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.
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.