On this day 150 years ago, Union general Benjamin Franklin Butler, the military governor of New Orleans, issued his notorious General Orders No. 28, or what became known as the “woman order.” It declared that any woman who treated a Union soldier disrespectfully—spitting was the preferred method that spring—would be treated by the law as if she were a prostitute. “The edict,” writes the historian Chester G. Hearn, “was a little out of character for Butler, whose reverence for women was well established and untarnished by any hint of personal scandal. The general, however, had a short temper, and this trait, combined with his penchant for stimulating controversy, often dominated his actions.”
So true. And even though the order was not meant to suggest that the women literally were prostitutes, only that they be subject to equivalent penalties before the law, and only after they had done something so unladylike as to spit on a soldier, word of General Orders No. 28 “hit the streets of New Orleans like a giant keg of gunpowder.” Confederate general Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, whose very name seemed a defense of courtly manners, was shocked … SHOCKED!
MEN OF THE SOUTH: Shall our mothers, our wives, our daughters, and our sisters be thus outraged by the ruffianly soldiers of the North, to whom is given the right to treat at their pleasure the ladies of the South as common harlots? Arouse, friends, and drive back from our soil those infamous invaders of our homes and disturbers of our family ties.
Butler, meanwhile, could just as easily offend those on his own side. Exempli gratia: two years later, President Lincoln was preparing for a touch reelection fight by looking for a new running mate. He sent Simon Cameron to chat with Butler, who, for all his failings as a general, had always been an able politician, at least in Massachusetts. Butler, however, valued his military prowess more highly than others and told the president’s emissary: “I would not quit the field to be Vice-President, even with himself [Lincoln] as President, unless he will give me … [assurances] that he will die or resign within three months after his inauguration.”
Butler, I believe, meant this as a joke. But it probably wasn’t all that funny then, and it’s a hell of a lot less funny now, and that’s even considering Alan Alda‘s fatuously delivered maxim in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989): “Comedy is tragedy plus time!”
A version of this post was originally published on May 15, 2012.