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09/8/14

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.

06/15/14

Failed Union Civil War Generals

This entry is part 2 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

Civil War GeneralsThe American Civil War probably had the greatest number of failed general officers in the history of the United States. In fact, both sides saw more general officers who were either relieved of command or later investigated by various Congressional committees.

In the defense of general officers on both sides, none of them had commanded any formation larger than a regiment. Most had commanded companies, battalions or batteries. A number of these officers had been at West Point most recently.

The antebellum United States Army had about 16,000 officers and men scattered across the United States at isolated posts and forts. Many of the West Pointers, like Robert E. Lee, spent the majority of their non-Mexican War service as engineering officers building coastal defenses or supervising the maintenance of harbors and waterways.

Imagine their shock when they were assigned to command formations with thousands of soldiers. At the Battle of First Manassas the combined number of troops engaged was 36,000. The combined armies had between 60,000 and 69,000 men. In the early fighting the armies were really armed mobs. It wasn’t until 1863 that the troops and their officers became hardened veterans.

In this series we’ll start by looking at failed general officers in the Union Army. The most notable, of course, was Maj. Gen. George McClellan, General-in-chief and commander of the Army of the Potomac. He was followed by Maj. Gens. Joseph Hooker and Ambrose Burnside.

There were a number of general officers throughout the history of the Army of the Potomac and other Eastern commands who were relieved of command. Perhaps the most notable was Maj. Gen. Gouvernour K. Warren who spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name.

In the Western Theater, there were Maj. Gens. Don Carlos Buell and William S. Rosecrans. Both of them were relieved of command. Rosecrans carried on a feud with his commanding officer, Ulysses S. Grant, until his dying day.

Many of the Union Army’s failed general officers were so-called ‘political generals’ like Nathaniel Banks, Benjamin Butler and Franz Siegal. Many of them were Democrats whose support Abraham Lincoln saw as critical to the war effort. He did not want the war to be a Republican one but rather wanted it to be a Union effort.

However, some of the ‘political generals’ were not schooled in any type of military training or if they were their experience dated from the Mexican War of 1846-1848 when they were junior officers. These officers tended to make a hash of their battle assignments.

One successful ‘political general’ was Ben Butler who precipitated the ‘contraband’ rules that the Union government adopted when he was the commander of Fortress Monroe. He was also successful when he was the military commander of occupied New Orleans. However, he was never very successful as a battle commander.

 

06/8/14

Political Generals of the Union: Ben Butler

This entry is part 9 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

Political Generals of the Union: Ben ButlerBenjamin Butler of Massachusetts was among the worst of generals yet in certain circumstances he made a dramatic impact on the Union war effort. He was politician and shrewd businessman who never ceased to be both even though who wore the uniform of a major general of volunteers.

Butler had served in a variety of militia positions in his state, rising to the rank of brigadier general of the militia. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, a fellow Democrat, appointed him to the Board of Visitors of West Point. Despite this, these positions did not give him any significant military experience.

Butler was a Democrat who was opposed to abolition was defeated for the governorship by Democrat-turned-Republican Nathaniel Bank. He was generally active in Democrat state politics having served one term in the state legislature. He was a lawyer whose success allowed him to buy into the Massachusetts clothing mill industry.

At the start of the war Butler sought and eventually received a commission as brigadier general of the Massachusetts forces that were raised from Lincoln’s initial call for volunteers. As a mill owner he was able to take advantage of the mobilization to secure the contract for the heavy cloth that the militia would need for uniforms. Military contracts became a significant source of profits for mill.

Butler commanded the two regiments that were involved in the riots in Baltimore when they attempted to march through the city from one train station to the other. Secessionists mobs attacked the first regiment and Butler who landed at Annapolis with the second regiment was able to restore order with several not so subtle threats to the governor.  He also threatened Maryland legislators with arrest if they voted in favor of secession, and eventually seized the Great Seal of Maryland.

He was ordered to occupy Baltimore by the General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. However, even though he successful in keeping open the vital rail link from the North to Washington, Scott criticized him. Despite this criticism, Butler received one of the early appointments as a major general of volunteers.

His next assignment was the command of Fort Monroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. He sailed there and took command of the formidable fortification in May 1861. He also sent a force to occupy Newport News which gave the U.S. Navy an excellent anchorage.

The Confederates saw the occupation of Fort Monroe and the immediate area as a significant threat to Richmond. Robert E. Lee, then commander of all Virginia’s forces, sent Brig. Gen. John Magruder to secure a forward post at Big Bethel hoping to lure Butler into premature action. Butler took the bait and his forces suffered an embarrassing at the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10.

Butler did not personally lead the force and was later criticized for that action. His plan was much too complex for untrained and undertrained subordinates and troops to execute. In addition, there was a friendly fire incident. The Union troops advanced without scouting the enemy positions or knowing the strength of their opponent.

Butler was also involved in a significant policy decision when he refused to return three runaway slaves to their master. His reasoning was pure legal brilliance. When the owner appeared at the fort in a Confederate officer’s uniform, Butler refused to return the slaves because the Fugitive Slaw Law did not apply as the South was no longer part of the United States. He declared them contraband of war, a decision that President Lincoln officially approved.

Later in 1861, Butler commanded an expeditionary force that, in conjunction with the United States Navy, took Forts Hatteras and Clark in North Carolina. He directed the first Union expedition to Ship Island, off the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in December 1861. In May 1862, he commanded the force that conducted the capture of New Orleans after its occupation by the Navy after the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip.

In the administration of that city he showed great firmness and political subtlety. He devised a plan for poor relief, demanded oaths of allegiance from anyone who sought any privilege from government, and confiscated weapons. Union officials noted that Butler the politician was successful as an administrator even though he was not a very good commander.

However, many of his acts while in command at New Orleans were controversial. Most notorious was Butler’s General Order No. 28 of May 15, 1862, that if any woman should insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and shall be held liable to be treated as a “woman of the town plying her avocation”, i.e., a prostitute. 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.

The uproar was heard all of the way to Washington, London and Paris. He was nicknamed “‘Beast’ Butler” or alternatively “‘Spoons’ Butler,” the latter nickname derived from an incident in which a woman was arrested for smuggling and the silverware she was carrying was confiscated.

There were also suspicions of corruption, although not proven, that he knew about the activities of hos brother Andrew who was also in the army stationed in New Orleans. Upon arriving in the city Butler immediately began attempts to participate in the lucrative inter-belligerent trade.

He used a Federal warship to send $60,000 in sugar to Boston where he expected to sell it for $160,000. His use of the government ship was reported and instead of earning a profit, military authorities permitted him to recover only his $60,000 plus expenses. Thereafter, his brother Andrew officially represented the family in such activities. Everyone in New Orleans believed that Andrew accumulated a profit of $1–$2 million while in Louisiana. Upon inquiry from Treasury Secretary Chase in October 1862, Butler responded that his brother actually cleared less than $200,000.

The Second Confiscation Act gave the Butler brothers a golden opportunity to profit from the seizures of Confederate cotton and other materials. First, Butler conducted a census during which 4,000 respondents refused to take a loyalty oath. He then banished them and had their property seized. It was then sold at very low auction prices where Andrew Butler was often the buyer.

Next the general sent expeditions into the countryside with no military purpose other than to confiscate cotton from residents assumed to be disloyal. Once brought into New Orleans the cotton would be similarly sold in rigged auctions. To maintain correct appearances, auction proceeds were dutifully held for the benefit of “just claimants”, but the Butler consortium still ended-up owning the cotton at bargain prices.

Butler also conducted censorship of the newspaper, jailing one editor for three months and confiscating his press. Butler also ran afoul of the foreign consuls residing in New Orleans. Although his actions were popular in the North, they made the Union government uneasy and President Lincoln authorized his recall and replacement by Nathaniel Banks in December 1862.

Lincoln finally in November 1863 Butler was given command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. In May 1864 the forces under his command were designated as the Army of the James. General Ulysses Grant, now General-in-Chief, assigned Butler the task of attacking Petersburg from the east.

Butler’s offensive bogged down at the Bermuda Hundred, immobilized by the greatly inferior force of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, and he was unable to accomplish any of his assigned objectives. But it was his mismanagement of the expedition against Fort Fisher, North Carolina, that finally led to his recall by General Grant.

Butler’s importance to the reelection of Abraham Lincoln precluded his removal before the November 1864 election. Butler who by now was a Radical Republican was considered as a possible opponent to Lincoln. After the election Grant appealed directly to Lincoln for Butler’s relief, noting “there is a lack of confidence felt in [Butler’s] military ability”. Lincoln agreed and Grant relieved Butler of the command of the Army of the James on January 8, 1865.

Butler was retained by the army until November 1865 with the idea that he might act as military prosecutor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. But that opportunity never came and he returned to Massachusetts where after serving 10 years as a member of the House he was elected as Governor in 1882.

Ben Butler never ceased to be politician even though he was nominally a soldier. He was not very good as a military man but he did have value as an administrator. His decision to name escaped slaves as contraband of war was a major step to the eventual emancipation of slaves.

 

 

04/18/14

Grant’s Final Strategy

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Grant in full uniformAfter being turned down by the high Command and the President, Grant revisited his strategic plan. Washington was a risk-averse town and the military and civilian leaders of the Union government were the most risk-averse of all. Grant’s initial plans for the campaigns across the South were extremely radical.

His proposal to drive across North Carolina in order to cut off Lee’s supply lines was, in their view, the riskiest of all. Moving troops from northern Virginia would uncover the nation’s capital would risk raids by the Confederates. What if Lee didn’t take the bait and drove right up Pennsylvania Avenue? No, that just wouldn’t do.

Grant’s pincer attack from Mobile to Montgomery was rejected because Abraham Lincoln was fixated on a show of strength for the French in Mexico. He felt that the Union government needed to send a message by sending an expedition up the Red River. It was as if he was saying that we can protect all of our territory. So, it was back to the drawing board for General Grant.

Grant now proposed a new strategy. Grant had seen the war from a Western Theater point of view. In the Eastern Theater the war was mostly confined to Virginia with two confederate invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania. In the Western Theater the view was very different.

The war in the Western Theater exposed Grant to a war against the entirety of Southern society. He understood that the Southerners were unrepentant, their armies were resilient and the war zone was expansive.

In Virginia, the war was a one-on-one conflict between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. In the Western Theater, the war had to carried out against all of the elements: the population, the Confederate Army and Southern society. Therefore, Grant tailored his strategy based on these principles.

When asked about his opinion on Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini’s book on strategy, Grant was said to have replied:

I have never read it carefully; the art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on. 

Seems simple enough.

Grant’s first element of his strategy was the destruction of the Confederate field armies. His plan called for placing as much pressure as possible on Robert E. Lee’ Army of Northern Virginia and Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. His plan was to draw them out into the open field and destroy them by a series of major engagements.

In order to successfully carry out these objective, Grant planned to coordinate all of the Union armies. By doing this the Confederates would not be able to shift their forces across theater lines, as they had done when General James Longstreet’s Second Corps had been sent to the Western Theater. This would eliminate the Confederacy’s advantage of interior lines of supply.

Grant estimated that if he couldn’t annihilate his enemies in battle, he would be able to exhaust them logistically, economically and psychologically. It has been characterized by historians either as a annihilation or attrition or both.

Grant and his disciples, the foremost being William T. Sherman, saw war as brutal and unpleasant. They believed in the “hard war” or total war that would be necessary in order to bring the Civil War to swift and successful conclusion.

In order to carry out his strategy, Grant would need commanders that agreed with his belief in “hard war” but here he ran into the political realities of the war.

Sherman was a logical choice as commander of the Army of the Tennessee and eventually overall commander of the Western Theater. Today, he is best remembered for his pronouncement: “All war is hell” but in a letter to the mayor and city council of Atlanta he wrote:

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.

Sherman was an easy position to fill but the others were not so easy. General Nathaniel Banks was in command of the Army of the Gulf. He was a former Massachusetts Congressman and Governor with very little military experience. His Red River Expedition was defeated before the campaigns in Virginia and Georgia could even begin. This gave Grant the opportunity to replace him with General Edward Canby. By then Grant lamented that the Red River Expedition had eliminated the use of 40,000 troops for the Sherman’s campaign and the attack on Mobile.

The commander in the Shenandoah Valley was General Franz Sigel, a German immigrant. So far, Sigel was a best inept and at worst incompetent. He had been appointed to his position by Lincoln who hoped to secure German immigrant support for the Republican Party. Sigel failed miserably at the Battle of New Market on May 15th and retreated North to safety. Grant was furious and replaced him with General David Hunter.

Grant’s plan called for the movement of the Army of the James to threaten Richmond from the East. The commander of the Army of the James was another Massachusetts politician, General Ben Butler. Butler was a former Democrat turned Radical Republican. Lincoln needed the support of that wing of his party so Butler’s appointment was a foregone conclusion.

Initially, Grant was favorably impressed with Butler when they met at Fortress Monroe in April. Grant’s initial judgment of Ben Butler was a serious mistake. He was indecisive and needed constant supervision. Grant constantly needed to prod him to take action. He was unable to break through the Confederate lines at Bermuda Hundred even though he outnumbered General P.G.T. Beauregard 33,000 to 18,000. This allowed Lee to move troops from this line.

Finally, Grant kept George Gordon Meade as the commander of the Army of the Potomac even though he offered to resign. Grant was impressed by Grant’s willingness to step aside for the welfare of the nation. Grant kept him on but decided to travel with the Army of the Potomac where he could guide his chief weapon.

 

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.

04/11/14

The Opposing Sides’ Strategies

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Grant and LeeStarting with the Overland Campaign and continuing until the end of the war, the two sides had diametrically opposing military and political strategies. 1864 was not only a year with military objectives but also political ones.

The Union government and their army, now completely under the control of Ulysses S. Grant, had one military goal and one political one. Grant’s military goal was to defeat the armies of the Confederacy in the field.

Grant had proposed and Abraham Lincoln had approved a coordinated strategy that would strike at the heart of the Confederacy from multiple directions: Grant, Meade, and Benjamin Butler against Lee near Richmond, Virginia; Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley; Sherman to invade Georgia, defeat Joseph E. Johnston, and capture AtlantaGeorge Crook and William W. Averell to operate against railroad supply lines in West Virginia; and Nathaniel Banks to capture Mobile, Alabama. This was the first time the Union armies would have a coordinated offensive strategy across a number of theaters.

 

In the east he gave George Meade one overriding command: “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Richmond was no longer the primary goal of the Army of the Potomac. Their primary goal was to be the destruction and surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant knew that with the defeat of Lee’s army would precipitate the fall of Richmond.

In the Western Theater, Sherman had been tasked with the capture of the rail center of Atlanta. He would then seek the destruction of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Finally, Sherman would wreak destruction through Georgia, South Carolina and South Carolina, gutting the Deep South and preventing the supplying of the various Confederate armies.

Not all of Grant’s armies were led by professional soldiers and they would fall short of his goals. Butler’s mission was to deploy his 33,000-man army via the James River to the Virginia Peninsula and strike northwest to Richmond. His objective was to cut the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, a critical Southern supply line, and force Lee to send reinforcements to that front, weakening him against Grant and Meade. Ben Butler would be bottled up at Bermuda Hundred by General P.G.T. Beauregard with a force of 18,000.

Sigel would be defeated at the battle of New Market by John C. Breckinridge. Sigel staged a rapid retreat northward to Strasburg, leaving the field and the Valley to Breckinridge’s army. After learning of the Union defeat, Grant became furious and replaced Sigel with David Hunter.

Hunter waged an aggressive campaign in the southern Valley forcing Lee to dispatch Jubal Early and his Second Corps to face the Union Army. Early forced the Union forces out of the Valley and proceeded to march north into Maryland. He eventually threatened Washington, forcing Grant to send a corps to protect the city.

He returned to the Valley but Grant appointed Philip Sheridan to command the Army of the Shenandoah. Sheridan conducted an aggressive campaign against Early, eventually annihilating the Second Corps and forcing the remnants to rejoin Lee. The Valley was lost as a breadbasket for the Confederacy.

Robert E. Lee had a purely defensive strategy. His initial goal was two-fold: preserve his army from attrition and defend Richmond. With an army that on occasion half the size of the Army of the Potomac, Lee would become the master of the terrain of his native state. He used every topographical feature that was available to his army.

He fought a masterful defensive campaign during May and June of 1864. Battles in the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and North Anna featured the Confederates skillful use of the terrain to bleed the Union Army. Outnumbered almost 2-to-1 his army inflicted 55,000 casualties on their enemy while sustaining 33,600. However, the Confederate losses represented about half of their army.

Grant knew that he could bleed Lee’s army while his own armies had a much larger pool of manpower available. However, looming in November was the Presidential election. Lincoln needed victories in the field in order to fend off the challenge from George McClellan, the Democrat nominee. The rising casualty lists would drive the voters into the arms of the Democrats unless they saw the hope of victory on the horizon.

Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee realized that their only hope of achieving independence was the defeat of Abraham Lincoln at the polls.  1864 would therefore become the most important year of the war. Victory would hang in the balance for the greater part of the year.

 

 

 

06/5/13

Ben Butler and the Occupation of New Orleans

This entry is part 10 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

General Benjamin ButlerNew 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.

Butler stated that “I was always a friend of southern rights but an enemy of southern wrongs”, and sought to serve in the Union army at the beginning of the war. He maneuvered a position as a brigadier general of the Massachusetts militia and set off for Washington with the first of the Massachusetts troops.

When the earlier-arriving troops were attacked in Baltimore, Butler was instrumental in negotiating with the Maryland governor to allow troops to land by sea at Annapolis and from there proceed by train to Washington. Lincoln appointed him one of the first major generals of U.S. Volunteers, ranking from May 16, 1861. He was third behind John Dix and Nathaniel Banks.

Butler was then given command of Fortress Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. On June 10, 1861, six weeks before the Battle of First Bull Run, a Union Army force under Butler’s command suffered a humiliating, albeit minor in retrospect, defeat at the Battle of Big Bethel.

More importantly, he was involved in the first declaration of escaping slaves as contraband of war. Butler declined to return to their owners fugitive slaves who had come within his lines, on the grounds that, as laborers for building fortifications and other military activities, they were contraband of war, thereby justifying granting these slaves a relative freedom, in spite of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

In April 1862, Flag Officer (later Admiral) David Farragut captured New Orleans with a combined force of naval and army units. Butler had been 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”.

When the editor of the Commercial Bulletin William Seymour asked Butler what would happen if the newspaper ignored his censorship, an angry Butler reportedly stated “I am the military governor of this state — the supreme power — you cannot disregard my order, Sir. By God, he that sins against me, sins against the Holy Ghost.” His newspaper was confiscated and he was imprisoned for three months for writing a favorable obituary of his father, who had been killed serving in the Confederate army in Virginia.

The rabidly secessionist clergy were allowed to preach with little interference from occupation authorities. However, that churches that planned a special day of prayer and fasting for the Confederacy were forbidden from doing so. Several clergymen were placed under arrest for refusing to pray for President Lincoln. The Episcopal churches were closed, and their three ministers were sent to New York City under military escort.

Butler also took aim at foreign consuls in New Orleans. He ordered the seizure of $800,000 that had been deposited in the office of the Dutch consul, imprisoned the French Champagne magnate Charles Heidsieck, and took particular aim at George Coppell of Great Britain, whom he suspended for refusal to cooperate with the Union. Instead, Butler accused Coppell of giving aid to the Confederate cause.

U.S. Secretary of State William Henry Seward sent Reverdy Johnson to New Orleans to investigate complaints of foreign consuls against certain Butler policies. Even when told by President Lincoln to restore a sugar shipment claimed by Europeans, Butler undermined the order. He also imposed a strict quarantine to protect against yellow fever, which had the added impact of delaying foreign commerce and bringing complaints to his headquarters from most foreign consuls.

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.