Louisiana Unionism and Ben Butler

This entry is part 12 of 14 in the series The Divided States of the South

Signing of the Ordinance of SecessionEven though 47% of Louisiana’s population was enslaved by 1860, there was a strong streak of Unionism running through the state of Louisiana. Many Louisianans opposed slavery and the Confederacy for a number of reasons.

Among the reasons were local politics, economics and family connections with the North, particularly among the merchant classes. Strangely the proponents of secession had a difficult time convincing the aristocratic elites, particularly sugar planters, to join their movement. But eventually through the secession winter of 1860/1861 the opposition to secession was beaten down and the elites mostly acquiesced to secession.

On January 26, 1861 Louisiana officially seceded from the Union. Despite this seemingly ironclad vote pockets of Unionism persisted throughout the state. In the southeastern parishes of Ascension, Assumption, Terrabonne, Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Bernard Unionists voters outnumbered secessionists by a two to one margin. In St. James and St. Johns parishes the margin was four to one. And the largest area of Unionism was in Caldwell, Catahoula and Winn parishes in north-central Louisiana where the margin of two to one. The river parishes remained loyal to the Union for the economic benefits that the protective tariff granted them.

New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy. More importantly it was the largest port and controlled the outlet of the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico and the wider world. In the spring of 1862 the city of New Orleans was introduced to Maj. Gen. Ben Butler and the Union Army. Their relationship would be a tumultuous one.

New Orleans was the commercial center of the Deep South. In 1840 it had the largest slave market in the South. By then slaves were being shipped to the Deep South from the Upper South and many of the slaves were sold in the slave markets of New Orleans. In 1857 fully half of the $156 million in exports came from cotton, followed by tobacco and sugar. The city boasted a U.S. Mint and a U.S. Customs House. All in all, New Orleans was a cosmopolitan city.

Benjamin Franklin Butler was a Massachusetts lawyer and politician who had a reputation as a dogged criminal defense lawyer who seized on every misstep of his opposition to gain victories for his clients. Using his skills as a lawyer, Butler compounded them into successful investments in Massachusetts businesses. Butler was a Democrat who regularly spoke out for the abolition of slavery. With all of these talents he soon embarked on a political career in the Massachusetts legislature. By 1858 he was elected to the State Senate. He was among the first major generals commissioned by President Lincoln.

In April 1862, Flag Officer (later Admiral) David Farragut captured New Orleans with a combined force of naval and army units. Butler was the commander of the army troops and had been named as the commander of the occupying force.

The population of New Orleans was many times the size of the occupying force and was largely in favor of secession. Realizing that he needed to act promptly to overawe the citizenry, Butler moved as soon as he was given an opportunity. When a local secessionist tore down the American flag from the U.S. Mint, Butler had him arrested, tried and hung for the offense. The population was shocked by Butler’s immediate response.

His most famous action was General Order No. 28. He issued it when the ladies of New Orleans expressed their Confederate sympathies by insulting Union officers and men on the streets of the city. Butler issued an order that in part read that any female who did so would “be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her trade.” 

This was in response to women in the town who were pouring buckets of their own urine on Union soldiers, and who at the time could get away with anything as respectable women. If a woman punched a soldier, he could punch her back. The order stopped all of their behavior, without arresting anyone or firing a bullet. It provoked protests both in the North and the South, and also abroad, particularly in England and France.

When a New Orleans woman openly laughed as a Union officer’s funeral possession went by, Butler had her arrested and imprisoned for ten weeks on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. Like General Halleck had done in St. Louis, he imposed contributions on wealthy secessionists in New Orleans to pay for relief to the poor.

He also received an undeserved nickname as “Spoons” Butler due to the rumor that he was systematically stealing silverware from the homes that he used as his headquarters. While no proof exists that Butler was corrupt it is possible that he knew of the illegal activities of his brother Andrew, also in the army in New Orleans.

Shortly after the Second Confiscation Act became effective in September 1862 General Butler increasingly relied upon it as a means of grabbing cotton. Butler used the act to allow his brother Andrew to buy up cotton at bargain prices. The general sent expeditions into the countryside with no military purpose other than to confiscate cotton from residents assumed to be disloyal.

Despite these seemingly draconian measures, Butler understood civilians and his general rule was not too overbearing. He allowed the newspapers to publish with a minimum of censorship after several earlier confiscations by Union authorities. Historian John D. Winters wrote that most of the newspapers “were allowed to reopen later but were so rigidly controlled that all color and interest were drained away”.

However, his occasionally harsh measures overwhelmed the overall mildness of his rule. By the summer of 1862, Ben Butler had been transformed in “Beast” Butler, the most hated man in the South. Although Butler’s governance of New Orleans was popular in the North, some of his actions, notably those against the foreign consuls, concerned President Lincoln, who authorized his recall in December 1862.  Butler was replaced by Nathaniel Banks but was given command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina in November 1863.

In the state as a whole the number of regiments that were raised by the Union Army was significant. There were four artillery units (one regiment and three batteries), two cavalry regiments and sixteen infantry regiments. They were a mixture of whites, free blacks and former slaves. Some of the units had former Confederate native troops that were enlisted by General Butler to assist in the occupation of New Orleans. Some units fought in various campaigns while others were used for guard duty and other occupation tasks.

In other more remote parts of the state some Unionists formed guerrilla units to battle the Confederates. The Confederates did the same attempting to damage the Union Army of occupation. Guerrilla warfare spread to all parts of the state and only ended with the end of the war as a whole.

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