In the two weeks since Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federals had entered New Orleans, they faced intense scorn from the residents for their unwanted occupation. Much of this enmity came from women, who insulted the soldiers, sang Confederate songs such as “The Bonnie Blue Flag” in their presence, or avoided them altogether. One woman dumped a chamber pot on Admiral David G. Farragut’s head from an upstairs window. Some of the women hoped to provoke the Federals into attacking them, thus giving the men a cause to rise up against their oppressors.
In response to this behavior, Butler preemptively issued General Orders Number 28:
“As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subjected to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans, in return for the most scrupulous noninterference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall, by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”
This shocking order allowing Federal soldiers to treat the women of New Orleans like prostitutes was interpreted by southerners as legalizing rape. As such, it was met by outrage as an unforgivable insult to womanhood. Butler was nicknamed the “Beast,” a biblical reference. President Jefferson Davis later accused Butler of committing war crimes and authorized Confederates to execute him if captured. (Ironically, Butler had backed Davis for U.S. president at the first Democratic National Convention of 1860.)
When news of this order reached Great Britain, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston declared to Parliament, “It is a proclamation to which I do not scruple to attach the epithet infamous! Any Englishman must blush to think that such an act has been committed by one belonging to the Anglo-Saxon race.” Palmerston then took the unprecedented step of sending a message directly to the U.S. ambassador, Charles Francis Adams, without going through the British foreign minister. Palmerston wrote confidentially:
“I cannot refrain from taking the liberty of saying to you that it is difficult if not impossible to express adequately the disgust which must be excited in the mind of every honorable man by the general order of General Butler, given in the enclosed extract from yesterday’s ‘Times.’ Even when a town is taken by assault it is the practice of the commander of the conquering army to protect to his utmost the inhabitants and especially the female part of them, and I will venture to say that no example can be found in the history of civilized nations, till the publication of this order, of a general guilty in cold blood of so infamous an act as deliberately to hand over the female inhabitants of a conquered city to the unbridled license of an unrestrained soldiery.
“If the Federal government chooses to be served by men capable of such revolting outrages, they must submit to abide by the deserved opinion which mankind will form of their conduct.”
British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell demanded that the Lincoln administration revoke the order. The administration would not. Adams did not respond to Palmerston; instead he forwarded the prime minister’s letter to Secretary of State William H. Seward. But Adams did acknowledge that “this unprecedented act of the Prime Minister may not be without great significance.”
An editorial in the Saturday Review opined, “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.”
Butler argued that the order was necessary because his men had been generally respectful toward the city residents and expected the same treatment in return. Butler also noted that the troops had shown remarkable restraint in not retaliating against the women’s repeated derision.
New Orleans newspapers initially refused to publish such an order, prompting the Federals to print it out on sheets of paper and post it on major street corners. Butler responded to the newspapers’ refusal by ordering the suspension of the New Orleans Bee and the occupation of the New Orleans True Delta offices. The True Delta submitted to force and published the order, and other newspapers reluctantly followed suit. Several enraged ladies canceled their subscriptions, and Butler refused to explain his order to Mayor John T. Monroe. When Monroe objected to Butler’s actions, Butler ordered him, the police chief, and several others to be imprisoned at Fort Jackson.
The “Woman Order” was not regularly enforced, but after its publication, women generally stopped insulting the troops, so the order served its purpose anyway. Some who continued harassing soldiers were imprisoned at Ship Island in the Gulf of Mexico. Women kept up a protest of sorts by lining the bottom of their chamber pots with Butler’s image.
Butler also earned the scorn of government officials by pitting laborers against planters. Butler initially offered to pay planters for their crops “for the benefit of the poor of this city.” He also helped alleviate some of the yellow fever that often struck New Orleans by reforming sanitation services. When the mayor protested his efforts, Butler accused him of having no “regard to the starving poor, the working man, his wife and child.” Butler then appealed directly to the people, proclaiming, “how long will you uphold these flagrant wrongs and by inaction suffer yourselves to be made the serfs of these leaders?”
Louisiana Governor Thomas Moore issued a counter-proclamation, accusing Butler of trying to incite class warfare after coming “from a section of the country (New England) that has done more than any other to degrade and cheapen labor and reduce the laboring man to the condition of the slave.” Moore reminded Butler that “Southerners are a high-toned, chivalrous people.” Moore’s message was printed in the New Orleans newspapers. This angered Butler so much that he ordered four of them closed.
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- Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), Civil War A to Z. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.