Union naval forces captured New Orleans in March 1862. The city on the Mississippi was a key to shipping as well as moving supplies and troops for both the Union and the Confederacy.
Col. George F. Shepley, commander of the 3rd Brigade, was soon named military commandant of the city. In May 1862, he received a "private and confidential" report on the state of the city and what Union forces might need to do to maintain peace there.
Among the comments Shepley received was one suggesting that "elections be not held under the control of the present municipal authority."
The report also refers to The Southern Independent Association, which "holds its meetings in open streets and has at its service a band of assassins who will maintain in New Orleans the reign of terror if not immediately arrested."
Before Shepley had been in New Orleans very long, he began receiving pleas and requests from city institutions that were suffering because of the war and the occupation, reports about traitors or others who might threaten the Union cause, and requests relating to slaves and their status.
Here, Dr. Thomas Hunt, dean of the Medical Department of the University of Louisiana at New Orleans, wrote a plea that the troops leave his medical school alone.
Hunt had previously written a report to the U.S. forces about the school, as required when Union forces gained control of New Orleans.
He told Shepley Union troops had taken possession of the Medical Department despite the assurance he had received from Major Gen. Butler that such an action would not occur. The forces broke a passage through a wall.
Hunt wrote that the study of anatomy, including dissecting bodies, required privacy and seclusion.
Moses Bates, superintending and financial agent of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Baton Rouge, wrote about the need for cotton to keep prisoners employed and to bring in income for the prison.
He told Shepley that meeting the prison's needs required "a positive order forbidding any officer or private in the army from engaging in the cotton trade, and prohibiting the Army transports from freighting cotton until the Penitentiary is supplied."
Recommendation to fund school for indigent black children, New Orleans, 1862
Item 74503 info
Maine Historical Society
Among the institutions in the city that sought support were schools -- as well as services for indigent children.
Jo. Carter, superintendent of New Orleans schools, wrote a report recommending that a school for children of color receive funding like public schools.
He also wrote that there were 15 or more additional schools for black children, but that the one in question was the only charitable one. It was known as the Catholic Institution for the Instruction of Indigent Colored Orphans, but he wrote that it was open to children who were not black.
He also wrote, "The time may not be far distant, when, Public Schools for the colored children, shall be established or annexed, to the white schools under the direction of this Bureau..."
Part of Shepley's task in New Orleans was to stop activity that would aid the Confederate forces.
He ordered Provost Marshal Jonas French to arrest Mr. Tillotson of C. E. Cate & Co., shoe dealers, because he was making shoes for the Rebel army.
Residents of New Orleans and nearby areas often declared their support for the Union cause when making requests of the military forces controlling the city.
Vincenzo Micheletti wrote Shepley on June 12, 1862, seeking return of a skiff that was "the only support of my family." The skiff had been burned.
Micheletti wrote, "I pray you to save me in my distress as you saved this Country from tiranny misery and starvation."
R. R. Peebles wrote to Shepley, on behalf of McManus and Griffin, owners of several plantations in Plaquemine Parish near New Orleans. Peebles was the manager of the plantations.
Peebles wrote that soldiers from the 13th Maine visited the plantation when the owners were not at home, took furniture, trunks, a watch, wine and brandy, and a small sum of money.
The soldiers reportedly searched the house, scattered papers, and told the slaves they were free. The soldiers also reportedly told the slaves that if their former master attempted to interfere with them, they could kill him.
When the owner returned, the slaves were "in a high state of excitement" and McManus was afraid for his life. He went back to the plantation and the slaves refused to work, crops were in need of attention and would soon be a total loss. He suggested the buildings would be destroyed and the livestock slaughtered.
Peebles sought some action from the military command of New Orleans.
Brig. Gen Shepley to Brig. Gen. Dow on pillaging, New Orleans, 1862
Item 73965 info
Maine Historical Society
In September 1862, Shepley wrote to Brig. Gen. Neal Dow, commander of the 13th Maine, about a complaint from the French Consul of "sundry acts of violence and pillage alleged by him to have committed by United States soldiers at the residences of two Frenchmen..."
The officers and soldiers in question were under Dow's command. Shepley asked that if the charges were true, that the property be returned and the perpetrators punished.
Throughout his command in Louisiana, Dow pushed the limits of seizing Rebel property and was later charged with shipping some of the seized material to his home in Portland.
Another frequent topic of concern was the levees along the Mississippi.
At the end of December 1862, Shepley wrote to the new commander of the Department of the Gulf, Gen. Nathaniel Banks, about the condition of the levee in St. Charles Parish.
The letter introduced a planter who would explain to Banks the condition of the levee and the reasons to fix it. Shepley noted that if it overflowed, the railroad would be rendered impassable and communications would be cut off.
Request to prohibit whipping of prisoners, New Orleans, 1862
Item 73967 info
Maine Historical Society
Many of the policies that governed the occupation came from the military commanders or from officials in Washington.
Shepley was charged with carrying out the policies. Some he instituted himself.
In this case, the policy order came from Shepley's friend Major Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, commander of the Department of the Gulf.
He asked Shepley to issue an order to stop the whipping of prisoners at the Parish Prison.
Letter concerning Prayer for the President, New Orleans, 1862
Item 74242 info
Maine Historical Society
Butler favored policies that would punish Rebel supporters and that would push residents toward the Union side.
Order No. 33 required ministers to use the "Prayer for the President of the United States and others in authority" during their services.
Six ministers of Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of New Orleans wrote to Shepley to explain that their "canonical" obligations prevented them from obeying Order No. 33.
They explained that they were not hostile to the government of the United States, but that their bishop ordered them to instead use the "Prayer for the President of the Confederate States."
Union sympathizers, or those claiming such sympathies, also wrote to Shepley, offering advice, tips about where stashes of armaments could be found, and information about people who might claim to be Union supporters but who were not.
George Thomas informed Shepley about a couple who, he believed, were going in and out of Union lines and who were not friends of the Union. He told Shepley where they could be found.
Thomas added "f.m.c." after his name, indicating he was a free man of color.
Statement denying charge of returning slaves, New Orleans, 1862
Item 72037 info
Maine Historical Society
Slaves, their status, and their relationship to the Union were a constant source of concern for the occupying forces.
Major Gen. Benjamin Butler, and some other officers, sometimes encouraged slaves to leave their owners, or looked the other way when they did. Butler had initiated the idea that slaves were "contraband of war" since owners considered them "property."
But the official policy of the U.S. was otherwise. Correspondence to Shepley and other Union officers about slaves was common.
Here, two Union soldiers wrote a statement contradicting a letter in the New York Times printed on June 19, 1862 that stated that slaves who were allowed into the Custom House, Mint, and other military depots in Union-occupied New Orleans had been "returned to their masters for a consideration."
They declared "upon their word and honor as soldiers and gentlemen" that they never directly or indirectly returned slaves to their owners.
P. M. Lapice of St. James Parish in Louisiana warned Shepley that "Negroes believe they are free."
Lapice, a farmer, wrote that the black population would cause "serious troubles" between Christmas and New Year's if told they are not free and that the authorities should take action to prevent problems.
"The negroes being so much accustomed to submission," he wrote, "a small number of white men would enforce order."
He added, "The visits of the Native Guards have the very worst effect on the blacks as well as on the Whites." The Native Guards were free blacks or men of mixed race who were free and had been given freedom when the U.S. made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Lapice also noted that even if there were no insurrection, the slaves would be idle after Jan. 1 and "may refuse to work."
He wrote, "How can loyal citizens' rights be protected against idle and vagabond negroes...?"
By early 1863, the military occupation supported slaves being paid for their work on plantations.
An agreement between planters and the U.S. Sequestration Commission called for slaves to return to plantations and work for one year for a set amount of pay or a portion of the year's crop.
The agreement was to be signed by the planter.
The plan to have slaves work for pay needed to be sold to the slaves as well as to the planters.
In February 1863, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, commander of the Department of the Gulf, sent to all commanding officers an explanation his plan to put slaves to work.
Banks, who assumed command of the Union's Department of the Gulf in mid December 1862, wrote that "an effort is being made to provide work for the negroes and to maintain the cultivation of Plantations ..."
He asked Shepley for help in "explaining to the negroes the advantages of the plan to their race, to the planter, and to the government."
Slaves also had value to the Union army as workers.
In December 1863, Brig. Gen. James Bowen, of the provost marshal general's office in the Union Army Department of the Gulf, wrote Shepley that the levees below New Orleans needed repair and that, "in the absence of adequate negro labor ... fifty negroes from the Parish Prison" had been ordered to do the repair work.
He asked Shepley to approve the order for the prisoners to work.
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