July 12, 1862

John McLenan


Civil War, Military Administration; Wars, American Civil War; Women, Civil War;

Butler, Benjamin;

American South; New Orleans;

The Ladies of New Orleans before General Butler's Proclamation.

After General Butler's Proclamation.

Benjamin Butlerís most famous (or infamous) connection with the Civil War was his tenure as commander of the Union occupation forces in New Orleans in 1862.  In particular, he gained international attention for issuing his "Woman Order," which instructed his troops to treat as a prostitute any woman of the city who insulted them. Shockwaves from the order rippled throughout two continents, provoking vilification in the South, amused support in the North (as in this cartoon), and disdain in Britain.

Butler was one of the more colorful and controversial characters of the late-nineteenth century.  At the onset of the Civil War, he quickly volunteered his services to the Union cause.  As a brigadier general for his home-state Massachusetts Militia, he led forces that secured Baltimore for the Union in May 1861 and, as a major general, captured Forts Hatteras and Clark in North Carolina in August 1861.  On April 28-29, 1862, a Union naval squadron commanded by Admiral David Farragut and assisted by Butler's union army forces captured New Orleans, the South's most populous city and important port.

On May 1, 1862, Butler began his command of occupied New Orleans.  The Union blockade of Confederate ports and runaway inflation in the South had impoverished the once vibrant metropolis, whose residents bordered on the brink of starvation.  Although Butler actually brought some relief for the suffering, a majority of the city's white population remained committed to the Confederate cause, and were deeply resentful of the Union troops in their midst.

After setting up headquarters at the posh St. Charles Hotel, Butler soon learned firsthand about the bitterness of New Orleans natives.  The innkeeper ignored the general's call for breakfast until Butler threatened to take over the entire hotel.  The indignant mayor, John T. Monroe, spurned the general's initial request for a meeting at the hotel.  A loud, angry crowd outside the establishment made so much noise that an irritated Butler ordered artillery brought in to disperse them.  Merchants at first would not deal with the Union forces until Butler confiscated the property of one boycotter, selling it cut-rate at auction.  He also closed a newspaper, the True Delta, which would not print an official Union Army document.  After these incidents, the businessmen of the community reluctantly served and traded with the Union troops.

In his first official address, Butler placed New Orleans under martial law, ordered the confiscation of firearms, forbid public assemblies, and sanctioned the flying of only the Stars and Stripes; yet, he allowed the city government to continue functioning.  Mayor Monroe futilely argued for hours with Butler against the proclamation.  Butler considered such measures to be necessary, but otherwise he did not want to antagonize his enemies.  The general reopened the True Delta, dispersed his troops widely (leaving a relative few in the city proper), strictly prohibited looting, allowed postal and railroad service (the latter bringing much needed food and supplies), and requested a lifting of the blockade (which occurred on June 1).  Some Northerners criticized his rule as too lenient, while some Confederates grudgingly gave him credit.

Nevertheless, most of the city's white residents remained acrimonious.  While businessmen could not overtly rebuff the Federal troops, their wives and daughters could.  When Union soldiers approached on the street, the women gathered up their skirts to signify avoidance of dirt; when the Federals boarded streetcars, the women departed contemptuously.  There were also reported incidents of spitting, as depicted in the cartoon above.  Butler himself walked past a balcony on which six young women shrieked and turned their backsides toward him, prompting him to observe, "These women evidently know which end of them looks the best."  The final straw, however, came when a woman in the French Quarter emptied a chamber pot onto the head of Admiral Farragut.

On May 15, 1862, Butler issued General Order No. 28, which thereafter became known as the "Woman Order."  It announced that any female who insulted a Union soldier by word or deed would be regarded and held liable as a prostitute ("a woman of the town plying her avocation").  The general had hit right at the valued Southern concepts of honor and ladylike gentility.  Horrified Southerners assumed the order encouraged the Federals to violate the city's women as prostitutes.  The order was read to Confederate troops to stir their blood, and one Southern newspaper put a $10,000 price on Butler's head.  Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, denounced him as "brutal."

In Britain, where the upper class was already sympathetic to the Confederacy, the London Times characterized Butler's Woman Order as a "military rule of intolerable brutality."  The prime minister, Lord Palmerston, condemned it as "infamous.  Sir, an Englishman must blush to think that such an act has been committed by one belonging to the Anglo-Saxon race."  His foreign secretary, Lord Russell, agreed, and sent an envoy to the American secretary of state, William Henry Seward, who stood firm behind Butler's action.

Yet, for all the stinging criticism heaped upon Butler and the Woman Order, it proved to be effective in shaming the white women of New Orleans into suppressing their insulting words and behavior.  Butler insisted that his men treated violators like all well-bred persons who encountered prostitutes in public, by ignoring them.  

The Woman Order also helped expedite the political end of Mayor Monroe.  The mayor had already angered the general by opening the city to a French fleet, a move the flabbergasted Butler countermanded.  Butler remarked in a letter to Monroe, "The offers of the freedom of a captured City by the captive ... [is a] novelty."  The same day, Monroe assailed Butler with complaints about the Woman Order until the exasperated general threatened him with prison.  When evidence surfaced a few days later that the mayor was financing a Confederate company, the Monroe Guards, Butler jailed him and several other city officials in Fort Jackson.  When the City Council refused to swear oaths of allegiance to the Union, it was suspended, and Butler's command of the city became more complete.

Within a few months, charges of rampant corruption by Union officials under Butler's watch (including his brother) reached intolerable levels.  No proof of wrongdoing touched the general personally, but rumors of his graft earned him the nickname "Spoons" (for allegedly stealing silverware from the mansions of the wealthy).  On December 16, 1862, President Lincoln recalled Butler as commander of New Orleans and replaced him with General Nathaniel Banks.

In late 1863, Butler was given the command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina.  In October 1864, he was sent to New York City to prevent or control election riots.  Criticized for his inability in the field, Butler retired from the army and returned to Massachusetts in December 1864.  After the war, Butler served as a congressman, governor of Massachusetts, and the presidential nominee of the Greenback-Labor party in 1884.

For cartoonist John McLenan's perspective on the conclusion of General Benjamin Butlerís command of the occupation forces in New Orleans, see the cartoon of January 17, 1863

Robert C. Kennedy

July 14, 2024

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