Gen. Benjamin “Beast” Butler, commander of occupied New Orleans during the Civil War, also was nicknamed “Spoons” for his alleged habit of helping himself to silverware.
That may be a canard, but we do know for sure that he grabbed a bunch of our church bells and had them shipped to Boston.
Five of them, made of steel and weighing 2 tons, were pictured in the Boston Globe last Sunday, when they were blessed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley. They rang out at the Holy Trinity German Catholic Church until it was closed in 2008. Now, they are being installed at a renovated Cathedral of the Holy Cross, which, in recent years, has had to rely on bell recordings piped from its tower.
“These bells have a missionary fire, inviting people to the banquet,” O’Malley declared before shaking incense and sprinkling holy water on them. That must have been a moving occasion, but hang on a minute.
While the bells may be regarded as a godsend for the Boston Archdiocese, the view from here is more likely to be that O’Malley was blessing stolen goods. If the Germans can return works of art plundered in World War II, maybe the Yankees should give our bells back.
That possibility has, evidently, not occurred to anyone. “We don’t even know when they were cast,” a Cathedral spokesman airily observed, “because they were taken as loot. It’s a really interesting story.” It’s certainly of interest down here.
The notion that church bells plundered in the Civil War should be returned to New Orleans is not new. It was mooted as long ago as 1887, when a correspondent in Bangor, Maine, wrote in The Washington Post that “when Ben Butler claims to have returned all the property taken from the South, he must have forgotten a church bell that was sold to the Baptist Church of Wayne in this state.”
Butler, the correspondent added, “can’t even assist in the cause of religion except in a manner peculiarly his own.”
In his response, Butler wrote that, when New Orleans fell in 1862, he found “a large number of church and plantation bells that had been donated to the rebels in New Orleans to be cast into cannon.” Having “many transports, returning to Boston, which needed ballast,” Butler ordered the bells put on board and shipped to the U.S. Quartermaster to be sold at auction.
There were so many of them, Butler wrote, that “quite a number of churches and school houses in New England call their members and scholars together by the aid of bells so dedicated.” Because they were “captured from the enemies of the United States,” Butler saw no reason to return them.
You can see his point. If Union forces had not occupied New Orleans, the bells wouldn’t be pealing anywhere, because they would be bells no longer. Now, after they have summoned the faithful up north for more than 150 years, it would seem pretty churlish, and highly unrealistic, to ask they be pulled down and given back.
But these five easily could have been sent home once they fell silent when the German church was deconsecrated. New Orleans is so jealous of its historical artifacts that the bells would have been greeted with loud cheers had that happened. But they sat idle until finding a new home in a renovated Holy Cross Cathedral.
The Boston Archdiocese would have needed to reach deep into its pockets to buy five such bells as these. Father Ernest Reiter paid $1,500 for them at auction in 1863, so they represent a handsome, if involuntary, gift from New Orleans to Boston.
Poor Butler’s stock now will fall even further in New Orleans, where he has been remembered for ordering that “when any female shall by word, gesture or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”
At the time, he earned obloquy for that from as far away as London, where Prime Minister Lord Palmerston said, “An Englishman must blush to think that such an act has been committed by one belonging to the Anglo-Saxon race.”
Butler was, in truth, a fairly enlightened wartime administrator but will always be “Beast” or “Spoons” around here. Unless we start calling him “Bells.”
Correction: Thursday’s column, which concerned the agreement that made New Orleans Police Monitor Susan Hutson independent of Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, stated that Quatrevaux “claimed” to have proposed such a deal in January, together with the budgetary arrangements that were finally adopted. In fact, he did so in a letter to Hutson, which he released last week.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.