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  • "The Unmeaning Twaddle about Order 28":Benjamin F. Butler and Confederate Women in Occupied New Orleans, 1862
  • Jacqueline G. Campbell (bio)

Early in 1863, an English merchant named William Corsan published an account of his sojourn through the Confederate states the previous year. He was particularly interested in Union-occupied territories and the possibility of new trade opportunities where the blockade had been lifted. He entitled his report Two Months in the Confederate States, including a visit to New Orleans under the Domination of General Butler, an interesting choice, as Corsan spent only 19 of 137 pages on his visit to New Orleans. But Butler was a man who had clearly made an impression on the merchant traveler. Corsan gave a vivid physical description of the general's "cock eye . . . thin compressed lips, [and] livid complexion," which he found fully in accord with common opinion that Butler was a "cruel, cunning, unprincipled scoundrel." In fact, in October 1862, Corsan believed that Union general Benjamin F. Butler was "probably hated more intensely than any living man."1

The controversy over Butler's administration was in large part due to his interactions with Confederate women who, almost immediately after the fall of New Orleans, had taken every opportunity to insult occupying troops. Butler expressed his increasing exasperation in a letter to an old college classmate: "How long do you suppose our flesh and blood could have stood this?" By mid-May, Butler had an answer in the form of his infamous General Order No. 28, which stated that any woman who displayed public contempt for a Union soldier would be "regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation."2

The outcry that erupted in the Confederacy was immediate and intense where politicians and military leaders used the order as a rallying cry to troops to defend southern women against northern soldiers "to whom is given the right to treat at their pleasure the ladies of the South as common harlots." The reverberations were also heard in Britain, as Prime Minister Palmerston claimed that the history of civilized nations afforded no example "of so infamous an act as to deliberately hand over [End Page 11] the female inhabitants of a conquered city to the unbridled license of an unrestrained soldiery."3

This furor over the Woman Order, as it came to be known, that resulted in heated debates on both sides of the Atlantic set gender issues at the very heart of larger political and military decisions. These were, however, debates among men that cast Confederate women as potential victims of sexual violation. And the historians who have used Order No. 28 to investigate the sexual politics of the conflict have inadvertently perpetuated this image of female victimization by using a framework of "sexual blackmail" that stifled female dissent.4 Outward displays of female contempt and defiance did stop in the wake of Butler's order but this was not the result of sexual intimidation. A thorough examination of the sources left by women within Butler's reach reveals a surprising absence of commentary of General Order 28. When Confederate women did write about the order, they described it as an act designed to humiliate rather than terrorize, as it blurred very distinct class lines. While they could disassociate themselves from the impact of this order by blaming unseemly public behavior on lower-class women, they could not escape Butler's subsequent order that compelled them into a public renunciation of their nation to protect their property. It was General Order No. 76, passed in September 1862, requiring women as well as men to take an oath of allegiance to the United States that was, according to one daughter of New Orleans, the most "detestable" of Butler's acts, while she dismissed Order 28 as "unmeaning twaddle."5

Butler and the Crescent City knew of each other's reputations long before the two came into contact. New Orleans was the jewel of the South, known for its exotic social customs and lawlessness. Butler was an inexperienced soldier who hailed from Massachusetts, the hotbed of abolitionism. Furthermore, he had gained a reputation as a cunning lawyer...


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