“Moonlight and Magnolias”:
History and Literature in the Big Easy

America's Most European City | Old Hickory and the Pirate | King Cotton | Civil War
Late Nineteenth Century Culture | Big Easy Publishing
New Orleans in PBO | Related Online Resources | Selected Readings


New Orleans: The Civilized and Lively City
(Haldeman-Julius, 1929)

New Orleans has a rich and storied past, dotted with exciting events and intriguing people. It is no wonder that scholars, travelloggers, and cookbook writers have turned out volume upon volume capturing the Crescent City’s history and culture, and novelists have penned countless tales portraying its romance and mystery.

The Big Easy also was a hub for media and literature during America’s early centuries. Its publishing houses produced numerous books, including works of southern fiction and non-fiction.

By the start of the publishers’ binding era, New Orleans had been around for a full century and part of an American territory for more than a decade. It already knew great fame, and readers yearned for stories–fact and fiction–about Louisiana’s great enigma. Publishers met the demand, in the process creating covers that illustrate the city’s history and literature for a modern audience.


The Louisiana Purchase, and the Exploration, Early History and Building of the West
(Ginn, 1903)


America’s Most European City

The only American state that was a French colony, Louisiana was claimed for French King Louis XIV in 1699. Nineteen years later, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne founded “La Nouvelle Orleans” on a bend of the Mississippi River. The city remained alternately under crown and proprietary rule until 1762, when Louis XV secretly gave Louisiana to his cousin, Spanish King Charles III. News of the transfer, and a new Spanish governor, took two years to reach the colony.

Spanish culture never fully pervaded New Orleans. Spanish influence is most obvious in the city’s architecture, because the Spanish rebuilt after devastating fires destroyed most of the original French structures in 1788 and 1794. However, throughout its forty-one-year rule, Spain never was able to curb French immigration and culture. The city retains a distinctly French flavor to this day, and the entire original city is known as the French Quarter. French customs also intermingled with Spanish to create a new Creole society.


La Cuisine Creole: A Collection of Culinary Recipes from Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous for its Cuisine
(W. H. Coleman, 1885)

When Spain found Louisiana too expensive to maintain, France regained control of the territory. By the time New Orleanians learned in 1803 that French rule had resumed, Napoleon already had negotiated the sale of Louisiana to the United States for four cents per acre. Without European trade restrictions, commerce exploded, aided by the city’s unique position near the mouth of the Mississippi River. European influence remained, as the Creole and French dominated the original core of the city, while Americans built their own section of town in what now is known as the Garden District. Meanwhile, Acadians (or Cajuns), who had begun migrating from Nova Scotia in the 1760s, pursued their own unique way of life on the bayou.

As its population and economy grew during the nineteenth century, New Orleans swelled geographically, growing not only along the Mississippi River but also across it. By the time Louisiana became a state in April 1812, New Orleans had become a successful city. Another turning point came after Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson protected the city from British invasion in 1815.


Jackson and New Orleans: An Authentic Narrative of the Memorable Achievements of the American Army, under Andrew Jackson, before New Orleans, in the Winter of 1814, '15
(J. C. Derby, 1856)


Old Hickory and the Pirate

Several interesting characters have made their way into New Orleans’ history and folklore, and two of the most prominent became icons during the War of 1812. Congress declared war at President James Madison’s request after several failed attempts to change British and French policies that had hampered foreign trade. After two years of battle along the Canadian border, the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and at sea, the war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve, 1814.

However, word of the treaty was slow to reach the United States, and fighting continued for several weeks. The final and most notorious battle took place from late December 1814 to mid-January 1815 across the grounds of several New Orleans plantations. Major General Jackson led a motley crew of 3,000 U.S. soldiers, local militiamen, Choctaw warriors, free blacks and Baratarian pirates to save the city from 8,000 troops that included British Napoleonic War veterans, West Indians, and escaped slaves.

Jackson’s military genius enabled his mismatched army to hold its ground, suffering less than 100 casualties while killing, wounding, or capturing more than 2,000 enemy men. Although the Battle of New Orleans had no impact on the war’s outcome, it boosted American morale and signaled the country’s true independence from Europe. Americans celebrated January 8, the date of Jackson’s astounding victory, throughout the nineteenth century. The battle also boosted Jackson’s reputation, making him a national–and local–hero. In 1851, New Orleanians dedicated part of the French Quarter as Jackson Square, which includes a large equestrian monument in his honor (sculpted in 1855).


Lafitte, the Pirate
(Century, 1930)

Jackson may be the most famous figure from the Battle of New Orleans, but Jean Lafitte is the most infamous. From 1803 to 1814, the privateer of mysterious origins operated a smuggling ring that worked out of an island in Barataria Bay, at the mouth of the Mississippi. Although Louisiana military, under orders from Governor William Claiborne, had destroyed his Baratarian post, Lafitte offered General Jackson his band of pirates and vast stores of ammunition hidden in nearby swamps. Lafitte’s flint chips and gunpowder filled the empty muskets of Jackson’s men, and his pirates fought alongside American troops during the decisive battle at Chalmette plantation. Lafitte himself commanded a brigade of sharpshooters who held back a British regiment attempting to join the main attack. For years, New Orleans treated Lafitte like a celebrity. He remains a legend, and the Chalmette Battlefield and Barataria Preserve are part of a national park named for him.


Bonaventure: A Prose Pastoral of Acadian Louisiana
(International Association of Newspapers and Authors, 1901)


King Cotton

The forty-six years between the Louisiana Purchase and Civil War comprised a golden era for the Crescent City. By the 1861, it was America’s wealthiest city, thanks in large part to slave-driven agriculture.

Although sugar, tobacco, and foodstuffs contributed to the export business that boomed in the early nineteenth century, cotton comprised more than half of the New Orleans economy. Demand for cotton had increased worldwide, and large, efficient plantations rose to meet it. Plantations owners grew wealthy, and they found a diverse opportunities for spending their new money, thanks to the vast commercial culture of retailers and artisans that developed. The new wealth also contributed to New Orleans' distinction as a banking and financial center.

Life for New Orleans locals revolved around the cotton seasons. Cotton was picked from September to December and shipped from October to January. The metropolitan area became a hubbub of social activity in the winter months as the agricultural elite migrated from their plantations for shopping, business meetings, and after 1827, Mardi Gras. French immigrants brought Mardi Gras to New Orleans in the 1700s, but Spanish rulers outlawed the festival during their regime. Americans restored the revelry and made it their own.


Winter Journeys in the South: Pen and Camera Impressions of Men, Manners, Women, and Things All the Way from the Blue Gulf and New Orleans through Fashionable Florida Palms to the Pines of Virginia
(J. B. Lippincott, 1916)

During the 1850s, the celebration was split between the elite’s elegant balls and the commoners’ wild street parties. The Mystick Krewe of Comus formed in 1857 to organize, plan, and manage the festivities, and they originated the famous Mardi Gras parade.

The flamboyant atmosphere that cotton wealth created drew a number of visitors to the city, and a luxurious hospitality industry was born. Two opulent hotels, the St. Charles and St. Louis, each consumed an entire city block with their bars, shops, and guest rooms for 1,000. Other restaurants and entertainment venues filled the French Quarter, offering a range of exotic international and local cuisines.

The city offered plenty for both locals and visitors to do. New Orleans became the musical center of America, including the first operas performed in the country. In addition to such sophisticated entertainment, an industry of vice–featuring drink, gambling, and prostitution–blossomed.

New Orleans encapsulated the Old South but took it to another level, adding its own distinct flavor. Like the rest of the South, the city would suffer immensely during and after the Civil War.


Advance and Retreat: Personal Experiences in the United States and Confederate States Armies
(New Orleans: G. T. Beauregard, 1880)


Civil War

The election of Abraham Lincoln and subsequent secession of South Carolina encouraged Louisiana (which at first opposed secession 3-1) to withdraw from the Union on 26 January 1861. For the rest of that year, New Orleans led Confederate manufacturing. However, the city’s vital ports made its occupation strategically important to both militaries. The national government created the military Department of the Gulf to repossess the Crescent City, along with Mobile, Ala., Baton Rouge, and Galveston, Texas.

Land and naval forces arrived in New Orleans in April of 1862. Forts Jackson and St. Philip fell on April 24, after one week of battle. Union possession of the forts, which the Confederates had believed infallible, made occupation of the city inevitable. Chaos ensued as panicked citizens fled. Locals carried 15,000 bales of cotton to the levee, where they torched it and more than two dozen ships. Admiral David Farragut held the defenseless city until May 1, when Gen. Benjamin F. Butler took formal control. New Orleans thus holds the distinction of being both the first Confederate city captured by Federal troops and the city occupied longest by enemy forces during the Civil War.


Dixie After the War: An Exposition of Social Conditions Existing in the South, during the Twelve Years Succeeding the Fall of Richmond
(Doubleday, 1906)

Yankee soldiers remained until 1877, well after the war’s end. Locals called Butler “Beast.” Men openly defied his occupation regime, until Butler made an example of a New Orleanian named William Mumford. Mumford was hanged for lowering the Union flag Butler’s men erected over the Louisiana branch of the U.S. Mint. Butler silenced the city’s women by issuing an order stating that any woman who showed contempt for him or his soldiers would be prosecuted as if she were a prostitute. Butler ordered all citizens who wished to remain in New Orleans to swear allegiance to the Union and banished all who refused. However, Butler was not all bad. He distributed food to the poor and organized massive efforts to clean up the city.

Union occupation and the eventual abolition of slavery devastated the city’s economy. The freedom of blacks created another problem after the war. New Orleans served as a testing ground for Reconstruction policies, at the same time that the Louisiana government passed Black Codes calling for the reestablishment of the plantation economy by using poorly-paid free blacks for labor. Violent disagreement between Radical Reconstructionists and white supremacists led to bloody riots, execution-style lynchings, and organized battles between local militia and a combined force of Federal troops and Metropolitan police–two at the Cabildo and one at Liberty Place. Peace finally was restored to New Orleans when Louisiana regained home rule in 1877.

Late Nineteenth Century Culture


Stand Pat, or Poker Stories from the Mississippi
(L. C. Page, 1906)


By 1880, social life in the city had returned to its pre-war state. Port activity picked up, railroads offered a new means of transporting people and goods, and locals were making money again. Mardi Gras had been restored; shopping, theater, and restaurants regained their status as New Orleans institutions. Bars, gambling halls, and houses of ill repute were once more overflowing with patrons.

Dismayed upstanding citizens sought to curb the reputation New Orleans was gaining for open vice, without completely doing away with the profitable enterprises. In 1897, City Councilman Sidney Story moved all of the scandalous activities to a district between North Rampart and North Claiborne, which became known as Storyville. Before long, pleasure-seekers could purchase a Blue Book listing more than 700 prostitutes–many in elaborately decorated “sporting houses.” Illegal activities continued for twenty years, until the Navy closed Storyville down in 1917. All of the fancy bordellos disappeared.

Although the buildings that stood in Storyville are gone, the district did leave a lasting legacy: jazz. African-American and Creole musicians developed the jazz genre by combining elements of ragtime, brass bands, gospel, blues, and African tribal music. Jazz historians place the beginning of the genre in 1895, only two years before Storyville formed. The “red light” district became a haven for jazz, and important musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and King Oliver frequently performed in the brothels. Thus, New Orleans came to be known as the birthplace of jazz, and the genre dominates the entertainment scene in the Crescent City to this day.


The Awakening
(H. S. Stone, 1899)

Big Easy Publishing

Scholars of New Orleans literature point out that writers frequently have latched on to romantic notions about the city and propagated the myth of "moonlight and magnolias" through poetry and prose. Visions of Old South New Orleans appear frequently in contemporary fiction, such as the vampire books of Anne Rice. This trend began when the city's storied history still was unfolding, during the publisher's binding era.

Among the most famous of these earlier works is Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Considered scandalous in its time, this 1899 novel tells the story of a woman married to a conventional Creole man she does not love. Her actions shocked not only fellow characters in the book but also readers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Other Crescent City fiction of the time period includes Harris Dickson's Children of the River (1928) and Into the Night (1909) by Frances Nimmo Greene (author of Legends of King Arthur and His Court).

Not only was the city a frequent subject of books in the publisher's binding era, but it also was a publishing center for the South. New Orleans was one of two southern cities to issue penny newspapers, which were popular in northern metropolitan areas in the 1830s and '40s. Publishers such as T. Fitzwilliam, A. T. Penniman, and L. Graham specialized in books about the South, both fiction and non-fiction.

Search the PBO database for books related to New Orleans

Related Online Resources

A History of New Orleans

History of New Orleans and Surrounding Area, Gateway New Orleans

In-Depth History of New Orleans, Frommers

Manuscript Resources on the History of New Orleans in the Civil War, Louisiana State University

Two Centuries of Louisiana History, Louisana State Museum

Selected Readings

Asbury, Herbert. The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld. New York: Pocket Books, 1949.

Bryan, Violet Harrington. The Myth of New Orleans in Literature: Dialogues of Race and Gender. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.

Capers, Gerald Mortimer. Occupied City: New Orleans under the Federals, 1862-1865. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965.

Carter, Hodding. The Past as Prelude: New Orleans, 1718-1968. New Orleans: Tulane University, 1968.

Castellanos, Henry C. New Orleans as It Was: Episodes of Louisiana Life. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Garvey, Joan B. and Mary Lou Widmer. Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans. New Orleans: Garmer Press, 1984.

Martinez, Raymond J. New Orleans: Facts and Legends. New Orleans: Hope Publications, 1969.

Mitchell, Reid. All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History of New Orleans Carnival. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Reinders, Robert Clemens. End of an Era: New Orleans, 1850-1860. New Orleans: Pelican Publishing Company, 1964.

Starr, S. Frederick. Southern Comfort: The Garden District of New Orleans, 1800- 1900. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989.

Return to PBO home