Subject to the Will of the Conquerors

Major General Benjamin F. Butler arrived with his Federal troops to impose military rule over New Orleans. Butler entered the demoralized and defenseless city with about 4,000 troops on the night of May 1. Flag Officer David G. Farragut, whose naval forces had held the city at gunpoint since arriving on April 25, now set his sights on advancing further up the Mississippi River to such strongholds as Baton Rouge and Vicksburg. The surgeon aboard the U.S.S. Hartford wrote in his diary, “General Butler arrived with three regiments… with colors flying and bands playing Yankee Doodle and The Star-Spangled Banner.”

City residents jeered and taunted the Federal troops as they marched from the river transports to their new living quarters in the Custom House. Butler set up headquarters at the St. Charles Hotel the next day and then met with Mayor John T. Monroe. The meeting was interrupted by protestors gathering outside and cursing the Federals. Butler directed one of his regiments to keep the mob at bay. When an officer said that one regiment may not be enough, Butler angrily replied that if the mob could not be controlled, “open upon them with artillery.”

Monroe strongly objected to this and went outside to tell the crowd that Butler intended to fire on them with cannon. As the protestors backed off, Butler’s informants told him that one of the men in the crowd was William Mumford, the alleged ringleader of the group that had torn the U.S. flag down from the Mint and desecrated it. Butler planned to make an example of Mumford after firmly establishing Federal rule over the city.

When the meeting resumed, Monroe argued against Butler imposing martial law. Butler countered that martial law had already been declared by Major General Mansfield Lovell when his Confederates held the town, so Butler would just be upholding Lovell’s decree. Monroe then requested the removal of all Federal troops from the city. Butler replied, “New Orleans has been conquered by the forces of the United States, and by the laws of all nations, lies subject to the will of the conquerors.”

The next day, Butler issued a proclamation to the people of New Orleans dated May 1 (the delay was caused by the refusal of the New Orleans True Delta to publish it). Butler declared that the city would remain under martial law, just as the Confederates had imposed it before retreating. Confederate flags were prohibited, with the U.S. flag “treated with the utmost deference and respect by all persons, under pain of severe punishment.”

Maj Gen B.F. Butler | Image Credit:

Any secessionist who sought to repent would be considered a loyal citizen if he swore loyalty to the U.S. Unrepentant secessionists “still holding allegiance to the Confederate States will be deemed rebels against the Government of the United States, and regarded and treated as enemies thereof.” Refusing to recognize secessionists as enemy combatants under Articles of War, Butler stated that the killing of Federal soldiers “by any disorderly person or mob is simply assassination and murder and not war, and will be so regarded and punished.”

Turning to press censorship, Butler declared, “No publication, either by newspaper, pamphlet, or handbill, giving accounts of the movement of soldiers of the United States within this department, reflecting in any way upon the United States or its officers, or tending in any way to influence the public mind against the Government of the United States, will be permitted…” Newspaper articles had to be “submitted to the examination of an officer who will be detailed for that purpose from these headquarters.”

Butler prohibited the constitutional right of peaceful assembly, explaining that “assemblages of persons in the street, either by day or night, tend to disorder.” The police department was disbanded, and the fire department was to report to the Federal provost marshal. The postal service would remain in operation without interference. Urging the people to somehow return to normal life, Butler stated, “All inhabitants are enjoined to pursue their usual avocations, all shops and places of business are to be kept open in the accustomed manner, and services to be had in the churches and religious houses as in times of profound peace.” He assured residents that the Federals were there “not to destroy but to make good, to restore order out of chaos, and the government of laws in place of the passions of men.”

One of Butler’s first orders of business was to shut down the New Orleans True Delta for refusing to print this proclamation; the Federals used their printing presses to publish it themselves. The newspaper was reopened only after the owner apologized for his refusal. Butler also ordered the seizure of $800,000 in gold from The Netherlands consulate.

Butler quickly organized a system of military government while establishing defenses against any potential Confederate attempts to retake the city. His men used New Orleans as a base for servicing Federal naval vessels and gathering supplies needed for incursions into Louisiana, Texas, and the Deep South. The occupation brought a certain efficiency to city problems such as sanitation, which helped alleviate the rampant yellow fever epidemics in the region. But it also brought much in the way of corruption, infringement of civil rights, pillage, and outright tyranny that made Butler hated throughout the Confederacy.


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