By May of 1862, women in the North and in the South had experienced life under military occupation, from Union sympathizers in Tennessee and Secessionists in Missouri to the gentle residents of Winchester, Virginia, who throughout the course of the war would see their town change hand more than 70 times.
The typical Victorian woman was a product of her day, viewed as the weaker sex, effectively placed by societal restrictions or economic dependence as subservient to males in positions of power, whether head of household, commander of a military district, or provost marshal. With the men and boys gone to war, females were left to cope as best they could. In disputed territory, they were helpless to stop the confiscation of property by advancing armies or occupying forces on both sides of the conflict.
Letters, diaries, and other written records tell tales of fear and loathing, of unexpected kindness and inhuman violence, of daring rides and selfless risk, of grudging acquiescence and civic disobedience. Few places had such spectacular examples of the last as provided by the women of New Orleans under General Butler.
In 1866, Marion Southwood self-published her account of life under “Beast Butler” in “Beauty and booty”: the watchword of New Orleans. Ladies refused to ride public transportation and would cross the street before sharing a sidewalk with a Yankee. Chamber pots were dumped, sometimes on heads, and the prostitutes of the city put Butler’s picture in the bottoms of their “tinker pots.” One episode in these “civic wars” was the Battle of St. Paul’s, when on 1 October 1862, Butler sent troops to evict a clergyman and congregation members (mostly female) who refused to pray as ordered by Abraham Lincoln.
The second affair is known as the Battle of the Handkerchiefs, which occurred the following 20 February 1863, when women with handkerchiefs and parasols faced off against soldiers with fixed bayonets. According to Southwood, a large crowd (estimated at 20,000) had gathered on the levee to bid a last farewell to Rebels who “were to leave for the ‘Confederacy….’ Such a quantity of women frightened the officials….Orders were given to stand back, but no heed was given, the bayonets were pointed at the ladies, but they were not to be scared. A lady ran across to get a nearer view—an officer seized her by the arm! but she escaped, leaving a scarf in his possession.”
The affair was put into comic verse, told by the viewpoint of Banks’ men, and lauded as “The Greatest Victory of the War! ‘La Batalie Des Molchoirs’”: That night, released from all our toil/Our dangers past and gone,/We gladly gathered up the spoils/Our chivalry had won!/Five hundred ‘kerchiefs we had snatched/From Rebel ladies’ hands,/Ten parasols, two shoes (not matched),/Some ribbons, belts, and bands…./In times to come, when lamps are lit/And fires brightly blaze,/While round the knees of heroes sit/The young of happier days/Who listen to their storied deeds,/To them sublimely grand—/Then glory shall award its meed/Of praise to Banks’s band,/And fame proclaim that they alone/(In triumph’s loudest note)/May wear henceforth, for valor shown,/A woman’s petticoat!
Marion Southwood viewed Banks as an improvement over Butler, with his infamous Order Number 28 and his confiscation of private property (estimated at six million dollars) taken from the citizens of New Orleans. Southwood’s book “Beauty and booty”: the watchword of New Orleans is available as a reprint; other books on gender in the Civil War include:
White, LeeAnn and Alecia P. Long, Editors. Occupied Women: Gender, Military Occupation, and the American Civil War. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2009.
Ryan, Mary P. Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825-1880. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 1990.
Clinton, Catherine and Nina Silber, Editors. Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Varhola, Michael O. Life in Civil War America. Cincinnati, OH: Family Tree Books, 2011.
© 2012 Anita Quick, All Rights Reserved.
This article was originally published in the July-August 2012 issue of The Shrapnel, the newsletter of the Turner Brigade. For information about The Shrapnel, contact Capt. Randy Baehr, Editor.