Realizing that three weeks on the road and a steady diet of visiting Civil War sites may be more of a test my wife and traveling companion may wish to endure, I had arranged to end our 1995 escapade with a mini-vacation in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Truth be told, along the route, since this lengthy trip began nearly a month prior, there had been a two-day break in St. Louis and three days in San Antonio to dine and take in the sites in order to maintain sanity.
Leaving Port Arthur, Texas, we maneuvered eastward 265 miles out Route 90 and Route 10, heading directly to New Orleans. While there, I took advantage of the opportunity to spend time at the Confederate Museum in Memorial Hall on Camp Street.
Now known as Louisiana’s Civil War Museum, it is one of the largest repositories of Confederacy-related artifacts and memorabilia in the United States. It is also the oldest continuously operating museum in Louisiana and offers this invitation: “Step back into time to relive the history of the Old South.”
The Louisiana Historical Association built the museum in 1891, with its exterior sandstone construction and cathedral-like appearance. The original purpose of the old Memorial Hall was to provide a meeting place for Confederate veterans and to store their relics from the war.
Visitors to the museum are greeted at the entrance by an expansive mural on an outside wall depicting Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson conferring on horseback. A Civil War-era Columbiad cannon (circa 1865) is mounted on the front terrace of the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The cypress paneled hall, with its exposed beams and stained-glass windows, offers a reverential setting for display of its collection of memorabilia, artifacts, reports and records about the Civil War. Louisiana residents donated most of the contents of the museum.
One of the more interesting sections displays a large collection donated by Varina Howell Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis — the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. The museum also features Civil War uniforms and weapons; exhibits relating to everyday life of Confederate forces; personal belongings of Confederate generals, including Robert E. Lee; battle flags; and paintings, prints and photographs.
Memorial Hall opened its doors on Jan. 8, 1891, and Col. J.A. Chalaron, a member of the Washington Artillery, commented about what was otherwise known as “The Battle Abbey of the South.”
“To these sacred and inspiring objects we should extend the fullest measure of our love and protection. We must see that they are transmitted to our descendants 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.”
Jefferson Davis, who died in New Orleans in 1889, was buried there until 1893, when his remains were transferred to Richmond, Va., for reburial. Memorial Hall was the site where more than 60,000 people paid their respects to Davis while he was lying in state prior to his interment.
After enjoying New Orleans, we began our long trip back home to Silver Spring, Md. We had driven through 17 states over a period of 34 days, and had traveled more than 5,700 miles. A total of 20 roles of photographs and a journal kept during the trip were useful in reconstructing all that had taken place.
Visiting the Civil War sites provided an opportunity to learn how the war evolved in the various states over four sanguinary years of combat. It was also a tutorial about the geography of this country through travel planning, map reading and driving through the states, which all had distinct geographic characteristics.
It was troubling to see so much of our Civil War heritage had already been lost to expanding civilization. The people and organizations, that are working to preserve land where Civil War battles occurred, such as Civil War Trust, are to be commended.
The Civil War trip of a lifetime in 1995 has since led to other similar excursions. The scores of people met along the way who shared stories about this seminal event that occurred more than a century ago, and their personal relationship to it, enhanced the experience exponentially.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War;” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point