Union Gen. Butler Issues General Order No. 28; "Woman … Plying Her Avocation"
"Before" and "After" Treatment of Union Soldiers by New Orleans Women
(Note woman in the center of left illustration spitting at Union soldier)
Harper's Weekly cartoon published July 12, 1862
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)
Today in Military History: May 15, 1862,
Today's little story of the past involves a captured Southern city, the "civil disobedience" of its populace, and the response by the military governor, which eventually caused his removal.
Into A Captured City, Enter "The Beast"
On April 24, 1862, Federal naval forces sailed past two forts, Ft. St. Philip and Ft. Jackson, guarding the city of New Orleans, LA on the Mississippi River. These two bastions were the main line of defense for the city. Realizing the city was lost, the Confederate commander, Maj. Gen. Mansfield Lovell, evacuated New Orleans, sending troops, cannon, and supplies north via railroad. He further telegraphed the Confederate War Department, urging them to send any materiel earmarked for New Orleans to Vicksburg instead. When Union naval personnel tried to accept the city's surrender on April 25, rioting crowds forced their retreat.
On May 1, New Orleans was occupied by 5000 Union troops with hardly a struggle. The commander of the Union soldiers was Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler. Butler was a former Democratic party official, lawyer, and state legislator from Massachusetts. He was one of the first major generals of Volunteers of the Civil War appointed by President Lincoln. He had gained glory as a Massachusetts state militia general who, anticipating the coming war, had carefully prepared his six militia regiments for the conflict. At the start of hostilities Butler immediately marched to the relief of Washington, D.C., and despite a lack of orders had occupied and restored order to Baltimore, MD. [For more on the unrest in Baltimore in 1861, please read my Burn Pit posting of April 19, 2011, entitled "Pratt Street Riot: Massachusetts Militia Unit Attacked by Baltimore Mob."]
Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler (1818-1893)
Photography by Matthew Brady taken b/w 1862-1865
As a reward Butler was made commander of Fortress Monroe, on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. While stationed there, he gained further political renown as the first to practice confiscation of fugitive slaves as contraband of war, who were then used as laborers. This practice was made a later policy of war by Congress. [For the balance of the conflict, slaves were often referred to simply as "contrabands."] Due to these and other astute political maneuvers, Butler had been chosen to command the army expedition to New Orleans. Because of his lack of military experience and military success, many were happy to see him go.
In the administration of New Orleans, Gen. Butler showed great firmness and political subtlety. He devised a plan for poor relief, demanded oaths of allegiance from anyone who sought any privilege from government, and confiscated weapons. In an ordinary year, it was not unusual for as much as 10 percent of the city's population to die of yellow fever. In preparation, Gen. Butler imposed strict quarantines and introduced a rigid program of garbage disposal. As a result, in 1862, only two cases were reported.
Despite these improvements to the city, he was still regarded as the leader of an invading army. One of the first nicknames he acquired was "Spoons," for his alleged pilfering of silverware from Southern homes where he stayed (acts likely committed by Union soldiers, but not Butler himself). Butler had a total of about 15,000 Union soldiers to occupy the city. Writing about that period, Butler himself said, "We were…in a city... of 150,000 inhabitants, all hostile, bitter, defiant, explosive, standing literally in a magazine, a spark only needed for destruction."
Very quickly, the Federal occupiers found out how the "genteel" Southern women responded to the presence of invaders. The women would hurl insults at the soldiers, spit upon them, ignore attempts at conversation or even a friendly gesture or a "hello." Whenever any of Butler's men were present the women would contemptuously gather in their skirts, cross streets, flee rooms, cast hateful glances, or make derisive comments. Some sang spirited renditions of "The Bonnie Blue Flag" and other Confederate songs, or spat on soldiers' uniforms, while teaching their children to do the same. One woman emptied a chamber pot on Capt. David C. Farragut from her window shortly after the mayor surrendered the city to him.
The women hoped their actions would force a retaliatory incident serious enough to incite paroled Confederates to revolt against the occupation troops. Gen. Butler's men showed remarkable restraint against these insults, but he realized that it was only a matter of time until one of them, pressed too far, would arrest some female belligerent. Undoubtedly the "Southern gentlemen" of New Orleans would attempt a rescue, and Butler feared his small force would be overcome.
Finally, Gen. Butler took the action that earned him a new and more famous nickname. On May 15, 1862 he issued his General Order #28. It was printed the next day on page 2 of the New Orleans Daily Picayune. It said:
"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."
"A woman of the town plying her avocation…" is a wonderful euphemism for a prostitute. It was a strongly worded warning to the Southern women. And, amazingly, it worked. With only a few exceptions, incidents directed at the Federal soldiers stopped. One incident involved a Mrs. Philip Philips, who laughed as a funeral procession of a Union officer passed her house. She was imprisoned from June 30 until mid-September.
Text of General Order #28 from New Orleans Daily Picayune, May 16, 1862
Gen. Order #28 provoked criticism throughout the Confederacy and Europe who considered his order an affront to womanhood. It also excited indignation and personal animosity directed at Butler, who acquired the new nickname "Beast Butler."
Footnote #1: Partly as a result of the controversy, Gen. Butler was recalled to Washington in November of 1862. Another result was some smart local entrepreneur began selling chamber pots with Gen. Butler's face on the bottom (needless to say, they were *VERY* popular).
Butler chamber pot, circa 1862
Footnote #2: Butler served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1867-1875 and 1877-79). He was appointed one of the managers of the unsuccessful impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Butler also wrote the Civil Rights Act of 1875, a bill so far-reaching that it was eventually declared unconstitutional. He served as governor of Massachusetts from 1883-1884. He also ran for President as a nominee of the Greenback and Anti-Monopoly parties, accumulating 175,000 votes. Butler had a reputation for corruption and venality that survives to this day. He died in 1893 while attending court in Washington DC and is buried in a private plot in Hildreth Cemetery in Lowell, MA.
Footnote #3: One of Butler's more renowned descendents was the late writer George Plimpton (1927-2003), author of "Paper Lion," among others. Mr. Plimpton also lent his voice to an episode of the TV show "The Simpsons" entitled "I'm Spelling as Fast as I Can" (season 14, episode #12, aired February 16, 2003).