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Rebel with a Cause

William Bruce Mumford was an unlikely candidate for martyrdom. A native of North Carolina, he fought with honor in the Seminole and Mexican-American wars and, like many men from small Dixie towns, sought his fortune in the big city. When he discovered a knack for card games, he became a regular in the New Orleans gambling houses and found further success on the Mississippi River steamboats. Like the vast majority of Southerners, seventy five percent in fact, Mumford did not own slaves, nor did he champion the region’s “peculiar institution.” He wasn’t even particularly political, but when his beloved South and her Queen City were threatened by civil war, Mumford rushed to embrace the Confederate cause. His fierce loyalty would have terrible consequences.

William Bruce Mumford, the first Confederate martyr.

William Bruce Mumford, the first Confederate martyr.

In April, 1862, a Union fleet under Commander David Farragut, broke through Confederate defenses on the Mississippi below New Orleans and sailed  unopposed into the defenseless city. Farragut immediately ordered Mayor John T. Monroe to remove rebel flags flying over the former U.S. Mint, the old customhouse and City Hall. Monroe refused, reminding Farragut that the city had not officially surrendered, and, until that event occurred, New Orleans remained a Confederate city flying its national flag. Farragut agreed, but while he was negotiating a surrender and without his knowledge, Captain Henry W. Morris of the USS Pocahontas dispatched Marine troops to raise the U.S. flag above the Mint. When the Marines replaced the stars and bars with the stars and stripes, an angry mob gathered to protest the premature action. The Marines warned they would open fire if opposed, and made good their threat when seven men, including Mumford, climbed to the staff and tore down the American flag. Mumford was bloodied by a chunk of exploding brick but ignored his injury as crowds cheered him on his march to City Hall to deliver his trophy to Mayor Monroe.

The U.S. Mint in New Orleans.

The U.S. Mint in New Orleans.

A few days later, Union General Benjamin Butler arrived with 50,000 troops, and, upon hearing of the incident, ordered Mumford arrested and charged with “high crimes and misdemeanors against the laws of the United States and the peace and dignity thereof and the Law Martial.” Ignoring the fact that New Orleans was outside Union jurisdiction at the time of the deed, Butler ensured that Mumford was tried and convicted by a military tribunal. The revenge-bent general then decreed that Mumford be executed, “according to the Spanish custom,” by hanging. He added insult to injury by ordering that the sentence be carried out at the Mint, now flying the American flag, and that Mumford be hanged from a flagstaff projecting over the front portico to make his death more visible.

Union General Benjamin Butler, known as "Beast Butler" for his brutal Reconstruction policies.

Union General Benjamin Butler, known as “Beast Butler” for his brutal Reconstruction policies.

The citizenry was shocked and outraged by Butler’s murderous overreaction, but nothing could be done in the unarmed, heavily occupied city. On June 18, before a hushed crowd, Mumford spoke eloquently of his love for the American flag which he fought under in two wars and an equal love for the Confederate flag for which he was about to give his life. Reaction to his death was swift and angry with Louisiana Governor Thomas Overton declaring Mumford a hero and Confederate President Jefferson Davis condemning Butler as a war criminal deserving execution. Confederate General Robert E. Lee demanded that Union General-in-Chief Henry Halleck explain how a man could be executed for a crime committed before New Orleans was occupied. Butler never apologized or explained why the six men helping Mumford tear down the flag went unpunished.

Mumford's final resting place at the Confederate War Memorial, New Orleans.

Mumford’s final resting place in New Orleans.

Hailed as the Confederacy’s first true martyr, Mumford was given a hero’s funeral and, accompanied by hundreds including his mother and wife Mary, was buried in Cypress Grove Cemetery. In 1950, the Ladies Confederate Memorial Association transferred his remains to the Confederate War Memorial in Greenwood Cemetery. Although exonerated by history, he remains the last native-born American executed for treason against the United States.

Note: William Mumford is a character in my time travel book, Still Time.

3 Comments

  1. Liz
    Nov 12, 2014

    The brutal excesses of war are inevitably compounded by misplaced revenge and bull-headed stupidity — a disastrous duo embodied by Butler.

    Thanks for filling in the empty spaces of my knowledge of the Civil War and for introducing your readers to the living, breathing men who fought that battle.

  2. Peter Werwath
    Jun 28, 2015

    Mumford was the next to the past person executed for treason in the U.S. Herbert Hans Haupt was executed in D.C. in 1942.

    • Michael Lewallen
      Jul 21, 2015

      Thanks for the correction, Peter. I should have said last “native-born American” since Haupt was born in Germany. I’ve amended my post.

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