64 Parishes

Fall of New Orleans and Federal Occupation

For both Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War, New Orleans was considered a strategic city at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Fall of New Orleans and Federal Occupation

Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

General Butler Holding the Mob in Check at New Orleans. Reinhart, Charles Stanley (Artist)

In the late nineteenth century, New Orleans became a cultural force in perpetuating the memory of the Confederate Lost Cause. The founding of the Southern Historical Society by ex-Confederate officers in New Orleans in 1869 and the dedication of both the Robert E. Lee monument in 1884 and the Confederate Memorial Hall in 1891 had the same objectives of morally justifying the Confederate cause and celebrating Southern military prowess. Figures such as the dashing Creole general P. G. T. Beauregard, along with the 20,000 New Orleans citizens who took up arms for the South, linked the city with both the Confederate nation and its enduring myth.

Unlike Atlanta, Charleston, and Baton Rouge, New Orleans suffered virtually no physical damage from the war. But the humiliation of occupation from 1862 through the end of Reconstruction in 1877 fueled a resentment that placed New Orleans—in the memory of its citizens—as a city firmly entrenched in the Confederacy. The story of New Orleans under Federal occupation, however, is actually far more complex and interesting than the Confederate mythology that dominated both public discourse and even scholarly discourse for decades after the war.

New Orleans in the 1850s

On the eve of the Civil War, the population of New Orleans was approximately 170,000, but the surrounding areas of Algiers, Jefferson, and Carrollton brought the population closer to 180,000. Significantly, only 47 percent of the population was white native-born; the rest included a foreign population that constituted 38 percent of the city, with 14 percent of the population almost equally divided between free people of color and enslaved men, women, and children. The population of the so-called gens de couleur libres had actually declined in the decade before the Civil War as a result of oppressive state legislation toward free Black people.

The three dominant immigrant groups were Irish, German, and French. While the French could blend in with the existing Creole population, the general populace did not warmly receive the other two groups who made up a quarter of the total city population. The “famine Irish” (to distinguish them from the more prosperous Irish who arrived in the 1820s) of the late 1840s and 1850s replaced enslaved people in the arduous and dangerous tasks of digging canals and building levees. The Germans—refugees from political unrest in the German states—competed with free Black men for skilled labor jobs and some, like lawyer Christian Roselius, entered the professions.

Both immigrant groups were subjected to nativist abuse by the anti-immigrant American Party (also known nationally as the Know-Nothing Party), which controlled city politics from 1854 through federal occupation. By employing native-born thugs, the local American Party shut down immigrant voting in the elections of 1856 and 1860. Historians attribute the rise of Know-Nothingism to the Americans wresting political control of New Orleans from the old Creole population who tended to vote Democratic, with Irish and some German support. While the American Party (like their national counterpart) was anti-immigrant, it tended to soften the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the national party and was even able to attract some Creoles such as historian Charles Gayarré.

While voter turnout was only 25 percent in the presidential election of 1860, the results were revealing. John Bell, the candidate of the Constitutional Union Party, won the city with 4,978 votes, with Democrat Stephan Douglas receiving 2,967 votes, and Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge polling 2,533 votes. New Orleans voters (mostly Creole and Americans with a smattering of immigrants) overwhelmingly supported unionist candidates. However, John C. Breckinridge carried the state, and with Lincoln’s election, Governor Thomas Moore, who represented the Breckinridge-Slidell interests, called for an election for delegates to a convention to determine Louisiana’s status as part of the Union.

The narrow victory of secessionists over “cooperationists” (those who either wanted Louisiana to secede in concert with other states or were opposed to immediate secession) in New Orleans in January 1861 was a result of the growing paranoia over Republican rule by merchants and those whose livelihoods were directly linked to the cotton economy. An earlier vote for Bell by old Whigs and Know-Nothings was essentially a “wait and see” vote, since the Constitutional Union Party effectively ignored the issue of slavery. Louisiana’s vote to secede from the Union on January 26, 1861, confirmed the state’s reliance on a way of life that was threatened by the new Republican Party, which sought to block the extension of slavery in the territories.

While the national American Party always had nationalist pretensions, the New Orleans Know-Nothings embraced secession. Mayor John T. Monroe (elected in 1860) was a secessionist and Confederate supporter. Yet there was a significant northern-born community that found it difficult to support the Confederacy and a foreign-born contingent that was ambivalent about secession and resented enslaved people and enslavers alike. These divisions would fully come to the surface under the Federal occupation.

The Fall of New Orleans

The capture of New Orleans was integral to commander-in-chief Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan, which called for suffocating the Southern economy with a naval blockade of the ports along the Gulf Coast and controlling traffic down the Mississippi River, thereby dividing the South and effectively shutting off access to Texas grain and wartime supplies from Mexico. Since New Orleans by geography was the outlet for goods produced in the entire Mississippi River valley (including cotton bound for Europe), its capture was of utmost importance and had to be accomplished in a timely manner.

In spite of major Union setbacks in Virginia in 1862 at the Peninsula Campaign and Second Bull Run, the western theatre proved to be far more auspicious for the implementation of Scott’s Anaconda Plan. In February 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant and Commodore Henry S. Foote combined army and naval operations for the capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson on the respective Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. The integration of the army and navy for the control of the major river systems is one of the more underrated factors of ultimate Union victory in the west. Naval gunboats provided an additional attack force against fortifications, and at Fort Henry the navy employed the ironclad ship, the most recent development in naval technology. And while the captures of Vicksburg and Port Hudson on the Mississippi River were substantially accomplished by the army with naval support, the Union navy was primarily responsible for the fall of New Orleans.

Commander David Dixon Porter, USN, had served in the blockade fleet in the Gulf of Mexico. After gathering intelligence on the relative strength of Fort Jackson and Fort St. Phillip down river from New Orleans, he came up with a plan to level the forts with mortar fire from gunboats and secure the Mississippi River for the fleet, which would then proceed up river and turn its guns on the city. Even with a fleet of seventeen war ships with immense firepower, the plan was a daring one. Forts Jackson and St. Phillip were on opposite sides of the river, each in a position to literally blow the wooden ships out of the water—the West Point engineers who built them knew that the only way to fully protect the whole Mississippi River valley was to create an impregnable position. To slow the ships down and make them more vulnerable to explosive artillery fire and fire rafts, the Confederates laid a chain across the river with sections between floating hulks. The forts themselves were built of sturdy brick and mortar, and according to historian Shelby Foote, everyone knew that one gun in a fort was worth four on a ship. There was also the disquieting rumor that the Confederates were constructing two giant ironclads in the city, which could easily destroy the wooden fleet.

Nevertheless, the Confederate position was hardly auspicious. The commander of New Orleans defenses, General Mansfield Lovell had only 3,000 troops and behind the Union navy at Ship Island was a force of 18,000 men under Benjamin Butler. The forts were manned by 1,100 men, many of whom were foreigners forced by bayonets onto the barges bound for the forts. The two ironclads, were far from finished because of labor stoppages and lack of materials.

The Naval Department named sixty-year-old Captain David Farragut as commander of the fleet. A southerner and veteran of the War of 1812 (in which he served under David Dixon Porter’s father as a 12-year-old midshipman) and the Mexican War, Farragut was in many ways the naval counterpart of Robert E. Lee—audacious and a bit of a gambler. Farragut acquiesced to Porter’s plan to reduce the forts by mortar, and firing commenced on April 18, 1862. After ninety-six hours and 13,000 shells, the forts were still intact with only four of the defenders killed and fourteen wounded. Farragut decided to run the forts with his fleet, much to the consternation of Porter, who thought the forts should be leveled before advancing to the city, since Farragut’s approach would leave the transport barges for Benjamin Butler’s 18,000 troops waiting at Ship Island virtually unprotected when they advanced up river. On the night of April 20, two Union gunboats withstood a barrage from the forts as well as a fire raft sent by the Confederates, and secured an opening by releasing one of the chains from a floating hulk.

In the early morning of April 24, Farragut gave the order to advance in three groups of eight, three, and six vessels. While the first group passed through the gauntlet, Farragut’s flagship Hartford ran aground on a mud flat just below St. Phillip and caught fire from a fire raft, but managed to break free and put out the fire. The Confederate flotilla of twelve vessels included gunboats, an armored rammer, and the side-wheel steamboat Governor Moore, which by surprise and boldness was the only ship to inflict serious damage by sinking the Union ship Varuna. Nevertheless, the Confederate flotilla was scattered, and those that tried to attack (including the Governor Moore) were sunk. Farragut’s forces lost the Varuna and three gunboats, but the rest passed through. For the prodigious firepower coming from both forts and ships, causalities were comparatively light. Some thirty-nine Union troops were killed and 171 wounded, and while the Confederate flotilla lost approximately 140 killed and wounded, the forts only suffered eleven killed and 171 wounded. Yet New Orleans was now undefended; Lovell had withdrawn his troops, and all the fortifications above the city were deserted. Porter continued to pummel the forts with mortar fire, while an expedition of 200 men under Butler’s most able officer, Godfrey Weitzel, navigated the back bayous and marshes that surrounded the forts. General Johnson Kelly Duncan had no choice but to surrender both forts to Porter. According to Gerald Capers, four days after Farragut’s flotilla passed the forts, “half of the Jackson garrison spiked their guns, mutinied and left in small boats.” Most that remained favored surrender, underscoring the fact that the Know-Nothing Confederate regime in New Orleans did little to inspire the loyalty of foreign-born troops.

New Orleans under Benjamin Butler

Benjamin Franklin Butler has long had a starring role in the Southern Lost Cause mythology. Known as the “Beast” for his draconian directives and “Spoons Butler” for his venality (it was rumored that he stole silverware), he has served as the perfect villain, a foil to a virtuous people subjected to the ignominy of invasion and occupation. While Butler accomplished a great deal in the nine months of his tenure as Commander of the Department of the Gulf, he is best known for hanging the gambler William Mumford and for issuing his notorious “Woman Order.”

As the navy was negotiating with Mayor Monroe’s administration over the surrender of the city, William Mumford pulled down the United States flag, which had flown over the US Custom House since the navy’s arrival on April 26. Mumford then proceeded to tear up the flag and distribute pieces to a crowd that had assembled to watch his daring feat. When Butler arrived to occupy the city on May 1, he vowed to make an example of Mumford, and subsequently had him tried and publicly hanged. The result was an outcry from the Confederate government in Richmond, which ordered Robert E. Lee “to demand an explanation from [General Henry] Halleck for the outrageous execution of a Confederate citizen for an act committed before the city was occupied.” However, Butler’s Order 28, in which he proclaimed that New Orleans women who insulted Federal troops would be treated “as women of the town plying their avocation,” drew reactions as far away as London—British Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston commented, “an Englishman must blush to think that such an act has been committed by one belonging to the Anglo-Saxon race.”

Butler was concerned about maintaining order in the city, and to do so he imposed censorship, closed down churches and newspapers unsympathetic to the Union, and imprisoned citizens suspected of sedition. Another objective was to effect social revolution in New Orleans. Butler was a Jacksonian democrat, and was exposed to class politics as a state senator from the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts. After working his way through Waterville College (later renamed Colby College), he was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar and represented Lowell mill girls against their employers for “two and three dollar fees.” He campaigned for the Massachusetts legislature by championing the ten-hour day (which resulted in the passage of a compromise eleven-hour-day law). He appealed to his Irish constituency by securing an indemnity for the Sacred Heart Convent of Charlestown, which had been burned down by a nativist mob in 1834. He viewed the Civil War as a class war to liberate both the enslaved and the white working man. In his departing letter to the people of New Orleans, Butler wrote, “I saw that this Rebellion was a war of the aristocrats against the middling Men, of the rich against the poor; a war of the landowner against the Laborer; that it was a struggle for the retention of power in the hands of the few against the many;…I therefore felt no hesitation in taking the substance of the wealthy, who had caused the war, to feed the innocent poor, who had suffered by the war.”

Butler’s ordinances to provide relief for the destitute were as politically calculated as necessary. New Orleans was a city that survived by commercial activity, and the federal blockade effectively shut down the port—the engine that drove the New Orleans economy. Imports shrank from a pre-war value of almost $156 million to almost $30 million by 1862. According to Gerald Capers, “By the end of 1861 the Union blockade had cut exports to a trickle.” Butler responded to the economic crises by setting up a welfare state. Immediately after occupation he issued Order No. 25 to alleviate “the deplorable state of destitution and hunger of the mechanics and working classes of the city” by “assessing individuals and firms… one fourth contributed” to the erstwhile Confederate government. The taxes collected as a result of Order 25 allowed the military government to employ 2,000 men at 50 cents a day cleaning up a city strewn with filth and dead animal carcasses. Still, the economic plight of the city’s poor was such that Butler also issued Order No. 55, which put on relief 11,000 families, most of whom were Irish and German.

Butler saw the disaffected working class as an opportunity to raise unionist regiments. In addition to the existing regiments that absorbed white volunteers, Butler formed two white infantry and two cavalry regiments by the fall of 1862. He also formed three regiments of free black and formerly enslaved men, officered by members of the gens de couleur libres class. Butler increased the size of his army from 13,700 to 17,800 “trained and disciplined men.”

Butler proved to be an able administrator. He fed the hungry, employed the jobless, and rid the city of the yellow fever threat by a thorough cleaning and quarantine program. Nevertheless, he lacked military prowess. After a Union victory at Baton Rouge (in which his subordinate commander General Thomas Williams was killed), Butler ordered Baton Rouge evacuated because he feared an attack on New Orleans. The only other military action during Butler’s tenure was Brigadier General Godfrey Weitzel’s success in driving Confederate forces out of Lafourche Parish. Butler thought that the Union’s Army of the Gulf was too small for conducting a major campaign.

Butler was not relieved of command for military pusillanimity. He became a political liability for the Lincoln administration by aggressively pursuing foreign consuls suspected of hoarding specie for the Confederacy. After accusing the Dutch consul Amedie Conturies of keeping $800,000 in Confederate silver, he also charged the French consul with holding $400,000 in specie that had been used to purchase Confederate uniforms. The Dutch ambassador protested to Secretary of State William Seward that Butler had violated diplomatic immunity, and the evidence suggests that Seward advocated for Butler’s recall. The fact is that the Lincoln administration had to take great pains not to alienate European powers, since recognition of the Confederacy by Britain or France would legitimate the Southern cause.

New Orleans under Nathaniel P. Banks

Nathaniel P. Banks, like his predecessor, was a self-made man. The son of a mill superintendent and wholly lacking in formal education (like many ambitious young men of the nineteenth century), Banks sought upward mobility through reading the law and politics. In the 1850s, Banks enjoyed rapid success as a Know-Nothing, serving as governor of Massachusetts and as Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Like Butler, he was a political appointment to the rank of general. Yet while Butler wanted to effect social revolution, Banks preferred a moderate course in the hope of luring the population into supporting a reconstructed Louisiana. After Banks took over as commander of the Union’s Department of the Gulf in December 1862, he immediately undid some of Butler’s harsh directives by reopening churches closed down for Confederate sympathies, freeing political prisoners, and returning property sequestered by the Union army. In a move that Butler would later characterized as most “unmanly,” Banks decommissioned Black officers of Native Guard regiments after they had distinguished themselves at Port Hudson.

Banks is often criticized for not bringing Louisiana back into the Union as a free state, although he spent most of his time on military campaign in 1863 and 1864. According to historian Ted Tunnell, Banks’s time in the field in his first year was prodigious: “He recaptured Baton Rouge in December, led his army up the Bayou Teche and the Red River in the spring, captured Port Hudson in July after a siege, and that fall campaigned in Texas.” In the spring of 1864, Banks tried to wrest control of northern Louisiana from the Confederacy in his ill-fated Red River Campaign, which resulted in his defeat at the hands of Richard Taylor’s army at Mansfield, thirty miles below Shreveport.

The Free State Movement was an effort by New Orleans unionists to restore Louisiana to the Union. As Tunnell points out, New Orleans unionists were outsiders, for “fully 70 percent of prominent unionists in the New Orleans area emanated from the North or abroad.” Unionists ranged ideologically from radical abolitionists such as Thomas Durant and Benjamin Flanders, both northerners, to conservative pro-slavery unionists like planter James Madison Wells. The leader of the Free State Movement was the lawyer and Bavarian immigrant Michael Hahn, whom Banks saw as someone the Lincoln administration could deal with. Hahn had escaped the Confederate draft because of a clubbed foot, but unlike other unionists he did not leave when New Orleans was a Confederate city, nor did he take the oath of allegiance. As a nineteenth-century liberal, Hahn opposed the planter elite, but rejected the radical concept of Black equality.

The working-class equivalent of the Free State Movement was the Working Men’s National League, made up of native-born and immigrant labor. While they wanted to destroy the “Slave Power” (plantation owners), they were not abolitionists, nor did they support equality for free people of color. Workers held class resentment against the planters and did not want the competition of free Black labor. As New Orleans “craft workers saw their political and economic opportunities eclipsed by slavery and slave owners,” writes historian Eric Arnesen, the “hatred of slavery and the slave frequently became one.” By 1863, New Orleans labor could oppose Know-Nothingism, free Black labor, and slavery without contradiction.

Abraham Lincoln wanted to reconstruct the South with his 10 Percent Plan, whereby, if 10 percent of the number of voters who had voted in the 1860 election formed a loyal government and submitted a state constitution acceptable to Congress, the state would be readmitted to the Union. Louisiana would be the test of Lincoln’s 10 Percent Plan, as well as his greatest hope. To implement the plan, Banks called for both the election of a governor and the drafting of a new state constitution for the spring of 1864. Banks endorsed Michael Hahn as a moderate candidate over the radical Benjamin Flanders and conservative planter J. Q. A. Fellows.

Michael Hahn was a man of great courage. He was severely wounded at the 1866 massacre in New Orleans at Mechanics Hall on Canal Street for endorsing black suffrage. However, in the gubernatorial election of 1864, he appealed to white labor by railing against the planter class, as well as by accusing the free people of color of having Know-Nothing sympathies. Essentially, the moderates of the Free State Association wanted to break the power of the planters as a political force and expand the power of urban labor, but deny the vote to free Black men. In an election that only included the lower third of the state, Hahn won 54 percent of the vote in a three-man race by gaining the support of groups such as the Working Men’s National Union League, the Mechanics Association, the Crescent City Butcher’s Association, the Working Men of Louisiana, and the German Union. Hahn’s election was a significant proving ground for Lincoln’s 10 Percent Plan, with more than 20 percent of the voters from the 1860 election participating in the election.

The Louisiana Constitution of 1864 effectively made New Orleans politically ascendant, by basing representation in the legislature on voting (white) population rather than total population, effectively excluding both free men of color and the freedmen. The constitution expanded the voting franchise to all white men, abolished slavery, set a minimum wage and a nine-hour day for workers involved in public works projects, and called for free education for all children. However, 24,000 free Black and formerly enslaved men from Louisiana had fought for the Union army, and so veteran officers James Ingraham and Arnold Bertonneau, a free man of color, saw this moment as an opportunity to secure equal rights for all blacks. After Banks ignored their requests, Bertonneau and another free man of color, J. B. Roudanez, carried a petition demanding black suffrage to President Lincoln and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. More than anyone, Lincoln understood the importance of the 180,000 Black troops in the Union army (roughly 10 percent). He wrote a letter to Governor Hahn asking that the vote be extended to “the very intelligent and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks.” Banks and Hahn, realizing their own political situation, attempted to hammer out a compromise with the legislature—free education for all children and a provision that would give the legislature the power to grant Black suffrage in the future. However, the compromise was unacceptable to the free Black community. Charles Sumner would later let the Louisiana Constitution of 1864 die in congressional committee.

Occupation and Memory

New Orleans was a very different city by 1865. Two groups that had been excluded in the 1860 election—immigrants and free Black people—were demanding full and equal rights by 1864. The rise of New Orleans labor as a political force would lead to the rise of machine politics during the Gilded Age. The old gens de couleur libres became leaders of Reconstruction, and it was this group that later fought the Separate Car Act in 1892 by starting a Committee of Citizens (Comite des Citoyens), and having Homer Plessy deliberately break the law and be arrested, so they could take it to the courts. Sadly the case of Plessy v. Ferguson led to the general disfranchisement of Black men by the Louisiana legislature in 1898. Ultimately the struggle carried on by the New Orleans free people of color during the Civil War would not end until the passage of a national Civil Rights Act in 1964. Nevertheless, the Civil War and occupation created a sense of expectation for marginalized groups that would have been impossible before 1862.


One can argue that Union occupation of New Orleans was comparatively benign. Though the population grumbled, there was no uprising. During Banks’s tenure, fraternization between Union troops and the local population was common, and after the fall of Vicksburg in 1863, the New Orleans economy recovered some of its former vibrancy.

Yet it was New Orleans, the least Confederate of Southern cities in 1861, and the least damaged by Union armies, that became a vortex of Southern nationalism after the Civil War. During the years of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, the memory and bitterness of Federal occupation became part of the cultural lore of the city. Hence, the history of federal occupation of the South’s largest and most diverse polyglot city continues to be controversial.