Jefferson Davis Calls for the Execution of Benjamin Butler and Black Troops

December 23, 1862 (Tuesday)

Butler’s Thunder Pot

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, certainly had a bee in his bonnet for Benjamin Butler. There wasn’t one thing in particular that set him off, it was the culmination of how Butler reigned over New Orleans that set the Southern executive into a fury.

Butler was a harsh and unforgiving ruler, drawing ire not only from the seceded states, but from Abraham Lincoln in the north, as well. Lincoln had been planning to remove Butler for some time, but was just now getting around to doing it.

Recently arrived following a recruitment trip in New York, Nathaniel Banks was in New Orleans to take over for Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf.

Davis, finally fed up with what he described as Butler’s “brutal tyranny,” issued an equally harsh proclamation – a daydream of what he’d like to do to Butler if he caught this miscreant.

It decreed that all commissioned officers in Butler’s command (obviously including Butler) “be declared not entitled to be considered as soldiers engaged in honorable warfare, but as robbers and criminals, deserving death; and that they and each of them be, whenever captured, reserved for execution.”

As was usual, Davis understood that the soldiers were unwitting participants of Butler’s sociopathic rampage and were thus to be treated “as prisoners of war, with kindness and humanity, and be sent home on the usual parole.”

That is, except for black soldiers. One of the things that Butler did that wasn’t brutally repugnant was the raising of units made up of both free and formerly enslaved black men. This did not sit well at all with Jefferson Davis, a slave owner who understood that giving freed slaves firearms was probably not in his best interest.

Mid-City New Orleans, May 21, 2004: Statue of Jefferson Davis, “subtly improved by local artists”. Graffiti inscription “SLAVE OWNER” – Photo taken by Bart Everson.

And so, Davis ordered that “all Negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong, to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.”

Davis never mentioned what to do with free black men who had joined the Union army. Butler had raised three full regiments of black troops, totaling 3,122 men. Two of these regiments were made up almost entirely of former slaves, but the first was the opposite, consisting of members of the city’s well-to-do black community.

New Orleans was an odd place for many reasons, least of which was the origin of its black population. In 1860, 25,000 black people lived in the Crescent City. 11,000 of them were free. Of those who were free, many had come from New England, while others came from such places as Germany, England, France and other places in Europe. They had never been slaves.

But, if Davis’ policy was enacted, they would simply be lumped in with the “Negro slaves captured in arms” clause. According to Davis and the Confederate government, these black men (even the ones born free) were not human beings, they were property.

Turning this property into a regiment of human soldiers, according to Jefferson Davis, was punishable by death. If a white man put a gun in the hand of a black man, both he and the black man, according to Davis, deserved to die – even if the black man had never been property in the first place.

Davis decreed that captured black soldiers were “to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.” A few weeks earlier, he, along with his Secretary of War James Seddon, made it gruesomely clear what these laws were.

In Georgia, mid-November, four black Union soldiers had been captured. General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the department, wrote to Richmond asking what should be done.

Both Seddon and Davis met and talked over the policy. It was decided by them that slaves in arms were in “flagrant rebellion” and so “are subject to death by the laws of every slave-holding State.” They agreed that these former slaves “cannot be recognized in any way as soldiers subject to the rules of war and to trial by military courts; yet for example and to repress any spirit of insubordination it is deemed essential that slaves in armed insurrection should meet condign punishment. Summary execution must therefore be inflicted on those taken.”

They made only one consideration so that things didn’t get out of hand and a massacre of black soldiers didn’t spontaneously explode. To prove they were serious about killing black people, but somehow not ghoulish fiends, they deemed it “judicious that the discretion of deciding and giving the order of execution should be reposed in the general commanding the special locality of the capture.”

This wasn’t a war being waged simply to keep the slaves enslaved. It was being fought to keep the white race supreme. What other conclusion could ultimately be drawn?

New Orleans troops (ie, not property) raised under Butler’s command in 1862.

((Sources: Pretense Of Glory: The Life Of General Nathaniel P. Banks by James G. Hollandsworth; Jefferson Davis, American by William J. Cooper; Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era by John David; Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, p820; Black New Orleans, 1860-1880 by John W. Blassingame; Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 4, p954.))

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Jefferson Davis Calls for the Execution of Benjamin Butler and Black Troops by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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