Memorial Hall History

In the twenty years following the end of the Civil War, the Confederate Veterans organizations of New Orleans sought a common place with which to “unite” and house their growing collections of documents and relics relating to the conflict. In 1889, these Confederate Veterans formed the Louisiana Historical Association and chose the newly constructed Howard (now Patrick Taylor) Library on Lee Circle. A small “alcove” within the Library became a repository for war relics, documents, and other artifacts of the Civil War period until the collection threatened to outgrow the space. It was at this point, that Frank T. Howard, a local philanthropist, and benefactor of the Library, stepped in. Mr. Howard wished to construct an Annex to the library in honor of his New York born father Charles, who fought in the Confederate army during the Civil War. The younger Howard was active in the ill-fated Louisiana Lottery of the 1880’s and believed that he needed to honor the sacrifice of the Confederate soldiers who, like his father, gave their all for the Confederacy. Construction of the “Howard Annex” as Memorial Hall was referred to, was completed in December of 1890. The exterior structure is Romanesque in style and was designed by the architectural firm of Sully and Toledano of New Orleans. The interior main hall is constructed of rich Louisiana Cypress wood and features seven main trusses that transverse the room overhead while a variety of glass exhibit cases surround the room at the floor level. A gasolier provided light from each beam.

The Confederate Memorial Hall of New Orleans opened its doors on January 8, 1891 to the pomp and ceremony. The event featured notable speakers from the many Confederate veteran organizations along with religious and political oratory. The organizations represented were the Army of Northern Virginia Association, Army of Tennessee Association, Washington Artillery, the Association of Confederate States Cavalry, and of course the Howard Library Association.

Within three weeks of opening, Memorial Hall hosted its first function, the Army of Northern Virginia Jackson Banquet. On January 21, 1891, the museum was given over to the men who fought under Robert E. Lee so that they could honor his fallen “right arm,” General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. This was the first of many Lee-Jackson birthday affairs held at Memorial Hall through the years.

Six months after the opening, a substantial donation of relics came in from the Army of Tennessee Association including the sword of Colonel Charles Dreux, the first Confederate field officer to be killed in the Civil War. Memorial Hall also received the Twelfth Louisiana flag, referred to as Bragg’s Escort Flag during the same transfer.

The following month, the donation of a uniform was received from the family of deceased General Albert Gallatin Blanchard with a note from his granddaughter Blanche saying, “Hoping the Memorial Hall in which I take a just pride, will allot a niche whereby his children and grandchildren may at times view with reverence the tattered garments of their dead hero.”  Memorial Hall still receives occasional visits from the many great great- grandchildren of General Blanchard to see his uniform and other items received back in 1891.

In April 1892 Mrs. Jefferson Davis turned over her first donation of the many artifacts she would eventually give. They consisted of Jefferson Davis’ saddle and a portrait of daughter Winnie along with other mementoes.

When the Museum opened, it contained a fraction of the artifacts, flags and relics that occupy its exhibit cases and storage area today. Cases contained many documents and books, swords from the various periods in the life of Jefferson Davis, a few uniforms, and several flags. A photograph of Charles Dreux, and “jewelry” crafted by prisoners of war from Vicksburg graced one case while the flag of the Eleventh Louisiana Infantry Regiment and a sheet of Confederate Bonds graced another. Some of these items remain on display today.

The various Confederate Veteran organizations held meetings in the newly completed Memorial Hall. At these early meetings more artifacts would be presented to the newly formed Louisiana Historical Association for display in the Museum.

Although Memorial Hall opened with documents, flags, and artifacts already on display, the numerous veterans’ organizations continued to enrich the growing collection. Shortly before the fifth anniversary of its opening, Memorial Hall received a significant contribution from Henry and Rene T. Beauregard, sons of General P.G.T. Beauregard, the officer who ordered Fort Sumter fired upon. This consisted of their father’s uniform and cap, his sword presented to him by St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, epaulettes, a headquarters flag, and a smoking cap among other items.

A later contribution from the Army of Tennessee Association consisted of the shell jacket of J.W. Noyes of New Orleans and the flag of the Orleans Guard Battalion which distinguished itself at Shiloh, along with numerous documents and maps of the Civil War period.

Perhaps the most notable event in the early history of Memorial Hall was the twenty-four-hour period in which the exhumed body of the late Confederate President Jefferson Davis lay in state within its walls before it departed Louisiana. While Davis resided in Mississippi, he became ill and died while in New Orleans in 1889. His funeral and memorial service at City Hall (now Gallier Hall) was the largest the city had ever seen. He was interred in Metairie Cemetery. In 1893, his body was exhumed when Mrs. Davis decided that his final resting place should be in Richmond, Virginia. His casket departed New Orleans on a multi city “tour” throughout the south on his way “home,” and that journey began at Memorial Hall.

All of the exhibit cases in Memorial Hall were obscured by a wall of ferns that would surround the observers and the honor guard. The honor guard that watched over the Davis casket was composed of members of the various veteran organizations of New Orleans. Placed near the coffin were the three largest floral offerings from the Cavalry Association, the Army of Tennessee Association, and the Ladies Confederate Memorial Association. Present to receive the coffin were Davis’s good friend J.H. Payne and General Stephen Dill Lee of the United Confederate Veterans. Once the departed leader was in place, the honor guard had the doors of Memorial Hall opened and the crowd of citizens that had gathered outside entered the Hall. The procession was non-stop for almost twenty-four hours so that by the time the doors were closed the following day, over 60,000 people had passed through Memorial Hall for one “last look” at Davis. Although attendance today is more than in the recent past, that number has never been surpassed.

This did not end the Davis connection with Memorial Hall. Mrs. Davis and her daughter would visit New Orleans often until their deaths. The most significant of her contributions came to Memorial Hall contained in twenty-one cases and boxes in 1899. Shipped from the Davis estate, Beauvoir, in Mississippi, were a significant quantity of the fallen leader’s personal items, along with his formal wear, baby crib, family bible and other religious articles. Accompanying the shipment Mrs. Davis enclosed a note which stated “The pressure brought upon me by Montgomery and Richmond and other places for relics is very great, but my heart is in New Orleans Memorial Hall. There I owe [my] most affectionate gratitude and there I send my most precious relics.”

Aside from the structure itself, the most readily visible artifact of the Memorial Hall collection resides on the front lawn. The “Lady Slocomb” is an 8-inch Columbiad cannon manufactured in the Tredegar Iron Works of Richmond, Virginia. It was used by the Washington Artillery in the defense of Spanish Fort during the Battle of Mobile in 1864. This largest of relics obtained its nickname from the wife of Captain Cuthbert Slocomb of the Washington Artillery and came to rest at Memorial Hall in September of 1899.

Many of the artifacts added also had their own story. The Chickering Piano taken from the trenches of Jackson, Mississippi by members of the Washington Artillery has one of the most interesting. During the siege of Jackson, the Artillerymen removed the piano from a house and used it to boost morale in the trenches. Years later, when it was donated to Memorial Hall, the artillerymen held a reunion. The same soldier, who was playing the piano in the trenches, resumed his position at the keyboard and finished a musical piece that was interrupted by combat many years before.

But artifacts were not the only gains of Memorial Hall during its early years. The volume of material being received by the Hall due to a dying veteran population threatened to exceed its storage capacity. To abate the situation, in 1897 the building was expanded when an annex was constructed alongside of the main hall. This “fireproof room” was built to include metal exhibit cases with ¾ inch thick glass. During the same timeframe, the iconic “front porch” was added over the upper portion of the front steps.

In 1907, the Children of the Confederacy working under the direction of the Ladies Confederate Memorial Association raised funds to install a stained-glass window at the back of the Hall. That window depicting the Great Seal of the Confederacy with Washington on horseback remains today and along with a second stained glass window beneath it always elicits the question “Was this ever a church?” In 1949, the United Daughters of the Confederacy raised funds for the second stained glass window which depicts Father Abram J. Ryan, friend of Jefferson Davis and “Poet priest of the Confederacy”.

The Museum continued to collect new artifacts from the various veterans’ organizations, almost monthly from its opening day through the 1920’s. During this same period, the directors of the Museum were themselves veterans of the conflict.

Called the” Confederate Museum,” “Confederate Memorial Hall,” “Civil War Museum” or simply the original “Memorial Hall,” the current museum building is in itself an “artifact” due to its uniqueness within the burgeoning “warehouse” district of New Orleans. The structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Today, with over five thousand pieces in the inventory, including over 140 flags, Memorial Hall boasts the second largest Confederate collection in existence. Many of the flags have been conserved through an aggressive “Adopt-a-Flag” program and are on display today. Accompanying these are numerous guns, swords (including many manufactured in New Orleans) and dozens of oil portraits of Confederate leaders and battle scenes (many by noted artists of the 19th century).

Artifact and document donations continue to arrive at Memorial Hall from the decedents of Confederate soldiers long since deceased and from private collectors. Each will be preserved with the same care and for the same purpose that early director and Confederate veteran Joseph Chalaron once charged his generation-“we should guard them with the tender care with which a mother watches over her child…see that they are transmitted to our descendants as object lessons which will inspire them …to emulate the courage, patriotism, and devotion to the duty of those who have gone before.”

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