Reports have emerged from the Ukraine War that Russians have been stealing stored grain from individual farms and grain silos. They even stole some 27 tractors and combines form a Deere dealership. That is reprehensible conduct. It amounts to war crimes. But, is that conduct new? No, I am afraid not. During the Federal occupation of New Orleans, Benjamin Butler and his brother, Andrew, profited mightily. Even before the occupation, Gen. Butler somehow came to own stores of cotton and turpentine. While still biding his time at Ship Island, he shipped the cotton and turpentine on a Union ship to his agent in Boston as “ballast” with instructions to sell the commodities. But, the Federal Quartermaster in Boston could not understand how this cargo could constitute private property of Gen. Butler if it was shipped on a government-owned ship.
Before Butler’s Boston agent could straighten this out with the U.S. government, a second shipment of cotton and sugar arrived, also from Gen. Butler. The Assistant Quartermaster, Capt. William W. McKim, resolved the issue by selling the two shipments and depositing the money in favor of the U.S. government. The Quartermaster and Secretary of Treasury Chase both then censured Gen. Butler while also noting he must be protected.
Having learned his lesson, from then on, Gen. Butler would confiscate cotton and other crops under the Confiscation Act and skim from the profits, with the aid of his staff. He avoided direct shipments in his own name.
“Colonel” Andrew Butler
Andrew Butler, a colonel for all of two months, came to New Orleans soon after his brother, Ben, occupied the city. Andrew was denied a permanent rank as colonel, so he came as a civilian. But, with his brother, the two brothers embarked upon various schemes to profit from this occupation. In a time when cotton was virtually worthless in the South because it could not be shipped, it nevertheless held great value if it could be shipped. Sugar sold for three cents per pound in New Orleans, but for six cents in New York. Turpentine sold for $38 per barrel in the North, but could be found for three dollars on the Mississippi river. Dry goods could be purchased in New York and sold for several times that price in New Orleans. Flour sold for six dollars a barrel in New York, but for twice that amount in New Orleans.
Gen. Butler issued an order that liquor could not be sold, after another general complained that his men were getting drunk every pay day. Andrew then bought up all the liquor supplies in the City at bottom prices. Soon, Gen. Butler then rescinded the no-liquor order and Andrew sold his liquor supplies at a large profit.
When Gen. Butler learned the blockade of the New Orleans port would be lifted on June 1, 1862, he sent Andrew $60,000 of sugar packed in hogsheads. Gen. Butler assured his superiors in Washington that he purchased the sugar to stabilize the price of sugar and demonstrate the good will of the U.S. government to the local planters. But, in reality, Andrew bought it for a pittance because the planters believed they would not be able to sell the sugar. In his communication to Secretary of War Stanton Gen. Butler also did not mention that his brother made the actual purchase and that Andrew pocketed $5 per hogshead as a carrying charge
After the blockade was lifted, some of the pre-war commerce resumed with farmers and planters sending their goods down river to be sold to U.S. and European buyers. But, many shops and stores in New Orleans remained shuttered. One Daily Picayune edition reported that tens of thousands of merchants had been ruined by the blockade.
But, not the Butler brothers. They were doing just fine. In September, Pres. Lincoln signed the second Confiscation Act. This act provided that unless every Confederate soldier put down his weapon and swore an oath of allegiance to the United Stats, then his property was subject to confiscation. Gen. Butler pressed all New Orleans citizens to swear the oath to the U.S. When some 4,000 refused the oath, Gen. Butler published their names and evicted them from the city. He allowed them to take only personal possessions. He seized their real property and sold it. He sequestered the property of thousands of Confederate soldiers who had homes in the Crescent City, but were off somewhere fighting. Thousands of New Orleanians were hundreds of miles from their homes fighting for the Confederacy. Beast Butler sold much of that property at auction.
“Colonel” Andrew Butler sent notices to the sugar growers telling them they needed his permission to sell their sugar. Otherwise, his brother would seize their sugar crop. Andrew then hired two New Orleans firms who employed only white workers to go and seize their product. According to at least one account, Andrew’s raiders also took the wife’s wardrobe and jewels. Andrew charged farmers and planters a fee to avoid confiscation. If an important person was imprisoned, Andrew would secure their freedom for the right price. Andrew would buy at auction seized sugar and cotton in New Orleans. He would then sell it in New York for three or four times what he paid for it.
After the lifting of the blockade, Andrew started importing flour from New York and selling it at great profit in New Orleans. That led to a monopoly on grocery items, medicines and staples in New Orleans. He also came to control the bakeries. As one lady commented at the time, both brothers engaged in illicit enterprises, but Andrew was the front man.
No Tow Boats for the Navy
The Butlers’ control of so much commerce attracted the ire of Commander Porter. In mid-June, 1862, Porter needed tow boats to help move his fleet. But, the nine steamers used for towing were too busy collecting medicines, sugar, salt, and cotton for transport to New Orleans for auction. The officers and crew on these tow boats were not happy either. They did not enlist to help two brothers profit from speculation. Andrew would collect this material and then send it on to New York or Boston for sale. Andrew and Ben had secured these networks all within two months. The Federals occupation only started in late April, 1862.
In Late June, Secretary of the Treasury Chase, a close friend of Benjamin Butler, warned the general that his activities were attracting negative attention. Secretary Chase then sent two agents to investigate these claims. One of the agents, George Denison, was also a friend of Benjamin Butler. He reported that “everyone” from U.S. government officials to rebels believed the two brothers were acting in concert with Andrew as the front man. Denison reported that Andrew had profited by some one to two million dollars in the past two months. One million dollars in 1862 would be worth about 28 million dollars, today.
Denison wrote to Chase that Andrew was not an employee of the government. He was only in the city to make money, he reported. It looks bad, he said, because the only authority he would have would be through his brother. Yet, at the same time, in a letter to his wife, Denison praised Andrew because he had sent some thousands hogsheads of sugar up North which was prime quality and will pay very well.
Trading with the Enemy
Denison soon changed his view of the general when he located a schooner laden with salt on Lake Pontchartrain. It was destined for the north shore of the inland bay. The north part of the bay was held by the Confederates. Denison told the customs officer to seize it. To Denison, Butler acted surprised someone would ship salt to the enemy. Yet, later that day, Denison learned that Gen. Butler had countermanded the seizure and had released the vessel to continue its journey. Gen. Butler noted the military governor, Col. George F. Shepley had approved the shipment.
But, noted Denison, Gen. Butler did not have lawful authority to countermand a customs officer seizure. Denison later learned that 600 sacks of salt had been transported: 400 sacks were sold to the Confederate army at $25 a sack and 200 were sold to civilians for $36 per sack. Denison later discovered many other shipments of salt, medicines and other supplies across Lake Pontchartrain apparently with Gen. Butler’s blessing – and more likely originating with “Colonel” Andrew Butler.
About the time of Denison’s report to Secy. Chase, Commander Porter returned to Washington. Porter informed the Secretary that for a price, Gen. Butler was supplying the rebels with salt, shoes, blankets, flour, etc. These actions, if taken by a Confederate sympathizer, would carry a ten year prison sentence.
In September, Denison confronted Gen. Butler directly. The general simply responded that the government directed that cotton should be shipped from this port. Denison assumed this meant Washington, but his boss, Secy. Chase, neither confirmed or denied Butler’s assertion. Denison admitted in his reports that he had no solid proof that “Colonel” Andrew Butler was behind this trade across the lake.
Again approaching Gen. Butler, Denison persuaded the general that trade with the enemy degraded the character of the government. Gen. Butler said he would talk to Col. Shepley, the military governor of the city about the permits which he had been issuing for this trade. It was Col. Shepley who had been issuing the permits for the trading with the Confederates.
A week later, both Gen. Butler and Col. Shepley agreed with Denison that they would stop the trade after two last shipments.
But, about this time, Union forces seized control of the parishes across the Mississippi River, known as Bayou Lafourche country. “Colonel” Andrew Butler soon moved in with other speculators and began to seize property owned by Confederate soldiers across the river – just as they had already done in New Orleans. Col. James M. McMillan of the 21st Indiana worked for Andrew Butler and served as his military attaché. The network seized more cotton and sugar which they auctioned at rigged prices in New Orleans and then re-sold at large profits.
By November, Gen. Butler had persuaded Denison that Andrew Butler was simply acting as a patriot in taking control of plantations and nurturing reconstruction and producing bountiful sugar and cotton crops while employing black labor.
But, the soldiers saw and followed these examples. One company seized a plantation across the river. They stole the silver, whiskey and the ladies’ clothing. A Navy commander saw the theft and reported it up the chain of command to Gen. Butler. Butler threatened to take action against the soldiers, but he also expressed resentment at this “bombastic,” junior Naval officer intruding on Army business.
In December, 1862, Beast Butler was replaced. He had incurred the wrath of some 20 consuls in New Orleans who then complained loudly to their respective governments. How much money did the Butlers profit in New Orleans? They covered their tracks well. But, historians know that Andrew came to New Orleans with little money and no rank in the army. Benjamin came with $150,000. While by 1868, Benjamin claimed assets of $3 million. Andrew died that year and left his sizeable estate to Benjamin. This at a time when assets of more than $4,000 generally placed a person in the upper class of American society.
See more about Gen. Benjamin Butler here.
Chester G. Hearn, When the Devil Came Down to Dixie (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1997), pp. 181-196