Seeking to Open the Mississippi

Federal Major General Benjamin F. Butler had tyrannically ruled over the Department of the Gulf from his headquarters at New Orleans for six months. He had issued orders seizing private property, levying confiscatory taxes, censoring the press, and restricting freedom of movement, speech, and association. He had also executed William B. Mumford for aiding the Confederate cause, leading President Jefferson Davis to brand him a war criminal.

Maj Gen B.F. Butler | Image Credit:

Butler often targeted wealthy citizens while he and his cronies got rich on kickbacks from confiscated goods. When Butler imposed a temporary ban on liquor, his agents bought up as much as they could and sold it on the black market for a hefty profit. Butler used Federal warships to transports his goods, which hampered naval efficiency. U.S. Treasury agent George Denison knew about the malfeasance but refused to report Butler because, being an abolitionist, he supported Butler’s efforts to free slaves.

Butler also seized the assets of banks and foreign consulates as “contraband of war.” All immigrants were required to swear loyalty to the U.S. or face deportation. Merchants who did not pledge loyalty had their businesses shut down. Churches not including prayers for the Federal cause in their sermons were closed. Some were sent to prison for refusing to take a loyalty oath, including New Orleans Mayor John Monroe. Others faced prison for deriding Federal soldiers or voicing support for the Confederacy.

The unprecedented taxes that Butler levied, especially on the wealthy class, led to massive corruption and bureaucracy within Butler’s department. But they also served a positive end by funding improved sanitation systems in New Orleans. This perversely left city residents with the cleanest, healthiest environment they ever had while undergoing unprecedented political and military repression.

Like George B. McClellan and Don Carlos Buell, Butler was a Democrat whose political influence was needed for fellow Democrats to support the war. However, Butler was also popular among the Radical Republicans for his recruitment of blacks into the military and his recent order freeing all “slaves not known to be the slaves of loyal owners.” But despite Butler’s popularity, President Abraham Lincoln decided to end his controversial reign. His successor would be Major General Nathaniel P. Banks.

Maj Gen N.P. Banks | Image Credit:

Banks, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts, had an undistinguished military record. He was best known for his defeats in the Shenandoah Valley at the hands of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. In fact, he had lost so many supplies to the enemy that Confederates nicknamed him “Commissary” Banks. Nevertheless, Banks’s duties would be greatly expanded beyond Butler’s. Banks would be assigned “to the command of the Department of the Gulf, including the State of Texas.” As General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck instructed:

“The President regards the opening of the Mississippi River as the first and most important of all our military and naval operations, and it is hoped that you will not lose a moment in accomplishing it… if Vicksburg can be taken and the Mississippi kept open it seems to me (they) will be about the most important fruits of the campaigns yet set in motion.”

Banks would be “the ranking general in the Southwest… authorized to assume the control of any military force from the upper Mississippi which may come within your command. The line of division between your department and that of Major-General (Ulysses S.) Grant is, therefore, left undecided for the present, and you will exercise superior authority as far north as you may ascend the river.”

Halleck directed Banks to lead an army to Jackson, Mississippi, “and thus cut off all connection by rail between Northern Mississippi… and Atlanta… the chief military depot of the rebel armies in the West.” Banks would then return to Louisiana and “ascend with a naval and military force the Red River as far as it is navigable, and thus open an outlet for the sugar and cotton of Northern Louisiana. It is also suggested that, having Red River in our possession, it would form the best base for operations in Texas. These instructions are not intended to tie your hands or to hamper your operations in the slightest degree… and I need not assure you, general, that the Government has unlimited confidence not only in your judgment and discretion, but also in your energy and military promptness.”

As he prepared to move, Banks submitted an immense requisition for equipment and horses. The chief quartermaster told Lincoln that the order could not “be filled and got off within an hour short of two months.” Lincoln wrote Banks:

“I have just been overwhelmed and confounded… When you parted with me you had no such ideas in your mind… You must get back to something like the plan you had then or your expedition is a failure before you start. You must be off before Congress meets (in the first week of December)… Now, dear general, do not think this is an ill-natured letter; it is the very reverse. The simple publication of this requisition would ruin you.”

Banks responded by explaining that the large request “was drawn up by an officer who did not fully comprehend my instructions, and inadvertently approved by me without sufficient examination.” Nevertheless, Banks remained in New York preparing for his expedition past his Gulf Coast departure deadline.

Meanwhile, the Federal military occupation of New Orleans continued. A proclamation was issued that Federal congressional elections would be held in parts of the occupied regions of Louisiana. Rear Admiral David G. Farragut visited New Orleans and discovered a French admiral with two ships and a British Navy corvette defying the Federal blockade nearby. He wrote:

“I am still doing nothing, but waiting for the tide of events and doing all I can to hold what I have, & blockade Mobile. So soon as the river rises, we will have (Rear Admiral David) Porter down from above, who now commands the upper squadron, and then I shall probably go outside… We shall spoil unless we have a fight occasionally.”


  • Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2012.
  • United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 15. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.

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