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Gen Butler and a Statue and a Library: Lessons on protecting cultural heritage during the Civil War

By Edward Salo, PhD


During the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, the protection of cultural heritage became an important military consideration. Art historian and president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, James Cuno has argued that “Monuments of cultural heritage should be protected for what they are: sources of local communal identity and civil society, economic recovery, and, through the military concept of courageous restraint, regional security.”[i] The US Army recognized the importance of protecting the monuments as indicated in its manual, Civil Affairs Arts, Monuments, and Archives Guide GTA 41-01-002 that states, “cultural property is particularly vulnerable in times of conflict. Combatants may exact political retribution by targeting symbols of their enemies’ cultural identity.”[ii] Furthermore, numerous other studies by military officers have examined how to protect cultural heritage in war.[iii]


While we usually think of the efforts of the US Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (Monuments Men) during World War II as the starting point to examine the US Army’s protection of cultural heritage during military conflicts,[iv] we should go back further in military history to the American Civil War to examine other case studies on the US Army preserved cultural heritage on the battlefield.


This article will examine actions by US Army Major General Benjamin Butler who had to deal with protecting heritage as part of US Army operations in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Butler was a lawyer and state senator in Massachusetts before the Civil War. He first received a commission in the Maryland Militia where he helped to seize Annapolis for the US Army, earning him a commission as a Major General from President Lincoln. In 1862, Butler was appointed military governor of Louisiana, and had an uneven time in New Orleans. Michael Smith states Butler “feuded with foreign consuls and city officials, allegedly looted gold and other valuables from city banks and mansions, profited from the illegal trade in cotton between the lines, and hanged a local gambler, William Mumford, for hauling down the U.S. flag…He also instituted poor relief and public works programs, as well as port regulations, that many observers credited for making the city more healthy and orderly.”[v] Butler also is credited with developing the policy that allowed the US Army to go around the Fugitive Slave Law by describing escaped enslaved persons as “Contraband” and allowing them to remain with the US Army. His military career after Louisiana was marked with unsuccessful service, and after 1864, he had no active positions. After the war, he returned to politics.


While Butler’s military career was less than stellar, during the Battle of Baton Rouge, Butler did successfully protect important items of heritage (the state’s library and a statue of George Washington) during a Confederate siege of the state’s capital. Butler’s actions illustrate the important steps that commanders should follow when faced with protecting heritage resources on the battlefield.


It should be noted that Butler’s actions in Louisiana happened a year before the US Army adopted the Lieber Codes which would serve as the rules of war for the rest of conflict. Colonel Postiglione Luigi, argued that the US was the “first nation to codify the protection of cultural heritage…[and since] The primary goal of the Civil War was to reestablish authority over separated states, therefore preserving such sites was considered crucial to maintaining the national identity.”[vi] The Lieber Code provided protection for “public schools, universities, academies of learning or observatories, museums of the fine arts, or of a scientific character-such property…[and] Classical works of art, libraries, scientific collections, or precious instruments, such as astronomical telescopes.”[vii] While this protected cultural heritage items, this protection was not codified in 1862, so the actions of Butler were not based on the orders of the US Army, but rather the judgment of the commander.


Louisiana seceded from the Union in January 1861, but because of its location on the critical Mississippi River, the US Army had planned for the capture of the state early in the war. On 25 April 1862, US forces captured New Orleans, and Confederate forces left Baton Rouge and other Louisiana cities. On 9 May 1862, US forces occupied Baton Rouge. The US Army named Major General Benjamin Butler military governor of New Orleans, and his influence would affect operations in the state.


In August 1862, the Confederate Army launched an operation to retake Baton Rouge. Butler feared that the Confederate attack would be successful and he first ordered the burning of sections of town near the river to aid the naval forces in supporting the army. He later ordered the burning of the rest of the town to make it useless to the Confederate forces, but he quickly changed that order. While he was responsible for much of the city’s destruction, Butler did recognize the need to protect what he viewed as important cultural heritage in the capital. In a report to General Hallock, Commander-in-Chief of the Army after the Confederate attack on Baton Rouge, Butler describes his protection of the state library and a statue of George Washington, which was an impressive piece of art, as part of the Army operations. [viii] This order protected these important parts of Louisiana’s heritage and serve as a model for today.


While not mentioned in the report to the US Army, a resolution before the Louisiana general assembly in 1864 provides some more information about the operation. [ix] First, the actual obtaining of the cultural heritage items seems to be accomplished but the 4th Wisconsin Volunteers under Col. Halbert Paine. Paine recounted after the war, that Butler had given him orders, “to burn Baton Rouge, including the State house, but excluding the library, paintings and statuary, which it contained, excluding also the charitable institutions; to remove the State house the library and painting and the statue of Gen. Washington, and send them to New Orleans.” [x]Paine stated that he order Major Boardman to oversee “the boxing and removal to New Orleans of the statue of Washington, the library and the painting found in the statehouse. He selected Private Hyslop, Company G…to box the statue.” [xi] The resolution also mentions a painting of Gen. Zachary Taylor done by Thomas Bangs Thorpe, a painter from Massachusetts who had arrived in New Orleans in 1836, and remained in the area for the rest of his career. General Butler does not mention the paintings in his report, but they are described as being back in the “Convention hall” in Baton Rouge in 1864 so one can assume, those paintings were not removed from the state.


One of the first cultural heritage items Butler mentions that was saved was the state library of Louisiana. The library was an impressive collection of books housed in a room in the capital of Baton Rouge. Founded in 1838 in New Orleans when that city was the original capital, by 1849 the collection of over 7,000 volumes that included manuscripts, maps, engravings, and various other materials moved to Baton Rouge when that city became the new capital. Butler would have known about the library because it was described in various publications, including an 1850 report to the US Congress which stated that the library had a budget of $1,000 and grew on average of 300 volumes a year. Also, the library was open to all citizens, but only members of the legislature would check out books. The report also noted that “As yet, there is no printed catalogue [for the library].”[xii]


In addition to the state library, the state house in Baton Rouge also contained the statue of George Washington, Butler mentioned in his dispatch. In 1848, the State of Louisiana commissioned Hiram Powers, a renowned American sculpture of the time, to sculpt a full-size statue of George Washington to sit under the rotunda of the state house. Art historian William Kloss described Powers as “one of the first American artists to achieve international recognition, and through his fame, helped to elevate the role of sculpture in nineteenth-century America.”[xiii] Powers had already produced a bust of Washington that was extremely popular, so he took that model and made a full statue of the first President. It took Powers six years to complete the statue at his studio in Italy before it was shipped to Baton Rouge where it was to be placed under the rotunda of the state capital.[xiv] The Washington Statue stood 6’ 7.5” tall and sat on an oblong square base that was 25.75 inches by 19 inches and originally sat in the rotunda. By 1856, the statue was located “caged and under pad-lock” at the north end of the state house.[xv]


As mentioned above, General Butler’s actions to protect the heritage resources in Baton Rouge pre-dated the establishment of the Lieber Code (1863); however, we can glean some lessons from how General Butler ensured the protection of the heritage items for their return to the state and its people after the war. Butler’s actions regarding the Washington Statue and the state library provide a model for handling moveable cultural property in the field. From the report after the action, we see that Butler “ordered the State library to be brought away, and Powers' statue of Washington from the State-house. This has been safely accomplished.” [xvi]


First, Butler planned for and identified important cultural property within the area of operations. This was probably not that difficult since the library had been documented in numerous publications including reports by Congress. Likewise, the Washington statue was celebrated in newspapers so both were probably well known to the locals and US Army forces. Moreover, the painter Thomas Bangs Tharpe, who painted the portrait of Gen. Zachary Taylor mentioned above, was also an official under Butler’s military government.[xvii] We know that Tharpe and Butler were friends, and Butler eulogized Tharpe as “an author and an artist…[and] the city of New Orleans…owes him a debt of gratitude.”[xviii] While we do not know if Tharpe advocated protecting the art and the library in Baton Rouge, the fact that one of the most respected artists in the state on his staff probably aided in identifying the artistic items to protect and preserve.

After the heritage resources were identified, Butler relocated the items away from the battlefield to ensure their protection. While it is not always profitable or possible to remove the items from the area of operation, in this case Butler felt the items would be more secure in another city or state. Butler report that “The library is stored with the city library… [in New Orleans, and Butler] sent the statute of Washington to the mayor of New York, to be held in trust for the people of Louisiana until they shall have returned to their senses.”[xix] Butler indicated in his official report to higher headquarters that his plan was to eventually return the statue and the library; however, that does not appear to have been disseminated to the populace. For example, in an August 23, 1862 article in the Daily Delta, the writer commented that they had “no knowledge of what disposition will be finally made of [the statue].”[xx] The fact Butler did not make it clear to the citizens of the city that he planned to return the statue and the library were a critical error. Now rather than being seen as a protector of the heritage, the US Army was viewed as looting the heritage, and that would turn more citizens against the occupation forces. Butler should have his report or statements from it published in local newspapers to ensure that the populace knew his intentions. On today’s battlefield, commanders need to ensure that they disseminate the information on how they handle protecting cultural heritage so that local citizenry, leaders, and the media understand the process and the steps being taken to protect the heritage, and to inoculate the unit from claims of looting.


The US Army moved the state library to the Public School Lyceum and Library Society Library in the New Orleans City Hall; however, accounts indicate that the Army left several thousand volumes behind. After the US Army left, Louisiana citizens “moved about five thousand of these volumes to a secure place fifteen miles north of Baton Rouge.” [xxi] This moving of the remaining portion of the library mirrors similar actions in Timbuktu in the 2010s when local citizens preserved the library of manuscripts from Islamic fundamentalists that overran the area.[xxii]


Butler sent the Statue of Washington from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, then to New York and finally the Patent Office in Washington, DC for safe keeping until the end of the war. In fact, in March 1863, a newspaper article described President Lincoln and his wife visiting the Patent Office and saw Power’s statue, along with “presents from the King of Siam and the Tycoon of Japan.”[xxiii]


Sometimes removing items from an area could create the appearance that the occupying force is “stealing” the items, so this might not be a possibility. In regards to the Washington Statue, the removal of the item caused one prominent citizen to call the act, "... the most outrageous act of spoliation that ever made an American cheek tingle with shame." [xxiv] However, other citizens of the state (most likely Unionists) did propose a resolution in 1864 to thank Butler and Paine “for saving…valuable State property.”[xxv] While the resolution did thank the Army commanders, it also requested the return of the statue from Washington DC.


Third, Butler planned and informed everyone in his command and his higher headquarters of that his plan was to bring the items back when the situation was more peaceful. Because the items belonged to the people of Louisiana, Butler wanted to make sure that they knew the US Army forces were not confiscating the library and statue, but the US Army forces would return the cultural property when it was safe. As mentioned above, by 1864, it appears the paintings had been returned to the state government. [xxvi] That same year, the US Army authorized the movement of these books to New Orleans however, by that time, there were only 3,000 volumes. Faye Phillips suggested:


when US Army soldiers' cooking fires started a blaze that destroyed the interior of the state Capitol in December 1862, all the books and other materials still housed in the library were thrown from the windows of the building, and many were lost. Some were damaged from the fire and water, and others were gathered up by US Army soldiers and locals and carried away.[xxvii]

Since there was no record of the books that were removed in 1862, it was impossible to determine what actually happened to the books.


While the US government attempted to ensure that the heritage resources were returned, not all of the resources made it back immediately. In 1877, Lyman Draper, secretary of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, contacted Charles Gayarré, the head of the Louisiana State Library. Draper stated a widow of a US Army soldier had given the State Historical Society of Wisconsin “two bundles of transcriptions of Spanish records taken from the Louisiana State Library collections during the Civil War.” [xxviii] It is unknown how the soldier came into possession of the records, but they remained there until his death, when his widow turned them over. Draper stated that they “sort[ed] the documents, repair[ed] some of them, and… bound [them] into two volumes without cost to the state of Louisiana.” [xxix]


The Washington Statue also was returned to the state house. After the end of the war, the US government shipped the statue from Washington DC back to Baton Rouge, and in 1869, Louisianans welcomed the return of the statue. It was placed back in the rotunda of the state capital. In 1871, the statue was placed on exhibition as part of the New Orleans fair, when a fire erupted and destroyed the building and the statue. Local tradition suggested that workers fighting the fire “probably dumped the scorched remnants of this glorious artwork into the Mississippi River.”[xxx]


The return of the library and the Washington statue were always in Butler’s plans. He stated in his report that the items “ to be held in trust for the people of Louisiana until they shall have returned to their senses.”[xxxi] Butler realized that as part of the healing and stabilization operations after combat was over, the returning of the heritage items would demonstrate to the people of the state that the US Army was not there to punish them by taking spoils of war, but rather there to stop the rebellion and to help return the government of the state. Returning of the items would also signal faith in the local government in protecting the heritage items. This was demonstrated with the return of the paintings that were hung in the state house as early as 1864 (see above). The return of heritage items (i.e., manuscripts, museum collections, etc.) should be seen as a critical part of stabilization operations because they demonstrate to the local populace that the US Army is not there for permanent occupation, and that local governmental authority can be trusted with these important items. Furthermore, certain heritage items (i.e., the state library) are also essential for the operation of the state.


In 1863, the US Army adopted the Lieber Code, and codified the protection of cultural heritage on the battlefield. The Lieber Code would serve as the model for future treaties and protocols to protect heritage during times of conflict. While the Monuments Men of World War II paved the way for the Army’s model of how to protect these resources, and specialists in today’s Civil Affairs branch continue to innovate new ideas, we can also look back to the Army’s history. Butler’s actions were taken without guidance from a higher headquarters or a specific doctrine, and while Butler’s actions in Baton Rouge in 1862 were not without faults (i.e., ordering the burning of the town), his actions in saving the state library, statue of Washington, and various paintings serve as a model for commanders today, as well gifting us with important heritage resources. On the modern battlefield, commanders will face similar situations where they may have to protect statues, libraries, paintings, etc., Listed below is checklist of steps that current commanders could follow using the examples from Baton Rouge.


1. First, a commander needs to identify and plan for important cultural property within the area of operations. In Butler’s case, the library and the statue of Washington were well known because they were mentioned in news articles and government reports. Furthermore, he had a local artist on his staff that probably helped to identify important paintings. If possible, before operations begin, archaeological reports, heritage lists, museum guides, as well as local or outside experts should be consulted to identify any possible heritage items in the AO.

2. Second, it is critical for the commander to inform his soldiers of the need to preserve cultural heritage and if necessary to assign units to perform those tasks. For example, Butler specifically ordered the 4th Wisconsin Volunteers under Col. Paine “to remove the State house the library and painting and the statue of Gen. Washington, and send them to New Orleans.” [xxxii]

3. After the heritage resources were identified and secured, the commander needed to ensure that the heritage items are relocated away from the battlefield to guarantee their protection. Butler sent the library to New Orleans, and the statue to Washington DC.

4. The commander then should inform the local populace, leaders, and others of the location of the heritage resources and the intention of the US Army to return the items as soon as the area is secured and the proper authorities are available to manage the resources. This communication will ensure that enemy forces cannot accuse the US Army or looting or stealing heritage resources.

5. Finally, as part of the reconstruction and stabilization operations, the commander needs to ensure the return of the heritage resources to the proper authorities as soon as possible.


About the Author

Edward Salo, PhD is an associate professor of history, and the associate director of the Heritage Studies PhD Program at Arkansas State University. He serves as the instructor for the Military History class for the university’s ROTC program. Before coming to A-State, Dr. Salo served as a consulting historian for cultural resources management firms for 14 years where he worked on over 250 projects across the world including an administrative history of the Corps of Engineers efforts to dispose of Iraqi munitions after the 2003 invasion, the preparation of histories of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine installations across the globe including Japan, Cuba, and Guam, and the preparation of a document to support JPAC operations in the Hurtgen Forest to identify the location of the remains of MIA soldiers from the 28th Infantry Division.


End Notes

[i] James Cuno. 2018. "Our Responsibility To Protect Cultural Heritage In Conflict Zones". Getty Iris. https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/our-responsibility-to-protect-cultural-heritage-in-conflict-zones/. [ii] United States Army, Civil Affairs Arts, Monuments, and Archives Guide GTA 41-01-002 (Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Army, 2007), 5. [iii] For examples see, Joris D. Kila and Christopher V. Herndon, “Military Involvement in Cultural Property Protection: An Overview,” Joint Force Quarterly 74, no. 3 (July 1, 2014); Hannah G. He, “Protecting Ancient Heritage in Armed Conflict: New Rules for Targeting Cultural Property During Conflict with ISIS,” Maryland Journal of International Law 30, no. 1 (May 2015); Colonel Postiglione Luigi, “The Protection of Cultural Heritage during Armed Conflicts,” STRATEGY RESEARCH PROJECT, US Army War College, January 2017. Available at https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/3482.pdf. [iv] Edsel, Robert M., and Bret Witter. The Monuments Men: Allied Heros, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. 2009. [v] "Butler, Benjamin F. (1818–1893) – Encyclopedia Virginia". 1818. Encyclopediavirginia.Org. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/butler-benjamin-f-1818-1893/. [vi] Colonel Postiglione Luigi, “The Protection of Cultural Heritage during Armed Conflicts,” STRATEGY RESEARCH PROJECT, US Army War College, January 2017, 3. Available at https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/3482.pdf. [vii] "The Lieber Code Of 1863". 2021. Web.Archive.Org. https://web.archive.org/web/20010407120840/http://www.civilwarhome.com/liebercode.htm. [viii] United States. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington :[s.n.], 1894. Serial 021 Page 0554 W. FLA.,S.ALA.,S. MISS.,LA.,TEX.,N. MEX. Chapter XXVII. (/books/officialrecords/021/0555) [ix] The Weekly Times-Democrat (New Orleans, Louisiana) · 23 April 1864, 5. [x]Halbert Eleazer Paine, A Wisconsin Yankee in Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General (United States: LSU Press, 2009), 98. [xi] Paine, A Wisconsin Yankee in Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General, 99. [xii] US House of Representatives, Miscellaneous Documents: 30th Congress, 1st Session - 49th Congress, 1st Session, Volume 2 (Washington DC: WM W Belt, 1850),161-162. [xiii] "Hiram Powers". 2015. Smithsonian American Art Museum. https://americanart.si.edu/artist/hiram-powers-3864. [xiv] "George Washington Statue Stolen By Federal Troops In Baton Rouge In 1862.". Historicalbatonrouge.Blogspot.Com. https://historicalbatonrouge.blogspot.com/2011/03/georgewashingtonstatuestolen.html [xv] Daily Gazette and Comet (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) · 9 June 1854, 2; Baton Rouge Tri-Weekly Gazette and Comet (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) · 31 August 1856, 3. [xvi]United States. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington :[s.n.], 1894. Serial 021 Page 0554 W. FLA.,S.ALA.,S. MISS.,LA.,TEX.,N. MEX. Chapter XXVII. (/books/officialrecords/021/0555) [xvii] "Thomas Bangs Thorpe". 2021. Crt.State.La.Us. https://www.crt.state.la.us/louisiana-state-museum/collections/visual-art/artists/thomas-bangs-thorpe; Stanton Garner, “Thomas Bangs Thorpe in the Gilded Age: Shifty in a New Country.” The Mississippi Quarterly 36, no. 1 (1982): 40-42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26474724. [xviii] Stanton Garner, “Thomas Bangs Thorpe in the Gilded Age: Shifty in a New Country.” The Mississippi Quarterly 36, no. 1 (1982): 42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26474724. [xix] United States. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington :[s.n.], 1894. Serial 021 Page 0554 W. FLA.,S.ALA.,S. MISS.,LA.,TEX.,N. MEX. Chapter XXVII. (/books/officialrecords/021/0555) [xx] The Daily Delta (New Orleans, Louisiana) · Sat, Aug 23, 1862, 2. [xxi] Faye Phillips, “To ‘Build upon the Foundation’: Charles Gayarré’s Vision for the Louisiana State Library.” Libraries & the Cultural Record, Vol. 43, No. 1 (2008), 65-66. [xxii] For an excellent description of the efforts to preserve the Timbuktu manuscripts during the recent conflict, see Joshua Hammer, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016). [xxiii] Evening Courier and Republic (Buffalo, New York) · 23 March 1863, 1. [xxiv] Bruce Guthrie, “BGuthrie Photos: LA -- Baton Rouge -- Old State Capitol.” Bruce Guthrie Photos: By Time \ Taken Over the Last 45 days, 2013. http://www.bguthriephotos.com/graphlib.nsf/keys/2013_LA_Baton_OCap. [xxv] The Weekly Times-Democrat (New Orleans, Louisiana) · 23 April 1864, 5. [xxvi] The Weekly Times-Democrat (New Orleans, Louisiana) · 23 April 1864, 5. [xxvii] Faye Phillips, “To ‘Build upon the Foundation’: Charles Gayarré’s Vision for the Louisiana State Library.” Libraries & the Cultural Record, Vol. 43, No. 1 (2008), 65-66. [xxviii] Faye. “To ‘Build upon the Foundation’: Charles Gayarré’s Vision for the Louisiana State Library.” 69 [xxix] Faye. “To ‘Build upon the Foundation’: Charles Gayarré’s Vision for the Louisiana State Library.” 69 [xxx] Bruce Guthrie, “BGuthrie Photos: LA -- Baton Rouge -- Old State Capitol.” Bruce Guthrie Photos: By Time \ Taken Over the Last 45 days, 2013. http://www.bguthriephotos.com/graphlib.nsf/keys/2013_LA_Baton_OCap. [xxxi] United States. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington :[s.n.], 1894. Serial 021 Page 0554 W. FLA.,S.ALA.,S. MISS.,LA.,TEX.,N. MEX. Chapter XXVII. (/books/officialrecords/021/0555) [xxxii]Halbert Eleazer Paine, A Wisconsin Yankee in Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General (United States: LSU Press, 2009), 98.




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