats on display (author photo)

Not only does the museum house regular, everyday items the soldiers would have carried (haversacks, knapsacks, personal hygiene products, blankets, games, canteens, cookware, etc.), but the museum also boasts some fascinating pieces that can’t be found anywhere else. Winnie Davis’ cradle (child of Jefferson Davis), uniforms belonging to Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard and other notable Confederate generals, and a piano that was played in the trenches during the defense of Jackson, Mississippi by the 5th Company Washington Artillery. Flags of numerous Louisiana regiments are framed and hung above the display cases. Medical supplies can be found beside kepis, cartridge boxes, writing implements, minie balls, uniforms, swords, tintypes, housewives (sewing kits), rifles, and so much more.

The “5th Washington Artillery” piano (author photo)

This place has EVERYTHING! Even a few sections of trees that were filled with artillery fragments from battlefields. One piece worthy of mention is a one-of-a-kind jacket that we know without a shadow of a doubt belonged to Private John A. Dolan of Austin’s Battalion of Louisiana Sharpshooters. We know this because he wrote his name and enlistment information on the inside of the jacket and we can still read the text today! They even have a cannon displayed outside the museum known affectionately as “Lady Slocum”, which played a part in the defense of New Orleans.

Jacket of Private John A. Dolan (Austin’s Battalion of Louisiana Sharphooters) (author photo)

A short video plays in the adjoining hall, explaining Louisiana’s part in the Civil War that would be the ideal introduction before exploring the museum. Also don’t miss a chance to browse the small giftshop, which offers a selection of books ranging in topics, as well as souvenirs and other memorabilia. There is a downstairs portion of the museum where you can also find the bathroom and more veteran artifacts from the post-war period.

PGT Beauregard uniform (author photo)

While the Confederate Memorial Hall, in its essence, was founded to glorify the Confederate cause during the Civil War, one can glean a great deal of valuable information about the material culture of the Civil War. You see what soldiers saved, how veterans wanted to be remembered (an indispensable aspect of historiography), and gain a window into the lives of the those who lived through these tumultuous times.

In light of Covid and the restrictions on travel to and from New Orleans, the Confederate Memorial Hall needs help now more than ever to stay open. If they should close, the artifacts could be scattered to various archives and museums across the country, splitting up this historic collection. While they accept donations, I highly encourage to (safely) visit this museum to show your support for their preservation mission.

By the time of this article, they had reduced their hours to Thursday – Saturday, 10am – 4pm.
Admission is $10.00 for adults, $5 for children.
If you want to check on hours, call at (504) 523-4522.
Check out their website at: https://confederatemuseum.com/
(They take donations online)
Their address is 929 Camp Street, New Orleans, LA 70130.

Flag of 1st Florida (author photo)

Directly across the street is a pay-for-use parking lot and you can pay for different hour intervals at a time. This is the easiest and fastest way to get to the museum and not have to walk several blocks. Near the museum is also the National World War II Museum, which I would strongly recommend you try to squeeze into your schedule while in NOLA. As with any big city, this near-downtown section of New Orleans is loaded with one-way streets. Please pay attention to the signs and drive slowly and carefully, especially if there is construction going on. Also keep safety as a prime concern. While this isn’t located in the seedier part of the town, practice safe habits like keeping bags/purses either securely on your person or hidden in your car. Lock said car and take your keys. Stay vigilant to your surroundings and walk confidently. People are less likely to mess with you if you walk like you own half the city. If you know you’ll be out past dark, make sure to walk under streetlamps and in public areas. Don’t go walkin’ down dark alleys as a short cut. Best time to visit would NOT be Mardi Gras season, unless you want to experience that as well. If you don’t, avoid February like the plague. I visited in the middle of February after Mardi Gras and it was still pretty hectic and crowded.

Do your research into any other interesting historical locations in New Orleans you might be interested in and take your time. Above all, don’t forget Confederate Memorial Hall Museum.

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