Occupied Cities of the South: New Orleans

New Orleans with the Federal fleet in the foreground

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New Orleans was the sixth-largest city in the United States during the years leading up to the American Civil War. With a population exceeding 100,000 residents, the port city was easily the largest in the South.

New Orleans was also home to several federal buildings – including the New Orleans Mint and the U.S. Custom House – and its role in the tobacco, cotton, and sugar industries made it a hub for commerce.

It is estimated that $156,000,000 worth of exports (made up of cotton, tobacco, and sugar) passed through the port city, in 1857. Keep in mind that 1 dollar in 1857 is worth an estimated $30 by today’s standards. Additionally, over half of all the cotton grown in the United States passed through the port of New Orleans. Tripling the amount of that seen at the second largest port. Needless to say, New Orleans was a prime target when the Civil War began.

The state of Louisiana, seceded from the Union on January 22, 1861. With the large number of Federal employees posted there, the state agreed to allow them to remain however, they would no longer be employees of the United States rather employees of the State of Louisiana.

It wasn’t long before the Union devised a plan to attack the city, viewing New Orleans as the perfect location to make a show of force.

Admiral David G. Farragut

The attack was launched in April 1862, with Navy Commander David Farragut leading the West Gulf Blockading Squadron into the city. Their first target was a pair of forts (Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip) guarding the mouth of the Mississippi. Both forts raised white flags after a fierce shelling. Coupled with the surrender of the forts,the confederate fleet at New Orleans, had been reduced to shambles in going against Farragut’s fleet.

New Orleans had little else in terms of defense, and Farragut was able to take control of the city with minimal resistance. Within days, a surrender had been negotiated and martial law was imposed by Union Major General Benjamin Butler (AKA the “Perfect Federal Villain”).

One of Butler’s first moves was to execute William Mumford – a local ne’er-do-well who stole an American flag from the US Customs House, tore it into pieces, and distributed the pieces to onlookers during negotiations between city officials and the newly arrived Federal Army. Butler immediately made an example of Mumford, charging him with “high crimes and misdemeanors against the laws of the United States.” Mumford was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging.

But this is not what earned Butler the legendary hatred southerners hold for him to this day. What really angered the residents of New Orleans was his General Order No. 28, which read:

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.

In other words, any female resident who insulted a soldier could legally be treated as a prostitute. Though not explicitly sexual in nature, the order was broadly interpreted as the legalization of rape.

General Benjamin Butler

Despite fierce backlash, Order No. 28 remained intact until Butler was removed from command in December 1862. Perhaps his only real achievement was to keep the city orderly and clean, which contributed to the overall health of its residents.

The animosity between Union troops and New Orleans residents lessened somewhat when Butler was replaced by Major General Nathaniel P. Banks. Banks took a much softer approach than Butler and reversed several of his predecessor’s directives, including Order No. 28. He also reopened churches that had been closed for expressing Confederate sympathy, returned land that had been seized by Butler for use by his troops, and released political prisoners from jail.

Banks, however, is not completely free of criticism. Though nothing nearing the level of hatred reserved for Butler, Banks did earn some bad press, among Union supporters, when he decommissioned the black officers who had fought at Port Hudson. He also refused to allow Louisiana entry into the Union as a free state despite intense pressure from the “Free State Movement” in New Orleans.

The Free State Movement, led by Unionists who were already living in New Orleans prior to the onset of the war, encompassed men of all political beliefs including radical abolitionist Thomas Durant as well as pro-slavery Unionist Michael Hahn.

As G. Howard Hunter wrote about Michael Hahn, “As a nineteenth- century liberal, Hahn opposed the planter elite, but rejected the radical concept of black equality.” Mr. Hahn would later be endorsed by Banks as a moderate candidate in Louisiana’s 1864 election.

The election was an early effort to implement President Abraham Lincoln’s “Ten-Percent Plan,” which allowed southern states to rejoin the Union if 10% of voters who had participated in the 1860 election swore an Oath of Allegiance to the Union and if they submitted a state constitution deemed acceptable by Congress.

Hahn ended up winning the election, defeating radical opponents including Benjamin Flanders and paving the way towards Louisiana’s reconstruction.

Union occupation of New Orleans continued after the end of the Civil War, with Army soldiers maintaining control of the city. The end of the war also failed to stamp out the “Southern Cause,” and New Orleans went on to become an epicenter for Southern Nationalism. Having diminished some throughout history, cultural lore and memory of the occupation of New Orleans has remained, and in some ways is still controversial today.

5 Responses to Occupied Cities of the South: New Orleans

  1. The City of New Orleans, LA has always been an important port city for the southern U.S., and more than one military battle has occurred here. One of my forebears was in the Battle of New Orleans in 1814 as a member of the Third Kentucky Militia.

  2. My family lived in New Orleans but after Mom died my Dad moved to the westbank. Gretna was the main settlement, with a large German population. The area became a railroad terminus, but most of that growth was after the war (eventually being annexed by New Orleans). There were canals running from the river out into Barataria (mainly what is now known as Westwego). Then the massive plantation known as Seven Oaks dominated the area. Don’t know how much (if any) problem cross-river traffic was for the occupying Union forces.

    New Orleans was also site of a US Army Barracks, which was important location during the Mexican War, resulting in a general hospital being constructing on land adjacent to the Barracks. In reconstruction it became the home for USCT troops eventually consolidated into the 25th Inf

  3. When Gen. Order No. 28 was issued, it was totally improper at that time period for a man to approach a woman on the streets if they did not already know each other. That order made it possible for Union soldiers to approach New Orleans women, something very shocking for the time. Even France and Britain were appalled. But, to be fair, the New Orleans women were very hard on the Union soldiers.

  4. There was no 1862 “Battle of New Orleans.” Instead, control of New Orleans was determined via bloody and contentious engagement, 70 miles to the south in the Mississippi River, involving Farragut’s seagoing cruisers and Porter’s mortar sloops versus two heavily defended fortifications (further protected by a stout chain and a fleet of Rebel vessels.) Many men were killed; and several ships were sunk. And then, presaging the “island-hopping strategy” executed in the Pacific during World War Two, Farragut cruised past the diminished, but as yet viable, fixed fortifications of Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, subjugated a bastion of Rebels further north near the English Turn, and was enroute on 24 April 1862 to New Orleans. That largest of Confederate cities was virtually undefended, her militias having been called away for more pressing actions in Virginia and Tennessee.
    Farragut and about ten of his ships arrived off New Orleans next day. But, instead of meekly surrendering to the Federal Flag-Officer, Mayor Monroe begged off, claiming, “I am not the military authority: the man you seek is General Lovell,” and, “the forts to the south have not surrendered; and until they do, you have no right to demand my surrender.” It was a classic instance of passive-aggressive word play; and Farragut, the man-of-action, was at a loss how to respond. After several days of fruitless negotiation, Farragut decided to “island-hop” the Crescent City and continued his ascent of the Mississippi River… leaving the thorny problem of New Orleans to Major General Benjamin Butler.
    [See pages 153-155 & 159 of OR (Navy) Ser.1 Vol.18; National Republican (Wash. D.C.) of 30 April 1862 page 2 col.5; and New Orleans Daily Crescent of 29 April 1862 page 1 col.5.]

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