Mayor Mitch Landrieu marked the historic moment with a rousing speech that sought to end nearly two years of heated debate in the city over what the monuments said about its past.
"They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for," Landrieu said, adding that Lee and the Confederate army fought against the United States. "They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots."
Since April, the monuments' fates have drawn the national spotlight, prompting 24-hour vigils populated by people who call the structures emblems of Southern history and honor or landscape-defining art. Some came with guns on display, strings of ammunition strung across their bodies. Others, during an ultimately nonviolent faceoff with activists determined to see the statues taken down, limited themselves to flak jackets and riot gear. A contractor involved in removal work pulled out of the job after an arsonist set his $200,000 Lamborghini ablaze.
As the battle in New Orleans wanes, conflicts over rebel monuments, memorabilia and merchandise are rising across the country, in areas as far-flung from the Confederacy as Massachusetts and Ohio. Historically, Confederate symbols have appeared at times of racial discord.
Questions about what to do with rebel symbols in public spaces — where they can be barred or removed and what they mean — have themselves become a source of conflict. The Southern Poverty Law Center counts at least 60 Confederate symbols removed or renamed in the two years since a white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners in a Charleston, S.C., church.
Last week, a Boston-born, self-described white nationalist, Richard Spencer, led a nighttime gathering of white people clenching tiki torches in front of the Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va., a scene that city's mayor called reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan.
"What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people, we will not be replaced," Spencer said at one of two rallies held near the monument, which the city plans to sell and remove.
Amid the familiar "hate or heritage" debate, some defenders say Confederate symbols have taken on a uniquely modern utility. Some use them as political weapons wielded against a perceived decline in white dominance and the alleged tyranny of political correctness.
But Carol Anderson, a historian and professor of African American studies at Emory University, says that the various reasons given for defending Confederate monuments and symbols share a common underlying expectation — that even in an increasingly diverse democracy, power and influence should remain unchanged.
"Beneath all of the talk is a longing for an America that is not only predominantly white but where the resources of a very, very rich nation are funneled almost exclusively toward whites," said Anderson, author of the 2016 book "White Rage." "These are who people believe that they are actually oppressed and disadvantaged whenever anyone else's voice is heard, their needs addressed and their political will prevails."
A hazy heritage
Karl Burkhalter, a retired racehorse trainer and self-described history buff from a small town near Baton Rouge, kept a 24-hour vigil near New Orleans's Jefferson Davis statue in the days leading up to its early-morning removal on May 11. While keeping vigil, the 61-year-old even slept in his car.
Burkhalter, who is white, described feeling nauseated as the vigil keepers' ranks expanded to include white supremacists and neo-Nazis. But like other monument defenders, Burkhalter described the North's treatment of Southern whites during the war and reconstruction as an affront. White Southerners, particularly poor ones accustomed to basic rights that differentiated them from blacks, felt reduced and abused. That isn't right, Burkhalter said, but that treatment prompted Jim Crow laws and practices that — among other things — prohibited black voting, full use of public facilities, jury service and public-office holding.
"These monuments, they were a reflection of the fact that the only bit of self-esteem so many white people down here had left was tied to the sacrifices they had made for the Confederacy," he said. "I think that's what upsets so many people about the idea of removing them now."
In February 1884, less than two decades after the end of the Civil War, New Orleans gave its first prominent public space to a Confederate monument, a multistory, white stone column topped by a statue of Lee in the center of one of the city's busiest roundabouts. The statue faced north allowing Lee, as local legend has it, to keep a watchful eye on the enemy.
For Nick Glover, a 66-year-old Vietnam War veteran, removing Lee's statue and the three other Confederate monuments from the New Orleans landscape amounts to an official act to "dishonor men of valor." Glover, who is white, says two of his ancestors fought for the Confederacy at Gettysburg, Pa. As he sees it, the men the monuments honor defended liberty. However, conversations about the denial of freedom for most blacks in the past should be avoided in the present, he said.
"This right here is a history that's got to be honored and preserved," Glover said, standing near a statue of Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, which the city removed Wednesday. "I think we ought to be able to celebrate that without all the talk about white supremacy and slavery."
In New Orleans, it's not rare to hear these heartfelt beliefs in an unblemished heritage, rooted in a certain set of ideas: The North began the Civil War. The war was not about slavery. Slaves were rare, expensive and therefore, well-treated. Reconstruction and civil rights gains for blacks — most of which were soon rescinded by Jim Crow laws — created danger and corruption.
They form the premise for a distinctly pro-South story of the Civil War that began to proliferate in the 1870s — with war memorials dedicated to the bravery, heroism and honor of Southern soldiers — and appeared in textbooks for about a century. Today, historians note that Mississippi's own secession documents cite the protection of $4 billion worth of property — slaves — for leaving the Union. The same is true of many other states. But the ugly, factual aspects of the war and why it was fought were cloaked in a haze of heritage.
"Heritage is selective recall," said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, a District-based professional organization of historians. "It's often interlaced with fable and myth, but it is not actual history. It does not, as history should do, make you uncomfortable."
'A portrait of hate'
Three days before the Davis statue came down, James E. Miller, 85, came to look at the scene. Actually, the avid photographer came to capture it.
"This is just an incredible portrait of hate," said Miller, who is black, just after standing from a low crouch he assumed to capture a set of vigil keepers standing behind police barricades, Confederate and American flags.
Miller, who now lives in the suburbs outside New Orleans, was raised in Birmingham, Ala., by his great-grandmother and her husband, both of whom were born slaves.
When Miller was a young man, he says that white men angry about civil rights activism in Birmingham blew up a church killing four black girls, and Miller saw Sheriff Bull Connor turn water hoses and police dogs on civil rights protesters — including children. Even with that long view of U.S. history and politics, the conflicts in New Orleans, Charlottesville and other towns debating Confederate monuments are mystifying to Miller.
"Some days, I'm not able to understand how anyone alive can claim that the Confederacy was not a treasonous regime," said Miller. "Those men on those monuments took up arms against other Americans so some rich white men could keep their slaves."
For now, New Orleans will store the four Confederate monuments in an undisclosed location, due to threats made against city officials, activists, contractors and work crews involved in taking them down. City officials announced late Thursday that an unspecified water feature will replace the Lee statue, and an American flag will fly where the Davis fixture once stood. Nonprofits and government agencies will eventually be allowed to submit plans that would put the statues on private property. City Park officials will decide what will replace the Beauregard statue.
Malcolm Suber, a coordinator with Take 'Em Down NOLA, a social justice organization, said the campaign began several decades ago to remove about 130 Confederate memorials and monuments in the city, as well as namesake streets, schools, public facilities and the like.
In December 2015, six months after the Charleston church shooting, the New Orleans City Council voted 6 to 1 to remove the four Confederate monuments.
"This is a done deal. The city council voted. The courts have ruled," Suber said. "And even though some of these folk seem to believe that they ought to have more say, these monuments to white supremacy and brutality are coming down in this majority black city."
Still, the idea that the monuments have only recently become controversial in New Orleans persists.
Glover, the Vietnam veteran, said he believes that the idea that the statues are offensive to some was invented by Landrieu, the city's first white mayor since the 1970s.
"Nobody in New Orleans had any kind of a problem with these monuments. Not when they went up. Not now," Glover said. "Everyone I've ever heard talk about these things considers them military memorials, symbols of sacrifice. The women of this city baked cookies and cakes to put these things up. It simply makes no sense to take them down because Mitch and his daddy don't like them or, maybe Mitch needs a career."
Landrieu is a Democrat and scion of a very blue political dynasty in a very red state. His father, Maurice "Moon" Landrieu, served as New Orleans's mayor and in the state legislature in the 1960s and 1970s. At City Hall, the elder Landrieu boosted the number of black staffers in the then-mostly white city government; and in the legislature, he was one of just a handful of white lawmakers who voted to integrate the state's schools.
The younger Landrieu denies that his mission is personal.
"I think that what this entire experience tells us," he said, "is that we, in this city, in this country, may not be as sophisticated about these matters as we may think."