Civil Affairs in an Uncivil War
September 30, 2008
The circumstances are hardly unique: A successful combined arms operation puts a major city in the hands of the victorious army. The populationAca,!a,,cs loyalties are deeply divided with many hard-core sympathizers to the previous regime still in positions of power. The cityAca,!a,,cs basic services, food supply and economic foundations have been disrupted. And there is evidence of significant financial impropriety, with rumors of stolen gold.
New Orleans at the start of the Civil War was the second largest city on the continent. Its cosmopolitan atmosphere was reinforced with thousands of foreign nationals and an active social scene. The port was visited by ships of all nations, and despite the Union blockade, had been doing a thriving business in the trade of cotton and sugar until Flag Officer David FarragutAca,!a,,cs fleet sealed the porous entry.
Federal Major General Benjamin F. Butler was assigned the task of administering the captured metropolis. While not a great military tactician, Butler exhibited a unique flair for civic administration. Having demonstrated the consequences for defying the authority of the United States government by hanging the first recalcitrant who shredded the union standard in public, Butler then set himself to the task of restoring city services.
Thousands of unemployed were hired to clean the city streets. This had multiple effects. First, employing large number of idle hands with honest work made them unavailable for mischief or recruitment into the resistance. Second, the money they received provided economic relief to a suffering class. Finally, the purging of the filthy streets not only cleaned up the city but also produced the unexpected added benefit of eliminating sources of incubation for yellow fever and other diseases. As the second week of October, 1862, began, Major Charles McCormick, the veteran Medical Director of the Department of the Gulf, declared:
Aca,!A"Aca,!A|New Orleans has never within the memory of the oldest inhabitants been so extremely clean, so extremely healthy, or in such good police as it now isAca,!A|and has been throughout the sickly season of this yearAca,!A|.No candid person can deny that all of this has been the natural result of the measures adopted by Major-General Butler, both in the rigid and judicious quarantine regulations and the most admirable police of the entire city, whereof no portion has been overlooked. It is the universal remark that this city never was as healthy during the sickly season of the year, nor as clean, nor as well policed, nor as orderly, nor as well quarantined as it has been under Major-General ButlerAca,!a,,cs administration.Aca,!A?
Butler next turned to restoring the food supply to the city. He tried multiple approaches, including confiscation of private warehouse stores, contracting with sutlers and traders in the interior, and even offering limited truces to the rebels controlling the countryside to encourage the movement of foodstuffs. Despite charges of high prices, and allegations that Butler himself benefitted from the transactions, famine was averted.
New Orleans was also the center of banking for the Deep South. The cityAca,!a,,cs bankers worked surreptitiously to transfer their considerable assets to European interests in order to assist the Confederacy. ButlerAca,!a,,cs actions to disrupt these transfers caused an uproar in the diplomatic circles but were only partially successful. While hundreds of thousands of dollars were retained for the use of the U.S. government, greater sums were transferred to Confederate interests in France and England, enabling purchases of war materialAca,!"and enriching the various intermediaries who assisted in the intrigues.
Although ButlerAca,!a,,cs eight months of command in New Orleans are best remembered for his notorious Aca,!A"Woman Order,Aca,!A? it is important to recall that his stern and efficient administration contributed significantly to pacifying and sanitizing the city and keeping it in Federal control for the rest of the Civil War.