- Historic Sites
Lincoln’s Plan For Reconstruction
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
First Phase in Louisiana: Military Rule Under Butler and Shepley . The first phase was that of army rule under General B. F. Butler. Immediate adjustments were of course necessary from the moment when New Orleans, largest city of the South, together with a large portion of Louisiana, came under the Union flag. Governmental officials in the occupied region, including merely local functionaries in city or parish, were now under Federal authority—not in terms of any deliberation as to procedure by Congress or the Executive, but simply by the fortunes of war. Where men in local office stood ready to co-operate with the occupying power, they had a good chance of being retained; if un-cooperative, they were dismissed. For a time the mayor and council of New Orleans were continued in office subject to General Butler’s authority with some relaxation of military pressure, but this situation did not last long. Within a month the mayor was deposed and imprisoned, and George F. Shepley, acting closely with Butler, took over mayoral functions. Then in June, 1862, Shepley became military governor of Louisiana; soon afterward he had the rank of brigadier general.
This was military occupation, and of course it was intended only as a temporary condition. It amounted to martial law which has been defined as the will of the military commander; this meant that the sometimes eccentric will of General Butler was paramount. If nothing offered in the form of a re-established and recognized state government, the abnormal and temporary regime would continue.
It thus came about that Federal rule in Louisiana, the first step toward what Lincoln regarded as restoration of loyalty and normal conditions, got off to a bad start. The name of “Beast Butler” became a hated byword in the South, with far-reaching complications in Federal-Confederate relations; it came as a considerable relief when President Lincoln removed him from his Louisiana command on December 16, 1862. His successor, as commander of the military forces stationed in Louisiana and Texas, was Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, with Shepley retaining his position as “military governor of Louisiana.”
Under Butler little or nothing had been done toward wartime governmental reconstruction in the state, but this problem, dear to Lincoln’s heart, was tackled under the President’s urging during the Banks-Shepley regime.
A careful study of these matters reveals a problem as to top executive leadership locally applied—that is, the difficulty of achieving effectiveness in a particular area in terms of policy developed in Washington. Lincoln was President; he was the Chief; he made the appointments and formed decisions; presumably he would choose men to put his policies into operation. Yet so unpredictable were events and so complicated was the situation as to politicians’ maneuvers that those who supposedly should have carried out Lincoln’s purposes promoted their own factional and contrary schemes in such manner as to jeopardize the President’s best laid plans.
George F. Shepley was a case in point. He had been a Maine Democrat, an appointee of Pierce and later of Buchanan as district attorney, and a supporter of Douglas in 1860. These factors in his background did not militate against him in Lincoln’s view—the President often appointed Democrats—nor should they have been a drawback to successful service in Louisiana’s reconstruction. There was, however, the further fact that Shepley became a Butlerite and a Radical; remaining after Butler’s removal, he played the Radical game at a time when it was hoped that a more Lincolnian policy would be inaugurated. Thus Shepley stood as an obstacle to Lincoln’s efforts to allay factionalism and to promote speedy and liberal restoration.
Toward the end of the Butler-Shepley period an election was held within the Union lines on December 3, 1862, for members of Congress from Louisiana. Two men of different outlook were elected: B. F. Flanders from New Hampshire, who was to become an instrument of the Radical faction; and Michael Hahn, a citizen of Louisiana born in Bavaria, who was more in tune with Lincoln’s purposes. When the question of admitting these gentlemen as members of the House of Representatives was brought before that body (February 9, 1863) a species of dog fight ensued, a forerunner of the rough treatment in store for Lincoln’s whole reunion program. Few were ready for frontal attack and sidestepping was more in evidence; the result was confusion, unrelated motions, and postponement. Finally, on February 17, 1863, the House voted, 92 to 44, to seat Flanders and Hahn. By that time that particular Congress, the Thirty-seventh, was about to pass out of existence.