Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Intriguing Thesis---- The Mayor, The Cops, The Immigrants and The Quick Fall of the Big Easy in 1862

Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans, Michael D. Pierson, University of North Carolina Press, 2008. 264 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3228-8.

Reviewed by Judith Gentry (University of Louisiana at Lafayette)on H-CivWar (August, 2010)

Mutiny and Unionism in Civil War New Orleans

The title of this book is misleading, as very little of it is about the mutiny at Fort Jackson. It might better be titled A Study of Unionism and Other Disaffection in Confederate Military Units and among Civilians in or near New Orleans in 1862.

Michael D. Pierson has done an excellent job of describing and analyzing the small number of sources focused on the night of the mutiny, but the heart of the book is a discussion of the impact of the mutiny on Admiral David G. Farragut’s ability to rescue New Orleans from the Confederates; the extent of Unionist sentiment (or at least disaffection from the Confederacy) in New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana; the background and the social, economic, and political context that caused the mutineers and deserters and other New Orleanians to have little affection for the Confederacy; and the role of Benjamin Butler in protecting existing Unionists and building additional support for the Union in New Orleans.

Pierson reveals, as the book unfolds, a series of provocative thesis statements. For the ease of the readers of this review, I have arranged them in chronological order. The peculiar Louisiana version of the Know-Nothing Party, which emphasized anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions, controlled the New Orleans government from 1856 until May 1, 1862, when Butler established martial law. Once Louisiana seceded from the Union, the New Orleans mayor used his direct control of patronage, which traditionally had been used to win elections for the Know-Nothings through violence and intimidation of opponents by police officers and government workers rampaging through the streets in what was commonly called the “mob,” to support the Confederacy.

By 1858, such tactics had reduced voting by immigrants by 50 percent and caused most immigrants to keep a low profile on politics. In 1861 and into the spring of 1862, both the mob and the police were used to suppress dissent and encourage volunteering for military service. Poverty and joblessness also coerced volunteering by New Orleanians who had no love for the Confederacy. By September 1861, the government had help from the mob in coercing military-age men to participate in local units of the state militia. In the emergency of February and March 1862, as Farragut’s fleet entered the lower Mississippi River, several of the militia units were reorganized into units of the Confederate army and placed on ships that carried them to Fort Jackson or Fort St. Philip downriver from New Orleans. Others were sent to other forts nearer to New Orleans.

Although the police and mob were effective in keeping Unionists in New Orleans quiet, Pierson argues, Unionists existed. Some simply preferred the prewar U.S. life. Secession and war had closed down the economy of New Orleans and left the working class in extreme poverty. Other Unionists were immigrants who had never felt welcome in New Orleans and had endured Know-Nothing harassment. “Merchants and white wage workers, in addition to African Americans, came to support the Union in large numbers during the war.... New Orleans offered considerable aid and comfort to the United States” (pp. 49-50). The fact that much of this aid took place in 1861 and 1862 rather than later in the war made New Orleans unusual.

An important reason why the Confederates in New Orleans suppressed Unionism was that the existence of Unionists undercut the central moral justification for secession: that secession was necessary because the Northern states were oppressing all white Southerners and trying to take away the rights of all Southerners to enjoy the prosperity and freedom of the nation. The author argues that the importance of the mutiny at Fort Jackson has been underestimated.

This review is continued at H-Net Reviews

The second image is Fort Jackson as it appears today and the image's source is Civil War Librarian, June 2008.

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