University of Massachusetts, Lowell professor Michael Pierson's fine new book offers a major reinterpretation of the causes and significance of one of the Civil War's major events: the fall of New Orleans, by far the Confederacy's [End Page 285] largest city. Perhaps because Union forces' 1862 seizure of the city was not accompanied by a major battle, it has been somewhat neglected by historians, which this welcome book remedies. The capture of New Orleans has generally been attributed to Union naval superiority (and the bold leadership of David Farragut) and limited Confederate resources available for the city's defense (and ineffectual leadership by Mansfield Lovell). Pierson offers a more complex explanation for this pivotal event. Had the Confederate authorities made their government more appealing to the city's substantial free black and (especially) immigrant population, the author contends, New Orleans might well have been defensible. Instead, a mutiny by working-class white soldiers on the eve of the Union army's arrival made the city's fall a foregone conclusion. This outcome greatly weakened the Confederate cause as a whole, Pierson notes. Beyond its strategic and economic value, the city offered a very large white population that would, as a result, not be subject to the Confederate draft when that measure was implemented later in the year.
As was also the case elsewhere in the southern states, German Americans were often persecuted during the Civil War for their actual or suspected unionist leanings. Pierson documents a little-known episode in which Confederate forces fired on a crowd of German American men, women, and children for cheering the advancing U.S. forces from the New Orleans levee. Casualty figures for this massacre are uncertain. As Pierson reveals, though, the city's Confederate mayor, in correspondence with Farragut, not only admitted but justified the event's occurrence as the appropriate punishment for disloyalty. This persecution and ill treatment by Confederates, according to the author, made the immigrant population of New Orleans a major source of strength to the occupying Union forces, at least initially. This fact was well understood by the savvy U.S. general Benjamin F. Butler, who emerges as the somewhat unlikely hero of Pierson's book.
Though Butler has often been remembered for allegedly harsh and dictatorial treatment of the citizens of New Orleans during his tenure in command there, in fact his public works and poor relief policies not only improved the city's health conditions but also, as he intended, won over the hearts and minds of a not insignificant number of working-class New Orleans whites. In accomplishing this goal, Butler astutely played on the simmering class conflict within the Confederacy that according to some historians played an important role in undermining the southern war effort. Even some (probably working-class) New Orleans women, the author demonstrates, offered public [End Page 286] support to the general—even after he issued his infamous "woman order," threatening to treat them legally as prostitutes if they showed disrespect for U.S. officers or soldiers. While some southern white women were evidently cowed into submission by this order as intended, a substantial number of unionist women within the city, according to Pierson, would not have offered such defiance simply because their political views agreed with those of "Beast" Butler. The Massachusetts general's early years as a lawyer and politician in Lowell provided him with valuable experience in working with and relating to urban and immigrant working peoples, which he astutely applied and which enabled him to establish an impressively effective, though hardly uncontroversial, wartime Reconstruction government in the city. Deftly weaving together elements of social, cultural, political, and military history, Pierson convincingly demonstrates that these events in 1862 New Orleans were of vital and heretofore largely underestimated importance to the eventual Union victory in the conflict.