June 7, 1862 – Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding Federal occupation forces in New Orleans, used dubious legal proceedings to make an example of a citizen for dishonoring the U.S. flag.
When Admiral David G. Farragut unofficially captured New Orleans in late April, he directed Federal forces to raise the U.S. flag over the Mint on the lower end of the French Quarter. Soon after, locals ripped the flag down, tore it to shreds, and wore pieces of it on their lapels as badges of honor. A city newspaper published the names of these men and hailed them as heroes. Farragut informed Butler upon the general’s arrival, and Butler vowed to hang the alleged ringleader, a 42-year-old noncombatant named William B. Mumford.
By this month, Butler had already been condemned by the people of New Orleans for his tyrannical rule over the city. His curtailment of civil liberties and his infamous “Woman Order” allowing for the treatment of women as prostitutes if they insulted Federal soldiers earned him the nickname “Beast.” Ordering the arrest of Mumford would only add to his notoriety.
In late May, Federal troops seized Mumford and put him on “trial” before a drumhead court of Butler’s officers. The Federals alleged that Mumford “wickedly and traitorously rebelled against the Government of the United States to which he owed allegiance, and has given aid and comfort to the enemies thereof, and especially has sworn allegiance to a pretended Government called the Confederate States of America…”
The officers declared that Mumford, with “his treasonable and wicked purposes… did maliciously and willfully tear down said flag from said building and trail it ignominiously through the public streets, and there afterwards did destroy said flag.” They did not acknowledge that the flag had been raised before New Orleans officially surrendered, which technically violated the rules of war and gave citizens the right to haul it down.
After several witnesses testified to seeing Mumford participate in the crime, the court found him guilty and Butler issued a proclamation: “Let an order be made, and Mumford be informed that he will be executed between the hours of 8 A.M. & 12 M. June 7th 1862.”
Butler notified the War Department, “They have insulted our flag–torn it down with indignity. This outrage will be punished in such manner as in my judgment will caution both the perpetrators and abettors of the act, so that they shall fear the stripes if they do not reverence the stars in our banner.”
City residents expressed outrage when they learned about the scheduled execution, with some calling for Butler’s head in exchange. Butler calmed their fury somewhat by releasing six Confederate soldiers who had violated their parole; many thought that since their offenses were worse than Mumford’s, this would set the stage for his release as well. Butler also agreed to meet with Mumford’s wife and child, who begged the general to spare his life. But Butler disappointed them:
“I hear Mumford believes he will not be executed, and I am told he is making no preparations for his death. Now, I think the greatest kindness you can do him is to let me ring for my carriage and send you to the jail. I will give an order for your admission to his room, or that you and your family may meet him in any room in the jail that will be most convenient for you. I wish you to convince him that he is mistaken and that he will be executed.”
Butler considered the Mumford case a test of his rule over New Orleans. If he spared Mumford, the mob would succeed in shaping his policies. Despite the protests over the illegality of such an action, Mumford’s fate was sealed.
Federals erected a scaffold in front of the Mint, where the “crime” had been committed. A large crowd gathered on the morning of the 7th as troops escorted Mumford to the site. He looked at the U.S. flag over the Mint and announced that he had fought for that flag twice, but it had become hateful to him. He added that his actions had been “committed under excitement.”
Mumford asked the people “to act justly to all men; to rear their children properly; and when they met death, they would meet it firmly.” He said, “I consider that the manner of my death will be no disgrace to my wife and child; my country will honor them.”
The hangmen secured Mumford’s arms and legs, blindfolded his eyes, and put the noose around his neck. The trap door opened and Mumford dropped, convulsing before dying. Prior to the execution, the U.S. flag had flown over just the Mint and the Custom House. Now, in a symbolic gesture, Butler ordered it raised over City Hall as well.
Many of Butler’s supporters believed that he had gone too far this time, and his opponents now openly called for his death as a war criminal. Southerners took note of how Butler handled the people of New Orleans and resolved to destroy their cities before allowing them to fall into Federal hands.
By around the time of Mumford’s hanging, news of Butler’s “Woman Order” reached Europe. In Great Britain, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston protested Butler’s actions against civilians to U.S. Minister Charles F. Adams. An editorial appeared in the Saturday Review regarding the order:
“Unless the author of this infamous proclamation is promptly recalled let us hear no more of the ‘ties that bind us to our transatlantic kinsmen.’ No Englishman ought to own as kinsmen who attempt to protect themselves from a handful of women by official and authoritative threats of rape.”
The French were also outraged, as Henri Mercier, French minister to the U.S., demanded Butler’s removal as occupation commander. President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward began the process of removing Butler, which proved delicate because of his immense popularity in the North, especially in his home region of New England.
The backlash over Mumford’s execution did nothing to restrain Butler’s iron rule. Soon afterward, Federals arrested Mrs. Philip Philips for allegedly laughing at a Federal officer’s funeral procession as it passed her home. She was confined on Ship Island, Mississippi, for nearly three months.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (7 Jun 1862); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 16648-54; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 181; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 840; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 533; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 164, 166; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 223; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 352, 371; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q262