Ron Coddington, blogger and author of the Faces of the Civil War series, has a new post up on Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler. Coddington rightly notes that the general “is not remembered especially well by history.” That’s certainly true. Between his ineptitude as a field commander and the vilification of him resulting from the sharp hand he used in the occupation of New Orleans, Butler gets pretty short shrift in most popular accounts. But as Ron points out, Butler — a former Democrat who at that party’s national convention in 1860 supported Jefferson Davis for president of the United States — was transformed by his war experience into a radical Republican and an ardent champion of civil rights for African Americans. He drafted the Ku Klux Klan Act, signed into law by President Grant in 1871, and (with Charles Sumner) wrote the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The latter legislation was subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court, and many of its key provisions were never enacted until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — nearly eighty years after they were first set out. As Ron observes, “Butler was a man ahead of his time.”
Butler is often cited as the most infamous example of the Union’s “political” generals, men with little or no military experience who were appointed to senior commands based on their political influence in civilian life. His reputation, at least in the South, is defined by his tenure in New Orleans, where he attained the sobriquet “Beast” Butler for his intolerance of any show of disrespect for his occupying soldiers, and his vigorous enforcement of the rules of occupation. (He infamously hanged a Confederate sympathizer for tearing down the Federal flag from the U.S. Mint.) What’s less known, unfortunately, is the remarkable success Butler’s administration of the city had in reducing its infamously-high toll from that scourge of the South, yellow fever. As Andrew McIlwaine Bell explains in Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever and the Course of the American Civil War, New Orleans had a long and horrific history with the disease in the decades before the war, particularly in the 1850s, resulting in the deaths of over eighteen thousand people. The vomito negro was particularly hard on immigrants and visitors to the cities from Northern states; the illness was often referred to as the “strangers’ disease.” Butler was well aware of New Orleans’ reputation as a sickly city, and immediately set out to do something about it.
After consulting with his medical staff and a few local doctors (some of whom were openly hostile), Butler decided that yellow fever was an imported malady that required local unsanitary conditions to survive. As a result, he chose to implement simultaneously the two strategies best known at the time for preventing the spread of the disease-a strict quarantine and fastidious sanitation measures. A quarantine station was set up seventy miles below the city and its officers given firm orders to detain any potentially infected vessels for forty days. In addition, a local physician was appointed to inspect incoming ships at the station and was threatened with execution if any vessels known to be carrying yellow fever were allowed to proceed upriver. These new rules caused a minor diplomatic row with the Spanish; who believed that their ships arriving from Cuba (where yellow fever was endemic) were being unfairly targeted for lengthy detentions. Butler assured Senor Juan Callejon, Her Catholic Majesty’s consul in New Orleans, that he was not imposing “any different quarantine upon Spanish vessels sailing from Havana.” To the relief of the State Department, Spain eventually dropped the matter but not before firing off a few strongly worded communiques.
In town Butler put an army of laborers to work round the clock flushing gutters, sweeping debris, and inspecting sites thought to be unclean such as stables, “butcheries;’ and New Orleans’s many “haunts of vice and debauchery.” Steam-powered pumps siphoned stagnant water from basins and canals into nearby bayous. The northern press picked up the story and ran articles praising Butler’s methods. “He will probably demonstrate before the year is out that yellow fever, which has been the scourge of New Orleans, has been merely the fruit of native dirt, and that a little Northern cleanliness is an effectual guarantee against it,” predicted the editors at Harper’s Weekly. The magazine published a cartoon five months later which featured the general holding a soap bucket and scrub brushes in front of an approving Abraham Lincoln.
In addition to cleaning up the place, Butler also imposed a strict quarantine. How effective were Butler’s efforts? According to Bell, during the fever season of 1862 — the hottest months of late summer and early fall, ending with the first cold front — the number of fatalities to yellow fever in the Crescent City were two.
Such a small number is hard to credit, but it appears to be true. Furthermore, deaths remained astonishingly low during the next three years of Federal military occupation. A total of eleven New Orleanians died of yellow fever between 1862 and 1865. The year following the war, when the city was reopened to trade and immigration and local control was returned to civilian authorities under Reconstruction, 185 died. The following year, 3,107. New Orleans quickly slipped back into its old, antebellum pattern of mild years punctuated by terrible epidemics; over four thousand died in 1878, and the following year the disease famously claimed the life of former General John Bell Hood, his wife and one of his eleven children.
Today, Ben Butler is too often viewed as a curious admixture of ogre and buffoon, something of a cross between William Tecumseh Sherman and Oliver Hardy. But the reality is, as always, more complex. Whatever else one may say about his hard-handed rule in New Orleans, there’s little doubt that his efforts in both enforcing a quarantine and cleaning up the city made a tremendous difference, and saved many lives that would have a been lost otherwise even in a “mild” year.
Image: Harper’s Weekly, 1863, via Abraham Lincoln’s classroom; tomb of Sercy (newborn), Mary Love (22 months) and Edwin Given Ferguson (4 years), who died of yellow fever in New Orleans on August 30 and 31, 1878, via NOLA Graveyard Rabbit.
I’ve just finished Andrew McIlwaine Bell’s Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever and the Course of the American Civil War. It’s a wonderful book, and while I’ve had a good idea of how the spread of yellow fever affected events on the Texas coast, it’s revealing to see how widespread the problem was and how fundamentally it shaped operations during the war. Early in the war, Winfield Scott had cautioned against hasty and ill-prepared operations in the South, and instead urged General McClellan to wait for “the return of frosts to kill the virus of malignant fevers below Memphis.” In this, as so much else, the old general proved prescient.
One of the great stories Bell reveals is the Confederacy’s attempted use of biological warfare — specifically yellow fever — against the North.
Luke Pryor Blackburn (left; 1816-1887) was a Kentucky physician who had gained an international reputation as an expert on the treatment of yellow fever. Although no one, including Blackburn, recognized mosquitoes as the vector by which the disease spread, by the early 1860s Blackburn was famous for his knowledge and understanding of the disease. With the outbreak of the war, Blackburn held a number of offices supporting the Confederate government before, in late 1863, he relocated to neutral Canada to help in making arrangements for blockade runners.
Like another well-known native of a border state, John Wilkes Booth, Blackburn harbored a deep and smoldering hatred for the Union cause and, in particular, Abraham Lincoln. Like Booth, Blackburn never quite managed to find a way to get into a gray uniform during four long years of hard war. And like Booth, Blackburn would channel his anger and intellect into an improbable scheme that would, in his own mind at least, topple the Union government and its president.
In December 1863 Blackburn met in Toronto with Godfrey Hyams, an English-born Arkansas cobbler who’d skeddadled to Canada to get out of the way of the war, but who subsequently decided he needed to do something more substantial to support his adopted home. Like Blackburn, Hyams seems not to have been interested in military service, so the two Southern expats instead cooked up a plot to spread yellow fever throughout Northern cities, where the disease was less common than in the South, and where they believed the population would be far more vulnerable to it. Now all the pair needed was an epidemic, from which they could “harvest” the disease in a transmissible form.
In the spring of 1864 an outbreak of yellow fever occurred in Bermuda. Blackburn offered his services to officials there who, aware of his reputation as an expert on the disease, quickly agreed. Blackburn ministered to the sick and, in the process, accumulated a large collection of clothing from the dead and dying. The idea was that the (supposedly) infectious clothing could be easily and widely distributed, spreading the disease silently and without a trace to its origin. Blackburn returned to Halifax in July 1864 with eight trunks packed with yellow fever victims’ clothing, along with a fine new valise packed with expensive new shirts. The trunks were to be delivered to New Bern, North Carolina, Norfolk, Virginia (both cities at the time being under Federal control) and Washington, D.C. The valise was special, Blackburn told his accomplice; he had previously stored fever victims’ clothing in it, and Hyams was to deliver it directly to the Executive Mansion in Washington, where he was to leave it as a personal gift for the president. Hyams flatly refused to deliver the valise, but took the rest to Washington, where he sold five trunks of clothing at a local auction house, and arranged to have the others sent on to Norfolk and New Bern. Hyams then returned to Toronto, where he found Blackburn preparing for another “collecting” trip to Bermuda.
This time Blackburn collected three trunks full of clothes stained and soiled with the infamous “black vomit” — actually half-digested blood from internal hemorrhaging — and other excretions of yellow fever victims, and made arrangements for them to be shipped to New York. By this time, though, it was fall and Blackburn decided to delay the shipment until the following spring, when rising temperatures would aid in the spread of the disease. Blackburn left his trunks full of clothing with a shipping agent named Swan, and boarded a steamer for Canada.
In the meantime, Hyams had gotten tired of cooling his heels in Canada, waiting for the $100,000 payoff that Blackburn kept promising but never came through on. He crossed the border to Detroit, strode into the U.S. attorney’s office there, and told all he knew in return for immunity. About the same time, local informants in Bermuda tipped off authorities about the trunks in storage there, and Blackburn’s game was up.
There is ample evidence to show that while Blackburn and Hyams were operating on their own initiative, they did so with the full cognizance of the Confederate government. Hyams revealed that funds for his Washington trip had been provided by Colonel Jacob Thompson, a Confederate operative who was involved in other covert operations to sow destruction and unrest in the North. Thompson’s secretary, a man named Cleary, was a close confidant of Jefferson Davis and revealed that the Confederate president was aware of the plot, although not directly involved in it. Davis and Blackburn had been friends before the war, and Davis had received two letters from a mutual acquaintance who told Davis of the plot, and urged him not employ such tactics against their enemy. Davis ignored the letters and did nothing to discourage Blackburn.
In April 1865 Blackburn was charged by the U.S. Bureau of Military Justice with conspiracy to commit murder, but he remained in Canada, outside the reach of military authorities. The Canadian government tried him for violating their neutrality laws, but he was acquitted and allowed to remain in Toronto. He returned to his native Kentucky, which had never been placed formally under congressional control during Reconstruction, in 1872 and gradually rebuilt his prewar medical practice. He successfully ran for governor of Kentucky, serving from 1879 to 1883.
Upon his death in 1887, Luke Pryor Blackburn was buried beneath a monument bearing a bronze relief depicting the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
h/t: Jane Johansson’s Trans-Mississippian Blog.