On this date in 1862, a 42-year-old gambler hanged at the New Orleans mint where, six weeks before, he had pulled down the Stars and Stripes of the arriving Union occupiers to the delight of a Confederate mob.
Moving to secure the Mississippi, Northern forces had the Big Easy encircled and about to surrender when, an advance team landed in the undefended city and pulled down the Stars and Bars over the mint on Esplanade Avenue.
William Bruce Mumford was among the Confederate loyalists who took exception to the Yankee flag, so he chopped it down and dragged it through the street (provoking a cannonade from a Union warship). The flag was little but tatters by the time he had through with it.
Although the city was not officially occupied at the time of this incident, the mint was a federal building. Army General Benjamin Butler resolved to make a salutary example out of the incident to quell any possible civil unrest.
I find the city under the dominion of a mob. They have insulted our flag — torn it down with indignity. This outrage will be punished in such a manner as in my judgment will caution both the perpetrators and abettors of the act, so that they will fear the stripes, if they do not reverence the stars of our banner.
Butler, it should be allowed, had some reason for this conclusion. The Picayune exulted the act as, well, a call to resistance.
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 flag-staff amid the shower of grape. Lieutenant N. Holmes, Sergeant Burns and James Reed. They deserve great credit for their patriotic act. New Orleans, in this hour of adversity, by the calm dignity she displays in the presence of the enemy, by the proof she gives of her unflinching determination to sustain to the uttermost the righteous cause for which she has done so much and made such great sacrifices, by her serene endurance undismayed of the evil which afllicts her, and her abiding confidence in the not distant coming of better and brighter days — of speedy deliverance from the enemy’s toils — is showing a bright example to her sister cities, and proving herself, in all respects, worthy of the proud position she has achieved. We glory in being a citizen of this great metropolis.
This free book argues that Butler’s clemency a few days before to a group of condemned southern enlisted men made mercy politically impossible in the Mumford case, lest the citizenry interpret executive weakness as an invitation to lawlessness.
If that was Butler’s calculus, Confederate die-hards did not appreciate it.
Accordingly, when Mumford was “hung … from a flag-staff projecting from one of the windows under the front portico” of the mint, he won promotion into the pantheon of southern martyrs.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued an order condemning General Butler, and even his officers, to death, along with some outsized bluster about embargoing prisoner exchanges that the Confederacy had not the manpower to seriously intend:
William B. Mumford, a citizen of this Confederacy, was actually and publicly executed in cold blood by hanging alter the occupation of the city of New Orleans by the forces under the command of General Benjamin F. Butler when said Mumford was an unresisting and non-combatant captive, and for no offense even alleged to have been committed by him subsequent to the date of the capture of the said city …
the silence of the Government of the United States and its maintaining of said Butler in high office under its authority for many months after his commission of an act that can be viewed in no other light than as a deliberate murder, as well as of numerous other outrages and atrocities hereafter to be mentioned, afford evidence only too conclusive that the said Government sanctions the conduct of said Butler and is determined that he shall remain unpunished for his crimes:
Now therefore I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, and in their name do pronounce and declare the said Benjamin F. Butler to be a felon deserving of capital punishment. I do order that he be no longer 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; and I do further order that no commissioned officer of the United States taken captive shall be released on parole before exchange until the said Butler shall have met with due punishment for his crimes.
And whereas the hostilities waged against this Confederacy by the forces of the United States under the command of said Benjamin F. Butler have borne no resemblance to such warfare as is alone permissible by the rules of international law or the usages of civilization but have been characterized by repeated atrocities and outrages
… (examples of atrocities omitted) …
I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America and acting by their authority, appealing to the Divine Judge in attestation that their conduct is not guided by the passion of revenge but that they reluctantly yield to the solemn duty of repressing by necessary severity crimes of which their citizens are the victims, do issue this my proclamation, and by virtue of my authority as Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States do order-
1. That all commissioned officers in the command of said Benjamin F. Butler be declared not entitled to be considered as soldiers engaged in honorable warfare but as robbers and criminals deserving death, and that they and each of them be whenever captured reserved for execution.
2. That the private soldiers and non-commissioned officers in the army of said Butler be considered as only the instruments used for the commission of the crimes perpetrated by his orders and not as free agents; that they therefore be treated when captured as prisoners of war with kindness and humanity and be sent home on the usual parole that they will in no manner aid or serve the United States in any capacity during the continuance of this war unless duly exchanged.
3. That all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.
4. That the like orders be executed in all cases with respect to all commissioned officers of the United States when found serving in company with armed slaves in insurrection against the authorities of the different States of this Confederacy.
The Confederates never got a chance to enforce the order; he resumed his colorful political career and died in 1893 hailed as Massachusetts’ greatest citizen-soldier. Complain (pdf) as they might of his iron-heeled rule, the residents of New Orleans had good cause to appreciate the relatively early and orderly occupation of their city, which spared it the flames visited on more recalcitrant rebel strongholds.
For the South, the loss of its largest city and the gateway to the Mississippi was a severe blow. As the rebel position crumbled in the months to come, Jefferson Davis must have had a worry for his own neck.
Somehow, he and every other Southerner escaped execution for their treasonable design, which leaves William Bruce Mumford, the riverboat gambler who tore down Old Glory, as the only American since at least the War of 1812 to be put to death for treason against the United States.*
* Anti-slavery rebel John Brown was hanged for treason in 1859, but it was treason against the state of Virginia — not against the U.S. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted for espionage, not treason.