Our General

In defense of Union General Benjamin Butler

An officer on General Butler's staff, residing constantly, while in New Orleans, under his roof, having had direct personal observation of him during the entire progress of the "Ship-Island Expedition," may perhaps be pardoned for putting on record in this magazine some characteristic traits of the man whom this war has brought so prominently, not only before our own people, but also the people of Europe.

In the execution of this task I shall confine myself to the mention of incidents of his administration at New Orleans, and the relation of the inside history (the history of motive and cause) of many of his public acts which elicited from the European press and the enemies of the Union in our own land the bitterest abuse,--believing that in so doing I offer stronger proof of the injustice of their attacks than I could possibly furnish by any attempt to argue them down. And that the patience of my readers may not be unnecessarily taxed, I shall proceed without further introduction to the consideration of OUR GENERAL in New Orleans.

* * * * *

One of the first difficulties which General Butler found in the way of the restoration of the national authority in that city was the attitude of the foreign consuls. Under the leadership of Mr. George Coppell, who was acting for the British Government in the absence of the consul, Mr. Muir, they tacitly declared an offensive and defensive war of the guerrilla stamp against every step or order for the promotion of loyal sentiment or the inculcation of a belief in the strength of our Government. Nothing excited greater hostility abroad than the General's treatment of these gentlemen, and in nothing has he been more admired by his loyal countrymen than in his complete discomfiture of them.

I have noticed this little episode in the history of the Rebellion simply with the view of showing, that, while officially he met their combined attacks with "war to the knife," his personal intercourse with them was friendly and pleasant.

After the consuls had apparently abandoned their unsuccessful alliance in despair, Mr. Coppell, who had never yet met the General, expressed, through the commander of Her Britannic Majesty's frigate Rinaldo, a desire for an introduction to him.

The General received Mr. Coppell with marked cordiality, and was, I think, pleased with his appearance; at all events, from that time until we left the city Mr. Coppell was frequently at the office, oftentimes by invitation of the General, and nothing ever occurred to disturb the harmony of their personal relations.

On one occasion they were discussing the French and English statutes prohibiting the subjects of those powers from holding slaves. A large number of French and English subjects were living in open violation of this prohibition in New Orleans, and the General remarked to Mr. Coppell that he had a great mind to heap coals of fire on the heads of his friends across the Atlantic by enforcing their laws. Mr. Coppell with eager enthusiasm applauded the project, and urged the General to carry it into effect.

The Spanish Government was represented in New Orleans by Don Juan Callejon. Early in the summer the strictness of our quarantine of vessels from Cuba produced some ill feeling on his part, which manifested itself in the refusal of a clean bill of health to the steamer Roanoke, about to leave New Orleans for Havana. In response to a request from the General, Don Juan called immediately at the office; but owing to the unfortunate circumstance of his entire ignorance of the English language, and the consequent necessity of conversing through the medium of an interpreter, a serious misunderstanding ensued, and the General, supposing the Consul to be contemptuously setting our Government at defiance, threatened to send him out of the country; but afterwards learning that their difference had arisen purely from misinterpretation, and that Senor Callejon had proved himself a patriot and hero in his country's service, the General, with the honest admiration which one brave man always feels toward another, took especial pains to render their intercourse, both official and personal, as agreeable as might be. And to show the Spanish consul that in the matter of quarantine he was inspired by no dislike toward his Government, he placed more rigid restrictions, if possible, on American vessels from infected ports than on the vessels of Spain.

To Senor Ruiz, the acting consul of the Republic of Mexico, who had the singular consular virtue of sympathizing warmly with the free North, the General's attentions were something more sincere than the hackneyed "assurances of distinguished consideration" so necessary to diplomatic correspondence and intercourse.

Indeed, I doubt if any of the foreign commercial agents at New Orleans would claim that they ever had cause to complain against General Butler on account of any personal grievance.

* * * * *

Probably nothing in the history of General Butler's administration in New Orleans drew from the foes of free government in every land such unmeasured execration as the celebrated "Order No. 28," relating to the conduct of women in the street, and I wish to give the most decided testimony upon this subject. That something was necessary to be done to stop the insults to which we were continually subjected by the other sex, I presume no one who is well informed as to their frequency and humiliating character will for a moment doubt. Upon our arrival in the city I flattered myself that such demonstrations would excite in me no sentiment more serious than pity for the childishness that prompted them; but I confess, that, after a day or two, the sneers and contortions of countenance, the angry withholding of the dress from contact with my person, and the abrupt departure from the sidewalk to the middle of the street to avoid even passing the hated uniform, were too much for my philosophy, and gave me a sense of humiliation more painful than I can express. And yet the insults I received were slight, compared to those offered to many of our officers and men.

This condition of affairs continued about two weeks, until it became positively intolerable.

Young officers, too gallant, and too deeply imbued with the American respect for woman, to resent, by word or deed, the indignity, would come to the General with their cheeks crimson with shame and the effort to repress their just indignation, and beg him to take some measure for the suppression of the evil.

Most men would have seen no other solution of the difficulty than the arrest and punishment of a few of the offenders as a warning to the rest. But General Butler foresaw, what was afterwards proved in the case of Mrs. Larue, that the arrest of women would invariably provoke a street-disturbance, which might lead to bloodshed; he, therefore, remembering an old ordinance of the city of London, republished it in the form of the General Order which has gained so universal a celebrity.

Mr. Monroe, who was mayor of the city at the time of its capture, came in a paroxysm of anger to protest against the order as a libel on every lady in New Orleans.

The General, with perfect good-nature, went over every word of it with him, explaining its origin and its intent, and demonstrating beyond doubt that it simply gave the female population of the city the opportunity to choose in which of the two categories they would be classed,--ladies or "common women,"--and assured the Mayor, that, above all, his idea was to promulgate such an order as would execute itself, and prevent the very thing which the Rebels have since charged upon him,--"a war upon women."

Three times Mr. Monroe left the General with the firm conviction that the act was perfectly proper; but, instigated by crafty and able conspirators, of whom the ruling spirit was Mr. Pierre Soule, he repeatedly returned with fresh attacks on the General's administration, and especially on this order, until, the General's patience being exhausted, he said to him,--"Mr. Mayor, you have played with me long enough. Your case is settled. The boat leaves for Fort Jackson this afternoon, and you must be ready to take passage on her at four o'clock."

I never witnessed greater forbearance than the General displayed in his treatment of the Mayor; indeed, I was at the time quite indignant that he allowed him such liberty of speech and action.

One word more about "Order No. 28." General Beauregard's fierce anger, and his horrible construction of its provisions, intended for effect on his troops, will be well remembered by my readers. It may not be uninteresting to them to know that Beauregard's sister in New Orleans, when asked her opinion of the order, answered,--"I have no interest in or objection to it; it does not apply to me." Is it difficult to guess to which class she belonged?

Can I say anything stronger in vindication of the propriety of this order, or of the General's sagacity in issuing it, than that the first twenty-four hours after its promulgation witnessed a complete, and, it seemed to us who were there, almost miraculous, change in the deportment of the ladies of the Crescent City? If success is the test of merit, then was it one of the most meritorious acts of the war.

* * * * *

The severity with which General Butler punished crimes against the Government that he was determined should be respected, or against the poor and oppressed, was of course in the Confederacy and in Europe denounced as the most fiendish cruelty, and he was characterized as a man whose every impulse was prompted by the most brutal passions.

I do not expect the people of the South to believe my statement, that I never met a man of greater generosity and kindness of heart, or one more pleased to do an act of clemency; but I think the loyal reader will find in the following illustrations of these traits evidence of its truth.

Among the Rebel soldiers who were captured at the surrender of Fort Jackson, in April, 1862, were four men who, with the remainder of the garrison, were paroled as prisoners of war, but were soon after discovered in an attempt to organize a company, of which they were elected officers, with the view of crossing our lines by force and rejoining the Rebel army, and upon their own confession were convicted and sentenced to be shot,--the only expiation known to the rules of civilized warfare for so flagrant a violation of the parole.

During the interval between their conviction and the day appointed for their execution, I had occasion to see them frequently, and was strongly impressed with the idea that they had sinned in ignorance of the magnitude of their offence, and that a commutation of the death-penalty would be of more benefit than injury to our cause. As the day of their death rapidly drew near, and I observed their agonized despair of a reprieve, and their earnest, sincere efforts to prepare for a fate they deemed inevitable, I determined to make an urgent appeal to the General for their lives.

On the afternoon previous to the day of their expected execution, I went to the General's room and implored him to relent toward the unhappy men.

The General, in a kind, but apparently decided manner, met my urgent request by referring to the proofs of their guilt, and the necessity of the severest punishment as an example to others.

I was well aware of the futility of attempting to reason with the astute lawyer, who had all the law on his side, and twenty years' experience at the bar in cases where he had met every argument that ingenuity could devise; so, avoiding his reasoning, I appealed directly to his feelings. In this I was most earnestly and efficiently aided by one of his household, whose heart and influence were always on the side of tenderness and mercy.

The earnestness with which I urged the cause of the wretched prisoners excited in me an interest I was not before conscious of feeling, and I suddenly found myself almost unable to speak from the choking emotions which swelled up into my throat.

Beneath the General's argument for abstract justice, I thought, however, I discovered a warm sympathy for my distress, and I gathered encouragement.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus