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.
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.
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.