Butler The Beast?

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It was Butler the military governor that produced his legendary infamy. His image as the scoundrel in uniform, the grafter, looter, thief, murderer, dégrader of women, and pilferer of spoons was one the South would never relinquish. But Butler was less a headlong sinner than a victim of bad publicity, albeit self-generated. What he did, typically, was to challenge the gentry, the leaders of the community, by appealing to the artisans and mechanics to make a common cause against the mercantile aristocracy. It was Butler the sans-culotte that the South never forgave.

Butler was still the able administrator. Even his most ardent enemies admitted that the white workers employed by his sanitary commission had cleaned up the city as it had never been cleaned up before. He opened stores, set prices, and established a program of relief for the poor. As for his notorious Woman Order, it was so effective that it never had to be acted upon. Once General Order No. 28 was proclaimed, the tiny Confederate flags vanished from Rebel bosoms; no longer did young ladies dash to the piano to play “The Bonnie Blue Flag” when Yankee officers passed their houses; nor did they do any more spitting.

For poor-relief monies Butler assessed wealthy individuals and corporations, some of whom saw their possessions sold at auction. Relentlessly, skillfully, Butler ferreted out hidden bank assets and recovered funds taken from the United States mint. Southerners who concealed their wealth in European consulates found no lasting protection in foreign flags; Butler did not hesitate to break into the house of a liquor dealer who doubled as the Netherlands consul to seize 800,000 Mexican dollars. He easily persuaded the poor, the Northern-born, and the half-castes to take the oath of allegiance to the Federal government. Officials of the old governing class who refused to take the oath were forced from office. When an obscure gambler named Mumford pulled down the American flag from the roof of the mint and tore it to shreds, Butler, despite protests and threats, hanged him in front of the building. Mumford became a Confederate martyr, as did Mrs. Philip Phillips, who laughed and jeered at a funeral procession for a Yankee lieutenant—and was thrown into military prison on Ship Island.

As military governor, Butler showed a racial attitude more liberal than one might have expected of a Hunker Democrat. He abolished segregated streetcars, put white workers next to colored, and established a “Native Guard” regiment of Negroes as well as two regiments of loyal poor whites. The only segregation he recognized was between Unionists and Secessionists.

In all, Butler did a creditable job of running New Orleans. Yet always, as in Massachusetts, the scent of corruption followed him; there was a sense of chicanery, of underhanded transactions. He maintained that contraband trading with the enemy was necessary in order to obtain supplies; still, the profits in such trade for those around him were enormous. But that Butler himself stole, or made money on official transactions, is not credible. His mills in Massachusetts were bringing in huge profits; his law firm was prospering through his subordinates. He was too well off to have to speculate or peculate. Yet those around him did, and he knew it. Southern heirlooms picked up by Yankee officers for pittances at auctions went north by the carload. Butler’s brother Andrew drove a sharp trade in cattle, sugar, cotton, and other Confederate commodities; he was said to have made between $500,000 and $2,000,000 in such enterprises.

European nations objected violently to Butler’s cavalier treatment of their New Orleans consulates, and complained to Secretary of State William H. Seward. Finally, in December of 1862, Lincoln removed the controversial general for reasons that were obvious to many, although they were never really spelled out. In his farewell address to the citizens of New Orleans, Butler struck a familiar pose: “I saw that this Rebellion was a war of aristocrats against the middling man, of the rich against the poor; a war of the land-owner against the laborer; the few against the many; and I found no conclusion to it, save in the subjugation of the few and the disenthrallment of the many. I therefore felt no hesitation in taking the substance of the wealthy, who had caused the war, to free the innocent poor, who had suffered by the war.”

Butler, the unemployed general, returned North as the hero of the Radicals—indeed, he had moved the full arc from Hunker Democrat to abolitionist Republican. Radicals like Benjamin Wade and Thaddeus Stevens began to see him as a presidential possibility.

It took almost a year for Lincoln to decide what to do with his obstreperous general. Butler was now doubly important politically, both as an old Democrat and as a new Radical. It was necessary, Lincoln saw, to give him some position, if only to keep him out of politics. Late in 1863 Butler was given command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina.