New Orleans has a storied military history, much of which can be traced back to the Louisiana Arsenal, located at 615 St. Peter Street. In the shadows of internationally renowned buildings such as the Presbytère, St. Louis Cathedral and Cabildo, the state Arsenal has played an equally important role in military conflicts since its construction in 1839.
Designed by James Dakin, the building served as the state arsenal from 1840 until 1915. Dakin, born in New York, spent the first six years of his architectural career there before moving in 1835 to New Orleans, where he and his brother Charles founded the firm Dakin and Dakin. James Dakin was a noted New Orleans architect and designed other important buildings in Louisiana, including St. Patrick's Church, the Medical College of Louisiana and the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge.
The impressive three-story Greek Revival structure has been virtually unaltered since construction. Boldly designed, the buildings façade exudes a striking contrast of light and shadow. Four heavy stuccoed pilasters on a granite base and deep windows give this a distinct military quality.
The pilasters extend up almost the full length of the buildings three stories and support a simple entablature pierced with three deep attic windows in the frieze. Military insignia, weaponry and a Louisiana pelican all are still present above these three windows in the parapet. The powerful three-foot parapet practically conceals the hipped slate roof.
Dentil molding below the frieze windows and a cornice extends around the heavy ledge. All of these bold details and military markings only personify the purpose and history behind the Arsenal.
Iron-sheathed nail-studded doors close the principal entrance to the building between the two center pilasters. Three double hung windows separated from each other by two heavy wood mullions occupy the space above the doors. There are two enormous double hung windows between the pilasters at each side of the entry bay. A wrought iron grill is hung in front of each of the principal windows. These features give the impression of an impenetrable castle or military bastion that will always defend New Orleans against her enemies.
Behind the main building is a small courtyard separating it from the small three-story portion which fronts on Pirate’s Alley. This section of the building is divided into two small rooms by an inside passage which connects the court to the alley on the ground floor. The two upper stories each are divided into two rooms and are reached by an outside stair in the courtyard.
The site chosen for the arsenal was one of historical importance, having been occupied as early as 1728 by a French guardhouse and prison, later destroyed by fire in 1768. The Spanish rebuilt the prison in 1768, only to see it burn the same year. The same scenario played out again in 1795. The Spanish built yet another building on the site after the fire of 1795, and it was this building that served as a long time prison until its removal in 1837. It was demolished upon the completion of the prison on Orleans Street, which has also since been demolished.
On Feb. 25, 1836, Gov. E. D. White approved an act of the legislature entitled, “An act authorizing the governor to purchase arms for the use of the state and other purposes,” which among other things, enacted the building of an arsenal on a plot of land where the old Spanish prison previously stood. The act called for the building to be “at least two stories high, hold at least 20 pieces of artillery and 10,000 stands of arms.” Twenty thousand dollars was appropriated for the project.
The first occupants of the building were the Louisiana Legion, an aristocratic military organization of men from prestigious American and Creole families. Their monogram of “LL” was prominent on a balcony overlooking the courtyard. This cast iron balcony detail also included crossed cannons with a torch above a pile of cannon balls and a wrought iron monogram of L.L. initials. From 1846 until the Civil War in 1861, the arsenal was used by the Orleans Artillery and served as the headquarters of Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, Adjutant General of Louisiana. During the Civil War, it was used as a base for military supplies until New Orleans’ capture in 1862, when it became a military prison and Federal headquarters.
During the period of Reconstruction, the building was used as the arsenal for the Metropolitan Police. This integrated police squad would see trying times in New Orleans, and on Sept. 14, 1874, they were involved in the bloodiest civilian battle of the century, known as the Battle of Liberty Place.
The White League, a vigilante group organized in Louisiana in 1874, boasted 14,000 members, mostly consisting of Confederate veterans. Emboldened by the federal Reconstruction policies, 8,400 armed White Leaguers assembled in New Orleans and demanded that carpetbag Republican Gov. William Kellog resign. Opposing the White League were 3,600 Metropolitan Policemen and black militia troops under the command of ex-Confederate Gen. James Longstreet.
Supported by two Gatling guns and a battery of artillery, Longstreet's force formed a battle line from Jackson Square to Canal Street, guarding the Customs House in which the governor and other Republican officials had taken refuge. The White Leaguers charged the police and militia, captured Longstreet and pushed his men to the river, where they either surrendered or deserted. The White League then occupied the city hall, statehouse and arsenal. When the smoke cleared, the casualty list included 38 deaths and 79 wounded New Orleanians.
The White League deposed Kellog, installed John McEnery as governor and ran the state government for three days. President Ulysses S. Grant, alarmed at the armed insurrection, ordered federal troops to New Orleans. Upon the arrival of the U.S. Army, the White Leaguers withdrew, Kellog was reinstated as governor and Longstreet was released.
After the Battle of Liberty Place, the arsenal was subsequently used by the re-organized Orleans Artillery and as a State Arsenal until 1914, when the building became part of the Louisiana State Museum. Today, the Arsenal is open to the public and houses various exhibits relevant to Louisiana history and artisans.