New Orleans beast: How to turn New Orleans against you in one simple step
Benjamin Franklin Butler probably didn’t exactly expect a warm welcome when he arrived in New Orleans in May 1862. He was, after all, a Union general in charge of the federal troops that captured and then occupied the city during the Civil War. But the firm-handed rule of “Beast” Butler — as he became known — earned him nothing short of disdain from local residents, including local women who were known to spit on Union troops or “accidentally” empty chamber pots on passing soldiers. That led to Butler’s issuance on May 15, 1862, of his now-notorious General Order No. 28, which declared that any woman who in any way disrespected federal troops would be treated as “a woman of the town plying her avocation” — that is, a prostitute. Although the move reportedly worked, curbing overt acts of rudeness against the Union, it did nothing to foster anything but further contempt for Butler, whose likeness was used to adorn the inside of locals’ chamber pots.
Although he is credited with introducing some positive reforms, such as quarantines and other public health mandates that dramatically reduced the number of yellow fever victims in the city, few in New Orleans mourned when Butler’s controversial leadership style prompted his superiors to reassign him in December 1862. To this day, the city remembers him as a villain — specifically as a beast — and that probably won’t change any time soon.
- General Order No. 28, as published in The Daily Picayune, read thusly: “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 solider of the U.S., she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”
- Butler’s antagonistic relationship with the people of New Orleans started almost immediately upon his taking control of the city. Among his first actions was to order the public hanging of William Mumford, who was found guilty of treason for pulling down an American flag from the U.S. Mint before the Union troops had moved in.
- Other such “lessons” by Butler reportedly included his sentencing of a woman to two years imprisonment on Ship Island, guarded by black soldiers, for laughing during the funeral of a Union officer.
- Under his rule, everyone over 18 was required to take an oath of loyalty to the Union. Failure to do so subjected a person to exile from the city and forfeiture of all personal property.
- “Beast” wasn’t Butler’s only nickname. He was also known as “Spoons” Butler after gaining a reputation for allegedly confiscating silverware and other goods from locals.
- Butler also declared war on the city’s newspapers, enforcing strict censorship standards against any articles deemed supportive of the Confederacy. Some papers, including The Crescent, were shuttered for their anti-Union stances.
- Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued a death sentence for Butler, ordering him treated as an outlaw and hanged if he were captured. But furor over Butler’s rule — which also included acts against foreign consuls in the city whom he deemed insufficiently supportive of the Union — spread far beyond the South, even reportedly sparking protests in England and France.
- Under pressure by the negative publicity, Washington in late 1862 relieved Butler of his command of the city, replacing him with Gen. Nathanial Banks, who softened some of Butler’s more controversial policies.
New Orleans has historically proven itself to be a largely parochial place, dividing itself along ethnic lines, racial lines and socio-economic lines — even along neighborhood lines, high school affiliation or the question of which krewe emblem your daddy wears. Interestingly, though, it’s when the city has a common enemy to rally against that those divisions tend to break down and a deeply rooted sense of community rises to the surface. On the average day, New Orleanians might have trouble finding that community, but when the going gets tough — whether it be because of “Beast” Butler, Hurricane Katrina or those dirty Atlanta Falcons — New Orleans has a way of proving over and over again that it knows how to stand as one, and to prevail together.