That time Baton Rouge moved a Confederate monument

by Walter Pierce

Pre-Charleston, it was done with little fanfare.

This undated photo shows the original monument to the Confederate "soldier sentinel" in downtown Baton Rouge. The pedestal and column have since been removed and the statue atop them relocated to the Old State Capitol Museum.

Before the Charleston murders and the national debate on the Confederate flag, before New Orleans’ decision to relocate its monuments to Jim Crow and well before Lafayette’s own civic discussion on our shout-out to white supremacy, Baton Rouge actually relocated a monument to the Confederacy from a public square to a museum, folded in some context without condemnation, and it happened with little fanfare. But that was before our current national conversation and inflamed passions on both sides of the debate.

The relocation of the “Silent Sentinel” statue in 2012 got passing reference in a June 23, 2015 article in The Advocate about the Confederate flag issue in Baton Rouge on the heels of the Charleston murders:

Until a few years ago, a statue of a Confederate solider was displayed on a downtown street, near City Hall. It was not particular to one soldier, but rather a tribute to all Confederate soldiers.

The statue was moved in 2012 to the Old State Capitol when downtown construction started on North Boulevard Town Square. ...The plaque says the statue was erected as a tribute to “the heroism and patriotic devotion of the noble soldiers from the two parishes (East and West Baton Rouge) who wore the gray and crossed the river with their immortal leaders.”

When the statue was on the street, [a public official] said he received a few complaints from people who said they were offended by it. But once it moved to the Old State Capitol, a museum of Louisiana history, the issue was resolved.

The statue as it is presented in the Old State Capitol Museum
Photo by Rick Swanson

The plaque actually reads in full, "...crossed the river with their immortal leaders to rest under the shade of the trees." What does that mean? We're not sure. Less resting and more fighting might have helped those Confederates keep their slaves.

Reader Rick Swanson, an attorney and UL professor, pointed this recent history out and shared photos he snapped not long ago at the Old State Capitol Museum. Read Swanson’s thoughtful letter to the editor regarding Lafayette's General Mouton statue here.

The sentinel statue now residing at the Old State Capitol Museum is accompanied with panels explaining its presence in the museum:

“Silent Sentinel” statues, representing the common soldier, became popular following the Civil War and can be found on hometown memorials in more than 30 states today. Most of the statues were mass-produced by a few Northern companies that found a steady market selling to communities in both the North and South who were eager to honor their fallen soldiers and surviving veterans. These statues were carved in stone and cast in bronze or zinc. In the South, most were erected in the 1880s-90s when the economy improved.

The statue you see here formerly sat atop a large granite and marble pedestal on North Blvd. near the Statehouse. The Confederate Monument Association, a group of citizens from East and West Baton Rouge Parishes, raised the funds to erect the pedestal in 1886 and added the statue in 1890. When the original pedestal began to deteriorate, a smaller base was installed in the 1960s. The entire monument was removed during a revitalization of Town Square, and the statue was eventually brought into the collection of the Old State Capitol Museum.

Note the treacly language used on the plague (reproduced below) that was affixed to the monument when Baton Rouge's Confederate Monument Association placed the statue atop the pedestal — "heroism and patriotic devotion" and "immortal leaders" — and how similar it is to the words used by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1922 when Lafayette dedicated the General Mouton monument: “In honoring General Mouton we are honoring ourselves, for we are today perpetuating the very best that has been achieved by our great and truly noble Southern race.”

This "Lost Cause" historical revisionism and civic pomp that celebrated the "heroism and patriotic devotion" of Confederate soldiers and officers while diminishing to the point of erasing from history the role of slavery as the prime casus belli for the conflict swept the South in the decades after the conflict.

Whether Lafayette ever finds the will to move General Mouton to a museum remains to be seen; the United Daughters of the Confederacy, AKA the gorgeous ladies of wrestling, hold a standing permanent injunction against the city preventing it — short of selling the property on which the monument stands or through the necessity of infrastructure work — from ever relocating the general. And the gorgeous ladies of wrestling have already sicced their lawyer on the City-Parish Council threatening a suit if our community dare move the gorgeous ladies' dandy slaveholder.

But at least we know there is precedent, and that it can be done without condemnation and in a way that allows the public to better understand these monuments to Jim Crow that proliferated across the Deep South after the Civil War.

The plaque that originally accompanied the monument when it was located in a public square in Baton Rouge
Photo by Rick Swanson