FIVE QUESTIONS for Len Riedel: Civil War New Orleans and the Gulf Coast

As Dixie’s largest city, New Orleans buzzed during the Civil War with commercial, shipping, and manufacturing verve. The Union coveted it for all of the above, resulting in the Farragut-led Battle of New Orleans and subsequent Union occupation. In his upcoming tour on April 5-8, 2019, “Civil War New Orleans and the Gulf Coast,” BGES’ executive director Len Riedel takes a deep dive into the happenings of this complex wartime city and the nearby coast. We recently caught up with him to ask a few questions.

BGES Blog: What is your personal interest in New Orleans during the Civil War?

Len Riedel: Well thanks, Barbara. I have always found New Orleans interesting, as I was born there. I recall first getting interested in the Civil War around 1963 or ’64 and being in New Orleans seeing articles in the Times-Picayune about unique aspects of New Orleans’ Civil War history. I also remember reading the National Geographic’s multiyear series on the Civil War Centennial. This was of course in the early stages of the Civil Rights movement and the Civil War Centennial. I also recall family trips to New Orleans and the iconic lit monument of Robert E. Lee towering over Lee Circle as we departed the city at 5 AM heading back to Virginia.

BGES Blog: Why this tour? What do you offer that others won’t?

Len Riedel: When you think of New Orleans, you of course think of Andrew Jackson beating the British in 1815. While there was minimal acknowledgement of the Civil War era, most tours of New Orleans completely ignore the antebellum period. Many of those structures and stories are still interspersed within the streets and alleys of the French Quarter and the Garden District—even the Chalmette Battlefield of 1815 fame holds Civil War significance.

BGES Blog: What on-the-ground elements are you most excited to share with your tour participants in the upcoming tour?

Len Riedel: Well, I think the Civil War Museum of New Orleans, which was once known as the Confederate Museum, is a timeless treasure filled with artifacts and memories. I also like the City Hall area and spots involved in the capture and occupation of New Orleans from 1862 and the postwar period. I am also enthusiastic about taking our guests to Jefferson Davis’ final home on the Gulf Coast in the town of Biloxi. Other guests are looking forward to a trip down to the Head of Passes and Forts Jackson and St. Philip.

BGES Blog: After the war, Jefferson Davis retired to New Orleans, where he died in 1889. Give us a little insight into “Jefferson Davis the man.”

Len Riedel: Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee both seem to have become lighting rods in the current political and social turbulence. While it is true that both were on the wrong side of a war that would have preserved slavery, both are extraordinary men. Davis was championed for the Democratic nomination for United States president by none other than the man who would be known as “Beast Butler”—the military governor of Louisiana after the 1862 battle and who was the floor manager of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial. Despite hard opinions against him, the United States government declined to prosecute Davis. Davis was hardly the leader of the “Fire-eating element” of the southern states, and he reluctantly accepted the nomination of the assembled southern states to be provisional president. Widely regarded as the moderate political element needed to forge the new nation, in a country where there were no political parties, he eventually became reviled by political opponents in the South and then redeemed by the manner in which he withstood the humiliation of imprisonment after the war. His New Orleans funeral was the largest in the city’s history.

BGES Blog: What do you hope BGES tours—and your tour specifically—add to the discussion about what the Confederacy means today?

Len Riedel: The recent actions of the mayor of New Orleans in taking down the monuments of Lee, Davis, and Beauregard highlight the reason that BGES exists. We have got to be enriched by our history—never imprisoned by it. BGES matters because we speak truth to cause. What do these monuments mean? Are they appropriate today? What is the right approach in determining their future? In an age of computers, we have lost the value and respect that comes from honest discussion. BGES tours never shy from that privilege and responsibility. We all reserve the right to our own opinions and the intellectual obligation to defend them in appropriate circumstances. It is the First Amendment’s most personal right.

BGES Blog: Any last words?

Len Riedel: We already have eight people on board and will be happy to welcome a few more should they wish to join with us!

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