“Beast” Butler Trivia

When it comes to Gen. Benjamin Butler there is no shortage of controversy.  Butler is arguably best known for his infamous General Order No. 28 of May 15, 1862, which stated that if any woman should insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and shall be held liable to be treated as a “woman of the town plying her avocation”, i.e., a prostitute.

Most of us are familiar with Butler’s treatment of the ladies of New Orleans, but how about his handling of foreign nationals?  Can someone tell me why, in the summer of 1862, Gen. Butler ordered the residents of New Orleans to register, indicating to which country they held allegiance?

There is no prize other than the pride that comes with a correct answer to an obscure question.

10 comments… add one

  • Bob_Pollock Feb 1, 2010

    Kevin,

    Are you referring to Butler's proclamation of martial law, issued May 1, 1862? If so, I think the answer to your question is that Butler found it was necessary to determine who was loyal to the United States and who wasn't, and just which laws would be applicable to the various people living in New Orleans. At the bottom of all this was money; profits were being made from blockade running and the sale of arms to the Confederacy.

    In addition, Butler levied a tax on wealthy foreign nationals, which he used to feed poor families, 90% of which he said were foreigners themselves. Let me quote Dick Nolan's biography of Butler:

    “Cosmopolitan New Orleans, over which so many flags flew, was home to numerous foreign-born entrepeneurs, great and small, to whom allegiance seemed a matter of convenience. These foreigners had been Americans one day; loyal Confederates the next; and now, under Butler's hostile flag, they were suddenly alien nationals once again, claiming the protection of any one of a dozen convenient foreign countries. The consular corps, composed of men with their own financial interests to advance, was more than happy to play the protective role.”

    Regarding Butler's reputation, I don't know if it's fair to say his General Orders 28 is what he is best known for. Perhaps, but what about the fact that it was his sharp lawyerly mind that first came up with the concept of “contraband of war” to protect runaway slaves?

    I find Butler fascinating. Unfortunately, most accounts of him are superficial and follow predictable historic indictments of him. The wiki article you link to is typical. For example, General Orders 28 “was doubtless the cause of his removal from command of the Department of the Gulf on December 17, 1862.” Well, I would submit that it is not “doubtless.”

    I will again recommend Dick Nolan's “Benjamin Franklin Butler: The Damnedest Yankee.” It was published in 1991, so it is fairly recent. Nolan is not a historian by trade (he is or was a newspaper reporter), and his biography is perhaps too favorable to Butler, but it certainly challenges the more traditional negativity surrounding Butler.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 1, 2010

      I was starting to worry about my readers. Excellent response, but not quite what I was looking for. I also find Butler to be a fascinating study.

      • Bob_Pollock Feb 1, 2010

        O.K. I'll be waiting for a “correct” answer. :)

  • bobhuddleston Feb 1, 2010

    I would suggest Trefousse, _Ben Butler: The South Called Him Beast_.
    Because of his support of arming blacks, Davis outlawed Butler. Later in the war, he was placed in charge of dealing with the Confederates on POW exchanges — I have always thought that was done by Lincoln – the humor of forcing the Rebels to deal with Beast Butler would have appealed to the president!
    Among Ben’s achievements, conveniently forgotten, is that he enforced New Orleans’ quarantine, with the result that for the first time the city was free of Yellow Fever. Of course a s soon as the war was over, the Big Easy went back to its old habits. See Jo Ann Carrigan, “Yankee versus Yellow Jack in New Orleans, 1862-1866,” _Civil War History_, 9:3 (September 1963), 248-260

    Bob

  • chrismeekins Feb 1, 2010

    I shall not profess to have known and I can't seem to get at the JStore article to confirm but the title I found brings up the Louisiana Native Guard – perhaps then the trivia pertains to this subject.
    I find Butler immensely interesting not in LA but rather in Norfolk in Nov 1863 through his release in Jan 1865. A multi-faceted individual who does not always get his due – particularly of his time in Fortress Monroe.

  • Peter Feb 1, 2010

    Bob's answer is nearly there; Butler needed to ascertain loyalty and prevent money from being funneled to the Confederates. But, it appears that the answer you are looking for has to do with slavery. According to French and English laws at the time, subjects of both of those countries could not legally enslave people. After French and English in the area identify themselves, Butler proclaims that all of the enslaved blacks they hold aren't slaves because they can't have been enslaved in the first place. He also testifies to this before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in January, 1863 after he refuses to serve under the command of N.P. Banks in Louisiana and returns to Washington.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 1, 2010

      Well done, Peter. You nailed it! Prof. G would be proud.

    • Bob_Pollock Feb 1, 2010

      Ah, Ben's sharp lawyerly mind at work again! Bravo!

  • Craig Feb 2, 2010

    The U.S. didn't recognize Haitian sovereignty until Lincoln did so in 1862, though the former colony had been independent for nearly sixty years. You'd probably need a good genealogist to make a clear distinction between a Haitian Creole and a New Orleans Creole. A writing sample might help as I understand some Creole words had distinctive spelling variations that could serve as markers. I've been reading Ned Sublette's 'The World That Made New Orleans.' How do you spell vo0doo?

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