The Persistence of the Mardi Gras Spirit in Civil War New Orleans

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Neil P. Chatelain…

Nothing embodies New Orleans more than Mardi Gras. Crowds throng parades, balls, and costumed parties, marking final celebrations before the Catholic season of Lent. Organizations host parades, customizing throws of beads, metallic doubloons, and plastic cups, with all ages joining the revelry. Mardi Gras occurs annually, but the occasional crisis can halt festivities. This year’s Mardi Gras celebrations have toned down significantly, with cancelled parades and balls in attempts to combat the spread of the Covid-19 Pandemic leaving many across Southern Louisiana struggling with how to celebrate the season. This mirrors the cancelling of Mardi Gras celebrations for other national crises including the Korean War, World War Two, the 1918-1919 Influenza, World War One, and the Civil War. The carnivals of the Civil War era can provide great clarity to today’s Covid-19 Mardi Gras, highlighting how even a cancelled or toned down celebration can reinvigorate the carnival spirit with lasting impacts on the future of Mardi Gras as a whole.

The first modern parade organization, the Mystick Krewe of Comus, began in 1857. Annually on Mardi Gras day, the Krewe, donning masks and costumes, would “march through the principal streets and … afterwards a grand ball would be given” featuring the city’s elite.[1] Masked balls were a norm across antebellum New Orleans and Comus adopted this, sparking today’s modern Mardi Gras ball tradition.

Newspaper Advertisements for 1861 Masked Mardi Gras Balls.
“Terpsichhorean”, New Orleans Daily Crescent, February 11, 1861.

By 1861, Comus was a standard of the carnival season, and other societies added their own balls. Louisiana’s secession did not stem the carnival celebrations occurring even as the Confederacy organized. Newspapers advertised Mardi Gras balls hosted by numerous societies, while the Krewe of Comus marched as usual. However, troubling signs loomed. Several balls were held by military companies as fundraisers and amidst the parading, and a collection of slaves formed a minstrel group and “marched around, having at their head a comical effigy of Old Abe Lincoln, riding a rail of his own splitting” which provided entertainment as costumed children threw bags of flour onto both one another and the city’s African American population, “according to the usual custom.”[2]

By Mardi Gras 1862 things were different. In January and February, papers were choked with masquerade ball advertisements and guarantees that the Mystick Krewe of Comus would do “something to astonish the town.” This was not to be. Word arrived of Confederate battlefield setbacks and nine of the city’s regiments were dispatched north, later participating in the Battle of Shiloh. Concurrently, David Farragut’s naval squadron ascended the Mississippi River to assault New Orleans itself. Martial law was declared, local militia mobilized, and in consequence, Mayor John T. Monroe issued a directive cancelling all Mardi Gras festivities, proclaiming that “no masquerade procession or masked individuals will be allowed to parade the streets of the city of New Orleans on TUESDAY, the 4th day of March, 1862, the same being Mardi-Gras;” instead, the day after the cancelled festivities saw a full brigade of militia parading through the streets.[3]

Mayor John T. Monroe’s Proclamation Cancelling Mardi Gras.
“Proclamation”, New Orleans Daily Crescent, March 3, 1862.

Union forces occupied the city by May 1862 and remained there for the rest of the war. With many military age men in the Confederate army, and the city under military occupation, 1863’s Mardi Gras passed with no parades or balls; the largest celebration was a show by a minstrel group of slaves and freedmen who performed Mardi Gras night at the Camp Street Theater. One prominent French-speaking woman lamented to her husband that “Il n’y a pas eu de carnival” – There was no carnival. Despite this, one Union soldier witnessed “people dressing themselves up and making fools of themselves generally;” a few masqueraders were even arrested the week after “for playing Mardi Gras out of season.”[4]

1864 found a renewed Mardi Gras spirit embracing New Orleans. Occupiers relaxed rules and by midday on February 9, 1864, “considerable numbers, attired in every description of costume, in carriages and on foot, began roaming the streets” and an impromptu parade formed as men, “mounted on horses, asses, and mules” pulled carts “piled to the number of fifteen or twenty” down Canal Street. This improvised parade included “King and Queen, Princess, peasants, Satan and fair ladies, beggars and heiresses, clowns, nymphs, Friars, savages, dancing girls, sailors, soldiers, negroes, mulattos, Creoles, octoroons … all with one object in view, pure unalloyed, boisterous fun.”[5]

The Washington Birthday Masquerade Ball.
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 26, 1864.

Union soldier Carlos Colby wrote home that “all through the day we could see Men, Women, and Children dressed in all manner of styles and all had masks on their faces so you could not tell who it was;” another occupying soldier observed how sacks of flour were employed by children “to whiten any negro who might be found on the streets, with fine clothes.” Nathan Middlebrook, a Connecticut soldier, “saw more fun” because of the streets “full of Masked faces” at the 1864 Mardi Gras “than I have since I came in the army.”[6] Three women took the relaxed circumstances to costume in their husbands’ old Confederate uniforms while another woman tore down a United States flag; all four were arrested.

Residents of New Orleans and military occupiers alike seemed anxious to continue the spirit of the carnival season that year, with one writing home a week later, “Some of the Dukes and kings haint got over Mardi-grassing yet.” Continuing these festivities and to commemorate the newly elected Unionist governor, on February 22, 1864, Washington’s Birthday, General Nathaniel P. Banks and his wife hosted “a bal masque at the Opera House.” Present was Acting French Consul Charles Fauconnet, who recognized Banks’s motives to “engender a rapprochement between the two races and serve as a vehicle for amalgamation.” Fauconnet remembered the ball as “brilliant with uniforms, dresses, and costumes,” but also one where “with very few exceptions, all of the Creole families were absent.”[7]

With the war closing, Mardi Gras in 1865 was on February 28 and included more balls and celebrations. Among the revelry included costumed individuals: “King Richard III … walked upon the common pavement. Horace Greeley … followed his royal highness in haste while a Tribune peered forth, from the depths of his coat pockets. ‘Uncle Abe’ was following Greeley for the purpose of drafting him.” There were no organized parades, though a crowd did gather on Canal Street in the hopes that the Mystick Krewe of Comus would appear until an evening rainstorm dispersed everyone. Union General Edward R. S. Canby attended the evening’s masquerade balls. The celebrations were not without trouble however, and a freedman was stabbed on the street that day and the mayor “ordered all the drinking-houses closed” to prevent further unrest.[8]

1867 Parade of the Mystick Krewe of Comus.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-62521.

The war’s end renewed Mardi Gras, and the Mystick Krewe of Comus returned to its parading in 1866 since “enough of the Krewe survived the war to make another grand spectacle;” the year’s ball was themed “The Past, in which the horrors of war were depicted; The Present, which illustrated the blessings of peace; and The Future, over which peace and plenty presided.” Carnival grew postwar, influenced by the many former Confederate leaders that moved to New Orleans. In 1892, Winnie Davis, daughter of Jefferson Davis, became queen of Comus and her portrait for the organization that year marked “her rule simultaneously as the Princess of the Confederacy and the Queen of Comus.” Her portrait was used afterwards as a model for future portraits and ball gowns, connecting today’s Mardi Gras celebrations to those of the Civil War era.[9]

Race continued to play a part in carnival celebrations. In 1916, the Krewe of Zulu formed, run by the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. It is famous for members, both black and white, donning blackface and costumes honoring the African Zulus and throwing coconuts to the crowd. This is an interesting turn, considering early Mardi Gras celebrations involved children pelting African Americans with flour, turning their faces white. Recently, arguments emerged over whether the blackface tradition should end, with one side claiming they are honoring racist white vaudevillian actors who dressed in blackface in times past, while the other claims that the Zulu tradition is continued to critique and discredit those very actors. Nonetheless, the tradition continues.[10]

Finally, the recent movement against Confederate monuments has impacted Mardi Gras. In 2017, a statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from St. Charles Avenue. This statue sat astride what was called Lee Circle since its erection in 1884. With its removal, a prominent landmark along the parade route, Mardi Gras beads bearing the statue’s likeness began appearing at parades in protest.[11]

Mardi Gras faced its first real challenge in the Civil War, and despite war, occupation, and cancelled festivities, the citizens of New Orleans maintained the carnival’s essence through improvised parading, costuming, and masked balls, albeit via an abbreviated format filled with commentary about the Civil War itself. Furthermore, this challenge helped to reinvigorate the carnival spirit postwar, impacting the celebration’s evolution. Though the 2021 Mardi Gras is also limited in scale thanks to the Covid-19 Pandemic, we can learn from the Civil War’s festivities, keeping the carnival spirit alive however possible and using it to springboard renewed future celebrations.

Neil P. Chatelain is an Adjunct Professor of History at Lone Star College-North Harris and a Social Studies Teacher at Carl Wunsche Sr. High School in Spring, Texas. A former US Navy Surface Warfare Officer, he is a graduate of the University of New Orleans, the University of Houston, and the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Neil researches US Naval History, with a particular emphasis on naval operations of the Confederacy.

[1] B.W. Wrenn, Mardi Gras in New Orleans (Atlanta, GA: Barrow, 1873), 5.

[2] “Mardi-Gras,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, February 13, 1861.

[3] “Balls to Come,” New Orleans Daily Picayune, February 12, 1862; “Proclamation,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, March 4, 1862.; “Military Parade,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, March 5, 1862.

[4] Polyxene Reynès to Joseph Reynès, February 19, 1863, Joseph Reynès and Family Papers, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Kenneth E. Shewmaker, Andrew W. Prinz, and Henry R. Gardner, “A Yankee in Louisiana: Selections from the Diary and Correspondence of Henry R. Gardner, 1862-1866,” Louisiana History, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Summer, 1964), 290; “The Maskers,” New Orleans Daily Picayune, February 26, 1863.

[5] “Close of the Carnival,” New Orleans Daily True Delta, February 10, 1864; “Mardi Gras,” New Orleans Times-Democrat, February 10, 1864; W.S. Hemphill, Journal of a Trooper, Vol. 4, 352-353 in Elisabeth Joan Doyle, “Civilian Life in Occupied New Orleans” Thesis, Louisiana State University, 1955, 206.

[6] Carlos Colby to Catie Colby, February 16, 1864, Carlos W. Colby papers, 1821-1937, Midwest Manuscript Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois; “Correspondence of the Gazette,” Lewistown, Pennsylvania, Gazette, March 23, 1864; Nathan Middlebrook to Sue, February 12, 1864, Nathan Middlebrook Papers, Special Collections, US Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle Pennsylvania.

[7] Extract from Sam’s Letter, February 15, 1864, in John M. Stanyan, A History of the Eighth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteers (Concord, NH: Ira C. Evans, 1892), 355; “The Masquerade Ball Given by Mrs. Gen. Banks,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 26, 1864; Dispatch of Acting Consul Charles Fauconnet, March 11, 1864, in Carl A Brasseauz and Katherine Carmines Mooney, ed., Ruined by this Miserable War: The Dispatches of Charles Prosper Fauconnet, a French Diplomat in New Orleans, 1863-1868 (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2012), 102.

[8] “’Mardigras Day’ in New Orleans,” Cleveland, Ohio Daily Leader, March 20, 1865; “Recorder Vennard’s Court,” New Orleans Daily Picayune, May 4, 1865; “The Close of Mardi Gras,” New Orleans Daily True Delta, March 2, 1865; “Mardi Gras,” New Orleans Daily True Delta, March 1, 1865.

[9] Wrenn, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 19.; William H. Forman Jr., “William P. Harper and the Early New Orleans Carnival,” Louisiana History, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter, 1973), 41; Elizabeth Leavitt, “Southern Royalty: Race, Gender, and Discrimination During Mardi Gras From the Civil War to the Present Day,” From Slave Mothers & Southern Belles to Radical Reformers & Lost Cause Ladies: Representing Women in the Civil War Era, February, 2015, https://civilwarwomen.wp.tulane.edu/.

[10] Brentin Mock, “Zulu Mardi Gras Blackface: Heritage or Hate?,” CityLab, March 4, 2019.

[11] Frederick Staidum Jr., “Robert E. Lee Beads Bring Mardi Gras’ Historic Racism Full Circle,” The Root, February 17, 2018, https://www.theroot.com/robert-e-lee-beads-bring-mardi-gras-historic-racism-f-1823080728.

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5 Responses to The Persistence of the Mardi Gras Spirit in Civil War New Orleans

  1. Dr. Jon Willen says:

    As a Tulane graduate I’m very familiar with Mardi Gras, unfortunately. last year celebration served as a super spreader event for the coronavirus..
    I wasn’t aware of it status during the war,thanks

  2. Lyle Smith says:

    Happy Mardi Gras everyone! Throw me something mister!

    Wonder if the prairie Cajuns are at it today in the cold seeking out subsistence for their jambalaya pot. I got invited to do it one year in Eunice. Lots of fun.

  3. Meg Groeling says:

    Let the good times roll!

  4. Fantastic post! Thank you for explaining the war’s impact on this awesome holiday. But whatever you do, don’t say Mardi Gras tradition began in New Orleans to someone from Mobile – or vice versa. That argument gets nasty real quick. Both Mobile and New Orleans dressed up their homes for Mardi Gras this year instead of holding the big parades and some of them are wild! Laissez les bon temps rouler! 🙂

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