On May 1st, 1862, Major General Benjamin F. Butler took over as military governor of The recently captured city of New Orleans. From that day forward until he was replaced by Major General Nathaniel Banks in mid December, Butler ran the Confederacy’s largest city effectively, but in a dictatorial fashion that made him despised in the south.
Butler would not tolerate displays of disloyalty to the Union. In an extreme example, a local citizen named William Mumford was hanged as punishment for taking down the U.S. flag from the United States Mint building. Many others were arrested for various acts deemed disloyal. Pro Confederate newspapers were shut down.
From Butler’s point of view, draconian measures were necessary. New Orleans had a large population that consisted mostly of Confederate loyalists, and a relatively small occupation force. His actions did keep the local population from rising up against the occupation. He also instituted sanitary measures to clean up the city’s public market areas, sewers, canals, and streets, which were havens for disease. He took beef and sugar that had been intended for Confederate troops and distributed it to the poor and working class in the city. He also was widely believed to have made a lot of money in side business deals and speculations, conducted through his brother Andrew.
Butler’s reach extended into New Orleans’ churches with his General Order No. 27 issued on May 13th:
It having come to the knowledge of the commanding general that Friday next is proposed to be observed as a day of fasting and prayer, in obedience to some supposed proclamation of one Jefferson Davis, in the several churches of this city, it is ordered that no such observance be had. Churches and religious houses are to be kept open as in time of profound peace, but no religious exercises are to be had upon the supposed authority above mentioned.
But none of Butler’s orders infuriated the population more than General Order No. 28, also called the “Woman’s Order”. New Orleans’ female population went to great lengths to show it’s contempt for the Union Army and Navy, spitting on soldiers and insulting them. The final straw was when a woman on the balcony of a French Quarter house emptied the contents of a chamber pot onto the head of Admiral David Farragut, who was standing below. On May 15th, Butler issued General Order No. 28 which stated:
As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for 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 soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.
General Order No. 28 sparked outrage, not just in New Orleans, but throughout the south, where Butler was denounced for his insult to southern womanhood. Rewards were offered for the capture or death of Butler. The outrage even extended overseas, where Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, wrote a scathing letter to Charles Francis Adams, the U.S. Minister to Great Britain, expressing his shock at the order and causing a minor diplomatic flap. Palmerston tended to favor the Confederacy anyway, and Adams worked things out instead with Lord Russell, the British Foreign Minister.
There was concern that the Union soldiers would take advantage of the order and indeed treat the average New Orleans woman as a prostitute, but Butler himself was not concerned. “My troops were New England soldiers, and consequently well bred in every courtesy toward women” he wrote after the war. “I did not fear that any one of them would conduct himself in such a way that he could not look me in the face and tell me of it if I asked him”.
However controversial it was, General Order No. 28 had the desired effect. “There was no case of aggression after that order was issued, no case of insult by word or look against our officers or soldiers while in New Orleans…No arrests were ever made under it or because of it” Butler wrote.
Butler’s departure and replacement by the less authoritarian Banks was cause for celebration in New Orleans. After he was replaced by Banks, Butler was named commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina in late 1863.
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Butler’s Book by Benjamin F. Butler
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Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders
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Official Record of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Volume XV