Duty and The Beast
Benjamin Butler’s Occupation of New Orleans
It has always been a historical fact that in time of war, cities will undergo occupation by the enemy. The Civil War was no exception; as the Union Army drove ever further into the South, major cities were besieged, conquered, and in some instances, destroyed. And while New Orleans was spared the devastation visited upon Atlanta, Charleston and Richmond, its occupation was overseen by a man who became one of the most hated Union officers in the entire war. In four years of bloody conflict, no other name inspired such Southern loathing as that of Benjamin Franklin Butler.
And yet, there had been a time before the war when Butler, as a Massachusetts lawyer and Democratic congressman, gave every indication of being the South’s best friend. He opposed abolition, voted pro-slavery when the occasion arose, and at the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, S.C., he supported the candidacy of Jefferson Davis, who went on to become the president of the Confederacy less than a year later. Butler was not, however, indiscriminate in his views; he strongly disapproved of secession, proclaiming at the beginning of the war, “I was always a friend of Southern rights but not Southern wrongs.”
As a politically appointed general when the war began, Butler seemed to court controversy wherever he went. Somewhere along the line, he had had a change of heart regarding slavery. In 1861, after assuming military control of Fort Monroe, Va., he became the first Yankee commander to refuse to return to their masters the slaves who had fled to the Union lines. The word soon spread, and “Fortress Freedom,” as Monroe came to be called, became a destination for thousands of runaway slaves, with Butler as their Moses.
Then, in early 1862, Butler participated in the capture of the vital port city of New Orleans. On May 1, he was named military governor of the city, and it was here that he inspired the greatest controversy – and hatred. Although he spent his own money to help feed the starving populace, his manner of dealing with the local opposition was direct and, at times, harsh. His first proclamation placed New Orleans under martial law. When the newspaper True Delta refused to carry Union military notices, Butler shut it down, as he did the Picayune, when it ran an editorial that offended him. He confiscated the Commercial Bulletin when its editor published an obituary favorable to his own father, who had died in the service of the Confederate Army. When the mayor was found to be supporting a Rebel military company, Butler had him put in prison. He suspended the uncooperative city council and confiscated and auctioned off the goods of merchants who refused to sell to Union soldiers. And in June, he executed a man for tearing down the Union flag.
On the other hand, he forbade looting and allowed the post office and railroads to function, keeping the city’s residents connected to the outside world. He thinned the number of troops in the city in an effort to relieve some of the tension. And he advocated lifting the Union blockade, to allow much-needed food and supplies to enter the city.
Still, there was no way he could mollify New Orleans’ outraged residents. So hated was the general that the citizens used chamber pots with his likeness at the bottom. Nothing he did, however, so stirred up the locals as his Order 28, known more familiarly as the “Woman Order.” The women of New Orleans habitually scorned the Yankee soldiers in the most offensive ways – spitting at them, “turning their backsides,” hiking the hems of their skirts when Union troops passed, as though avoiding filth. Finally, a woman went too far; she emptied a chamber pot on the head of Admiral David Farragut, who happened to be passing below.
Benjamin Franklin Butler, pictured in the political cartoon above, directed the capture of New Orleans and was then responsible for its administration. He had issued a number of curious orders, but this cartoon refers to Butler’s General Order No. 28, which stated that if any woman should insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the Union, she shall be regarded and shall be held liable to be treated as a “woman of the town plying her avocation” – in other words, a prostitute. This order provoked protests from both sides, as well as abroad, and led to his removal from command of the Department of the Gulf on December 17, 1862. He was nicknamed “Beast Butler” or alternatively, “Spoons Butler,” the latter nickname derived for his alleged habit of pilfering the silverware of Southern homes in which he stayed.
Butler immediately issued an order stating that any woman who displayed the poor manners to insult a Union soldier, either by her words or her actions, would be regarded as a common prostitute, or as the order phrased it, “a woman of the town plying her avocation.” Had he planned it for years, Butler could not have found a more effective way to strike at the Southerners’ chivalric view of unassailable womanhood. The shock waves extended past the city, to the Confederate capital at Richmond, where an apoplectic President Jefferson Davis fumed, calling Butler nothing short of “brutal.” Butler’s order was read in Rebel army camps to an outraged military. The repercussions were felt across the sea in England. British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston fumed, “[A]n Englishman must blush to think that such an act has been committed by one belonging to the Anglo-Saxon race.” The London Times referred to the order as “intolerable brutality,” and Foreign Secretary Lord Russell sent an envoy to lodge a protest with Secretary of State William Seward – who sided with Butler. Newspapers in the North published cartoons, many showing Butler in a sympathetic light, while the Southern papers depicted him in accordance with his new nickname – “Beast.” One Southern newspaper went so far as to place a reward of $10,000 on Butler’s head. In New Orleans, however, the “Woman’s Order” resulted in a much more chastened and tractable female population.
Ultimately, it was neither Butler’s strict – if unique – approach to military discipline nor his notorious Order 28 that brought about the end of his reign. It was an ever-increasing spate of accusations that Butler and his staff were corrupt. A believer in living well regardless of the situation, Butler had ensconced himself in the luxurious St. Charles Hotel and availed himself of the best the city had to offer. Never one to pass up an opportunity to make a dollar, he profited handsomely from the confiscation and sale of cotton, as well as the property of the thousands who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the Union. No one who knew Butler would have been surprised; he was virtually shameless in his pursuit of profit. At the very beginning of the war, Butler had secured highly lucrative contracts for his own Massachusetts textile mills to manufacture cloth for the Northern war effort, and now, he was taking advantage of what the circumstances in Louisiana had to offer.
Butler’s love of the good life provoked rumors that he had personally raided the larders of New Orleans’ First Families, and stories of pilfered silverware inspired a new nickname, “Spoons.” Inevitably, allegations of corruption made their way to Washington, and although none of them could be proved against Butler personally, the taint was unmistakable – and unacceptable. In December 1862, he was removed from military command of New Orleans.
In the two years following his abdication, Butler displayed consistently poor military ability, and eventually President Abraham Lincoln removed him from military command. After the war, he went on to win elections as a Massachusetts congressman and governor, and in 1884, he actually did make a run at the presidency. But to the citizens of New Orleans, and of the post-bellum South in general, Benjamin Franklin Butler would always be the Beast.