June 2008 Preservation News
In 1891, Confederate veterans of Louisiana founded Memorial Hall, also known as Confederate Memorial Hall, as a meeting place, and later as a repository for memorabilia and artifacts from the War for Southern Independence.
On Camp Street near historic Lee Circle, Confederate Memorial Hall is situated in an area now called the “Warehouse District” or the “Museum District” of New Orleans, approximately one half mile south of the French Quarter and central business district.
Confederate Memorial Hall is a precious shrine of Confederate history, virtually unchanged since its construction over 115 years ago. The Romanesque masonry exterior invites visitors to step into the past.
Once inside, visitors tread heart-pine floors that creak under each footstep. At eye level are paneled walls, and overhead rise the exposed beams of a cathedral ceiling, all in cypress from the bayous of Louisiana. The soft bronze tones of the understated interior lighting treat visitors to an authentic 19th-century atmosphere.
Unlike most museums, the Memorial Hall building is as much an artifact as are the relics that it houses. On May 27 and 28, 1893, approximately 60,000 mourners filed through Memorial Hall to view the body of Jefferson Davis, lying in state prior to transportation to Richmond for permanent burial at Hollywood Cemetery.
Throughout the early decades of its existence, Confederate Memorial Hall was the gathering place of several annual reunions of the United Confederate Veterans.
Confederate Memorial Hall Museum holds the second largest collection of Civil War memorabilia in the United States, including over 5,000 artifacts housed on site and nearly 90,000 pages of documents archived at Tulane University, on permanent loan.
Historic items include over 125 authentic Confederate battle flags, including that of Wheat’s Battalion “Louisiana Tigers,” stained with the blood of its commander Maj. Roberdeau Wheat, killed at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill.
Also on display are the uniform frockcoats of Gens. P.G.T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, Franklin Gardner, Daniel Adams and Albert Blanchard, as well as uniforms, weaponry and personal possessions of the common soldier.
Perhaps the most precious of the priceless artifacts held by Confederate Memorial Hall Museum is one of the four original Confederate battle flags hand sewn by the Carey sisters of Baltimore, after the Battle of First Manassas and at the direction of the flag’s designer, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard.
The first century of Confederate Memorial Hall’s existence was successful and generally secure, but the dawn of the early 21st century brought unprecedented challenges to the museum and its Trustees.
In 1998, the University of New Orleans laid claim to ownership of Confederate Memorial Hall and commenced a legal fight that lasted five years and cost the museum $600,000 in legal fees.
Due in large part to the intervention of Louisiana Governor Mike Foster, the litigation was finally settled in 2003, with Confederate Memorial Hall retaining title to the building — but only with the provision that it make significant and expensive physical renovations to the building by the year 2013, and allow the adjacent University of New Orleans affiliated museums to build a pedestrian tunnel through the basement of Memorial Hall.
The Trustees of Confederate Memorial Hall began a struggle to find sources of funding for these renovations.
And then came Hurricane Katrina.
On Aug. 29, 2005, Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, causing one of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history. Although Confederate Memorial Hall avoided significant structural damage and miraculously escaped the vandalism and looting that followed the storm, it is imperiled by the lingering financial impact of the hurricane.
Confederate Memorial Hall receives no government support and relies entirely on admission charges and private donations for its operating revenue. The museum averaged approximately 15,000 visitors annually during pre-Hurricane Katrina years. Since reopening in January 2006, visitor traffic totaled only 4,210 in 2006 and 5,558 in 2007.
In addition to the greatly diminished visitor traffic, the museum has been closed since February 2008 due to construction of a pedestrian tunnel by the neighboring museums. The museum remains closed as of the date of this publication.
Thankfully, in December 2007 the Austin (Texas) Civil War Round Table donated $20,000 to Memorial Hall Museum in the form of a matching funds grant; the ensuing campaign ultimately raised a total of $70,000. Those contributions are funding Memorial Hall Museum’s fixed expenses as we await the completion of the tunnel and the resumption of operations.
Upon the opening of Confederate Memorial Hall in 1891, Col. J.A. Chalaron of the Washington Artillery wrote:
“To these sacred and inspiring objects we should extend the fullest measure of our love and protection. We should guard them with the tender care with which a mother watches over her child.
“We must see that they are transmitted to our descendents as object lessons, which will inspire them with a reverence for the past and excite in them a determination to emulate the courage, patriotism, and devotion to duty of those who have gone before.”
Of Confederate Memorial Hall Museum’s current collection of artifacts, 90 pecent were donated directly by Confederate veterans themselves, or by their immediate families.
The staff and Trustees of Confederate Memorial Hall Museum of New Orleans cordially invite you to visit our historic Confederate shrine, and to support the museum during this period of unprecedented challenge.
For more information go to www.confederatemuseum.com.
Sam Hood, a collateral descendent of Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood, is President of the Board of Directors of Memorial Hall Foundation. He is a graduate of Kentucky Military Institute and Marshall University and resides in Huntington, W.Va.