Ben Butler: Ladies’ Man

In 1814, licensed privateer John Butler, operating under a government commission, helped the United States retain control of New Orleans by carrying dispatches to Andrew Jackson. Nearly fifty years later, Captain Butler’s son exerted his own form of patriotism over the Crescent City.

Major general Benjamin F. Butler assumed administrative control of New Orleans in May 1862 following its surrender to Admiral David Farragut. New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy, but at the time of Federal occupation its population had ebbed.  Its young men had flocked to the rebel army, and many civilians fled upon learning that Farragut’s fleet, steaming up from the Gulf of Mexico, had run past the guns of forts Jackson and St. Philip.

Remaining civilians were understandably unhappy about living under Yankee control and often expressed their feelings vocally and physically. Butler had a low tolerance for such demonstrations; he demanded respect for the Federal government and ordered all vestiges of the Confederacy removed. When females of the city continued to embellish their dresses with Southern symbols, shout insults to Union soldiers, and empty their washbasins– and possibly their chamber pots– from second story windows onto the heads of Federal troops, Butler issued his infamous Order No. 28:

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 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.

Order No. 28 spawned instantaneous negative reaction. Women from aristocratic families took umbrage at being spoken of in the same sentence as prostitutes. Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard read a sexual overtone into Butler’s order which, he argued, permitted Yankee soldiers to abuse the women of New Orleans. Nothing of the kind happened, but Butler earned the enmity of the Louisiana ladies, who considered him a woman-hater.

In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Throughout his life, Benjamin Butler admired and respected women, beginning with his mother, Charlotte Ellison Butler. Charlotte become a bride and the stepmother of three young daughters at the age of 19 when she married the widowed John Butler in 1811.  Eight years and three children later, she found herself a decidedly less-than-wealthy widow responsible for supporting her family, her youngest child being five-month-old Ben.

Charlotte settled in Lowell, Massachusetts, where she operated a boarding house for textile workers. In his memoir, Butler’s Book, Butler recalls her as being always busy yet somehow finding time to help him learn to read or to teach him about the stars and constellations.  Charlotte continued to emphasize education as Ben grew older and hoped he would enter the ministry. Ben began his studies at Waterville College in Maine with that intent but soon changed his mind and focused on chemistry.

Following his graduation in 1838, young Butler decided to become a lawyer. He clerked, served as an apprentice, and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1840. The previous  fall, he had accepted an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner in the parental home of a fellow legal neophyte, Fisher Hildreth. There he met and was immediately attracted  to Fisher’s sister, Sarah.

Butler soon proposed to Sarah, and she accepted conditionally. Two years his senior, Sarah was enjoying a career as a trained dramatic actress. She told Butler that once his nascent legal practice generated sufficient income to support a family, she would marry him. Until then, she would continue to travel to the major cities of the country to perform in their most prestigious theatres. Butler, who wrote in his autobiography that he was initially impressed by Sarah’s “brilliancy of mind,” along with her “personal endowments and literary attainments,” saw the wisdom of her advice. During the next few years, he worked diligently to establish a growing practice in criminal law, and the couple was married on May 16, 1844.

Sarah retired from her theatrical career to become a wife and mother, but she continued to play the role of advisor to Butler. During the Civil War, she accompanied him to every post he served, a situation which caused him to later declare, “I had an advantage over most of my brother commanding generals … in having an advisor … whose conclusions could always be trusted.” At New Orleans,  Sarah had agreed with Order No. 28.

Butler entered politics after the Civil War, representing Massachusetts  in the U. S. House from 1867-1869 and serving as that state’s governor from 1883-1884. The women’s suffrage movement had stalled during the war years but was being thrust into the spotlight by a new group of determined feminists. Butler was among the few politicians of either party who seriously and consistently espoused their cause. He knew Elizabeth Cady Stanton, corresponded with Susan B. Anthony, and invited Victoria Woodhull to appear before his House Judiciary Committee to address the topic of women’s  suffrage. He included prosuffrage planks in his gubernatorial campaigns; when he appointed Clara Barton head of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women, he became the first governor to appoint a female to head an executive office in that state.

The women of occupied New Orleans, of course, knew Butler only as the author of Order No. 28. They were probably unaware of other orders he issued, such as those imposing quarantines on incoming ships and inaugurating a garbage removal progam. Butler issued them to control yellow fever, which in some years killed as many as 10 per cent of the city’s residents.  During Butler’s administration 1862, only two deaths from yellow fever were reported. The ladies of the Crescent City should have loved him.