Thursday, June 25, 2009

Butler's Mug in a Chamber Pot?

Most people like to see their picture prominently displayed. But, few people would like to have their picture show up where General Benjamin Franklin Butler's countenance appeared; on a chamber pot.

How did Butler's visage come to be displayed in such a manner? In order to understand, it is necessary to go back to 1861 when Ben Butler first earned an infamous name with Southerners.

While Butler was in command of Fortress Monroe at the tip of the Virginia peninsula between the York and James Rivers, the former lawyer found unexpected use for his legally trained mind. In May of 1861 three slaves, Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory had been contracted by their owners to the Confederate Army to help construct defensive batteries at Sewell's Point across the mouth of Hampton Roads from Union held Fort Monroe. They escaped at night and rowed a skiff to Old Point Comfort, where they sought asylum at the adjacent Fort Monroe. It was not difficult to figure out that the slaves had made their way to the fort, and when their Confederate officer owner arrived the following day under a flag of truce to collect the fugitives, Butler flatly denied him. The owner argued that under the Fugitive Slave Law the slaves had to be legally returned to him. Butler, in turn, insisted that since Virginia had seceded and joined the Confederacy, the Fugitive Slave Law was no longer binding. The owner left miffed and the former slaves were put to work for the Union army. This case would lead Congress to later pass acts of confiscation for Confederate property and coined the term "contraband" for slaves that escaped to Union lines. Certainly, Butler was off to a rough start with Southerners.

It wouldn't get any better when Butler was later transferred to New Orleans, which had fallen to Union forces in April 1862. While in New Orleans, the ladies of the city took particular pleasure in heaping insults...and worse on their occupiers. Naval commander David G. Farragut even had the contents of a chamber pot emptied on his head from a Confederate woman in an upstairs window as he walked down a street.

In effort to curb these disrespectful gestures Butler issued General Orders Number 28 on May 15, 1862. It stated, "As the Officers and Soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women calling themselves ladies of New Orleans, in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any Female shall, by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation."

For this order, that in essence said that the women of New Orleans would be treated as common prostitutes if they made disrespectful comments or gestures toward Union soldiers, Butler earned the nickname, "Beast Butler," and achieved notoriety as a target at the bottom of a chamber pot. Butler was also bestowed the alias "Spoons," for his alleged theft of silverware from the New Orleans residences he occupied.


  1. Mr. Talbot,
    where did you see this Chamber pot? At the La. Baton Rouge State Museum. Or, the Cabildo?

  2. There's one at the Civil War Museum in New Orleans.

  3. I just came back from the New Orleans Civil War Museum. That chamber pot is a replica and not an original.

  4. Has anyone ever documented an original one of these? You see pictures and "reproductions" everywhere, several different designs. But does an actual period example exist?

  5. yes. There is an original one in the collection of the Alabama Archives. Another showed up on ebay a number of years ago, and disappeared into a private collection.

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