Of the Parade, But Not In the Parade: The Mardi Gras Flambeaux

Flambeaux light the way for the Krewe of Orpheus parade. (Photo by Michael Homan, CC BY 2.0)

Louisiana Rien Fertel explores the complex history of New Orleans’ flambeaux — the men who carry the torches that light the way for Mardi Gras parades — in Oxford American. Perhaps unsurprisingly, race issues were intertwined with Mardi Gras from the festival’s earliest days.

That inaugural spectacle proved so popular that a second flambeaux procession, now doubled in size, marched about two months later, on April 6, to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, a day “generally celebrated as a holiday,” according to the Picayune, and the unveiling of the city’s newest Confederate statue, that of General Albert Sidney Johnston astride a marble likeness of his famed steed, the aptly named Fire Eater. Just as it had weeks earlier, this “carnival of fire,” as an unidentified reporter called it, paraded down St. Charles Avenue to Lee Circle, the centrally located traffic crossroads and commercial district that had been rechristened three years prior, at the height of Carnival season, to honor the dearly departed Confederate general. Though Robert E. Lee never crossed into Louisiana as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia—he likely visited New Orleans for a brief stay while soldiering during the Mexican-American War, decades earlier—the city honored him with a bronze statue, standing and facing north, a traitorous Golem ready to spring to life and defend the South from Yankee advances, atop a sixty-foot Doric marble column. Today, despite the skyscrapers that eventually mushroomed around him, Lee’s statue still manages, from certain vantage points, to dominate the city’s skyline, at no time more so than from the Mardi Gras parades, which all circle beneath his stony gaze.

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