Benjamin Butler Betrays Louisiana Slaves, Part 1

Benjamin Butler’s time in charge of Union-occupied New Orleans in 1862 has become legendary. For his supporters, it was yet another example of the Union general’s administrative acumen. For his detractors, it showed Butler at his worst: trampling on the dignity and civil liberties of the Crescent City’s people, while abusing his authority to line his own pockets. Especially controversial was Butler’s treatment of New Orleans’ women. To end their contemptuous acts of civil disobedience, he threatened in his infamous General Order No. 28 to treat them criminally as he might prostitutes.

Less noticed, but equally interesting is Gen. Butler’s handling of African Americans in New Orleans and elsewhere in Union-occupied Louisiana. It makes for an interesting contrast with the same issue during his command of Fortress Monroe in Virginia, the year earlier, where he became the hero of African Americans and northern abolitionists for refusing to hand over escaped slaves to their rebel owners, establishing the “contraband of war” policy later enshrined in law as the First Confiscation Act of August 1861. In Louisiana, in 1862, Butler demonstrated that his treatment of African Americans was driven by pragmatism and not morality, and that he was as willing to victimize the slaves as to be their benefactor.

Butler’s first great test involving African Americans in Louisiana occurred in May 1862. The general had established his headquarters in the city’s federal customs house. The building quickly became a magnet for escaped and abandoned slaves. The state’s slaves had greeted rapturously the arrival of Union forces, seeing them as liberators, and some flocked to the customs house seeking sanctuary, no doubt expecting Benjamin Butler would give it to them as he had the slaves of Virginia. They quickly discovered, however, that General saw the situation in New Orleans and Louisiana more generally quite differently than he had that in Virginia the year before. In 1864, a friendly biographer of Butler summed up general’s thinking on the matter.

It is obvious to the most unreflecting person, that the negro question at New Orleans could not be disposed of, as at Fortress Monroe, by an epigram [no doubt a reference to Butler’s “contraband of war” policy]. Fortress Monroe was a Union island in a secession sea. The number of slaves in the vicinity was not great; only 900 in all found their way to Freedom Fort; and every laborer who came in was one laborer lost to the rebel batteries. The duty of the commanding general was clear the moment the “epigram” occurred to his mind. But, in Louisiana, any considerable disturbance of the relations of labor to capital would have been a revolution far more revolutionary than any merely political change ever was. Suppose, for example, that all the slaves coming into a Union camp had been received and maintained, as they were at the fortress. General Butler would have had upon his hands, in a month, in addition to thirty thousand destitute whites, not less than fifty thousand blacks,  for whom he would have to provide food, shelter, clothing, and employment; while the plantations from which the city was supplied with daily food, would have lain waste. The Fortress Monroe experience, evidently, was of no avail in dealing with negro question at New Orleans.

So Benjamin Butler clearly saw that from an administrative point-of-view, it made more sense to keep Louisiana slaves on their plantations than to give them sanctuary as he had in Virginia. He avoided worsening his refugee problem and kept New Orleans supplied with necessities. Butler also had been given no formal instructions from the War Department on how to deal with Louisiana’s slaves, but Abraham Lincoln had advised him informally before dispatching him to New Orleans not to do anything to complicate the President’s efforts toward devising an overall solution to the problem of slavery that he was working his way toward during 1862. Consequently, Butler, ever the astute politician, was not going to do anything to anger President Lincoln.

Still, from the point of view of Louisiana’s slaves, their treatment at hands of the hero of Fortress Monroe must have come as a nasty shock. Word of Butler’s treatment of Louisiana slaves was slow to make it north, but on July 3, 1862, a letter appeared in the New York Times, about the general ejecting slaves who had sought refuge in the New Orleans’ customs house, probably written by the former chaplain of 13th Connecticut Infantry, Charles C. Salter, who had resigned his commission as the regiment’s chaplain on June 15, 1862. It told the story of Gen. Butler granting about 200 slaves refuge in the customs house in May 1862 and then later ejecting the slaves he and his officers did not see fit to employ. The heart rendering letter read:

To the Editor of the New-York Times:

The Thirteenth Connecticut Regiment took up quarters on May 15th in the New-Orleans Customhouse. Within a few days after our arrival, 200 negroes had crossed our lines. Families came with their luggage, having heard that the Yankees were to make them free; boys with market baskets, saying that they were “going home;” women, wearing iron neck-yokes, and bearing various marks of cruelty.

Both Gen. BUTLER and the Colonel of the Thirteenth, were importuned to grant the privilege of looking after these refugees. Several attempted seizures were prevented by the Colonel and other officers. Animated discussions were frequent between Secessionists and soldiers. Soldiers cheered when slaves refused to go back to their kind masters. The unsuspecting negroes laughed at the imagined advantage which the American Flag gave them.


Next in the sequence of events to this search for slaves, came the order to turn out all not employed by the officers.

Inasmuch as the flocking of negroes to our protection must have been foreseen, why did not the General prohibit their admission, rather than receive and then turn them out?

The day before the order was carried into effect, boys and girls, men and women, went from room to room with solicitations for work. Said a mother, “take my children, if I must go back to suffer.” Well nigh one hundred were kept as cooks, waiters, Company laundresses, hospital nurses and laborers about; the Custom-house. Those for whom no place could be found, plead with us to rescue them — depicting the revenge they must suffer for confiding in the Yankees, and telling us that we ought not to have taken them at first, and then to send them back. At the fixed time all the negroes were collected in the open area of the Custom-house. Dread, sorrow, despair could be seen on many faces. Women who had fled miles from a hated despotism, mothers with their infants, families of children, the old and decrepit, were there. One by one, such as had not tickets of employment, moved away, attended by guards. Tearful entreaties were in vain. Children often preferred to stay, even if their parents must go. Bitterly disappointed and hopeless they lingered in the basement, still imagining that their friends, the Yankees, would help them. Puzzling questions rained like shot from this despairing group. A few stayed till midnight before venturing to leave.

After this separation, the policy of Gen. BUTLER seemed to aim at reducing to the least possible number the slaves employed. Through the request of some Captains of the Thirteenth Connecticut, the General had permitted rooms to be rented outside of the Custom-house for the colored laundresses. This, guarded against excesses, which had already been sufficiently magnified by outside prejudice. If there still existed cases of immorality, an order sent to the regiment would have met the difficulty. But the following General Order No. 38 was issued:

“Laundresses of Companies are not permitted to come into the quarters of the men. They must be kept in their own quarters, and the clothing sent to them and sent for.

Any officer who permits a woman, black or white, not his wife, in his quarters, or the quarters of his company, will be dismissed the service.

By command of Major-Gen. BUTLER.”

This order insulted the officers, by intimating a state of things such as did not exist. It played into the hands of the rebels. It cast odium upon the retention of negro servants. If designed to counteract charges, it struck harder than it defended. Again, officers were told that for every servant kept, the amount assigned for the wages and provision of a servant, would be deducted from their salary. Why this stringency, when in hiring free servants the officer is left to make his own bargain? The pressure of personal influence, also, was not wanting on the part of the General to induce an officer to turn out a slave to her master.

The correspondent of the New-York Herald gives an instance in which Gen. BUTLER gave a master an order that his slave should be turned out to him. In another case a master was sent to a National officer to seek his slave, the officer having been urged by the General to give up the slave.

There were instances where negroes in the service of United States officers were kidnapped, and, when referred to Gen. BUTLER, the slaves were brought back.

But did not so gross an insult to the American flag demand a proclamation as much as did abuses referred to in General Order No. 38? Did not officers who outraged the spirit of their State and their Governor by returning slaves, demand as public a hit as those threatened in the General Order referred to? To have said: “Official slave catchers will be dismissed the service” would be a merited honor for their meanness, and a defence of the purity of the flag, a purity in which the N.E. Divsion and its friends are interested. The writer heard a Lieutenant of a Massachusetts regiment say to Southern Union men that he had returned a slave, and that he refused the $200 reward; informing the master that his object was to prove to him that the Northern forces were not Abolitionists. He proved a good deal more than that. A Southern gentleman said to the writer, just after, that a number of slaves had been returned by officers, naming this interesting case.

On June 6, Lieut.-Col. WARNER, of the Thirteenth Connecticut, was attracted by loud cries to the front steps of the Custom-house. Two slave-catchers were trying to loosen a negro’s grasp from the ladder that formed part of the descent to the door. The slave plead “For God’s sake don’t let them take me — they will kill me.” Col. WARNER ordered the villains to let go their hold. Lieut.-Col. WHELDEN, Thirty-first Massachusetts, rudely interrupted him with such words as these: “You have no authority in the matter. These men are authorized to take their slaves.” Thus spoke the New-England APPIUS CLAUDIUS.

The kidnappers seizing the slave by the neck, hurried him down stairs, and dashing him to the ground, brutally stamped upon him. Thus backed by a Massachusetts officer, did these man-hunters insult the regiment and dishonor our flag. The sequel is interesting, though it does not effect the guilt of the officer, or the fact that he remains unmolested, ready doubtless for a like service, when in a cooler climate than the quarters of the Thirteenth Connecticut. Col. WARNER told the Massachusetts officer that he must have that slave returned. Through his intervention, the negro, who was employed as a carpenter, was restored. The fugitive told me that the owner of the slave had told his master that he would gladly accommodate him in flogging the runaway, but that as he and the negro had a ticket from one of our officers, he dare not do it. It was his master’s design to send him to a plantation to get his dues; but the order came for his delivery, as, he said, “God sent just in time. It was His work.” It might be a question why officers who have so outraged the spirit of the country as have these slave-catchers, are not cashiered. Public opinion mightier than Major-Generals, will condemn such representatives. It is the boast of Secessionists that bribes have been taken by Yankee officers for the rendition of slaves. They scout at our double-dealing on the negro subject, and condemn the meanness that admits, and even works the negro, and then turns him out to a more severe Slavery.

On the same day that the man was returned by Lieut.-Col. WHELDEN, an attempted seizure was prevented. Two men dragged a negro employed by one of our officers across our lines. Capt. SPRAGUE, of New-Haven, was officer of the day. He hastened to the scene, and with drawn sword, made his way through the crowd, and brought back negro and kidnappers, releasing the former and dismissing the latter in disgrace. Which of these officers will Massachusetts and Connecticut sustain?

Great anxiety is felt as to the exact law of Congress in reference to the return of slaves. Is it simply that “officers shall not use the forces under their command for the return of fugitives.” Can an officer return a slave himself, or aid and abet therein without employing his men?

Let the law strike so that it cannot be parried.

At a meeting of the Union Association in New-Orleans, it was stated that Gen. BUTLER had said that he used the labor of the negroes as he would that of a horse or mule, and that he would turn them out to their masters, when the army left. I can only affirm that this was said in the meeting. A Secessionist planter, living on the Catherine plantation below the city, said that Gen. BUTLER assured him that he should be paid for the labor of his slaves.

The duty of the Government need not be equivocal, as to the condition of the slaves to whom the double pledge has been given of reception within our camps, and taking into our employment. It should be taken out of the power of any General to return or to countenance the return of men and women who have done hard work in the service of our armies, and who must suffer bitter revenge as the penalty of their confidence and their labor. Such negroes, and all giving information to our Government, should have free papers. How can any other policy look the North, or Christian civilization anywhere in the fact? A CHAPLAIN.

Benjamin Butler would later make the excuse for his treatment of Louisiana slaves that given how deeply embedded slavery was in the economy and society of the state, that “he was obliged, ‘run the machine as he found it,” with such slight and temporary repairs as could hastily be made.” But this justification would have wrung hollow to the slaves there, who no doubt expected more from Gen. Butler.

His betrayal evidently weighed on Butler, who would later claim he had considered issuing an order of general emancipation as a solution to his problems with refugee slaves in Louisiana, but stopped when President Lincoln countermanded just such an order around that time by his counterpart, David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South along the Atlantic coast. But his ex post facto rationalization of his actions in regard to the slaves New Orleans in Spring 1862 is contradicted by a conflict he soon developed with John W. Phelps, a subordinate in command at Fort Parapet, Louisiana, who did grant sanctuary to slaves. That is a story for Part 2.

Sources: 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), 491; 2)

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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