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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.

 

05/15/13

Lincoln’s Democrat Generals

George B. McClellan in 1861Some historians have put forward a theory that the Union generals of the early war were lenient in prosecuting the war due to their political leanings. Abraham Lincoln in an effort to garner support for the war appointed a significant number of Democrats as major generals of volunteers at the start of the war.

The most important reason for appointing political generals was to appease important blocs of voters. President Abraham Lincoln used such appointments as a way to get the support of moderate Democrats for the war and for his administration (“War Democrats“). The first three volunteer generals Lincoln appointed, (John Adams DixNathaniel Prentice Banks and Benjamin F. Butler) were all Democrats, and therefore these three officers were the most senior major generals in the Union Army. Republicans were also appointed including Richard James Oglesby of Illinois.

John Adams Dix was a New York politician who had served in the Senate and as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President James Buchanan for less than two months in 1861. He is best known for the telegram that he sent to all Treasury agents in New Orleans. “If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.” Although the telegram was intercepted by Confederates, and was never delivered, the text found its way to the press, and Dix became one of the first heroes of the North during the Civil War.

Dix was the most senior major general of volunteers in the Union Army because his was the first appointment. He served in a variety of commands in the Eastern Theater. He is best known for the Dix-Hill Cartel for the exchange of prisoners of war.

Nathaniel Prentice Banks was a Massachusetts politician who had served in the U.S. House of Representatives as both a Member and then as Speaker. He left the House and ran for the governorship which he won. He was the second major general of volunteers to be appointed by Lincoln. During his career, Banks held commands in Maryland, the Shenandoah Valley and the Department of the Gulf.

He had the bad fortune to have to face Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley during his memorable Valley Campaign of 1862. Jackson bested Banks at Winchester and later at Cedar Mountain.In the South, Banks commanded at the Siege of Port Hudson and on the Red River Campaign.

Benjamin Butler was the third ranking major general of volunteers appointed by Lincoln. His policies regarding slaves as contraband so they could have freedom, his administration of occupied New Orleans, his ineffectual leadership in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and the fiasco of Fort Fisher rank him as one of the most controversial political generals of the war. Butler was the first Eastern Union General to declare runaway Virginia slaves “contraband of war”; refusing to return them to their masters.

Then we have the most famous of the Democrat Union generals, George B. McClellan. After the disastrous Union defeat at Bull Run in July 1861, McClellan was ordered from his post in western Virginia to take command of the Washington defenses. Based on two somewhat minor victories he was feted by the New York Herald as “…the Napoleon of the Present War.”

On May 14th, McClellan at 34 had been promoted to major general in the Regular Army, outranking everyone but Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott. Carl Sandburg wrote, “McClellan was the man of the hour, pointed to by events, and chosen by an overwhelming weight of public and private opinion.” He was appointed commander of the Military Division of the Potomac, the main Union force responsible for the defense of Washington.

On August 20th after consolidating a number of Union formations he immediately formed the Army of the Potomac, with himself as its first commander. McClellan considered himself the savior of his country. In a letter to his wife he wrote, “I seem to have become the power of the land.”

McClellan immediately went about reorganizing the Army of the Potomac as a superb fighting force. He created defenses for Washington that were almost impregnable, consisting of 48 forts and strong points, with 480 guns manned by 7,200 artillerists. From July to November, the army grew from 50,000 to 168,000 men, a stupendous number for the 19th century.

McClellan was a superb logistics officer who understood the use of rail and steamboat transportation in war. However, he never seemed willing to throw his army into the fires of war. Some would say that he loved it too much to risk it in combat. Others whispered that McClellan was among the Union commanders who wished for conciliation with the South on the conditions that prevailed at the start of the war.

McClellan delivered a memorandum to Lincoln on August 2nd which was read to the Cabinet the following day. In it the general seemed to follow Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan. He felt that it was necessary “to display such an overwhelming strength, as will convince all our antagonists…of the utter impossibility of resistance.”

McClellan detailed his military grand strategy calling for attacks down the Mississippi, into Missouri, through East Tennessee into Kentucky and into West Texas. Other Union forces would maintain their hold on western Virginia and Fort Monroe. He also alluded to a substantial amphibious forces for attacks along the Southern coastline.

All of this was to be in support of a massive offensive against the Confederate capital of Richmond which would be followed by a thrust deep into the Deep South. McClellan called for a massive army of 273,000 troops with 600 pieces of artillery. This force would have been 20 times the size of the army that captured Mexico City in 1847.

McClellan had two objectives with his strategy. First, he hoped to detach the bulk of the Southern people from their presumably weak loyalty to the “political leaders of the rebels.” His second objective was to convince the “governing aristocratic class” that resistance was futile. In order to be successful with the first objective there could be no more Union defeats. At the same time he felt that a lenient policy of prosecuting the war was necessary in order not to alienate the Southern population.

Part of this lenient policy required the Union Army “to crush the rebels in one campaign” according to a letter that he wrote to his wife on the same day as he wrote the memorandum to Lincoln. He ordered his troops to rigorously respect private property, including slaves, and crush any attempt at a slave insurrection. These were the same orders that he gave his troops in Western Virginia.

However, McClellan could not be moved. Throughout the late and into the fall the Army of the Potomac continued to train while McClellan engaged in a bureaucratic struggle with Winfield Scott. Eventually Scott became so worn out with the struggle that he resigned as General-in-Chief. McClellan was appointed in his place and when he did he pressed his conciliatory views on each of the Union Army’s major commanders.