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General Benjamin Franklin Butler may have been the third most hated man in the Confederacy. After Abraham Lincoln and William T. Sherman, Butler was reviled more than any other Union leader. While he is little known today outside the world of military historians, he was once internationally famous as “The Beast Butler.” He was also the man most responsible for winning New Orleans’ immigrants over to the Union side in the Civil War.
General Ben Butler was not a West Point graduate. In fact, before the Civil War he was not even a soldier. Yet within a year of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, he would be a major general commanding a large Union army in one of the most successful operations of the war. What made Butler a key to converting New Orleans from the first city of the Confederacy to a Union stronghold wasn’t his knowledge of military science, which was virtually non-existent, but rather the tactics he learned as a Democratic street politician.
Ben Butler’s father died from yellow fever before Ben was born. His now-single mother took him and his two siblings to live in Lowell, Massachusetts, where she ran a boarding house. Lowell was America’s first industrial city and it was filled with farmers’ daughters looking for work, as well as with new immigrants, who would soon form the backbone of America’s working class. Butler developed an easy familiarity with the type of people he would rely on for support in New Orleans.1
In the 1840s, Butler served as a lawyer representing “factory girls” who were blacklisted by wealthy mill owners for standing up for their rights. He soon moved into local Democratic politics where he took on the mill owners on behalf of women who couldn’t even vote. Ben Butler also ingratiated himself with the Irish and other immigrant workers arriving in Lowell.2
By the end of the 1840s, Butler tried to combine working class Democratic politics with the anti-slavery agitation of the emerging Free Soil movement. Butler hoped to rally workers around a demand for a 10-hour work day at a time when it was common for factory hands to work 60 to 70 hours per week with no overtime pay. Lowell factory owners tried to retaliate by posting signs warning that any workers voting for Butler’s coalition would “be discharged” from work. Butler publicly fought this new threatened blacklist and forced the rich men to back down. He also compelled the Massachusetts legislature to limit the hours of work.3
During the 1850s, Butler continued to occupy the left-wing of the Democratic Party. He fought against the anti-immigrant Know Nothings who dominated the politics of Massachusetts in the middle of the decade. Even though he was a militia officer and under the jurisdiction of the state’s Know Nothing governor, he refused to follow orders discriminating against the foreign-born. Ben Butler also argued that the rich should bear a fair share of the tax burden and provide the resources for projects to relieve the suffering of the poor, stands that made him popular with the emerging immigrant working class.4
Butler was a strong advocate for immigrant rights. He mocked the notion that any white man born in the United States could vote, but that equally intelligent and honest people born in other countries could not vote until they cleared a bunch of arbitrary hurdles erected by the states. Butler argued that any man legally residing in the United States should be allowed to become a citizen.5
While Butler’s positions on race were amazingly inconsistent before the war, in 1861 he became the first Union general to essentially free slaves that fled to Union camps. Butler said that since the slaves’ work helped the Confederacy, that escaped slaves who did Confederate work were “contraband” of war and that Union soldiers must not return the escapees to their “owners.”6
When Union forces took control of New Orleans at the end of April 1862, Ben Butler was their commander. He encountered a city where Unionist civilians faced violence at the hands of Confederate backers, and where a Know Nothing mayor apparently allowed anti-immigrant terror-squads to intimidate the nearly 40 percent of New Orleanians who were foreign born.
In that city, pro-Confederate civilians were so bold that white women spat in the faces of Union officers, poured human excrement on patrolling Union soldiers, and, in one notorious case, poured urine on Admiral David Farragut, the Union Navy commander. Confederate women even disrupted the funerals of dead United States soldiers.7
Harper’s Weekly depicts white New Orleans women with amazing powers of expectoration before Order 28 (left panel) and a more courteous greeting after the proclamation.
To combat the Confederate sympathies, Butler issued his infamous Order #28, saying that women who harassed his men would be treated as streetwalkers and the attacks stopped. But Butler still had to find a way to protect the Union stronghold in New Orleans—which was isolated and surrounded by the Confederate states of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi—from Confederate armies and from a pro-Confederate uprising. Order #28 might stop spitting, but it wouldn’t stop a determined rebel force from taking over the city. For allies, Butler turned to the city’s immigrants, blacks, and working men.8
During the early weeks of the Union occupation of New Orleans, white women who sympathized with the Confederacy sometimes dumped chamber pots filled with urine on the heads of Union soldiers. When General Ben Butler issued an order calling for the arrest of any woman who defiled his soldiers, chamber pots with his picture in them were sold to pro-Confederate women to allow them to urinate on the Union General’s face without risking arrest. These Ben Butler chamber pots were popular across the South. (Source: WillEckrich via Flickr)
1. When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans by Chester G. Hearn, Louisiana State University Press (1997) p. 8.
2. When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans by Chester G. Hearn, Louisiana State University Press (1997) p. 14.
3 When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans by Chester G. Hearn, Louisiana State University Press (1997) pp. 15-16.
4. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael D. Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008) pp. 155-157.
5. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael D. Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008) pp. 155-157.
6. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael D. Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008) p. 158.
7. “’The Unmeaning Twaddle About Order 28’: Benjamin Butler and Confederate Women in Occupied New Orleans, 1862” by Jacqueline Campbell in The Journal of the Civil War Era Vol. 2, No. 1, March 2012.
8. “’The Unmeaning Twaddle About Order 28’: Benjamin Butler and Confederate Women in Occupied New Orleans, 1862” by Jacqueline Campbell in The Journal of the Civil War Era Vol. 2, No. 1, March 2012.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites