The Historic New Orleans Collection takes a wide look at World War I’s impact on the Crescent City in At Home and at War: New Orleans, 1914-1919.

Through letters and newspapers, film reels and photographs, personal objects and artifacts, the sprawling exhibition examines New Orleans’ unique relationship to the Great War. “At Home and At War” encourages the viewer to explore New Orleans’ neutrality before the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, how neutrality and support transformed to suspicion and vigilantism, and how the city wore the reality of war.

“The concept of neutrality in itself is interesting,” said THNOC historian and curator Eric Seiferth. “Nationally, it’s interesting as people of diverse of backgrounds feel one way or the other… Are we ever really neutral?”

Letter from Alfred Grima Jr. to his mother; July 1918.

Poster by Walter Whitehead, 1918.

Confidential Special Order No. 48; August 22, 1917.

Camp Martin, Fair Grounds; 1917-18; photo by John Hippolyte Coquille.

Alfred Grima Jr., 1918.

"The Manual of Arms", by Roy Aymond, 1919.

For cultural context, Seiferth pointed to Americans’ historical relationship with England, New Orleans’ ties to France, and proportionally large German population at the time: “People identifying as of German descent is one of the largest ethnic groups in the city at that time… and it’s a very active group, too.”

Seiferth’s exhibit highlights the city’s variegated support during the period of neutrality. “Local wrote letters in French to Belgian soldiers, and the German Society held an immensely successful fundraiser for the German Red Cross here, with a variety of businesses and notable citizens, including then-mayor Martin Behrman, donating to it.”

That fundraiser, held in September 1915, raised approximately $7,000 – coincidentally, almost as much as the cost of the Victory Arch (pictured above), the nation’s first World War I memorial, which was funded by door-to-door neighborhood fundraising in New Orleans’ 9th Ward and erected in 1919 (it sits in the middle of Burgundy St between Pauline and Alvar, in the Bywater).

...in this century we went through two pretty traumatic wars with Germany, and as a result, the Germanness of New Orleans is kind of an afterthought. Eric Seiferth, curator and historian with The Historic New Orleans Collection.

But community support for Germans deteriorated rapidly. “As we get toward 1916, we’re leaning more strongly toward the Allied side as a nation,” Seiferth said. Membership in German organizations plummeted, with “just a handful of individuals left… By the time the U.S. is entering the war, the support has really waned for any German cause.”

The American Protective League, a national organization dedicated to rooting out potential German spies, opened a New Orleans chapter. Seiferth described them as “a vigilante group of individuals who basically follow around people with German last names, or that might be teaching German in school, and confront them and ask them questions about the war.”

In just a few years, everything changed. “It happens pretty fast that the nation and the city start moving away from any visible support of Germany…It’s a bit of a turning point in this city, because this was a German city, you know? So much of that heritage is less celebrated or less known. Obviously in this century we went through two pretty traumatic wars with Germany, and as a result, the Germanness of New Orleans is kind of an afterthought.”

In the same way that popular sentiment quickly changed, New Orleans’ cityscape also transformed with the U.S. entry into war. The military established Camp Nicholls in City Park and Camp Martin at the Fair Grounds, which later moved to Tulane University.

“War was everywhere around the city,” Seiferth said. “Especially once the U.S. enters the war, with camps set up and war bonds sales, it would be hard to escape living here.”

Photographs straddle the familiar and the foreign. Modern day viewers catch a glimpse of what could be a bizarro Carnival, as a float decorated to look like a tank rides down Canal Street. A horde of Red Cross nurses, clad in white, march in a parade. Soldiers stand in formation on the dusty track at the Fair Grounds.

Modern visitors to City Park, the Fair Grounds and Canal Street could lose sight of the history embedded in these sites. But the Victory Arch, with its list of dead soldiers segregated by race, still stands on Burgundy, keeping a piece of local and national history within reach.

“From everything we can find, it’s the first permanent memorial to U.S. service people that goes up in the nation for World War I, and it’s paid for by the neighborhood,” Seiferth said. “I think it’s really cool, and it’s approaching its own centennial. It’s a special part of the city’s history, and I hope it’s something that we remain vigilant of and aware of. I hope it makes it another 100 years.”

For more information on the exhibit, head here All images courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection, located at 533 Royal St.

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