Start: 1862-04-25 End: 1862-05-01
The capture of New Orleans (April 25 – May 1, 1862) during the American Civil War was an important event for the Union. Having fought past Forts Jackson and St. Philip, the Union was unopposed in its capture of the city itself, which was spared the destruction suffered by many other Southern cities. However, the controversial and confrontational administration of the city by its U.S Army military governor caused lasting resentment. This capture of the largest Confederate city was a major turning point and an incident of international importance.
The history of New Orleans contrasts significantly with the histories of other cities that became part of the Confederate States of America. Because it was founded by the French and owned by Spain for a time, New Orleans had a more cosmopolitan culture and diverse population. Only 13 percent of the 1810 population was Anglo-American. The census population of that time was made up of mostly French speaking refuges from the Haitian Revolution, the French and Indian War, and French and Spanish Creoles along with some smuggled slaves. New Orleans also benefited more by the Industrial Revolution, international trade, and geographical position. Its position by the mouth of the Mississippi River, which drained most of the North American continent, made New Orleans one of the most significant transportation centers in the early United States before the establishment of railroad and road systems. Of particular significance were the inventions of the steamboat and the cotton gin. Before the steamboat, keelboat men bringing cargo downriver would break up their boats for lumber in New Orleans and travel overland back to Ohio or Illinois to repeat the process. Steamboats had enough power to move upstream against the current of the Mississippi, making two-way trade possible between New Orleans and the cities in the interior river network. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, which greatly expanded international trade, and the development of the cotton gin, cotton became a valuable export product, adding to the volume of cargo moved through the city.
Jacksonian democracy and manifest destiny
A formative event in the early history of New Orleans was the Battle of New Orleans. This battle, though fought after the end of the War of 1812, enhanced the political career of Andrew Jackson, who, along with Martin Van Buren, in turn founded the Democratic Party. Jackson became the first of America’s “Imperial Presidents”, and began a new political movement now known as the Jacksonian Democracy. This new direction in American politics had a profound influence on the development of New Orleans and the American Southwest. One of these developments was the construction of Fort Jackson, Louisiana, a star fort suggested by and named after Jackson. This fortress was intended to support Fort St. Philip and bar the Mississippi Delta from invasion. The presidents of the Jacksonian Democracy supported the concept of Manifest Destiny, greatly expanding acquisition of territory in the American Southwest and the support of international trade along with the spread of slavery. This powerful political movement also produced sectional tension between the northern and southern halves of the United States, resulting in the creation of the Whig Party to oppose the new Democratic Party. As the political rivalry between the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs intensified, the Republican Party was founded, to counter the spread of slavery into states produced by territorial conquests of the Jacksonian Democrats. The victory of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican presidential candidate, in the election of 1860, resulted in the secession crisis and the American Civil War.
The jewel in the mouth of the Mississippi
By the year 1860, the City of New Orleans was in a position of unprecedented economic, military, and political power. The Mexican–American War, along with the annexation of Texas, had made New Orleans even more of a springboard for expansion. The California Gold Rush contributed another share to local wealth. The electrical telegraph arrived in New Orleans in 1848, and the completion of the New Orleans, Jackson, and Great Northern Railroad from New Orleans to Canton, a distance of over 200 miles (320 km), added another dimension to local transportation. The combination of all these factors resulted in an increase in the price of prime field hands of 21 per cent in 1848, and further increases as the value of trade grew through the 1850s. By 1860 New Orleans was one of the greatest ports in the world, with 33 different steamship lines and trade worth 500 million dollars passing through the city. As far as population, the city not only outnumbered any other city in the South, it was larger than the four next-largest Southern cities combined, with an estimated population of 168,675.
The election of Lincoln in 1860 inspired one of the most ardent secessionists in Louisiana, its governor, Thomas Overton Moore, who had taken office on January 23, 1860. Governor Moore interdicted an effort to make New Orleans a “free city”, or neutral area in the conflict. A solid Democrat, Moore organized an effective and discreet movement that voted Louisiana out of the Union in a secession convention that represented only 5 per cent of the citizens of Louisiana. Moore also ordered the Louisiana militia to seize the Federal arsenal at Baton Rouge, and the Federal forts (Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip that blocked approach upriver to New Orleans, Fort Pike that guarded the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain, the New Orleans Barracks south of the city, and Fort Macomb, which guarded the Chef Menteur Pass). These military moves were ordered on January 8, 1861, before the secession convention. With military companies forming all over Louisiana, the convention itself was anti-climactic, voting Louisiana out of the Union 113 to 17. The outbreak of hostilities in the area of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, led to the story of New Orleans in the Civil War.
The Union’s strategy was devised by Winfield Scott, whose “Anaconda Plan” called for the division of the Confederacy by seizing control of the Mississippi River. One of the first steps in such operations was the imposition of the Union blockade. After the blockade was established, a Confederate naval counterattack attempted to drive off the Union navy, resulting in the Battle of the Head of Passes. The Union countermove was to enter the mouth of the Mississippi River, ascend to New Orleans and capture the city, closing off the mouth of the Mississippi to Confederate shipping both from the Gulf and from Mississippi River ports still used by Confederate vessels. In mid-January 1862, Flag Officer David G. Farragut had undertaken this enterprise with his West Gulf Blockading Squadron. The way was soon open except the water passage past the two masonry forts held by Confederate artillery, Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, which were above the Head of Passes approximately 70 miles (110 km) downriver below New Orleans.
From April 18 to April 28, Farragut bombarded and then fought his way past these forts in the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, managing to get thirteen of his fleet’s ships upriver on April 24. Historian John D. Winters in The Civil War in Louisiana (1963) noted that with few exceptions the Confederate fleet at New Orleans had
“made a sorry showing. Self-destruction, lack of co-operation, cowardice of untrained officers, and the murderous fire of the Federal gunboats reduced the fleet to a demoralized shambles.”
The enemy at the dock
Major General Mansfield Lovell, Commander of Department 1, Louisiana, was left with one tenable option after the Union Navy broke through the Confederate ring of fortifications and defense vessels guarding the lower Mississippi: evacuation. The inner ring of fortifications at Chalmette was only intended to resist ground troops; few of the gun batteries were aimed toward the river. Most of the artillery, ammunition, troops, and vessels in the area were committed to the Jackson/St. Phillip’s position. Once this defense was breached, there remained to face Union troops and warships only three thousand militiamen with sundry military supplies and armed with shotguns. The city itself was a poor position to defend against a hostile fleet. With high water outside the levees, Union ships were elevated above the city and able to fire down into the streets and buildings below. Besides the ever present danger of weather-caused breaks in the levees, now an even greater threat to New Orleans was the ability of the Union military to cause a break in a major levee that would lead to flooding most of the city, possibly destroying it within a day.
Lovell loaded his troops and supplies aboard the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern railroad and sent them to Camp Moore, 78 miles (126 km) north. All artillery and munitions were sent to Vicksburg. Lovell then sent a last message to the War Department in Richmond,
“The enemy has passed the forts. It is too late to send any guns here; they had better go to Vicksburg.”
Military stores, ships, and warehouses were then burned. Anything considered useful to the Union, including thousands of bales of cotton, were thrown into the river.
Despite the complete vulnerability of the city, the citizens along with military and civil authorities remained defiant. At 2:00 p.m. on April 25, Admiral Farragut sent Captain Bailey, First Division Commander from the USS Cayuga, to accept the surrender of the city. Armed mobs within the city defied the Union officers and marines sent to city hall. General Lovell and Mayor Monroe refused to surrender the city. William B. Mumford pulled down a Union flag raised over the former U.S. mint by marines of the USS Pensacola and the mob destroyed it. Farragut did not destroy the city in response, but moved upriver to subdue fortifications north of the city. On April 29, Farragut and 250 marines from the USS Hartford removed the Louisiana State flag from the City Hall. By May 2, US Secretary of State William H. Seward declared New Orleans “recovered” and “mails are allowed to pass”.
Occupation and pacification
The rise of a political general
On May 1, 1862, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, with an army of 5,000 men, occupied the city of New Orleans without resistance. Butler was a former Democratic party official, lawyer, and state legislator. General Butler was one of the first Major Generals of Volunteers of the Civil War appointed by Abraham Lincoln. He had gained glory as a Massachusetts state militia general who had anticipated the war and carefully prepared his six militia regiments for the conflict. At the start of hostilities he immediately marched to the relief of Washington, D.C., and despite a lack of orders had occupied and restored order to Baltimore, Maryland. As a reward Butler was made commander of Fortress Monroe, on the Virginia Peninsula. There he gained further political renown as the first to practice confiscation of fugitive slaves as contraband of war. This practice was made a later policy of war by Congress. Due to these and other astute political maneuvers, Butler had been chosen to command the army expedition to New Orleans. Because of his lack of military experience and military success, many were happy to see him go.
Balance between military power and political support
Butler was one of the most controversial and volatile personalities of the Civil War. He was infamous in New Orleans for his confrontational proclamations and corruption. If these things were all he was capable of, he could never have held the city, or prevented Confederate forces from re-capturing it. The impression had been created by Confederate officials and sympathizers that New Orleans and Louisiana were held by brute military force and terror. Butler was in fact a political general, awarded his position by excellent political connections and accomplishments. It was his political expertise that made his position in New Orleans tenable. He in no way had the military force necessary to hold it by force alone. His total military command numbered 15,000 troops. He was never sent reinforcements during the time he commanded in Louisiana. As Butler himself put it,
“We were 2,500 men in a city… of 150,000 inhabitants, all hostile, bitter, defiant, explosive, and standing literally in a magazine, a spark only needed for destruction.”
His methods of preserving order were radical and totalitarian, even in the North and Europe, with the issue of Butler’s General Order No. 28.
The United States War Department under Edwin M. Stanton expected Butler to hold eastern Louisiana, the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, maintain communications up river to Vicksburg, and support Farragut’s forces for the siege of Vicksburg. In addition the city of New Orleans itself was just as indefensible for the Union as for the Confederates. Surrounded by a fragile network of levees and lower in elevation than anything else around it, New Orleans was extremely vulnerable to flooding, bombardment, and insurrection, and was generally unhealthy and subject to devastating epidemics. Defense of the city against attacks from Confederate forces depended on an extensive outer ring of fortifications requiring a garrison of thousands of troops. As a conquered territory, Louisiana had a potential for becoming a serious logistical drain on Union forces, and an unsustainable front if contested by well-organized resistance movements. It was popularly assumed that the Confederacy would launch a major counteroffensive to retake New Orleans. As the largest population center of the Confederacy, and commanding formidable industrial and shipping resources, its permanent loss would be politically intolerable to the Confederacy.
Building a political power base in New Orleans
The most valuable asset Butler commanded in New Orleans was not his army, but his formidable political heritage. Butler was a Jacksonian Democrat in all senses, and a populist and reformer. He had a great gift for identifying with the issues of the broadest levels of the voters, and turning them to his political advantage. Here the Jacksonian political legacy had come full circle in 47 years, from defending New Orleans from the British, to securing it from secession. Butler’s inscription on the base of Jackson’s statue, “The Union Must and Shall be Preserved”, was symbolic of his political identity. The inscription echoed Andrew Jackson’s 1830 toast in response to a speech endorsing “nullification”, during what was called the Nullification Crisis. Jackson stated, “Our Federal Union! It must be preserved!”. This statement defined Jackson’s position against any threat to the Union. The spoils system created by the Democratic party was also part of Butler’s political heritage. Butler believed the advantages of political office should be used to the advantage of friends and supporters, and to suppress political opponents. In general, Butler used these political abilities to play the various factions and interests in New Orleans as a virtuoso conductor would inspire an orchestra, to insure his control and reward Union supporters while isolating and marginalizing hostile pro-confederate factions.
The poorer classes as the key to the city
Butler began his rule of martial law in New Orleans by sentencing anyone calling for cheers for Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Major General P. G. T. Beauregard to three months hard labor at Fort Jackson. He also issued order number 25, which distributed captured Confederate food supplies of beef and sugar in the city to the poor and starving. The Union Blockade and the King Cotton embargo had done damage to the port economy, leaving many without work. The value of goods passing through New Orleans had gone from $500 million to $52 million during the period 1860 to 1862. Butler raised three regiments of infantry, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards, the Corps D’Afrique, from existing free black militia units which were supervised by Gen. Daniel Ullmann. These black units were unusual in having black officers. They served both to add to his forces and to confront the former ruling classes of the city with the bayonets of their former slaves. Butler also used his commercial contacts in the northeast and Washington to revive commerce in the city, exporting 17,000 bales of cotton to the northeast and re-establishing international trade. He employed many local citizens in logistics support of the Union military and in cleaning up the city, including an expansion of the existing city sewer system and setting up pumps to empty the system into the river. This policy helped free the city from the anticipated summer yellow fever epidemic, possibly saving thousands of lives. He extensively taxed the wealthy of the city to set up social programs for the lower classes. These “Robin Hood” aspects of his programs provided a broad base of political support, an extensive informal intelligence and counter-espionage organization, and provided law and order.
The impact of the occupation on slaves and slavery
Butler had already done the institution of slavery in the Confederacy considerable damage by instituting his “contraband of war” policy while commanding Fort Monroe on the Virginia peninsula. This policy rationalized the retention of slaves fleeing the seceding states by claiming that the Confederate military was using slave labor for military use in the construction of fortifications, moving military supplies, and constructing roads and railroad grades of use to the Confederate army. Slaves within areas of Confederate control rapidly spread the word that Union military forces were not enforcing the fugitive slave laws, and that slaves could find refuge within Union military lines and employment as laborers for the Federal armies. As a result, the use of slaves in the proximity of Union forces became extremely difficult and expensive, since these slaves would flee at first opportunity to Union lines, depriving the Confederate armies of their labor and their former masters of what they regarded as their valuable property. Since the Confederate government was counting on slave labor to offset the greater numbers of Union soldiers, Butler’s innovative policy struck the Confederacy at a strategic level, destroying an asset counted on to win the military struggle for independence. The flight of the slaves in the direction of the Union also diverted the resources of the Confederate military and its government in defense of the plantations and the discipline of their labor forces. The planters of Louisiana even appealed for aid from Federal authorities, to quote one of them,
“Our family has owned negroes for generations… we have no one but yourself and Genls Shepley and Butler to protect us against these negroes in a state of insurrection.”
The plantations of Jefferson Davis, located in the state of Mississippi on Davis Bend 20 miles (32 km) downriver from Vicksburg, were also disrupted by the Union invasion. After Davis’ older brother Joseph fled the area with some of the slaves in May 1862, the rest revolted, took possession of the property, and betrayed the location of valuables to Union forces and resisted any efforts by Confederate forces to recapture the area. The slaves in rebellion armed themselves with guns and newspapers, and fought to the death any attempts to infringe upon their newfound freedom. This rebellion within a rebellion began to erode Confederate authority within Louisiana the instant Butler’s troops appeared in New Orleans, and as a political fifth column was invaluable to his occupation.
The moment of truth, the Confederate counterstroke
The expected rebel counteroffensive came on August 5 in the form of a naval and army assault on Baton Rouge, led by Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, resulting in the Battle of Baton Rouge. After a hard fought battle, the Confederate forces were driven out of the city, and both Confederate and Union forces withdrew after the battle. The significant aspect of the battle was that it did not result in a popular uprising, or widespread support for Confederate forces in Louisiana. As a result, Rebel forces were not able to mount a sustained campaign to retake New Orleans or the rest of the state. This can be considered a tribute to the Union consensus building wrought by Butler’s political manipulation and broad-based political support. Chester G. Hearn summed up the bases of this support:
“The huge, illiterate majority – the poorer classes of blacks and whites – would have starved had Butler not fed and employed them, and thousands may have died had his sanitation policies not cleansed the city of disease.”
Reputation vs. results
Butler’s generally abrasive style and heavy handed actions did, however, catch up with him. Many of his acts gave great offense, such as the seizure of $800,000 that had been deposited in the office of the Dutch consul and his imprisonment of the French champagne magnate Charles Heidsieck. Most notorious was Butler’s General Order No. 28 of May 15, issued after many provocations and displays of contempt by women in New Orleans. It stated that if any woman should insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and shall be held liable to be treated as a “woman of the town plying her avocation”, i.e., a prostitute. This order provoked protests both in the North and the South, and also abroad, particularly in Britain and France, and many considered it the cause of his removal from command of the Department of the Gulf on December 17, 1862. He was also nicknamed “Beast Butler”, and “Spoons”, for his alleged habit of pilfering the silverware of Southern homes in which he stayed. He became so reviled in the city that merchants began selling chamber pots with his likeness at the bottom.
On June 7, he executed one William B. Mumford, who had torn down a United States flag placed by Farragut on the New Orleans Mint. For this execution, Butler was denounced in December 1862 by Confederate President Jefferson Davis in General Order 111 as a felon deserving capital punishment, who if captured should be reserved for execution. Butler’s administration did have benefits to the city, which was kept both orderly and healthy. The Butler occupation was probably best summed up by Admiral Farragut, who stated,
“They may say what they please about General Butler, but he was the right man in the right place in New Orleans.”
On December 14, 1862, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks arrived to take command of the Department of the Gulf. Butler was not made aware of this change until Banks arrived to tell him. Contrary to common belief, Butler’s inflammatory reign had little to do with his replacement. Political considerations in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio tipped the balance. The Democratic victories in Illinois and Ohio on November 4 had alarmed the Lincoln administration, and a dramatic letter from Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana claimed that the states along the Ohio had more in common with the southern states than with New England, and would leave the Union if the Mississippi were not re-opened to trade. These new considerations reinforced the idea by Secretary of State William H. Seward (one of Butler’s political opponents) that an invasion of Texas would be favorably received by a pro-union group of German American cotton farmers living there. This idea was championed by Banks, a New England political general eager to send cotton to mills in the northeast. Banks undertook the siege of Port Hudson, and on its successful conclusion, began the Red River Campaign in pursuit of Texan cotton. The Red River expedition proved to be a costly failure, and resulted in more wanton destruction and looting than the Butler occupation.