June 7, 1862, The Execution of William Mumford
Union Gen. Benjamin Butler became a villain to supporters of the Confederacy practically overnight after he set foot in New Orleans in the spring of 1862. Perhaps it was inevitable; the largest city in the South had been captured without a fight, and Butler was the military leader over a populace that was, for the most part, displeased.
Butler is remembered today for confiscating the property of residents who refused to pledge allegiance to the Union and for his military order that said any woman who insulted a soldier would be treated “as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”
He was not above insulting New Orleans women himself, of course. In his memoirs, “Butler’s Book” (1892), Butler describes riding his horse past a house where women stood on a balcony. It’s hard to imagine he was expecting a salute, but he apparently was surprised when the women turned their backs on him in what he saw as a coordinated show of disrespect.
“The women all whirled around back to with a flirt, which threw out their skirts in a regular circle like the pirouette of a dancer,” he wrote. “I turned around to my aide, saying in full voice: ‘Those women evidently know which end of them looks the best.’
“That closed that exhibition.”
Butler’s infamy across the Southern states, though, and was sealed that June, when a New Orleans man, William Mumford, was executed on the general’s orders at the Old U.S. Mint (just “the Mint” in 1862). Mumford, a native of North Carolina, was an unlikely hero to the Confederacy; he owned no slaves, nor much of anything else, and had not volunteered to go to war. And he was no upper-crust New Orleanian. His profession: gambling.
On April 26, 1862, Union soldiers whose gunboats sat in the Mississippi River came ashore at Esplanade Avenue. Though there was no armed resistance to the capture of the city, terms of surrender had not yet been accepted by Mayor John Monroe. The troops headed for the Mint and raised the federal flag anyway.
It didn’t fly for long. A group of men soon pulled it down and took it away.
Precisely what happened is a matter of some debate. Butler, who arrived in the city May 1, wrote in his autobiography that the Confederate sympathizers had dragged the American flag through the streets, torn it to pieces and given fragments of it to their friends. Butler claimed he himself had spotted Mumford, wearing a piece of the flag as a boutonniere, during a speech by Monroe at the St. Charles Hotel, and he made a mental note that the gambler was a man who must be punished.
The Daily Picayune initially gave a similar account.
“About 11 o’clock the party that had torn down the flag came up St. Charles Street in triumph, and very soon the federal bunting, torn into shreds, was distributed among the excited multitude assembled in the vicinity of the City Hall,” the paper wrote on April 27, 1862.
After Reconstruction, though, and in the decades that followed, a revisionist history was often repeated: The flag had been spirited away in haste, and perhaps one corner of it was dragged on the ground as a result, and that it had later been hidden and then destroyed – save for a small fragment that would later be donated to the institution that became the Confederate Museum.
There were also lingering questions over who was the guilty party. In the decades that followed, multiple stories published in The Daily Picayune and its successors said that a teenager named Adolph Harper had been the one who pulled down the flag, as Union gunboats fired their howitzers at him from the river, and that while William Mumford was present, he could not possibly have climbed up to remove the flag because of a leg injury.
Mumford was the chief suspect all along, though, perhaps because the Picayune identified him as the culprit, in print, several days later.
“The names of the party that distinguished themselves by gallantly tearing down the flag that had been surreptitiously hoisted, we learn, are W.B. Mumford, who cut it loose from the flagstaff amid the shower of grape, Lieut. N. Holmes, Sergt. Burns and James Reed,” the paper wrote. “They deserve great credit for their patriotic act.”
Great credit is not what they received.
“As we neared the city the next day, the morning papers were brought to me on board the Wissahickon containing a description of this performance with high encomiums upon the bravery and gallantry of the men who did it,” Butler wrote in his autobiography. “After having read the article, I handed the paper to Captain Smith and said: ‘I will hang that fellow whenever I catch him,’ and in such matters I always keep my intention.”
Mumford was arrested and put on trial for treason. He professed his innocence, but he was convicted nonetheless. Butler issued an order June 5 condemning Mumford to be hanged at the Mint — “imitating the Spanish custom as to the place of the execution,” Butler later wrote, “which places it as near as possible to the spot where the crime was committed.”
At about 9 a.m. on June 7, 1862, Mumford’s hands were bound behind his back. He was allowed to speak briefly to his wife and three children outside the Custom House on Canal Street, where he had been held, then was led to a waiting wagon. He was seated on the coffin that would soon bear his corpse.
“The procession was followed by an immense crowd that had surrounded the Custom House from an early hour in the morning,” wrote a correspondent for The New York Herald. “In front of the Mint there were probably 10,000 people, a fair proportion being women with infants at their breasts. The housetops in the neighborhood were also covered with curious observers.”
Scaffolding had been erected from the second floor of the Mint on the Esplanade Avenue side. After a brief meeting with a priest, Mumford was led out onto the platform.
The condemned man gave a brief address to the crowd, described by one journalist as a “long, rambling speech” in which he reiterated that he was innocent and urged people to raise their children “righteously.”
A reporter for the Picayune was not so well positioned. “What passed inside, we know not,” the paper wrote, “being unable to get within hearing distance. We understand that Mumford made a speech, but what it was we cannot say.”
At 10:50 a.m., a black hood was placed over Mumford’s head. A noose borrowed from the prison was placed around his neck. Chunks of lead were placed on the platform to speed its drop.
“His coolness was wonderful,” wrote the reporter from the Herald. “In speaking his voice was perfectly steady, and when the hood was drawn over his head I could not discern so much as a tremor of his hands. The fall, which was about four feet, dislocated his neck, but owing to a slight accident the knot was displaced and worked up under his chin, leaving the windpipe partly free. The result was that the muscular contraction did not cease for 10 minutes, though it was at no time violent.”
At 5 p.m., Mumford’s body was put into a hearse and taken to the family tomb at Cypress Grove Cemetery.
Mumford became a martyr, and Confederate officials called for revenge. Jefferson David pronounced Butler “a felon, deserving of capital punishment.”
“I do order that he shall no longer be considered or treated simply as a public enemy of the Confederate States of America, but as an outlaw and common enemy of mankind, and that, in the event of his capture, the officer in command of the capturing force do cause him to be immediately executed by hanging,” the Confederate president wrote in an executive order that December.
No Confederate officer ever had that chance. That same month, Butler was recalled from New Orleans. He later was elected to Congress, where he co-authored the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that outlawed segregation. According to his memoirs, he remained in touch with Mumford’s widow throughout the rest of his life, on two occasions helping her get jobs with the federal government. But across the South, he is best remembered for his brief time in New Orleans.
“The declarations and acts of Mumford’s murderer are registered in the annals of the day, under his own hand, and speak for themselves,” wrote the Wilmington, N.C., Journal on August 14, 1862. “You know ‘THE BEAST’ by his tracks.”
(Article courtesy of NOLA.com)