About a month ago, Civil War Emancipation dealt with Gen. Benjamin Butler’s poor treatment of black Louisianans near the start of his controversial tenure as overseer of Union-occupied New Orleans. His command extended to all Union-controlled areas of Louisiana, although because of the importance of New Orleans, by necessity he had to delegate control of areas beyond the city to subordinate commanders.
The most important of those subordinate commanders was Brig. Gen. John Wolcott Phelps, in charge seven miles upriver from New Orleans at Camp Parapet near Carrollton, Louisiana. In Summer 1862 his command constituted the furthest extent of Union control beyond the city. Hence, his forces became a magnet for Louisiana slaves seeking freedom inside federal lines. All the more so because Phelps, a Vermonter, was a firm abolitionist.
These sentiments created conflict between John Phelps and Ben Butler. Like David Hunter in the Sea Islands, Phelps wanted to use his position to destroy slavery. Ben Butler, a pragmatic moderate and professional politician, placed a priority on reviving Union sentiment in Louisiana, even if it meant keeping the state’s slaves in bondage. Unlike Virginia, where it had been in his clear military interest to bleed the rebels of forced labor being used to build fortifications by giving slaves sanctuary at Fortress Monroe, like his counterpart in North Carolina, Edward Stanly, Butler was willing to defend slavery in the hope slaveholders would rally to the Union cause. This included blocking slaves from entering federal lines and in some cases returning slaves to their owners, even if it violated the new article of war prohibiting the army from doing just that. In Butler’s thinking, it would be better for everyone if the slaves stayed on their plantations with their owners. Their numbers were too huge for him to care for and many plantations near New Orleans had market gardening operations that helped keep the metropolis fed.
Ben Butler later admitted to a friendly biographer that the plantation slaves of Louisiana in 1862 made for a pitiful sight. He quoted from a report to Butler from Gen. Phelps, “Fugitives began to throng our lines in large numbers. Some came loaded with chains and barbarous irons; some bleeding with bird shot wounds; many had been deeply scored with lashes, and all complained of the extinction of their moral rights.” The image of suffering slaves incensed the abolitionist Phelps, while Butler, hoping to reconcile Louisiana slaveholders, ignored it.
Their differing reactions to the obvious cruelty of Louisiana plantation slavery led to the first overt clash between the two men. In late May 1862, Butler ordered Phelps to put to work able-bodied slaves he had given sanctuary repairing a levee breach on the Mississippi River that threatened to flood prime farm land. Phelps objected that the project was going to be supervised by two white planters, which would be tantamount to returning his charges to slavery. When Butler changed the order to have the work supervised by a Union Army captain, John Phelps dropped his objections and the levee was repaired.
The tensions continued between Generals Butler and Phelps over the latter’s practice of giving sanctuary freely to slaves escaping from their plantations. When Ben Butler ordered Phelps not to let “unemployed persons, black and white” inside his lines, the resourceful Phelps established an encampment for contrabands just beyond his lines, and he and his men shared their rations with the slaves to keep them from starving. Yet it was an ad hoc arrangement that could not be long sustained and in mid-June, John Phelps wrote directly to President Lincoln arguing that the only permanent solution to the slaves flooding his lines was for Lincoln to emancipate them as a war measure using his authority as commander-in-chief. This was a step that the President was no doubt already contemplating as a month later he would share with his cabinet the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. But then Phelps’ letter merely bolstered his reputation as an eccentric commander tolerated by Butler because of his men’s devotion to him and because Butler had no obvious replacement.
John Phelps also took pains to tell President Lincoln of the slaves’ condition as he discerned it. While his description could not help but be racist at moments, an attitude not atypical of many white abolitionists, it was always sympathetic. Of particular concern to Phelps was a large group of slaves evicted by their owner from his sugar plantation. The planter had told them, “‘the Yankees are king here now, and that they must go to their king for food and shelter.’” Phelps continued:
Meantime his slaves, old and young, little ones and all, are suffering from exposure, and uncertainty as to their future condition. Driven away by their master, with threats of violence if they return, and with no decided welcome or reception from us, what is to be their lot? Considerations of humanity are pressing for an immediate solution of their difficulties; and they are but a small portion of their race who have sought, and are still seeking, our pickets and our military stations, declaring that they can not and will not any longer serve their masters, and they want work and protection from us. In such a state of things, the question occurs as to my own action in the case. I can not return them to their masters, who not infrequently come in search of them, for I am, fortunately, prohibited by an article of war from doing that, even if my nature did not revolt from it. I can not receive them, for I have neither work, shelter, nor the means or plans of transporting them to Hayti, or of making suitable arrangements with their masters until they can be provided for.
Within a month though, courtesy of Congress, John Phelps gained a purpose for some of the slaves in his care. With the passage of the Militia Act in July 1862, Phelps, on his own authority and without informing Ben Butler began raising companies of black solders numbering about 300 men. Evidently, he hoped if he could present their existence to Butler and the War Department as a fait accompli , they would have no choice but to accept them. Phelps played that gambit on July 30, 1862, with a letter to the Union quartermaster in New Orleans seeking equipment and supplies for his black troops.
Ben Butler’s response displayed the crafty administrator at work. Rather than accept Phelp’s companies for military service or reject them outright, Butler proposed using the companies as laborers for gathering firewood for the city. Phelps sent an incensed reply, stating he was unwilling to become a “mere slave driver,” and tendered his resignation, which Butler refused. After an unsatisfactory exchange letters a standoff developed with Phelps refusing to use his companies of slaves as laborers and Butler refusing to equip them as soldiers. Phelps demanded that his resignation be forwarded on to the Washington, D.C., for consideration, which Butler agreed to, and in early September they received news that the War Department had accepted Phelps resignation and he returned to his home in Vermont.
The clever Ben Butler won his battle with the idealistic John Phelps, but shortly afterwards news of the Emancipation Proclamation would arrive, which in essence gave Phelps what he had proposed to Lincoln the previous June. And even before Phelps departure, on August 22, 1862, Butler authorized the recruitment of African-American troops in New Orleans from among the city’s free black population. He “called on Africa” because the War Department would send him no more troops and he faced the prospect of a looming Confederate assault to retake New Orleans. But the hero of Fort Monroe had again betrayed the black population of Louisiana until forced by events to call those that were free into military service. And he refused to recruit slaves as he still sought in early Fall 1862, without much success, to reconcile white Louisianans to the Union.
Source: 1) James Parton, General Butler in New Orleans: History of the Administration of the Department of the Gulf in the Year 1862 (New York: Mason Brothers, 1864), 495-516.