The Battle of the Handkerchiefs

February 20, 1863 (Friday)

General Banks

Union General Nathaniel Banks did not have an easy job in his command at New Orleans. While it was true that he could hardly do a more damaging job than his predecessor, Benjamin “The Beast” Butler, he understood that it was a thin line upon which he walked.

In November, Banks raised the 30,000-man Army of the Gulf and replaced Butler. Though he ruled with an absurdly iron fist, Butler did much of the organizing and sorting out, saving Banks the trouble. After getting settled in, Banks went to work.

First, he found jobs for the newly-freed slaves. They were to be paid, allowed to stay with their families, and corporal punishment was outlawed. He also gave the freemen the right to bear arms, allowing them to join the militia. It wasn’t all wonderful, however. The former slaves had to sign year-long contracts, had to carry passes, and were subject to slave labor if found to be vagrants or “strolling the city.” Though probably well-intended, it angered blacks and former slave owners in kind.

Bank’s main political concern now was bringing Louisiana back into the Union. This, thanks to Ben Butler, would be no easy task. As one of Banks’ staff officers put it: “Since Butler had stroked the cat from the tail to head, and found her full of yawl and scratch, Banks was determined to stroke her from head to tail, and see if she would hide her claws, and commence to purr.”

Jumping on this right away, Banks released Butler’s political prisoners and allowed Confederate-leaning churches to resume services. He did what he could for the poor, placing price caps on bread and establishing social programs.

The Beast, Butler

For a time, the Secessionists in New Orleans believed that Banks would be quite the opposite of Butler. They believed that since he had given them back some of their rights, that all of them had returned. This simply wasn’t so. When the press once again began to highlight Union defeats and publish pro-Confederate diatribes, Banks shut them down.

But, like Banks, New Orleans was learning how to play this game. They understood that Banks was certainly better than Butler, and afforded him some modicum of outward respect. Inside, however, they were every bit as enraged.

This passive-aggressive protest came to a head (if it can even be called “a head”) on this date. Banks had been collecting Rebel prisoners in New Orleans for some time, and today was the day they would be moved out of the city to be exchanged for a like number of Union prisoners held by the Rebels.

This was a huge to-do in New Orleans. Secessionists threw balls and sorries celebrating the event. All of this was done out in the relative open, with doors and windows thrown ajar. Confederate flags, dancing and general tipsy merriment could be seen and heard throughout the city on the nights leading up to the exchange.

We leveled our guns and the ladies kept a’comin.
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago.
We poked ’em in the backs and still they were a-wavin’
‘Huzzah for Jeff Davis and to hell with the Yankee foe!’

A New York Times correspondent noted that much of this reckless abandon had to do with the string of Federal defeats, and was most boisterously engaged in by women.

“The men have, as a general rule, been perfectly quiet,” he wrote, “but the women, more demonstrative, have had a happy time in getting up clothing and pound-cake, and scribbling letters to their different friends in the Confederacy, which they could conceal in the linings of their sojer boys’ coats, or perchance tuck snugly away in a biscuit or pound-cake.”

And it was these women who were quickly gathering in the morning light to see off and cheer on the 300 Confederate prisoners. By noon, there were around 10,000 Secessionist women clogging the streets, making their way to the waterfront. Soon, the levees were flooded with hoop skirts and handkerchiefs, the air filled with huzzahs for Jeff Davis and the Confederacy.

As the Confederate prisoners drew near, the crowd surged and the scant number of Union soldiers acting as guards were brushed aside with “the most opprobrious epithets” flying from the mouths of these ladies. The Federal guards struggled against overwhelming numbers to maintain some control of the situation.

Corporal James Lewis Sherman, 23rd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

The guards demanded that the crowd disperse and that the ladies stop waving their handkerchiefs. This was met with more epithets and huzzahs for Southern Rights. As news of the engagement reached the rest of the women in the crowded streets, there was an even greater surge forward. On the docks, the USS Laurel Hill was surrounded by 800 ladies, effectively seizing the ship as their own.

When the news reached General James Bowen, commanding the troops in the city, he ordered the 23rd Massachusetts to disperse the mob. But this would be no picnic. Now even greater in number, scores of Rebel flags were seen everywhere. Some women waved them, while other had pinned them to their bonnets or breasts. Even some of the Confederate prisoners were adorned with them – gifts from the ladies, no doubt. One lady even managed to smuggle in a large cake decorated with the Stars and Bars.

When the well-trained and very business-like Massachusetts regiment filed into line, the crowd hardly took notice. It wasn’t until a battery of six pieces of artillery was unlimbered before them that they began to slowly back away. As they did, the blue language flowed and the flags of Rebellion were waved with even more vigor than before.

To put a finer point on it, Admiral David Farragut, commanding the Union Navy in the Lower Mississippi, ordered a gunboat with its ports thrown open and guns run out, hoping this too would disperse the throng.

Admiral David Farragut

Now, backed by the artillery and Navy, the 23rd Massachusetts was ordered to clear the levee. Before the silent guns, the women could stand indefinitely. They must have known that nobody was going to fire cannons into a crowd of ladies. But against the bayonets of the infantry marching steadily onward and into their masses, they stood not a chance.

With the ladies moving back, the infantry made a flanking maneuver, positioning themselves between the Secessionists and the Rebel prisoners, who had now been boarded on a steamer. As the infantry advanced, the artillery was pushed forward behind them.

The mob was not dispersed, it was simply displaced. The levees and docks were cleared, but the women flooded into other, unoccupied streets, continuing their now hateful and bitter flag waving until nightfall finally sent them back into their homes.1



  1. Sources: Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth; Women During the Civil War edited by Judith E. Harper; New York Times, March 4, 1863. []
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3 thoughts on “The Battle of the Handkerchiefs

  1. Eric – I think you are being too hard on General Butler. The South hated him because he treated the planter elites like traitors but while Gov of New Orleans he cleaned up the city, helped the poor and freed and armed the slaves. He also insulted Southern women for which he was given the name “Beast Butler”. By taking on an anti-Butler line we buy into a revisionist way of seeing these event. They were very complex even at the time.

    1. Hi Ray – Thanks for the comment. I’ve been accused of being too hard on Confederates, so it’s nice to be accused of being too hard on a Union officer for a change.

      No doubt that Butler did some good. I’ve dealt with that in several other posts. But from reading his memoirs, I’ve basically understood him to be a fairly arrogant bastard. And though he did some good, in the end, he was a self-serving racketeer, as I pointed out in this post.

      As for “insulting the Southern women” being the reason the South hated him, that was only part of it. He didn’t so much insult them as call them prostitutes. Also, the death sentence handed out to William Mumford did him few favors.

      It was indeed very complex, but it doesn’t change the fact that Butler simply wasn’t the man for the job. He was removed from the post by Lincoln for some very good reasons. It was the right call.

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