Butler the Beast

General Benjamin Butler, "The Beast"General Benjamin Butler, "The Beast" (Photo: NYPL Digital Collections)

When Union troops under the command of General Benjamin F. Butler occupied New Orleans at the beginning of May 1862, they received a famously inhospitable welcome. Butler issued an order declaring martial law, fairly standard procedure for an occupying military force. The order banned most public assemblies, required enemies to hand in their weapons, and made it illegal to fly any flag other than that of the United States. The city administration grudgingly accepted the situation, and merchants realized they had to do business with the soldiers in the city.

But their wives and daughters were another matter.

It was a period where interactions between men and women were carefully scripted, and to be respectable was to follow the rules for social encounters. This was all the more important in an honor-based culture like the South. White men’s status depended on their role as protectors of their dependents, and to be unable to defend the honor of one’s women was to be something less than a complete man. Women, on the other hand, were supposed to pay for this protection with obedience and respect. So in order to convey their contempt for Union soldiers, many of the Confederate women of New Orleans flouted these rules of decorum. Women crossed the street to avoid speaking to Union soldiers, and if a soldier got on a streetcar, they complained and got off. In a few cases, women would spit in the gutter when Union soldiers passed them.

After a couple weeks of this treatment, Butler had had enough. He had plenty of experience defying Confederates: he was the commander who first refused to return fugitive slaves to their masters in Virginia, claiming that they were “contraband of war” and creating a legal route to freedom for thousands of enslaved people throughout the war. In response to the uncivil behavior of the Confederate women of New Orleans, Butler issued General Orders, No. 28:

General Orders, No. 28.
New Orleans, May 15, 1862.

As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for the most scrupulous non-interference 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.

By command of Major-General Butler:
Assistant Adjutant-General and Chief of Staff.

Butler’s order was effective, but it came at a price. Very quickly, his decision to insult the honor of Confederate women in the most audacious way he could imagine led to a new nickname: “Butler the Beast.” The policy of treating women who disrespected Union soldiers as being without honor meant that Butler was putting them outside the pale of women worthy of the protection of honorable men. The order authorized insults, and by implication, even sexual assaults on haughty Confederate women. Not surprisingly, this inflamed Confederate men and became a rallying point for opposition to Union occupation during and even after the war. It was one of the worst of the many attacks on the honor of Confederate men. Butler was thick-skinned and confrontational enough to revel in that fight. The lasting effect, though, was to depict Union soldiers as a sexual threat to the white women of the South.

After the war, Butler became a prominent Republican congressman from Massachusetts and took the lead in drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Along with his record of freeing contraband slaves during the war and supporting the rights of African Americans in freedom, Butler became one of the leading figures associated with black rights, alongside Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner. But to white southerners, he represented both black empowerment and a sexual threat to white women. These two ideas would come together powerfully in the 1880s as a wave of lynching began sweeping over the South, taking the lives of thousands of black men over the next few decades. Butler’s “Woman Order” might have temporarily tamed the Confederate women of New Orleans, but it was part of what their husbands and sons used to justify the torture and murder of the husbands and sons of many of the people Butler’s other actions had helped to emancipate.

About the Author

Bruce E. Baker

Bruce E. Baker is a lecturer in American history at Newcastle University. His forthcoming book, co-authored with Barbara Hahn, is The Cotton Kings: Capitalism and Corruption in Turn-of-the-Century New York and New Orleans (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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1 Comment

  1. I have always wondered why Southern Men who were notorious for sleeping with their female slaves could demand anything from their wives, ( I realize not all Southern men slept with their slaves, but New Orleans was famous for it’s houses of ill repute with the beautiful light skinned and mixed race women) I don’t understand at all why the wives put up with the adventures of their husbands. I do understand that women depended on their husbands for everything, but why didn’t they lock their bedroom doors? Perhaps I am being simplistic but I would like to read about a Southern woman’s revenge or have her falling in love with a man of color. I believe I have read where there was one or two. History from a woman’s perspective would be fascinating, would it not.

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