Book Reviews

Civil War Times and “Beast Butler”

I’m going to divert this week just a little and toot my own horn for a second.

If you subscribe to Civil War Times – and you should if you don’t – and you turn to the review section toward the end of the December 2021 issue, you’ll find a narrow column that yours truly penned for the magazine. This is my first publication in a Civil War magazine and I’m rather proud of it.

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The only thing I’m not proud of was my nativity in thinking that Benjamin Butler had any redeeming qualities to balance out all the havoc he wreaked in New Orleans. I had such hopes when I first began reading “When the Devil Came Down to Dixie” by Chester Hearn, and by the end, I regretted playing the devil’s advocate when I wrote this short review. Hearn’s research and this biographical contribution to Butler’s historiography is definitely admirable. I enjoyed the read and the way Hearn approached this phase of Butler’s military career with specific analysis of primary sources from both sides of the conflict. It was clear that the Confederates of New Orleans did not like Butler in their town and did not like being subject to Federal occupation. Some aspects of his rule, such as the cleaning of the streets and various welfare projects did benefit the town, but Butler was far from the ideal administrator for the job and Washington realized it fairly quickly. His abuse of the foreign consuls in New Orleans and his profiteering escapades were the straw that broke the camel’s back, and called for his withdraw in December of 1862 – only about seven months on the job.

When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans: Hearn,  Chester G.: 9780807126233: Amazon.com: Books

Hearn did not go into the administrative merits of Nathaniel Banks – Butler’s replacement – but that’s something I hope to learn about soon. I won’t make the mistake of thinking he was much better than Butler, since I’ve already heard less than pleasant interpretations of his command methods, but I’d think that just about anyone else might have been better than a defense lawyer turned political general. Much of his life and personality prior to the war explains quite a bit of his decisions during the war itself.

Overall, I still recommend the book, especially for those interested in understanding the history of New Orleans during the war and if they’ve ever been curious about “Beast Butler.”

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