In late April and early May of 1862, the United States Navy and Army liberated New Orleans.Many inhabitants of the “Queen of the South,” did not see it that way. A week earlier, after running past the guns of Fort St. Phillip and Fort Jackson downstream, Admiral David Farragut and his flotilla of ocean going warships dropped anchor off Jackson Square.
The Queen was not amused. Upon receiving notice that the Union battleships were on their way, the rebel troops ordered to defend the city abandoned their positions. Disorder ensued. Mobs careened through the city, looting shops and warehouses, and burning military stores, ships at anchor and bale upon bale of the cotton that was the city’s economic lifeblood.
Farragut dispatched two couragous naval officers to accept the city’s surrender. They walked up from the river landing on streets lined with “All the vagabonds of the town, thieves, ragpickers, abandoned women, the inhabitants of the slums, shouting, ‘Shoot them! Kill them!’ The officers reached the post office–United States property–raised an American flag on the rooftop, then beat a hasty retreat back to the fleet.
Farragut had the firepower to liberate New Orleans by destroying it, but never considered the option. He controlled the river and could wait for the army to come to town. That army, under the command of General Benjamin F. Butler, was waiting in transport vessels at the mouth of the river.
Butler was one of the more colorful of Union military leaders. A Massachusetts attorney and politican, Butler had led the Bay State regiment that was the first unit to defend Washington D.C. in the opening weeks of combat. Later, while in command in Virginia, he had applied the concept of “contraband” to slaves who had fled to Union lines. When rebel officers, under a flag of truce, demanded that runaway slaves working on southern fortifications be returned to their “owners,” Butler stated that, if these men were “property” used in acts of rebellion against the United States, they could be seized and held, just as if they were firearms, wagons or mules. On the other hand, if they were not property, the men could travel as they pleased and were free to cross the Union lines. It was a legal dilemma no slaveholder could resolve.
Slaves, first in Virginia, then throughout the south, could not resolve it either, nor did they care. Butler soon had to deal with a flood of human “contraband” seeking freedom with his army. It was only a matter of time before the flood spread up and down the battle lines.
To escort him when he landed at New Orleans, Butler gave preference to men from his home state, the 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He also selected the Fourth Wisconsin Volunteers because they had the best band in the army.
Upriver the naval vessels came to the landing at the foot of Canal Street. The 31st Mass disembarked and, with bayonets fixed, pushed back the threatening crowd of “vagabonds”. Next came General Butler and his wife Sarah, herself displaying admirable courage. Then came the color guard of the 31st and the band of the Fourth Wisconsin, followed by the rest of the regiment. The soldiers formed a hollow square around the Butlers and, as the band struck up a rousing version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” they all marched up Canal Street to the United States Custom House.
The street was littered with the remains of a week of looting and rioting along with the rioters themselves. The Union troops were under strict orders to maintain their lines and not respond to provocation. This was not easy, as Sergeant Guy Pierce of the Fourth Wisconsin recalled.
He “was left general guide of the first platoon which brought him near the curbstone…The mob was pouring out upon the Yankee ‘cut throat’ as they called them, the worst epithets one ever listened to, but we were under orders to keep our tempers, but when a fine-dressed fellow leaned over the edge of the walk swinging his hat and says ‘hurrah for Jeff Davis, you G-D Northern S-O-Bs,’ the butt of [my] musket…shot out by impulse, taking him in the head and laying him quivering on the sidewalk.”
It was a small blow for a man. A giant blow for the cause of human freedom.
In the months to come, thousands of people from New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana crossed to the Union lines. They chose to be “contraband” and slaves no more.