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Maine Historical Society
Text by Candace Kanes
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George Foster Shepley (1819-1878), a Portland lawyer and U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine, had dipped his toes in politics before the Civil War began in April 1861. Still, it is unlikely he anticipated the complex political and diplomatic challenges he would encounter through his Civil War service.
As military governor of Louisiana from 1862 to 1864, he had to negotiate New Orleans and Louisiana politics, economics, and social conditions, as well as internal military politics, and the broader political circumstances of the divided nation.
A Democrat like his father, Ether Shepley, a U.S. Senator, member of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court from 1833 to 1855, the younger Shepley was elected to the Maine Senate in 1850 and was a delegate to the divided Democratic National Convention in 1860, where he met fellow lawyer Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts.
Butler, ambitious, more political, and more likely to act outside of orders than Shepley, was brigadier general of Massachusetts volunteers. He believed having Democrats as commanders of Union regiments would strengthen Lincoln and make the war less a "party" affair. Lincoln gave Butler the authority to raise 10 regiments in New England. Butler urged Maine Governor Israel Washburn to appoint Shepley as a colonel and let him recruit a regiment.
On Nov. 21, 1861, George Shepley was commissioned as a colonel in the 12th Maine Infantry Regiment. An1861 recruiting poster that announced "Our Country Calls! We Must Obey!" links Maj. Gen. Butler and Col. George F. Shepley in large letters.
From recruitment to his resignation from the army on July 1, 1865, Shepley was tied to Butler, a controversial figure throughout the war.
Soon after Shepley's 12th Maine arrived at Ship Island, Mississippi, the colonel was given command of the 3rd Brigade. Butler, meanwhile, was put in charge of the new Department of the Gulf in February 1862.
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Maine Historical Society
After the Union navy captured New Orleans in March 1862, Butler quickly made enemies of many New Orleans residents, who began referring to him as "Beast" Butler. Shepley was named military commandant of New Orleans, and in June 1862 became military governor of Louisiana, in part to provide a buffer between the residents of Louisiana and Butler.
Butler and his successor in December 1862, Gen. Nathaniel Banks, were the military commanders in the Department of the Gulf. Shepley, who worked closely with both men, was in charge of the administration of the occupied territory, and in ensuring enforcement of the orders they issued.
Both Butler and Banks were closely involved in the administration of the occupied territory. In fact, many histories of that period barely mention Shepley, or if they do, they suggest he was a relatively minor player, dominated by Butler and Banks.
Gerald M. Capers in Occupied City: New Orleans under the Federals suggests Shepley and others were loyal to Butler and, like him, interested especially in the "spoils of office" and to a desire to retain power in the city. No evidence links Shepley to "spoils," even though much evidence links Butler and his brother, Andrew Butler, to war profiteering.
Capers also notes that New Orleans under Butler and Shepley "may have been the most efficient municipal administration the city ever had."
John D. Winters in The Civil War in Louisiana, written in 1963, comments that Butler was successful in having his friend Shepley named military governor and that Shepley "often acted with vehemence and impetuosity, but Butler found him easy to control." He also charges Butler, and hence Shepley, with allowing Northerners to make profits by selling goods to Confederates.
Butler, in his memoirs written in 1892 after Shepley was deceased, barely mentions his Maine ally.
While serving in his administrative posts, Shepley dealt with hundreds of requests from residents seeking passes to leave the area, asking to have levees repaired so their plantations could be protected, seeking funds to operate schools, space to operate hospitals, providing information on Rebel activities, asking to get slaves back, seeking business opportunities, and complaining about policies or decisions – many of which had been made by Shepley's superiors.
The correspondence and visitors he dealt with were not just Louisiana residents. Friends and friends of acquaintances from Maine, Missouri (where Shepley had family), New York, and elsewhere in the North sought his influence – in getting ships into the port of New Orleans and getting permission to deliver and pick up cargos, in getting help for Union troops or their families, in getting positions in the military occupation – and numerous other favors.