Our General

In defense of Union General Benjamin Butler

In a few minutes an officer who had been in the room during our interview, and from whom the General desired to conceal his benevolent intention toward the men, took his leave. The General turned to me immediately, and, in a voice scarcely audible, said,--"Do not feel so badly, Captain; it shall be all right."

Not daring to trust my voice, I bowed my thanks and left the room, happy in the possession of so agreeable a secret.

The next morning, as I rode out to the spot assigned for the terrible tragedy, and gazed upon the silent, curious crowd that followed, and upon the four men sitting there upon those rough pine coffins, straining their eager eyes for one long last look at the glorious sun whose rising they were never again to see, I doubted if their happiness, when an hour hence they would be returning to the city with joyous anticipations of assured life, would be any more sincere than his,--"the American Haynau's,"--who, in his room at the St. Charles Hotel, rejoiced that he had been able to indulge the inclinations of his heart without detriment to the service.

In justice to others, I ought to add that a strong effort for the pardon of these prisoners was made by a number of the prominent residents of New Orleans.

It was in June of last year, I think, that a German bookseller named Keller was sent by General Butler to Ship Island for two years for exhibiting in his shop-window a human skeleton labelled "Chickahominy," claiming it to be the bones of some gallant soldier of the Union, army who had fallen in one of the disastrous battles in Virginia.

At his examination, Keller protested that he was a Union man, and had been imposed upon by some designing person who had taken advantage of his ignorance to make his shop the medium of displaying contempt and hatred of our cause by the revolting spectacle I have mentioned. It was proved, however, that Keller had said these were the bones of a Yankee. His defence may or may not have been true; but, at all events, he was apparently not an evil-disposed person, and I always believed the General punished the offence rather than the man.

After Keller had been on Ship Island some two or three months, his wife, a very modest, respectable little woman, came to me frequently with a piteous story of the suffering occasioned herself and her children by the prolonged absence of her husband, and begged me to intercede with the General for his pardon. Satisfied that the cause could suffer no injury by the return of the unfortunate man to his home, I promised to do my best to obtain his release. Accordingly, I took advantage of every favorable opportunity to drop a word in the hearing of the General for the benefit of poor Keller, who was pining away in his confinement at a rate that bade fair soon to render him as valuable a subject for anatomical research as the article he had exhibited in his shop-window.

At first my efforts met with very doubtful encouragement; but I was satisfied that the General's obduracy was caused by a conflict between his sense of public duty and his natural tendency toward forgiveness; so, fully assured that a few weeks would produce the desired result, I contented myself with merely recalling the ease to his memory whenever an opportunity offered.

Toward the last of October, being somewhat impatient at my tardy progress, I had just resolved to abandon my previous policy of waiting for time to do its work, and to make a vigorous onslaught upon the General's sympathies, when I learned that he had issued an order for Keller's release; and thus I was confirmed in my opinion that the General's heart was not proof against the claims of the unfortunate erring.

In the case of Mrs. Phillips, who was banished to Ship Island for her ghastly levity over the dead body of the gallant and lamented young De Kay, the General ordered a release after three months of exile, because he learned that her health was suffering in consequence of separation from her friends; and I doubt very much if she would have remained in duress three weeks, if the Rebel newspapers had not taunted the General so much, and threatened an expedition against the island for the purpose of rescuing the fair prisoner.

Mrs. Larue and Mrs. Cowen, the only other women who were imprisoned,--the former for openly distributing treasonable pamphlets in the street, thereby causing a riot, and the latter for publishing in a newspaper a card of defiance against the national authority,--after two weeks of punishment, were pardoned on the first intimation that they were suffering in health or comfort. Indeed, the General never desired the imprisonment of any person a single day beyond the time necessary for his correction, or longer than the requirements of justice demanded. I presume very few persons are aware that one of his last acts in New Orleans was to recommend to General Banks the pardon of all prisoners confined on mere political charges.

* * * * *

On account of the great and increasing pressure on the General's time by the immense and miscellaneous crowd of visitors, it was found necessary to establish an office outside of his, where every unknown caller should state his business to the officer in charge, who would decide whether or not it was essential for the person to see the General.

For a few weeks I had charge of this office, and nearly all my time was occupied in refusing passes outside of our lines. In a majority of instances, the applicants for the privilege of going into the Confederacy--many of them women--told the most sorrowful tales of destitution that could be relieved only by reaching their friends in the enemy's country; others urged, that a husband, a father, or a brother was enjoined by the physician to seek the country as the sole means of securing a return of health; in short, I was plied with every conceivable story of heart-rending woe and misery, related to induce the granting of passes, which the General, in consequence of the fact that in almost every instance where he had yielded to such importunities his confidence had been abused by the carrying of supplies and information to the Rebel army, had ordered me invariably to refuse. Ordinarily I succeeded in steeling my heart against these urgent entreaties; but occasionally some story, peculiarly harrowing in its details, seemed to demand a special effort in behalf of the applicant, and I would go to the General, and, in the desperation of my cause, exclaim,--

"General, you must see some of these people. I know, if you would only hear their stories, you would give them passes."

"You are entirely correct, Captain," he would reply. "I am sure I should; and that is precisely why I want you to see them for me."

And with this very doubtful satisfaction I would return to my desk, convinced that sensibility in a man who was allowed no discretion in its exercise was an entirely useless attribute, and that in future I would set my face as a flint against every appeal to my feelings.

* * * * *

Since my return to the North, I have heard a number of gentlemen--former political associates of General Butler--compare his "marvellous conversion" (here they always look, and apparently mean to be, severely sarcastic) on the slavery-question with that of Saul of Tarsus to Christianity.

If the last two years of our history have failed to educate them up to the meaning of this war, I confess that I think them almost incorrigible; yet I cannot believe that even they, if they had had the experience which has placed not only General Butler, but almost every one of the twenty thousand men composing the old "Army of the Gulf," firmly on the side of freedom to all, of whatever complexion, could longer withstand the dictates of God and humanity.

Let me describe one or two of the scenes I witnessed in New Orleans, that opened our eyes to the true nature of human bondage. The following incident is the same so well told by the General himself to the committee of the New-York Chamber of Commerce, at the Fifth-Avenue Hotel, in January last, and which was then reported in full in the New-York "Times." One of my objects in repeating this story is to illustrate my implicit confidence--inspired by my knowledge of his character--in the General's humanity and championship of the weak and down-trodden.

Just previous to the arrival of General Banks in New Orleans I was appointed Deputy-Provost-Marshal of the city, and held the office for some days after he had assumed command. One day, during the last week of our stay in the South, a young woman of about twenty years called upon me to complain that her landlord had ordered her out of her house, because she was unable longer to pay the rent, and she wished me to authorise her to take possession of one of her father's houses that had been confiscated, he being a wealthy Rebel, then in the Confederacy, and actively engaged in the Rebellion.

The girl was a perfect blonde in complexion: her hair was of a very pretty, light shade of brown, and perfectly straight; her eyes a clear, honest gray; and her skin as delicate and fair as a child's. Her manner was modest and ingenuous, and her language indicated much intelligence.

Considering these circumstances, I think I was justified in wheeling around in my chair and indulging in an unequivocal stare of incredulous amazement, when in the course of conversation she dropped a remark about having been born a slave.

"Do you mean to tell me," said I, "that you have negro blood in your veins?" And I was conscious of a feeling of embarrassment at asking a question so apparently preposterous.

"Yes," she replied, and then related the history of her life, which I shall repeat as briefly as possible.

"My father," she commenced, "is Mr. Cox, formerly a judge of one of the courts in this city. He was very rich, and owned a great many houses here. There is one of them over there," she remarked, naively, pointing to a handsome residence opposite my office in Canal Street. "My mother was one of his slaves. When I was sufficiently grown, he placed me at school at the Mechanics' Institute Seminary, on Broadway, New York. I remained there until I was about fifteen years of age, when Mr. Cox came on to New York and took me from the school to a hotel, where he obliged me to live with him as his mistress; and to-day, at the age of twenty-one, I am the mother of a boy five years old who is my father's son. After remaining some time in New York, he took me to Cincinnati and other cities at the North, in all of which I continued to live with him as before. During this sojourn in the Free States, I induced him to give me a deed of manumission; but on our return to New Orleans he obtained it from me, and destroyed it. At this time I tried to break off the unnatural connection, whereupon he caused me to be publicly whipped in the streets of the city, and then obliged me to marry a colored man; and now he has run off, leaving me without the least provision against want or actual starvation, and I ask you to give me one of his houses that I may have a home for myself and three little children."

Strange and improbable as this story appeared, I remembered, as it progressed, that I had heard it from Governor Shepley, who, as well as General Butler, had investigated it, and learned that it was not only true in every particular, but was perfectly familiar to the citizens of New Orleans, by whom Judge Cox had been elected to administer JUSTICE.

The clerks of my office, most of whom were old residents of the city, were well informed in the facts of the case, and attested the truth of the girl's story.

I was exceedingly perplexed, and knew not what to do in the matter; but after some thought I answered her thus:--

"This Department has changed rulers, and I know nothing of the policy of the new commander. If General Butler were still in authority, I should not hesitate a moment to grant your request,--for, even if I should commit an error of judgment, I am perfectly certain he would overlook it, and applaud the humane impulse that prompted the act; but General Banks might be less indulgent, and make very serious trouble with me for taking a step he would perhaps regard as unwarrantable."

I still hesitated, undecided how to act, when suddenly a happy thought struck me, and, turning to the girl, I added,--

"To-day is Thursday; next Tuesday I leave this city with General Butler for a land where, thank God! such wrongs as yours cannot exist; and, as General Banks is deeply engrossed in the immediate business at head-quarters, he will hardly hear of my action before the ship leaves,--so I am going to give you the house."

I am sure the kind-hearted reader will find no fault with me that I took particular pains to select one of the largest of her father's houses, (it contained forty rooms,) when she told me that she wanted to let the apartments as a means of support to herself and her children.

My only regret in the case was that Mr. Cox had not been considerate enough to leave a carriage and pair of bays on my hands, that I might have had the satisfaction of enabling his daughter to disport herself about the city in a style corresponding to her importance as a member of so wealthy and respectable a family.

And this story that I have just told reminds me of another, similar in many respects.

One Sunday morning, late last summer, as I came down-stairs to the breakfast-room, I was surprised to find a large number of persons assembled in the library.

When I reached the door, a member of the Staff took me by the arm, and drew me into the room toward a young and delicate mulatto girl who was standing against the opposite wall, with the meek, patient bearing of her race, so expressive of the system of repression to which they have been so long subjected.

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