150 Years Ago This Week: ‘Beast’ Butler earns his nickname

May 1862

Federal mortar boats appeared on the Mississippi River just north of Fort Pillow in Tennessee on Saturday, May 10.  The ill-disciplined, makeshift Confederate River Defense Fleet attacked the superior mortars as well as the strong Federal ironclad flotilla of seven boats.  The outcome of this suicidal venture was easily determined, although the Confederates managed to sink two of the ironclads, Cincinnati and Mound City, which the Federals later raised.  The engagement of Plum Run Bend was a decisive Union victory, and Capt. James Montgomery withdrew what remained of his Confederate forces first to Fort Pillow and then to Memphis.  It was one of the few “fleet actions” of the war.

Due to the evacuation of Norfolk, Va., and the destruction of the Norfolk Navy Yard, the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia lost its home port and place of safety, and being unable to navigate the shallow waters of the various rivers, the Confederates were forced on May 11 to destroy the ship and sink her.  President Lincoln wired Gen. Halleck in Tennessee: “Norfolk in our possession.  Merrimac blown up.  Monitor and other boats going up James River to Richmond.”    Gen. Halleck, in the meantime, had slowed his advance on the Confederates at Corinth, Miss., that it almost seemed to be like a siege.

Natchez, Miss., was occupied by a Federal naval flotilla commanded by Adm. Farragut on May 12, and the city was surrendered by the mayor.  In the Shenandoah Valley, Gen. Jackson’s troops left Franklin, western Va., and started after Gen. Banks’ s Federal troops at Strasburg.  In Richmond, President Davis wrote to Mrs. Davis (who had been sent out of the threatened capital): “if the withdrawal from the Peninsula and Norfolk had been done with due preparation and a desirable deliberation, I should be more sanguine of a successful defense of this city.  I know not what to expect when so many failures are to be remembered, yet we will try to make a successful resistence.”  In Charleston, S.C., martial law was declared, and the Charleston newspapers reported that “a crew of negroes had taken over the steamer Planter and surrendered it to the blockaders.”  

Skirmishing on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad and the Mobile & Ohio RR near Corinth, Miss., took place on May 14 .  Some of Gen. McClellan’s advanced troops skirmished with Confederates at Gaines’ Crossroads as they approached Richmond.  The next day, the U.S.S. Monitor moved up the James River towards Richmond now that the threat of interference from C.S.S. Virginia had been removed.  At Drewery’s Bluff, overlooking the river south of the capital, Confederate batteries met and stopped the Union invasion.  For four hours the forts at Drewery’s Bluff and Fort Darling dueled the Federal boats with heavy fire, forcing the Federals to withdraw downstream.

Gen. Ben Butler
Gen Ben Butler

In New Orleans on May 15,  Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, the military governor, issued an order: “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 that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officers 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.”  In short, any female citizen who showed any type of disrepect to the military or the U.S. was considered to be a prostitute.

Nothing in Gen. Butler’s already unpopular and dictatorial reign over New Orleans incited Southerners as did the notorious General Order No. 28, the so-called “Woman Order.”  Throughout the South, “Beast” Butler was an object of the most vile venom; President Davis  soon labeled him a public enemy worthy of execution without trial should he be captured.  When New Orleans Mayor John T. Monroe protested on behalf of his city’s citizens, Butler had him arrested. The order also raised an international outcry, especially in London, and was a strong factor in Butler being relieved as military governor in December 1862.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Mr. Candenquist, I am the GGGD of Mayor John T. Monroe. I was surfing the web looking for stories that mentioned my GGGF and I stumbled onto your article. Thank you for mention his name. Most historians and history books only mention “Beast” Butler and Adm. Farragut.
    Thank you,

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