Making Examples in New Orleans
The art of war was a masterpiece designed for those who were professionally trained in overseeing its prosecution; or so the alumni of West Point and Annapolis would have lead one to believe. Out of the political forum, few were produced to believe in themselves equal to the masters of warfare, and none would catch the nation's attention, North and South, like that of Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler of Massachusetts. His methods of sending messages to the malcontent population of New Orleans, Louisiana, while commanding the Department of the Gulf, earned him the distain of every rebellious citizen of the city.
Preceding the arrival of the newly appointed department commander and the soldiers to occupy the region, the vessels of Admiral David Farragut arrived within sight on April 25, 1862 and sent a messenger to the mayor to remove all Confederate flags from the public buildings replacing them with the stars and stripes. The following day, without awaiting official orders from the fleet, Captain Henry W. Morris commanding the USS Pocahontas sent a small party ashore and raised the United States flag over the Mint.
One citizen of the city, Mr. William B. Mumford; amongst numbers in the crowd watched as the flag was raised, yet took it upon himself to remove the deplorable symbol in a failed attempt to present it a captured prize to the mayor. The flag itself was torn to shreds before it was able to be delivered, distributed among the angry crowds that gathered in the streets.
The Department of the Gulf had been established by General Orders No. 20 from the Adjutant General's Office, Washington on February 23, 1862 placing Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler in command; where upon the day he stepped ashore implemented measures of securing the peace by punishing those openly hostile to the occupying forces.
On May 31, 1862 orders were issued which gave the Provost Marshal the authority to execute Abraham McLane, Daniel Doyle, Edward C. Smith, Patrick Kane, George L. Williams, and William Stanley all paroled Confederate prisoners who had organized themselves the Monroe Life Guard, and attempted to force the federal pickets and rejoin their colors at Corinth. Captured again, their sentence was to be carried out immediately after reveille on Wednesday the 4th of June. The sentence; however, was commuted the following day when the department commander received a very profound appeal by two Union men of New Orleans to spare their lives from the rope. Under the circumstances, the major general commanding saw great benefit in granting their clemency and sentenced them confined to hard labor instead.
Tolerance had been lost when it came to determining the fate of William B. Mumford, however. A military commission found the man guilty of treason in addition to the overt act of tearing down the United States flag from the Mint. Special Orders No. 70 of June 5, 1862 charged the Provost Marshal to carry out the execution between 8 am and noon on Saturday the 7th. The news had not reached Richmond until after the death sentence had been carried out; and knowledge of it exhibited nothing shy of pure outrage from its government officials.
Directed by the Secretary of War, the honorable George Wythe Randolph to gain a statement of the facts and avoid any acts of retaliation; General Robert E. Lee wrote to his federal counterpart, Major General George B. McClellan seeking a logical explanation to the execution of a man who torn down the United States Flag within a Southern city that wasn't federally occupied. If the report was as stated, than the Confederacy had every concern that the federal authority had murdered one of their citizens. All that could be done from the field was to forward the petition onto the War Department, who had been better acquainted with the state of affairs in Louisiana, and have them address the issue.
Dissatisfied that the Federal Government had not answered to or accepted responsibility for the felonies their general officers had committed in the field, a second letter was sent to Washington City, on behalf of the President of the Confederate States to the General in Chief of the Union Armies, Major General Henry W. Halleck; giving the federal government fifteen days to claim or disavow their sanction on such activities.
The general's letters had first been filed away without ever being shown to the Secretary of War or the President of the United States. Once reacquired, General Halleck responded that no authentic information had been received regarding the executions by field and department commanders. He assured General Lee, that the United States would execute the present conflict according the civilized usages of war, and that if any excesses were discovered those would be duly punished. Once sufficient information had been received by the authorities in Washington, it had been promised that General Lee would be duly informed of it.
Officially, the United States Government wouldn't sanction any act which would make them look criminal before their own country and in fact the entire world. With the reports from the newspapers in the deep South; it was difficult for the southern government to buy into their denial of these criminalities; and they continued to wait in vein for due attention from those in Washington.
The restless Confederate authorities had brought the Mumford execution up once again during a prisoner of war exchange on the 29th of November 1862 between Confederate agent Robert Ould and Lieutenant Colonel William H. Ludlow; of which the generosity of the Southerners allotted an additional fifteen days to answer to the alleged murder of Mr. Mumford. The time came and passed while Richmond remained deceived. The evidence was clear and the truth discovered without courtesy afforded by those who warred against them.
The act of publicly hanging William B. Mumford as well as other atrocities unanswered for by the United States government lead President Jefferson Davis to issue a proclamation on the 23rd day of December 1862; pronouncing and declaring Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler a felon and found deserved of capital punishment. If captured, the commanding officer of Confederate forces had been charged with his immediate execution by hanging. No commissioned officers of the United States forces under his command were to be paroled before exchanged until the department commander in New Orleans shall have met punishment for his crimes.
The hostilities waged against the Confederacy by the forces under this general officer had borne no resemblance of such warfare alone permissible by the rules of international law or the usages of civilization, but characterized solely by repeated atrocities and outrages. Civilians confined to hard labor with balls and chains attached to their limbs, held in dungeons and fortresses. All personal belongings to be sold at public auction, an order if executed condemned nearly a quarter million people of all ages and sex to starvation; although forbidden to military officers by the orders of President Abraham Lincoln, it was still in accordance with the confiscation law of the federals which had since been directed through the civil authorities; having made many officers zealous agents in the commissioning of those crimes.
It was proclaimed that all commissioned officers of Major General Benjamin Butler, if captured would be unqualified prisoners of war, not to be treated as soldiers engaged in honorable warfare, and held in reserve for future execution; only non commissioned officers and privates would be treated with such respect. Black slaves found under arms against the soldiers of the Confederate States, when captured would be turned over to the civil authority and dealt with according to the laws of the state as well as all officers in command of such slaves under arms.
The action of one citizen of New Orleans and reaction by a newly established department commander who hadn't even set foot in the city as an occupied force, catapulted themselves to the fore front of national attention. The execution of Mr. William B. Mumford launched Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler into the status as a celebrity of criminal proportions; and gave Southerners just cause in the prevention of further war crimes of which no government on earth would publicly endorse as permissible.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at email@example.com