New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
Monday, July 15, 2024
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1862 - Women's Order

On this day in 1862, Gen. Benjamin Butler, the Union officer in command of occupied New Orleans, having grown tired of the way in which the Confederate women were insulting the Union troops, issued the infamous General Order 28, the 'Women's Order,' which gave the Union soldier who was insulted by a woman to treat her 'as a woman of the town plying her vocation,' that is, a common whore. Many in the North and South were outraged by this treatment of womanhood. The British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston pleaded with Butler to rescind the order, but he refused. Southerners bought chamber-pots with Butler's picture at the bottom.

On April 26, 1862 Farragut and his marines raised the Union flag over the New Orleans branch of the United States Mint, today a property of the Louisiana State Museum, making New Orleans the first Confederate city captured and occupied by Union troops. Three days later he marched to city hall amidst throngs of jeering and threatening New Orleanians to take formal possession of the city. General Benjamin F. Butler and his 1,400 troops arrived in New Orleans on May 1 to take military control of the city.

Butler directed Union actions and policy during the first eight months of the occupation of New Orleans and lower Louisiana. A man of ambition and intense egotism, Butler alienated northern business interests, even though he himself was a millionaire. In both his home state of Massachusetts and in New Orleans he built his power-base on the working class, the poor, and the needy.

Many citizens of lower Louisiana openly showed their contempt for Butler and his occupation government. They resented his orders against treating the United States flag with disrespect and showed their contempt for Union officers and soldiers by assembling in groups on public streets and singing treasonable songs. New Orleanian William Mumford was hanged by Butler for lowering the Union flag that flew over the New Orleans branch of the United States Mint. White Louisianians also objected when Butler decided to arm black troops and organize them into Native Guard units.

Although Butler managed to quiet the city's male population with the example of Mumford's hanging, New Orleans women of all social stations continued to express their disapproval and contempt for Butler. In response, Butler dispensed his inflammatory 'Woman Order' on May 15, 1862. The New Orleans 'Woman Order,' modeled on similar ones issued in Maryland and Europe, stated:

As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insult 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 [a prostitute].

This order curbed the rebellious activities of local women but made Butler a hated man. P. G. T. Beauregard was the first to call him 'Beast.'

Butler required all citizens who wished to remain in New Orleans and lower Louisiana to swear allegiance to the Union, ordering those who refused to do so to leave Union-held territory with only their personal clothing and no more than fifty dollars. Butler then began confiscating property belonging to enemies of the Union, earning him the name 'Spoons' Butler from well-to-do New Orleanians for his rumored but unproven fondness for valuable silver spoons.

To broaden local support for the Unionist movement in southern Louisiana, Butler tried to help the poor and those left destitute by the war. He distributed beef and sugar seized by his troops to the New Orleans poor, reinstituted the free market, and organized massive projects to reconstruct the levee and clean the city's filthy streets by scouring the city and picking up trash in grimy neighborhood markets. As a result of the cleaning efforts, only two yellow fever cases were reported in 1862, although pro-southern sympathizers hoped that an epidemic would kill off General Butler and his Yankee forces.