'The Beast' Butler rules in New Orleans

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal


After Flag Officer David Farragut captured New Orleans, Louisiana, Major General Benjamin F. Butler occupied the city on May 1, 1862, with approximately 10,000 Union soldiers. Butler (1818-1893) was born in New Hampshire but grew up in Massachusetts. Becoming active in Democratic Party politics, he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature and senate, and served as a delegate to the 1860 Democratic National Convention. There, Butler voted fifty-seven times to nominate Jefferson Davis for president because he believed only a Southern moderate could keep the party from splitting. Despite his seemingly pro-Southern sympathies, however, Butler vehemently opposed secession and declared, "I was always a friend of southern rights but an enemy of southern wrongs."

When civil war erupted, Butler was appointed a general in the Massachusetts militia even though he had no military experience. Short, pudgy, and cross-eyed, he was hardly an imposing figure in uniform. One man who noticed Butler smiled a lot when he talked opined, "[H]e seemed less like a major general than like a politician who was coaxing for votes." A fellow Union officer wrote that Butler made "an astounding figure on a horse! Short, fat, shapeless; no neck, squinting, and very bald headed, and, above all, that singular, half defiant look."

Most historians have taken a dim view of Butler's military service, but many people at the time (including influential politicians) came to admire him because he worked tirelessly and did not coddle the Rebels. Acting largely on his own, Butler secured safe passage for Union soldiers through Baltimore after the Baltimore Riots and might well have prevented that state from seceding. Appreciative of his service and needing Democratic support to fight the war, President Lincoln appointed Butler the Union's first major general of volunteers. Since military rank was based on seniority, this made Butler the highest ranking officer in the volunteer army.

Butler then was put in command of the Fort Monroe, Virginia, area where he became one of the first Civil War generals to face the problem of runaway slaves. The Fugitive Slave Law was still in effect and most army officers dutifully returned runaways to their owners. Butler, however, refused. Declaring the slaves were "contraband of war," he kept them within his lines and put them to work for the Union army.

Butler's next assignment was to command the occupation force in New Orleans, a city filled with people who hated the Yankee invaders. One week before Butler arrived, a citizen named William Mumford led a group of men in tearing down the U.S. flag from the Mint building and dragging it through the streets. Then, as a large crowd watched, Mumford ripped the flag to shreds. Women, in particular, seethed with hostility. They cursed the soldiers, spit on their uniforms, turned their backs when the men walked by, and even emptied chamber pots on their heads from upstairs windows (David Farragut was the target of one such incident).

Butler quickly took draconian measures to subdue the people. He charged Mumford with treason for tearing up the flag, and a hastily convened military court convicted him and sentenced him to death. New Orleans' residents were shocked because they considered the incident a legitimate form of protest. Many people, including Mumford, did not believe Butler would actually hang him and expected the general to issue a last minute pardon.

When Mumford's wife, Mary, asked to meet with Butler to beg for mercy, he agreed and went to her house. According to the general, "Mrs. Mumford wept bitterly, as did the children, who fell about my knees, adding all those moving acts which perhaps they had been instructed to say or do, or which perhaps naturally came to them." Despite the tearful pleas, Butler refused to pardon Mumford, but he did promise Mary that he would help her and the children if they ever needed assistance. He then told Mary that her husband was mistaken in thinking he would be pardoned and that she should visit him in jail to help him prepare for death. Rather coldly, Butler told Mary, "Let him in the few hours he has to live look to God for his pardon." Mumford was hanged on June 7.

Butler also censored the city's newspapers and arrested people and confiscated their property if they showed support for the rebellion. William J. Seymour, editor of the Commercial Bulletin, was one who felt Butler's heavy hand. Seymour and several other editors met with the general to try to convince him to rescind the censorship order on the grounds that it violated their constitutional right of free speech (conveniently ignoring the fact that Louisiana had rebelled against the Constitution). As the discussion became heated, Seymour asked Butler what would happen if he ignored the order and printed whatever he wanted to in his own newspaper. Seymour claimed Butler "roared like a mad bull," pounded his fist on the desk, and snarled, "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."

Seymour later learned that his father, Col. Isaac Seymour, had been killed in Virginia, and he published an obituary in the family newspaper. Seymour wrote that his father loved the military and had served in three wars. He had been a U.S. Army officer in the Mexican and Seminole Wars and a Confederate officer in the current rebellion. In each case, Seymour declared, his father had been motivated by patriotism. The suggestion that a rebel could be patriotic infuriated Butler. He declared the obituary was a violation of his censorship order, confiscated the newspaper, and put Seymour in prison for three months.

Butler's possible involvement in corruption also angered the people. Rumors of bribery, vice, and other misdeeds were wide spread. Butler was even accused of stealing silverware from abandoned houses and was given the nickname "Spoons." He also played loose with military funds and once admitted, "I never read the . . . regulations, and what is more I sha'n't, and then I shall not know I am doing anything against them." Butler's brother, Andrew, came to the city and was given almost free rein to engage in illegal trade and other questionable activities. No direct proof was ever found linking General Butler to this corruption, but people at the time and historians afterward suspected he was involved in the criminal activity to make a personal profit.

As controversial as these acts were, they paled in comparison with Butler's infamous General Orders No. 28 issued. Determined to stop the abuse the New Orleans women were heaping onto his soldiers, Butler issued the following decree on May 15:

As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subjected to repeated insults from the women, calling themselves "Ladies," of New Orleans, in return of the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or private of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her vocation.

Better known as the "Woman's Order," the proclamation did not have any sexual implications even though it permitted Butler's men to treat an offending woman as a prostitute. The order simply meant that a soldier was not obligated to treat the woman as a lady. If the woman cursed him, he could curse her back; if she spit at him, he could spit back. While the Woman's Order seems rather mild by today's standards, it has to be viewed in the context of its time. The Civil War occurred when there were rigid social mores concerning sexuality and gender roles. All respectable women were considered to be ladies and they were never to be insulted or exposed to lewd male behavior. To have the highest ranking general in the U.S. Army give his men permission to treat women in public as common prostitutes was outrageous.

The Woman's Order successfully stopped the insults because few women wanted to put themselves in a situation to be treated unladylike. Afterward, one Union soldier claimed, "[T]he citizens have dropped their surly air, and show a willingness to talk civilly if not cordially." But the order also created a storm of controversy. Louisiana soldiers serving in Virginia unsuccessfully sought permission to return home so they could protect their women. The Confederate Congress branded Butler a war criminal and ordered him to be executed if he ever was captured. Even many Northerners and European diplomats criticized the order because they felt it overstepped the bounds of civilized warfare. One Englishman accused Butler of being a "cunning trickster . . . a sort of compromise between the proud, semi-sanctified autocrat and the depraved sot." More than any other action, it was the Woman's Order that led Southerners to start referring to Butler as the "Beast." After the order was issued, some enterprising people took advantage of the general's unpopularity by selling chamber pots that had Butler's photograph pasted to the bottom.

But there was another side to "Beast" Butler that Civil War literature often fails to mention. Many of New Orleans's poor inhabitants were on the brink of starvation because so many male providers were away in the Confederate army. Butler took pity on them and handed out free food even though many of those same people caused him constant problems. He also put civilians to work cleaning up the city's streets and drainages, and he quarantined ships to fight Yellow Fever. Just ten years earlier, the deadliest Yellow Fever epidemic in American History struck the Crescent City and killed 11,000 people. Because of the steps Butler took to improve sanitation, New Orleans became one of the cleanest American cities during the Civil War, and Yellow Fever virtually disappeared there for the next five years.

Nonetheless, President Lincoln grew tired of the controversial general and decided to relieve Butler of his command in December 1862. Butler had too much political clout to be dismissed from the army, however, and he blundered his way from one assignment to another over the next two years. It was not until final victory was in sight that General U.S. Grant sent Butler home to Massachusetts. After the war, Butler returned to politics and was elected to Congress four successive times despite continued accusations of corruption. Switching parties to become a Radical Republican, he became a prominent figure during Reconstruction and originated the tactic known as "waving the bloody shirt," or blaming the Civil War on Democrats. Butler also served as a prosecutor in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. In 1878, he once again switched his political allegiance by becoming a member of the Greenback Party. After several unsuccessful attempts, Butler was elected Massachusetts' governor in 1882, and he was the unsuccessful Greenback presidential candidate in 1884.

While serving in Congress in 1869, Butler learned that Mary Mumford had fallen on hard times. Southerners had rallied to her support after Butler hanged her husband, and large sums of money were donated to the family. Once the war was over, however, Mary struggled to provide for her children. Remembering the promise he made her during their private meeting, Butler invited Mary and the children to Washington. She accepted his invitation, and Butler helped the family get established, paid off a lien on Mary's house, and twice secured a job for her in the federal government. Despite his flaws, it appears the "Beast" had a heart after all.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.

Back