THE CHAOS THAT STRUCK THE GULF COAST in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane season has created a stir among American historians. Some have looked back to the trail of devastation left by other major hurricanes in the twentieth century, and have even drawn parallels with natural disasters such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Some, making comparisons with historical events that are unrelated to natural disaster or environmental destruction, have pointed to the possibility of Hurricane Katrina igniting a social movement similar to the labor strikes of the early twentieth century and the Civil Rights demonstrations of the 1960s. Yet others have argued that there is little historical precedent for what is unfolding in Mississippi, Louisiana and, more recently, Texas, and that a new mode of analysis and framework is required to situate these events.
While all of these perspectives offer a fresh insight into the aftermath of the hurricane, what has not been much discussed is the distinct history of New Orleans. A reminder of this history reveals how the events and discourse that followed the hurricane's disastrous impact--the massive dislocation, the failure of the Federal government to respond promptly, and the sharp rise in poverty--are not new; a similar pattern can be traced in the aftermath of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves in the 1860s. Of course, those events unfolded over the course of years, while the hurricane destroyed and dismantled an entire region of a country within hours. But how people--both in and beyond the government--are responding to this present disaster has resonances in earlier US history.
In April 1862, Union forces made their way up the Mississippi River past two Confederate forts and captured New Orleans. Despite the victory, officials in the Union army wrote to their commanding officers describing the sheer devastation of the city in which homes had been destroyed and bridges collapsed. People--black, white, free and enslaved--were without shelter, food, or the means to leave, and within a few days, yellow fever tore through the city. Reports of black vomit filling the city's streets soon dominated the military correspondence. Union officials and local physicians called for immediate Federal support to stop the disease from spreading, but officials in Washington were to slow to respond. Eventually General Benjamin Butler, a leading official in the Union Army, was dispatched to New Orleans, where he immediately devised a plan 'to purify and to clean the city' by employing all able-bodied men in the work of reconstruction. Such a plan, Butler assumed, would kill two birds with one stone: those employed in rebuilding the city would no longer depend on the Federal government for food, shelter, and support.
The problem, however, was that in the first weeks of his reconstruction efforts Butler only employed white men. This left hundreds, if not thousands, of black men, women, and children without means of survival, a situation that led to newspapers, military correspondence, and government reports describing emancipated slaves as indolent and unwilling to work. Compounding matters, the Federal government failed to deliver resources to New Orleans, straining Butler's seemingly tenuous plan.
A massive migration out of New Orleans ensued as formerly enslaved men, women and children poured out of the city in search of work and shelter, or to find lost family members. They travelled down the Mississippi, making stops on former plantations in the Natchez district, staying for days, sometimes weeks, in the hope of eking a livelihood on the devastated and infertile lands north of New Orleans. They also went east and west, and in any direction in between, in which the government promised employment.
By the end of the war in 1865 the lack of work, shelter, and food throughout the South had displaced thousands of emancipated slaves. In an …