New Orleans has always been good to its native sons returning home from wars. After the Civil War, an “Old Soldiers Home” was founded as a refuge for veterans, located on Bayou St. John. That tract of land has had interesting and historical uses ever since as an escape for soldiers from both the Civil War and World War II and then as the property of the National Guard.
Since New Orleans was spared most of the ravages of war experienced by other cities, locals were able to look to the future of the post-war world. Caring and housing returning veterans was already on the minds of folks in 1866. The State of Louisiana appropriated funds to establish a home for these men. As Reconstruction politicians acquired control of state government, however, the continuing appropriation for the home was cut off. The home continued as a privately-funded institution, but struggled.
The cause of a Confederate Veterans Home grew by the 1880s, with veterans’ associations organizing to petition the state for financial assistance. The state re-enacted the original 1866 legislation, and funding was once again available. In 1883, between his two terms as governor, Francis T. Nicholls, a lawyer and former CSA Brigadier who lost his left foot at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, took over as manager of the board appointed to build a new home. This board raised funds and purchased a large lot, located on Bayou St. John. The lot was acquired from Joseph R. DeMahy, a former Lieutenant in the Confederate Navy. Veterans associations turned to the parish police juries and private citizens for money, holding fund raising events such as battle re-enactments. They raised enough money to hire architect William A. Freret, who designed a complex of several buildings. The home was completed and accepted its first inmate, James Adams, a veteran of the 1st Louisiana Infantry, on February 5, 1884. The home was formally dedicated as “Camp Nicholls” on March 14, 1884. Over 600 people attended that dedication ceremony, including the daughters of CSA Generals Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and D. H. Hill. Nicholls’ success in fund raising for the home became a model for other veterans’ associations in various states, and helped propel him back into the Governor’s office in 1888.
The Old Soldiers Home then became a fixture in Faubourg St. John, being listed in tourist guides, as a place to visit along the bayou. When a sunken wreck of a prototype “submarine” was discovered in Lake Pontchartrain in 1909, the boat was raised, cleaned up, and donated to the Camp Nicholls. That boat was on display for many years at the Presbytere in the French Quarter, as part of the Louisiana State Museum’s collection. It’s now on display at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge.
With so many of the Confederate veterans passing away, Camp Nicholls was re-purposed as World War I engulfed Europe. By 1917, many army units in the United States ramped up, anticipating the country’s entry into the war. Camp Nicholls became home to the first Louisiana Infantry, the Washington Artillery, and the First Separate Troop Cavalry. After these units deployed to Europe, the home calmed down once again, housing just old veterans.
The tradition of the “Lost Cause of the South” remained strong in New Orleans, and the former Confederacy as a whole, even going into the 1930s. In 1932, as part of an effort to preserve the oral histories of surviving Confederate veterans, the Times-Picayune newspaper arranged to gather a number of veterans together at Camp Nicholls and film them doing the infamous “Rebel Yell.” The group gathered along the bayou on February 11, 1932, and a number of veterans, clad in their Condederate uniforms, stepped up to a microphone and did the battle cry.
By the 194os, there were no Confederate veterans resident at Camp Nicholls. The Old Soldiers Home formally closed, and the complex was turned over to the Louisiana National Guard. The Guard used Camp Nicholls as an armory and vehicle depot throughout World War II. The Guard turned the facility over to the City of New Orleans in the 1960s, who used it to house the NOPD’s Police Academy and 3rd District Headquarters until the 1990s.
The complex sustained heavy damage in Hurricane Katrina. In 2009, after determining that the remaining buildings all dated from the 1950s, the city was granted permission to raze the site, and it’s been an empty lot since. Last year, Deutsches Haus, a non-profit organization whose mission is the preservation of German culture in New Orleans, leased the property. They plan to build the “new Deutsches Haus” along the bayou.
The Camp Nicholls property is fenced off and not accessible to visitors, but if you take the Canal Streetcar Line to City Park, you can cross over Bayou St. John and look through the fence. Maybe you’ll even feel the spirit of one of the “old soldiers,” as many have reported in the past.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. His latest book, Legendary Locals of New Orleans, is available at bookstores and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.