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Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

May 3, 2012   View Discussion

Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

Patrick Young, Esq.

by Patrick Young, Esq. - Blogger

There is a full list of The Immigrants’ Civil War articles at the bottom of the page.

While the Union held military control of New Orleans after April 1862, pro-Confederate residents balked at the Union leadership, going so far as to spit in the faces of Union soldiers. The threat of a rebel insurrection led Major General Benjamin Butler, who was in command of the city, to turn to foreign-born New Orleanians as allies.

To accomplish that goal, he drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician. While immigrant Confederate soldiers had already shown their real allegiance by joining the Union Army after the capture of the city, Butler hoped to fuse the formerly marginalized black and immigrant populations of New Orleans into a Unionist bastion.1

One of Butler’s first acts as de facto dictator in New Orleans was to link the Union cause to that of the poor and downtrodden. Almost immediately after taking control of the city, he issued a proclamation that denounced “the deplorable state of destitution and hunger of the…working classes in this city.” Butler revealed that the New Orleans’ Know Nothing mayor and the wealthy ruling aristocracy had shipped the city’s supplies off to the Confederate army. Declaring class war, the general wrote that the “hunger does not pinch the wealthy” who, he said, were carrying on the rebellion “without regard to the starving poor.” Butler’s proletariat rallying call went beyond words: He soon began to take from the rich to give to the poor.2

The general’s biographer would later write that his “attitude toward the ruling class was warlike, and he strove in all ways to isolate that class, and bring the majority of [Louisianans] to see who it was that brought all this needless ruin upon their state.”3

Three days after his proclamation, the Union army began distributing free food, taken from the Confederates, to the city’s poor and working class. As many as 30,000 people a week were the beneficiaries of the free food program.4

Only one-in-ten of the people receiving free food were native-born whites; 37 percent were Irish and 33 percent were Germans. To participate, food recipients had to renounce the Confederacy, something that immigrants already angry at the Southern ruling class were only too happy to do.5

Butler knew that food distribution alone would not secure New Orleans, a city in the Deep South, for the Union. He had to put unemployed men to work so they could feed their families without the stink of dependence. He promptly reopened the city’s port, restoring hundreds of mostly Irish dockworkers to their jobs. He also began to plan a massive civic works project that would help transform New Orleans.

New Orleans had been a place plagued by epidemics, particularly yellow fever, since its founding. Because his own father had died during a yellow fever outbreak in Charleston, Butler had made himself an expert on the subject. Contrary to popular thinking at the time, Butler believed that most epidemics had their origin in poor sanitation. He set out to conquer yellow fever and put Unionist immigrants to work with a city wide clean-up effort.6

The Know Nothing government of New Orleans had long allowed garbage and excrement to fill the streets of the city’s immigrant districts. While wealthy neighborhoods were spotless, the poor lived mired in filth. During the summer, the heat of the stinking months of June, July, and August turned the slums into boiling stews of decay, insects, and rats. Butler demanded that the city clean itself. When the Know Nothing mayor refused, he put his own sanitation plan in place.7

In June of 1862, Butler hired 2,000 unemployed men to clean out the fetid canals and stagnant pools of water around the city. The men were fed at government expense and paid decent wages. More importantly, the poor generally saw their condition improve as government finally sought to eradicate the contagions that killed them every summer.8

Butler next demanded that the city’s employees take an oath of allegiance to the United States. The city had been run by Know Nothing Confederates for years and he knew this move would lead to mass resignations. The city police had been particularly feared by immigrants because they were more likely to participate in anti-immigrant violence than try to prevent it. When the Know Nothings left city government, hundreds of jobs opened up to Unionists, including many immigrants. Immigrants who took the jobs knew that if the Confederates ever regained control of the city, they would be seen as traitors.9

The fate of 10 Louisianans who joined the Union cause was a reminder that the Confederacy would not abide dissidents. The men had originally been Confederate soldiers, but were captured by Northern troops and then enlisted in the 8th Vermont Infantry Regiment. In September 1862, they were captured again – this time by the Confederates. Seven of the men were executed on the spot. Three more were held as prisoners and then executed in front of thousands of Confederate soldiers.10

In putting immigrants to work, Ben Butler not only won their sympathy, he also gave them a mortal stake in ultimate Union victory.

African American soldiers served under General Butler even before the Emancipation Proclamation. Butler’s units were the only black troops routinely led by black officers. (Source: Harpers Weekly, 1863)

Butler was also a racial innovator. He had been the first general to free escaped slaves when he was stationed in Virginia, and he became the first to formally create regiments of black soldiers. Unlike later units of United States Colored Troops, which were led by white officers, Butler authorized using black officers to command these soldiers.

Ben Butler was a political genius even if he never showed the same level of skill on the battlefield. He brought the emerging techniques of class-based ethnic politics to the occupation of New Orleans, making the city an important Union base for the rest of the war. And while he may have stolen from the rich, he made sure that the immigrant poor and African Americans got a share of what was taken.11

A “beast” to white Confederates, and possibly a thief, Ben Butler was also an innovator of a new type of politics that mobilized excluded ethnic and racial groups against a traditional ruling class.


1. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael D. Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008) pp. 164-165.

2. Benjamin Butler, General Order Number 25, May 9, 1862.

3. General Butler in New Orleans by James Parton, p. 323.

4. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael D. Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008) p. 163.

5. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael D. Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008) p. 163.

6. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael D. Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008) pp. 165-167.

7. When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans by Chester G. Hearn, Louisiana State University Press (1997) p. 96.

8. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael D. Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008) p. 166.

9. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael D. Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008) pp. 164-167.

10. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael D. Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008) pp. 130-131.

11. Butler was widely reviled as a thief in the South. While he was never charged with corruption during his four year military career, Butler retired at the end of his life a very wealthy man with very little to account for how he got most of his fortune.

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that will examine the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear monthly between 2011 and 2015, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War - Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America - Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist- A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. ...And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?- The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did new Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans


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