The Fall of New Orleans
Updated: Oct 5
“Hail, yellow fever! Once the dreaded scourge of New Orleans; more welcome now than the breezes of October after a summer of desolation. Come, Destroyer; come and blast these hated foes of a sublime southern chivalry! Come, though we also perish!”
This quote, excerpted from, James Parton’s General Butler in New Orleans in a few short, colorful, if not dramatic, sentences properly and accurately describes the mood of the Crescent City in the late days of April 1862. Chaos ruled the streets. Church bells rang with alarm across the city. Soldiers and horse-drawn wagons entangled with civilians packed the narrow avenues of New Orleans all seeking shelter and safety. Along the levee, roaring fires kicked up embers into the air as thousands of bales of cotton went up in flames. Whatever foodstuffs that could not be transported out the city were dumped into the Mississippi River. The panic came from the news that Federal Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut’s West Gulf Squadron successfully passed Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip and crossed the wood and chain boom spanning the “Mighty Mississippi.” As Farragut paced about the deck of his flagship, the USS Hartford, on the horizon sat his prize- the crown jewel of the South. On April 24th, New Orleans, the Confederacy’s richest city, not to mention its port granting access to the Gulf of Mexico and foreign trade, lay vulnerable.
Crowds converged at the wharf to greet the gold-trimmed, blue clad officers and the sailors. Cheers and jeers burst out from the New Orleanians. Hushed calls for “Lincoln and the Union” were greeted with the louder, more boisterous rebuttal “Jeff Davis and his South!” The gathered civilians held varying ties to the Confederate forces marching against the Union Army to the north in Virginia, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Their sons, husbands, fathers, and friends marched off to war only a year earlier, those that remained in city breathlessly awaited their return. To those sympathizers, the arrival of Farragut’s gunboats spelled disaster.
Today, New Orleans is known for its hospitality, however, it is doubtful that Captain Bailey or Lieutenant George Perkins could attest to the same in 1862. The two naval officers, under a flag of truce, endured a bombardment of sticks, stones, and words as they managed to work their way through the mob to City Hall. Safely inside Gallier Hall, the officers met with the Mayor of New Orleans, John T. Monroe, and demanded the city’s immediate surrender. Citing his lack of authority in military matters, Monroe deferred to General Mansfield Lovell’s judgement. Lovell, having evacuated his troops from the city, vehemently refusing to surrender, made clear his intentions to give battle on land to the Federal forces occupying the city. Lovell’s defense force evacuated aboard locomotives bound for Camp Moore in Tangipahoa Parish, thus abandoning Monroe, the New Orleanians, and the city to Federal forces.
The decision, controversial at the time remains so today. While generally considered to have saved the city, assertions that Farragut would have subjected New Orleans to the utter destruction of a naval bombardment should be viewed with skepticism. Only a year into the war, the idea to level an American city, especially one as wealthy as New Orleans, was not on the table. To Lovell’s credit, his evacuation did ensure that no such razing of the city would take place and it prevented any unnecessary effusion of blood for combatants and civilians alike.
On April 26, Monroe wrote to Farragut, “I am no military man, and possess no authority beyond that of executing the municipal laws of the city of New Orleans…” he continued, “The city is yours by the power of brutal force, and not by any choice or consent of its inhabitants...” In fact, Monroe accurately assumed the level of unrest in the city. As soon as Old Glory was raised over the U.S. Mint, it came down in a fit. William Mumford and a band of twenty other fiery citizens hauled the banner down, marched to Gallier Hall, and tore it to shreds. Coming to terms with the gravity of the situation at hand, Monroe surrendered the city and on May 1st the Federal occupation force under Maj. General Benjamin Franklin Butler disembarked and paraded through the streets.
“At five the procession moved, to the music of the Star-Spangled Banner. The crowd surged along the pavements on each side of the troops, struggling chiefly to get a sight of the general: crying out: ‘Where is the d–d old rascal?’ ‘There he goes, G–d d-n him!’ ‘I see the d—d old villain!’ To which were added such outcries, as ‘Shiloh,’ ‘Bull Run,’ ‘Hurrah for Beauregard’ ‘Go home, you d-d Yankees.’”
If Butler’s reception failed to endear him to the citizens of New Orleans, so too would his occupation. Throughout the Crescent City, residents hissed at soldiers in the streets. Some citizens even went so far as to pour the contents of their chamber pots from their balconies onto the heads of passing soldiers. The women of the city made no effort to conceal their animosity toward Butler’s men and in return, he made no effort of the same toward them. On May 15, he issued the infamous Order No. 28:
“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 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.”
By command of MAJOR-GENERAL BUTLER.
Geo. C. Strong, A. A. G., Chief of Staff.
Other forms of protest were more subdued. In accordance with Butler’s orders that all Confederate emblems be removed from public view, the citizens obliged but still found ways to display their devotions. Women wore bonnets featuring the national colors and local drawing instructor J.B. Guibet created an elaborate image of red, white, and blue flowers arranged in a pattern resembling a Confederate First National Flag. These attempts to undermine Butler’s authority were soon foiled and Guibet’s prints were destroyed leaving behind only a few surviving copies of his Fleur du Sud or “Flowers of the South.”
From the moment of his arrival Butler made every attempt to crush the spirit of the rebellion in the hearts and minds of New Orleanians, this became abundantly clear within a month of his occupation. As a punishment for tearing down the U.S. flag atop the Mint, Butler ordered Mumford to be arrested and tried for treason. Mumford, found guilty, was sentenced to death and the sentence carried out on June 7, 1862 in front of the Mint. It is interesting to note that following Mumford's execution, Butler ensured care for his family for the rest of their lives.
Disliked, hated even, by those who sought to sow the seeds of Rebellion while in occupation, Butler still contributed a great deal of his energy to improving their quality of life. At Butler’s direction, Union quartermaster and commissary stores were provided to “starving citizens with their wives and children.” His efforts in sanitary reform and vital modernization of infrastructure aided in maintaining the health of the citizenry and, in the summer months, prevented the widespread outbreak of Yellow Fever. Still, other matters occupied his mind as well.
There was an influx in free people of color and formerly enslaved persons entering Union Army camps and encamping in public spaces. At first, Butler employed able-bodied males and assigned them to work details near Camp Parapet. However, in August, Butler called for volunteers to fill the ranks of the Louisiana Native Guards and enlist as soldiers in the United States Army. Within two weeks an entire regiment was formed. The Louisiana Native Guards would go on to fight at Port Hudson in May 1863 and become the first African American regiment to participate in a major battle.
For the good he did in the city, Butler’s harsh treatment of the civilian population and his stout, strikingly unattractive appearance earned him the nickname the “Beast.” Reports of Butler’s “despotic rule” and rampant corruption left Washington D.C. lawmakers and government employees disillusioned. On November 8, Maj General Nathaniel Banks assumed command of the Military Department of the Gulf and ordered to report to New Orleans. Butler knew this spelled the end for his time in the Crescent City.
On December 16, 1862, the portly Butler stood on the steps of the Customs House and greeted his replacement, the younger and dashing Banks. The two exchanged reports on developments in the Department and in the occupation of the city. Banks, strikingly different physically, was also far more lenient than Butler lifting many restrictions that his successor put in place. Where Butler ruled with an iron fist, Banks made concessions in order to salve the wounded psyche of the New Orleanians and win over their hearts and minds. On Christmas Eve 1862, crowds gathered at the wharf once more in appreciation for an early Christmas gift, Butler’s departure. After bidding farewell to his friends and soldiers, Butler took leave of his post and boarded a transport ship bound for Massachusetts with his wife. Though Butler left the city after only eight months, his rule remained a point of contention in the post-war years and his fingerprints remain present today. One such imprint is the inscription he added to city's monument of Andrew Jackson. Beneath the massive equestrian statue, the wording on the pedestal reads "The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved." It is a subtle, yet poignant reminder of the most defining moment in American history.
 James Parton, General Butler in New Orleans; Being a History of the Administration of the Department of the Gulf in the Year 1862 , (New York: Mason Brothers, 1864), 68.  Parton, General Butler in New Orleans, 69.  Parton, 73.  Parton, 87.  Parton, 81.  John D. Winters, The Civil War in Louisiana, (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1963), 146-147.  Winters, The Civil War in Louisiana, 147.