On this date — May 1, 1862 – General Benjamin F. Butler assumed command and occupation of the City of New Orleans. This was no small task to maintain, as holding New Orleans would be as difficult now for the Union as it had been for the Confederates. And to do so with a hostile population of about 150,000 was particularly a challenge.
Butler was a political general – being formerly a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. He had anticipated the War in a way few others did and led militia units in his home state that at the outset of hostilities marched to Washington, along with restoring order in Baltimore. He was given command at Fortress Monroe, and there embellished his resume by making a stand on the issue of runaway slaves. He reasoned that they were able to be held as contraband of war – even as a combatant could rightly be held. This logic was … well … logical, and the policy stuck – striking a severe blow to the efforts of the South to support the War through slave labor.
Butler was something of an odd-looking fellow … today we might say there was something “sketchy” about him; and his abrasive personality matched the exterior appearance. Practically no Union personage was quite so reviled in the South as was Benjamin Butler. Known to many as “Beast Butler,” merchants in New Orleans even sold chamber pots with his likeness in the bottom.
Speaking of chamber pots (how about that?… two consecutive paragraphs!), it was the emptying of the contents of such a container by a woman upon the head of Fleet Captain David Farragut that prompted Butler’s Special Order Number 28 – issued on May 15th. It stated that any woman who was publically disrespectful to a Union officer would be treated in accord with the policy toward a prostitute. Meant to shame New Orleans residents into manageable behavior, it rather outraged people all around the country and even all of the way to Lord Palmerston in England.
General Butler was effective. His political skills, for better or worse, served him well in New Orleans. He essentially did the Robin Hood thing of taking from the rich and giving to the poor – thus balancing the hostilities and attitudes of the people. He improved the city in some practical ways regarding sewage, water, health, etc. He thus maintained control through December, until the outcry about his antics resulted in General Nathaniel Banks arriving with orders to replace him.
Butler is truly one of the most fascinating personalities of the War.