A statue of Robert E. Lee, ensconced on a 80-foot perch for 133 years, was removed Friday. It was the last of four Confederate monuments taken down in New Orleans.
NEW ORLEANS — With the yank of a crane and to a cheer from the crowd, Robert E. Lee was lifted off his 80-foot perch, where he had been standing gazing north for most of 133 years, and slowly lowered to the ground.
It was the last monument of four to be removed, the culmination of an effort going back two years, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced plans to take down city memorials to the Confederate era. The City Council agreed, but the opposition to the move was fierce, allying Confederate sympathizers, historical preservationists and state lawmakers, local blue bloods and out-of-staters. Contractors involved with the process received death threats, forcing workers at the removals to do their jobs in masks and bulletproof vests.
The first monument to come down was commemorating an 1874 insurrection by a white supremacist militia against the multiracial Reconstruction government in New Orleans. Next were statues of Jefferson Davis, who died in New Orleans, and P. G. T. Beauregard, who was born outside the city and under whose command the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
Lee had the least connection to New Orleans, having passed through when he was a United States Army officer. The city came under Union control early in the Civil War, before Lee had risen to become commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. The Lee monument in New Orleans was unveiled 14 years after his death, and seven years after the end of Reconstruction, in a ceremony attended by thousands, including Beauregard and Davis.
“By every appliance of literature and art, we must show to all coming ages that with us, at least, there dwells no sense of guilt,” The Daily Picayune wrote at the time.
The roundabout in which the monument stood became known as Lee Circle, a city landmark where countless Mardi Gras parade floats made the rounds and untold numbers of New Orleanians passed by routinely on their way downtown.
The towering column as well as the base on which the statue stood will remain, and the city announced that “public art” would be displayed. The Davis statue, the city also announced, will be replaced by an American flag.
As for the statues themselves, the city is taking proposals from “nonprofits and governmental entities,” with the aim that they be put in “their proper historical context from a dark period of American history.”
Mr. Landrieu elaborated in a speech on Friday afternoon.
“To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past, it is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future,” he said. “History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it.”
Tensions ran high at all the removals; supporters and opponents often descending into shouting matches and, occasionally, punches. But by early Friday, even before the operation was underway, the crowd was almost festive. Brass bands played, radios blasted pop standbys, people skipped rope and the police sought relief from the heat in a walk-in beer cooler at a nearby convenience store.
Then a little after 6 p.m., the general was plucked off. John Calhoun, a 43-year-old local auctioneer and improbably named advocate of removal, stared at Lee dangling in the air.
“It happened just like that,” he said.