Gordon H. Johnson: “With Bluff Ben Butler In New Orleans”

Reminiscences of Gordon H. Johnson, of Conway, Mass., a member of the 31st Massachusetts Regiment, from the Springfield Republican, Monday, January 3, 1887. With thanks to John Hartwell.

The large inducement for me to unite my soldier fortunes with the 31st was that I might be with a near friend, Francis A. Clary, after whom our local Grand Army post is named, and who was killed at Port Hudson, June 14, 1863. Clary at the time of our enlistment, November 6, 1861, was in Amherst College preparing as a missionary to China, but at the breaking out of the rebellion deemed it his duty to serve his country first. Had his life been spared he undoubtedly would have later accomplished his intention and become a missionary. Young Clary, myself, and 13 others from Conway went into camp as members of the 31st regiment at Pittsfield, in a company made up for the most part from Franklin County, under command of Capt. Lee, a Methodist minister who was preaching in Buckland at the time. There we remained in camp with Lieut-Col. C. M. Wheldon as commander until February 9, when we were ordered to pack our camp equipage and start for active service, we knew not where.

From Pittsfield to Ship Island
It was a cold, winter day when we took the cars from Pittsfield. A deep and heavy body of snow covered the ground. One of our men, a Mr. Sullivan, went as prisoner, heavily ironed. He had stabbed Capt. Lee while in camp for some fancied grievance, making a serious wound in the abdomen, and from which Capt. Lee barely recovered. We took the transport Mississippi at Boston and had a stormy passage, particularly at Cape Hatteras, where for a few days we seemed fated to be ignobly swallowed up by the sea. Finally we landed on Ship Island, glad once more to set out feet on dry land. Dry and poor it was
indeed, but a great relief from the cramped confinement of the transport. Here, we for the first time experienced one of those heavy thunder-storms peculiar to that latitude.

Sullivan, during the storm, which was at night, lay in a tent with his hands and feet heavily manacled together with seven other comrades. The lightning struck the tent, instantly killing three, and almost wholly disabling the other four men, but did not harm Sullivan in the least. Capt. Lee seemed to think this a special intervention of divine favor, and at the captain’s request Sullivan was liberated and took his place in the ranks, turning out to be as good a soldier as we had in the regiment.

The Entry into New Orleans
From Ship Island we went up the Mississippi in boats and had a full view of the bombardment of Forts Jackson and St. Philip by our fleet under Farragut. These two forts were situated about 25 miles above the southwest pass of the river. After our fleet had silenced these forts and opened the river from from the mouth, or rather mouths, to New Orleans, we followed. The old 31st, with the 4th Wisconsin were the first federal infantry to set foot in the city. As we marched up the street in close column, the bootblacks and street gamins would call out to us, “Yellow Jack get you.” Our boys replied that each soldier had in his knapsack a well-filled bottle of “small-pox,” and would give it to the whole city. Upon this information the rabble scattered, and during the remainder of the march gave us a wide berth. It appears that on the arrival of our fleet in front of the city a detachment of marines had, by direction of the admiral, placed on the United States mint, the stars and stripes, thus signifying that Uncle Sam was again in possession of his stolen property. When we passed the square where the mint stood, there was no flag of ours to greet us. It had been torn down by one William Mumford, a representative “blood” of the city. It seems Mumford had dragged it through the principal streets followed by a howling mob until wearied, then throwing it in front of his door as a mat, wiped his feet on it and went in.

Directly after we were fully established in the city, Gen. Butler commenced feeding the poor, black and white, who were in almost absolute starvation. Blacks literally swarmed around our quarters, and the general at once commenced to utilize them cleaning up the city and other like duties pronouncing them “contraband of war,” property of owners openly in rebellion, thus at once untieing the knot that had long puzzled the authorities in Washington. Under his direction the city was made thoroughly clean and Yellow Jack’s hiding places laid bare to sun and air. He caused all dogs without owners to be shot, and others to be chained up by the claimants. The reader can judge of the number of canines in that “hot-bed of rebellion” when told that over 1000 were killed within one week after the promulgation of that order.

A Rebel’s Execution for Degrading the Flag
About this time Gen. Butler sent a strong guard and arrested he aforementioned Mumford and brought him into the custom house. A court-martial was soon convened, Mumford found guilty of insurrection and degrading the old flag. Gen. Butler then pronounced this sentence upon him: “You, William Mumford, will be hanged to-morrow from the same building from which you took the American flag.” The next morning a spar was run out from the gable of the building, projecting directly over a balcony on the story below. From this balcony, on its front was a platform depending from hinges depending from the lower part of the balcony, its out edge supported by a rope from overhead. The whole garrison was under arms, and each soldier provided with two hand grenades to be used in case of an insurrection or attempted rescue. These grenades were pear-shaped, and at the apex was a point like a dart, so that when thrown the point would strike any hard substance and explode it. These could be thrown through a door or window as might be necessary. When all the preparations were complete, Mumford was placed in an ambulance seated on his coffin. Gen. Butler and staff rode immediately behind, in turn followed by the whole garrison not on duty elsewhere. The streets were literally packed with spectators; windows, balconies and roofs of houses, where it was possible for one to be, all closely occupied by men, women and children. Amidst absolute silence, broken only by the stamp of the marching column, the procession proceeded to the plaza square in front of the mint. Mumford was taken up to the balcony, his coffin left on the ground directly beneath the scaffold. He was given opportunity to address the assembled crowd, which he proceeded to do at what seemed to me an hour’s length, although it was probably much shorter, the excitement of the occasion giving little opportunity to note passing time. The main import of his address as I now recollect it was a general glorification of the Confederate cause, and the foolish attempt to put it down by a lot of “hirelings.” He said he had no regrets for what he had done, and under the circumstances, did opportunity offer, would repeat the act. In fact, he was game to the end. I have read that he made some sort of apology for the act, and laid it to his impetuous spirit and sorely regretted it. If he did so express himself, it was not when on the scaffold. At the close of his speech the noose was placed around his neck, the black cap pulled over his face. Gen. Butler waved a glove he held in his hand three times. A soldier detailed for the purpose cut the rope; the body fell about six feet, giving a tremor or shrugging motion and was still. Gen. Butler stood on the balcony near him. After the body had hung 30 minutes he called on a surgeon to examine and see if his life was extinct. The surgeon standing on a step-ladder placed his hand inside his clothing and felt for his heart. Turning to the general and saluting, he said, “Gen. Butler, his heart ceases to beat.” “Very well, said the general, “Let him remain one-half hour longer.” At its expiration the body was taken down, placed in his coffin, taken away and I suppose delivered to his friends. The garrison then formed into marching order and filed away.

Hanging Kidnappers
Contrary to our fears, there was no disturbance, but instead a profound silence was maintained by all the spectators. A few days later, I was witness to the hanging of three rebel citizens and two Union captains of our boats at the city prison, all for the same crime — that of kidnapping citizens suspected of being favorable to the old Union, and impressing them into the rebel service, at the confederate “Camp Moor,” just outside the city. These kidnappers were supposed to be well paid for such service. Directly after, I
saw two Union soldiers shot for disobedience of orders. Thus the citizens of New Orleans, as well as the Union soldiers, learned early of the just and rigorous rule of Gen.Butler.

Gen. Butler at the Theater
Our camp was on Annunciation Square, and no citizen was allowed on any account allowed within its lines. We were all instructed to invariably represent our numbers at10 times the actual count. Before we had long been in possession of the city, an obscure morning paper had in it an item to the effect that the coming evening, Gen. Butler and staff would attend the theater. About 2 o’clock that afternoon the mayor of the city appeared at the St. Charles hotel, which was Gen. Butler’s head-quarters, and requested an interview with the general. Being shown into his presence, Gen. Butler asked, “What is it, Mr Mayor?” He informed the general what had appeared in the paper, and said, “he appeared at the request of a large number of citizens, to ask him not to go to the theater, fearing unpleasant results if he did.” Sometime before this Gen. Butler had issued an order that no more than three persons should be found standing or talking together on the street under penalty of arrest. As soon as the mayor ceased speaking the general cast his off eye over the ril of the balcony, and saw the whole space in front of the hotel filled with men. Turning to the mayor he quickly asked, “Mr. Mayor, what does all this crowd
mean? You must disperse them.”

The mayor, turning pale, replied, “General, I can’t.”

“What, mayor of the city and cannot disperse a crowd! I’ll show you how.” Signalling to his bugler three blasts were given from the bugle; in a short time a whole park of artillery was turned on the square, with gunners, lighted fuse in hand, ready for action. For 10 minutes nothing but a clatter of feet was heard as the crowd scampered at the top of their speed from the plaza. Gen. Butler, turning to the mayor, said, “That is he way to do it, Mr Mayor.” Directly after an extra of the paper was issued informing the citizens
of New Orleans that the commanding general and staff, and as many Union soldiers as chose to go, would certainly be at the theater. All went off quietly, although few of the city’s ton were present. What few were there wore dark and scowling faces, as they did not enjoy the play very much. But the actors had no cause to complain of a thin house that night.

On another occasion, when I was orderly for the general,, he gave me strict orders not to allow him to be disturbed through the night unless some great emergency demanded it. We then had in camp some colored troops with Maj. ____ in command of them, and for some breach of discipline he shot one of the negroes. The major sent an orderly to inform the commanding general of the fact. About 10 o’clock at night the orderly came running up the steps of the St. Charles, his saber clanging on the stone stairs, and
requested to see Gen. Butler “on a matter of importance.” I told him my orders. He then said to me, “Present to Gen. Butler the compliments of Maj. ___, and inform him I have shot a colored recruit for an aggravated breach of discipline.” This I repeated to the general. He replied, “Give compliments of Gen. Butler to Maj. ___, and tell him to shoot another.” All these days the general walked the streets wholly unattended with apparently as much unconcern as if in his garden in Lowell. Occasionally he would appear at some unexpected moment at some company cook-house and ask for a piece of bread or meat, which he would carefully examine to test its fitness for soldiers. After he left the department we often wished “Inspector Butler” would again turn up, assured it would result in better rations than we had.

In the September following our regiment was ordered to Fort Jackson, below the city, to do heavy garrison duty. While there Gen. Butler was superseded by Gen. Banks, who took us back to the city again. There we were mounted as cavalry and went with him up the Red River. Our exploits and also privations on that disastrous campaign I will pass over, only noting that just previous to our starting we were all assembled at the foot of St. Charles street where, as our readers may know, stands the statue of Henry Clay. The whole regiment gathered around the statue and was presented with a beautiful banner, a gift of Boston women. Gen. Banks’s daughter, 12 years of age, made the presentation accompanied by a neat speech. Amid the repeated and hearty cheers of the soldiers, we then adopted her as “daughter of the regiment.” Before our return from the Red River campaign we were granted a 30 day furlough.

Rescue from Starvation by Farragut
After our return to service we were for a time at Fort Blakesley, the key to Mobile. There I saw Admiral Farragut lashed to the rigging of his ship as he gave orders to his subordinate officers for running his fleet into Mobile bay. Then for the first time I appreciated to the utmost the full meaning of the old flag. It meant to us rations and succor. We had been for a long time on short rations and were then at the point of absolute starvation, having had literally nothing to eat for seven days, but one ration of cracked corn. The ship brought us full supplies. Within a few days we went on to the city of Mobile. While there, Gen. Banks was in turn superseded by Gen. Canby, under whose command we remained until the expiration of the war, the latter part of the time being occupied fighting guerrillas.

From Mobile we were taken in transports to Lake Ponchartrain and thence to New Orleans again, now a Union city. Here we took steamer for home, landing at Galloup’s Island in Boston harbor, where we were paid off, mustered out and once more became citizens after a soldier’s life of four and one-half years.