Contrary to widespread belief, even ‘Beast’ Butler had a better side. He just kept it well hidden.
If the Confederate States of America had ever offered a prize for the most hated Union general, New Hampshire-born Benjamin Butler would have won the laurels hands down. Short, stoop-shouldered and cross-eyed, Butler looked the part of the consummate villain, and during his controversial seven-month reign as military governor of Louisiana, he played the role to the hilt, deliberately provoking New Orleans residents with a barrage of orders aimed at restoring Federal control over the famously insouciant city.
His most notorious act was General Order No. 28, ever afterward referred to by outraged Southerners as “the Woman Order.” Aimed at stopping the open abuse of Union soldiers by New Orleans’ fairer sex, the order declared, in part, that “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, a prostitute.
The order had the anticipated effect on Southern tempers. Jefferson Davis immediately declared Butler “an outlaw and common enemy of mankind,” to be hanged outright if captured. South Carolina poet Paul Hamilton Hayne denounced the general as a “fiend of lust” and demanded for him “a swift cord and a felon grave.” Piteous appeals, supposedly from the ladies of New Orleans, filled the editorial pages of Southern newspapers. Even lawmakers in Great Britain felt the need to protest the order–until Butler pointed out with some glee that he had taken the wording almost verbatim from a London municipal ordinance.
In actuality, the Woman Order had no practical effect on New Orleans dames and demoiselles. No arrests were ever made, and Butler himself noted that “all the ladies forebore to insult our troops, because they didn’t want to be deemed common women, and all the common women forebore to insult our troops because they wanted to be deemed ladies.” Instead, the ladies took their protests indoors, using chamber pots with Butler’s frowning visage painted on the bottom.
Considerably more serious, indeed a life or death matter, was Butler’s Special Order No. 70, which concerned the fate of New Orleans resident William Mumford, arrested and condemned for desecrating the American flag. The 42-year-old Mumford was no common street thug; neither was he, as one Southern author had it, “just a wild-spirited lad.” He was instead an accomplished gambler and bon vivant, with a wife and three children at home. In fact, it was his very prominence that led to his downfall. The New Orleans Picayune singled him out as a “patriot” for his role in tearing down the flag from the roof of the U.S. Mint as Union warships approached the city. Mumford did not help his cause by going around town with part of the flag stuffed in his jacket.
Butler had nothing to do with Mumford’s arrest and trial, but as military governor he was asked to review the prisoner’s pending death sentence. (Earlier that month, Butler had commuted similar sentences for six Confederate soldiers who had violated their paroles by joining in the defense of New Orleans.) Butler worried that his leniency would be mistaken for weakness, a concern that was further underlined when supporters of the luckless Mumford sent the general dozens of threatening letters replete with sketches of pistols, coffins, skulls and crossbones.
If the letter writers thought they would intimidate Butler into pardoning Mumford, they were sadly mistaken. “I thought I should be in the utmost danger if I did not have him executed,” Butler recalled, “for the question was now to be determined whether I commanded that city or whether the mob commanded it.” At 10:47 a.m. on June 7, 1862, Mumford was hanged on a special gallows projecting from the second story of the Mint, directly below the flag staff he had defamed.
Mumford’s execution forever confirmed Butler as a “beast” in Southern eyes. Yet this act, too, had a surprisingly unbeastly aftermath. In 1869, Mumford’s widow contacted Butler, by then a member of the House of Representatives, and asked him to relieve her “destitute” condition. Butler used his influence to get her a clerkship in the Treasury Department–an ironic position for a woman whose husband had been hanged for desecrating the U.S. Mint. Eight years later, when Mrs. Mumford was fired from her post by the incoming Hayes administration, Butler again came to her rescue, personally asking the new treasurer to restore her job. When that aid was not forthcoming, he went to Postmaster General David Key, an ex-Confederate, and managed to get her a job in Key’s department, which she held for the last decade of her life. Each time, Butler kept his actions secret. Sometimes, even a “beast” can have a gentler side.
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War