Butler the Racketeering Mob Boss of New Orleans to be Relieved of Duty

November 8, 1862 (Saturday)

When last we left General Benjamin Butler, military ruler of New Orleans, it had been the middle of summer. He had just executed a civilian for tearing down a United States flag and offended the foreign consuls of more countries than most could name. It was fair to say that things had not exactly gotten better.

Benjamin Butler: “You’ll never take me alive, coppers!”

Butler waged several political campaigns. The fight with the consuls continued, with suspicions (some actually founded) that they were aiding the Confederate war effort. New Orleans was a port city. Banks were, at best, suspicious of Butler, and squirreled their coins away in the secret hiding places of their directors. If Butler’s military police happened to find such a stash, he would claim it as contraband of war, and use it to pay the soldiers.

He also targeted foreigners, naturalizing any who had lived in the United States for five years or more. This was automatic and required them to swear an oath not to give aid or comfort to any of the enemies of Union. When the foreign consuls again protested, Butler told them that if they had a problem with it, they could go back to their own country.

Business owners, too, were targeted. If they refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States, Butler forced them to close their doors.

Butler clearly took the idea of occupation very seriously. Though upwards of 20,000 had swore an oath to the Federal government, in September, he ordered everyone who hadn’t to drop by their nearest provost marshal by October 1st. There, they could either swear an oath of allegiance or be deemed “enemies of the United States.” They would have to give their address and register all of their property. This thinly veiled threat gathered for Butler another 50,000 loyal Unionists. Only 4,000 refused to take the oath after this. One of the 4,000 was the mayor, John Monroe, who was imprisoned at Fort Pickens, Florida.

Many average citizens were arrested simply for speaking their mind. Some were sent to Ship Island to do hard labor for creating effigies of dead Union soldiers. A woman was imprisoned for wearing a Confederate Flag and distributing handbills.

New Orleans – Cicero of the South?

Others found themselves breaking big rocks into little ones (so to speak) for writing to Confederate officers or for smuggling medicine through Union lines. Others were there for applying for passports to visit Europe, or for not paying the taxes imposed by Butler upon the rich. In fact, many of those doing hard labor were of the wealthy, slave owning classes.

Butler had it out for the rich, who he saw as the force behind the Rebellion. The war was to keep the institution of slavery, and so the wealthy slave owners were to blame for all of this. He was relentless when it came to them.

But the wealthy weren’t the only ones he targeted. Churches who failed to include President Lincoln in their prayers were shut down. It was also true, however, that many churches became bastions for secessionist thought and planning. These churches – all Episcopalian – claimed to have been acting on the orders of their bishop, the Right Reverend (turned Major-General) Leonidas Polk.

The Episcopal Churches were some of the wealthiest in New Orleans. The poorer churches, especially those with Irish ministers, were allowed to remain open, even if they preached against Butler.

The poor of New Orleans, the common men and women, tolerated or even liked Butler’s policies. The heavy taxation of wealthy slave owners greatly benefited the poor. The city was cleaner and healthier than it had ever been.

Though Butler may have been the friend of the poor, he was, himself, a member of the wealthy class. Due to the Confiscation Acts, Butler was able to skim money off the top of goods that had been seized. He, along with his brother, engaged in numerous shady dealings. Immediately after General Butler put a ban on intoxicants, Brother Butler went to each liquor store to buy the alcohol on the cheap. When all was under the Butlers’ control, the ban was lifted.

Butler’s Hideout

Together, they would pull similar stunts, using the blockade to their advantage as each skimmed from the top. Soon, many businesses were monopolized by the Butler Brothers – hardly an act a true friend of the poor would undertake. They used United States Navy ships for their endeavors, tying up actual Naval business in the process.

Butler’s main objective in New Orleans was to turn a profit. Putting the wealthy slave owners in jail was simply one way to go about it. Another way was selling salt to the Confederate army. Controlling all aspects of smuggling (much like a Prohibition-era mob boss), Butler ensured that his ships got through the blockade, where they would sell salt to civilians and soldiers alike.

Butler, who was well known for his dislike of Jews, was even trading with the Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin. A New York based go-between managed to pocket $200,000 in four months of trading United State salt for Confederate cotton.

When Butler the racketeer was confronted by George Denison of the US Treasury Department, he admitted his antics were a fairly bad idea. He would stop, but only if Denison would allow two more ships to go through the blockade. Denison, a staunch abolitionist, turned a blind eye to it. The Butler Brothers were hiring slaves that they had freed and paying them to work on the plantations where they were enslaved. The new system wasn’t perfect, but it was a damn sight better than the old system.

Rumors had been chittering around Federal offices that General Nathaniel Banks was on his way to New Orleans to take over for Butler. When, by September, the rumor started to appear in the press, Butler asked General-in-Chief Henry Halleck directly if it were true. Halleck denied that it was, and Butler went about business as usual.

Henry Halleck was correct. In mid-September, when he replied to Butler, Banks was in command of the Union troops in Washington DC. Shortly after the battle of Antietam, however, President Lincoln turned his attention towards the Mississippi River and Vicksburg. He wanted two expeditions to approach the city, one from the north and another from the south.

Nathaniel Banks: “It’s curtains for you, see! Yeah! Curtains!”

To head up the expedition moving from the north, Lincoln pegged George McClernand. Though under the umbrella of the War Department, it was more or less and independent command. He would operate in General Ulysses Grant’s department, but would not be in command over Grant.

Lincoln wanted to handle the push from the south a bit differently. On this date, Henry Halleck ordered Nathaniel Banks to head up a column of 10,000 troops based out of New Orleans. Most importantly, however, he was to relieve General Butler.

Butler would again suspect such a thing, but wouldn’t receive any official notice of it for another month – when Nathaniel Banks and the first part of his 10,000 arrived to relieve him of his post.1



  1. Sources: Pretense of Glory, The Life of General Nathaniel P. Banks by James G. Hollandsworth; When the Devil Came Down to Dixie by Chester G. Hearn; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 15, p590-591. []
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