The Ladies of New Orleans

A Union general is stymied by the ornery women of the South.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a Southern sympathizer who used her position in Washington social circles to gather information, became one of the more interesting spies recruited by the Confederacy. She’s shown here, visiting with her daughter, while held in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington. (Alexander Gardner/National Portrait Gallery)

Often criticized as an opportunist with insufficient respect for authority, and widely regarded as incompetent on the battlefield, Union General Benjamin Butler managed to upset nearly everyone during his stint as the military governor of New Orleans. While in charge of the captured Southern city, he decreed that any woman “show[ing] contempt for any officer or soldier” would be treated under the law as a prostitute. One reporter wrote, “When was it ever heard before that the Commanding General of a conquering army was obliged to make a special order to protect, not the females of the conquered city, but one to protect the soldiery from the insults of the female population?”

Butler was not, however, without principle: early in the war, he pioneered the Union army’s policy of refusing to return escaped slaves, and later he lobbied for equal pay for black soldiers. A year after the New Orleans debacle, Albert F. Puffer, an officer who had served on his staff there, set out to defend his boss. In this excerpt, Puffer addressed Butler’s infamous “‘Order No. 28,’ relating to the conduct of women.”

—Sage Stossel

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 Soulè, 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?

Read the full text of this article (originally titled “Our General”) here.