Jackson Given Permission to Unleash his Men; Beast Butler

May 16, 1862 (Friday)


General Stonewall Jackson, leading his army towards Harrisonburg, Virginia, had ordered General Richard Ewell to begin a move northward, down the Shenandoah Valley. His destination was to be the Federal troops under Nathaniel Banks, near Strasburg. After receiving the order, Ewell, already fairly disgruntled at Jackson, dragged his feet, figuring that “General Jackson’s views may change at any moment.”

Though bordering on insubordination, Ewell was correct. Jackson had given Ewell the order on the 14th, but by the next day, it was forgotten, as Jackson asked Ewell how soon he could get to Harrisonburg (westerly, rather than northerly), and if he could bring the two additional brigades that General Robert E. Lee had given him that were supposed to stay well east of the Shenandoah Valley.

Ewell, who had been itching for a fight, ordered General Branch, commanding the two brigades to pack up, leave Gordonsville, cross the Blue Ridge west to Luray. He was to bring nothing more than food and ammunition, not even tents.1

Though a Confederate victory, the Battle of Drewy’s Bluff, was weighing heavily on General Lee’s mind. He realized that if Federal gunboats could come up the James River, eight miles from Richmond, there would be little reason that General McClellan couldn’t land troops nearby.

On this date, a day after the battle, Lee wrote Jackson one of the most important letters he ever received. Jackson believed that Banks’ entire force was falling back all the way to Winchester. Lee, however, believed (like, and because of, Ewell) that half of Banks’ command was heading east towards Fredericksburg.

Lee figured this meant that Banks couldn’t possibly stay in the Shanendoah Valley, and must be headed towards Fredericsburg or to the Peninsula to reinforce McClellan. “A successful blow struck at him would delay, if it does not prevent, his moving to either place,” explained Lee, before giving Jackson permission to use the two brigades sent to Ewell in the Valley.

With this came a warning: “But you will not, in any demonstration you may make in that direction, lose sight of the fact that it may become necessary for you to come to the support of General Johnston, and hold yourself in readiness to do so if required.”

Making it even clearer, Lee reiterated his open-ended instructions to Jackson. “Whatever movement you make against Banks do it speedily, and if successful drive him back toward the Potomac, and create the impression, as far as practicable, that you design threatening that line.”2

At this point in time, Jackson still believed that Banks’ command was whole. Even so, he wanted to attack, and here was Lee giving him not only permission, but what amounted to almost an order to plow northward all the way to the Potomac.

Map with rather vague approximations of projected troop movements and positions.

But Banks’ command was not whole. The division under General Sheilds had been detached and was en route to Fredericksburg to join in with General McDowell’s First Corps. Both General McClellan and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had been hounding the President to allow the First Corps to reinforce McClellan on the Peninsula.

In that light, for McClellan, things were looking up. Stanton informed the General that he would talk to Lincoln the next day.3

If the Union First Corps was moved to the Peninsula, it would add 41,000 men to McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. There was little the Confederates could do to hold McDowell in place, which is why Lee warned Jackson that he might be called to the Peninsula at any moment.

It is also why Lee told Jackson to head north. If Jackson moved to the Potomac, it would threaten Washington, keeping reinforcements from McClellan and even possibly make Lincoln leech men from the main body to forcibly remove Jackson. This was a strategy that Lee would employ throughout the war.


Benjamin Butler Becomes the Beast

It had been nearly two weeks since Union General Benjamin Butler took control of New Orleans. Beginning with his proclamation of May 3, he kept the city under martial law and curtailed freedom of speech, disallowing any seccessionist banners or flags.

Though often remembered as a tyrant, at first, he seemed to have the city’s best interests at heart. He established a military court for violent crimes which “are punishable with death or imprisonment for a long term of ten years.”

Butler also made an offer to the planters, offering to pay them for their crops, which would then be used “for the benefit of the poor of this city.” Though he flatly refused to help slave owners hunt down their escaped slaves, he was otherwise doing his best to keep the general populus happy.

He realized that in the sweltering summer, just around the bend, disease would often crop up in the city. In an attempt at prevention, and convinced that filth was the reason for the diseases, he ordred New Orleans to be cleaned up. The garbage that had been piling up was to be removed and the sewers to be flushed daily.

The mayor of the city claimed that 300 additional workers had been hired, but General Butler didn’t buy it.4 In a vicious and scathing proclamation, he accused the city government and the wealthy of having no “regard to the starving poor, the working man, his wife and child.” Then, like a man ahead of his time, called upon the workingmen, asking, “how long will you uphold these flagrant wrongs and by inaction suffer yourselves to be made the serfs of these leaders?”5

Butler seemed to be class-baiting, attempting to turn the working class against the ruling class. Afterall, it was the ruling class, the slave owners, who wanted this war. While the working class made up roughly 90% of the city’s population, it was the remaining 10% that held 90% of the wealth. And it was their influence that Butler needed.

Louisiana’s governor, Thomas Moore, penned a rebuttle, which was circulated throughout the city. Moore accused Butler of attempting to turn the poor against the rich because he (Butler) came “from a section of the country that has done more than any other to degrade and cheapen labor and reduce the laboring man to the condition of the slave.”

Butler, said Moore, was forgetting that “Southerners are a high-toned, chivalrous people….” Moore, part of the elite, was reminding the poor that, while they might be poor, at least they weren’t slaves.

General Butler blamed the local newspapers for printing and circulating the rebuttle and shut four of them down. Then, on the 15th, he crossed a huge line.6 Noticing that it was the women of the city who hurled the most insults at his soldiers, Butler ordered:

As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter 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.7

If Butler was looking for something to undo all of the work he had done thus far in New Orleans, he had found it. Prior to the order, Butler was seen as a Yankee holding court over a Southern city. From here on out, he would be referred to as “The Beast.”

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p891-892. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p892-893. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p176. []
  4. When the Devil Came Down to Dixie by Chester G. Hearn, Louisiana State University Press, 1997. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 15, p425. []
  6. When the Devil Came Down to Dixie by Chester G. Hearn, Louisiana State University Press, 1997. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 15, p426. []
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Jackson Given Permission to Unleash his Men; Beast Butler by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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One thought on “Jackson Given Permission to Unleash his Men; Beast Butler

  1. Kudos on finding the image of the newspaper article on Butler’s notorious General Order 28. It should be mentioned that the final straw provoking the order is believed to have been a woman emptying a chamber pot over David Farragut’s head as he walked beneath her window. (I can’t seem to find the date of this incident, however.)

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