Benjamin Butler’s Execution of Dissent

June 7, 1862 (Saturday)

General Benjamin Butler
General Benjamin Butler

The City of New Orleans had been under Federal control for nearly a month and a half. During that time, General Benjamin Butler, the city’s de facto military governor, had gained his fair share of critics. While bringing order to the streets, he also brought strict martial law, curbed freedom of speech, and ordered “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.” By the middle of May, he was known as Beast Butler.

However, Butler had some unfinished business. Before he even arrived, Flag Officer David Farragut had captured the city, coaxed its informal surrender, and planted a United States flag above the Mint building. Some impassioned residents felt it their Confederate duty to tear down the flag in defiance. The next day, the local paper felt that it was their duty to publish the names of these brave men, bragging about how they tore down the flag, spat upon it and ripped it to shreds. Several of the party even wore the tatters as cockades, proud of their mettle.

At the top of the list was William Mumford, a tall, black-bearded, wealthy, forty-two year old gambler. Butler first heard of the man a few days after the incident. Rebel flags had replaced the torn down United States flag, and Farragut mentioned Mumford in passing.

“I will make an example of that fellow by hanging him,” exclaimed Butler.

Farragut smiled and said, “You know, General, you will have to catch him before you can hang him.”

“I know that,” replied Butler, “but I will catch him, and then hang him.”1

Butler was a man of his word and before long, William Mumford was arrested. His trial, held on May 30, was overseen by Butler’s hand-picked officers. The suspect, it was said, had “wickedly and traitorously rebelled against the Government of the United States to which he owed allegiance, and has given aid and comfort to the enemies thereof, and especially has sworn allegiance to a pretended Government called the Confederate States of America….”

US Mint in New Orleans

Though this described nearly everyone in the South, the charges continued, illustrating how Mumford, with “his treasonable and wicked purposes […] did maliciously and willfully tear down said flag from said building and trail it ignominiously through the public streets, and there afterwards did destroy said flag.”

Mumford pleaded that he was not the man they were looking for, but after the testimony of several who claimed to see him there, he was found guilty.

“Let an order be made,” decreed Butler, “and Mumford be informed that he will be executed between the hours of 8 A.M. & 12 M. June 7th 1862.”2

When word of the death sentence filtered into the streets, the citizens of New Orleans were infuriated and called for Butler’s life if Mumford was killed. “No good man petitioned for his release,” wrote Butler after the war, “but the bad men, the blacklegs and blackguards, assembled in large numbers and voted that he should not be executed, and that if he was executed Butler should die the death by any and every possible means.”3

A few days later, when Butler spared the life of six Confederate soldiers who had violated their parole, the city breathed a hesitant sigh of relief. If Butler spared these Rebels, wouldn’t he also spare Mumford? In hopes of forcing the General’s hand, Mrs. Mary Mumford, the wife of the accused, requested that she and her children be allowed to meet with him. He agreed, probably building up false hope in the heart of the grieving Mrs. Mumford.4

“She wept bitterly, as did the children, who fell about my knees,” described Butler of the pleas they made for the life of their husband and father. The General may have felt something, but also considered that the children might had been coached on what to say. Even with this ridiculous notion in his head, Butler told her that his sense of duty prohibited him from sparing the life of William Mumford.

Beast Butler - From a 1874 Harper's Weekly, showing that he wasn't much liked after the war, either.
Beast Butler – From a 1874 Harper's Weekly, showing that he wasn’t much liked after the war, either.

“I hear Mumford believes he will not be executed,” said Butler to Mrs. Mumford, “and I am told he is making no preparations for his death. Now, I think the greatest kindness you can do him is to let me ring for my carriage and send you to the jail. I will give an order for your admission to his room, or that you and your family may meet him in any room in the jail that will be most convenient for you. I wish you to convince him that he is mistaken and that he will be executed.”5

But, for New Orleans, Mumford came to symbolize the city’s own plight. If Mumford was spared, the Rebellion was spared. If he were hanged, so too was their cause. In that way, Butler needed to kill Mumford to set an example. He spared the lives of the six common soldiers, but for a treasonous instigator, there would be no reprieve.6

Butler himself said as much: “I thought I should be in the utmost danger if I did not have him executed, for the question was now to be determined whether I commanded that city or whether the mob commanded it.”7

On the morning of the 7th, Mumford climbed the scaffold, built in front of the Mint, now flying a flag he could never tear asunder. Before the rope was slid over his head and around his neck, he addressed the crowd, waiting anxiously and still stirring for the prisoner to be released. This offense for which he was condemned “was committed under excitement,” said Mumford. He then implored those gathered “to act justly to all men; to rear their children properly; and when they met death, they would meet it firmly.” He was prepared to die, “and as he had never wronged anyone,” he hoped for mercy.8

When it was time, William Mumford’s hands and feet were secured. A blindfold was placed over his eyes and the rope, around his neck, with the well-waxed knot by his left ear. The trap door below sprang open and he dropped, the rope fracturing his neck and severing his spinal cord. The body snapped and spasmed for several minutes, hanging suspended, halfway through the opening in the floor of the scaffold.

The crowd stood agape, rancorous and confused. Quietly, they filtered from the scene, dispersing themselves to their homes, silently forging their vengeance.

General Butler had flown the United States flag over only the Custom House and the Mint, the two Federals buildings in the New Orleans. Over City Hall, he had left the flagstaff bare, symbolizing that he represented not the civil government, but the Federal government only.

After the dead body of William Mumford was removed from the scaffold before the Mint, General Benjamin Butler ordered the United States flag raised over City Hall, and allowed the banner to speak for itself.9

  1. Battles and Leaders, Vol. 2. p93. []
  2. Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Vol. 1, edited by Jessie Ames Marshall, The Plimpton Press, 1917. []
  3. Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benj. F. Butler by Benjamin Butler, A. M. Thayer, 1892. []
  4. When the Devil Came Down to Dixie by Chester G. Hearn, LSU Press, 1997. []
  5. Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benj. F. Butler by Benjamin Butler, A. M. Thayer, 1892. []
  6. General Butler in New Orleans by James Parton, Mason brothers, 1864. []
  7. Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benj. F. Butler by Benjamin Butler, A. M. Thayer, 1892. []
  8. General Butler in New Orleans by James Parton, Mason brothers, 1864. []
  9. When the Devil Came Down to Dixie by Chester G. Hearn, LSU Press, 1997. []


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7 thoughts on “Benjamin Butler’s Execution of Dissent

    1. Yeah! Butler shoulda just nuked the whole city! That woulda teached them ol’ Rebs what happens when you disagree with the government!

      Oh wait…

  1. Very interesting details. I would add that, by a somber coincidence, the Confederates also hanged a man on this date for a famous incident: James J. Andrews, the mastermind of the Great Locomotive Chase.

    1. I wanted to mention that, but, again, dropped the ball. Too much going on. The cases were, of course, fairly different, but both were perpetrated by noncombatants.

      In studying the Civil War, I’m learning that we do some pretty nasty things to each other in the name of “justice” and “patriotism.” It’s pretty sad, really.

  2. the story of mr mumford both informed and kept me hoping butler woundnt go thru with the hanging-wife and kids,i might just keep him in jail-anyway-excellent article-post-whatever its called on the web-i never thought much of this story till today-its interesting andrews met his fate the same day

    1. I remember when I wrote this, by the end I was pretty upset. Every bit as much as the story I wrote about the Tennessee Unionist being executed by the Confederates.

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