Butler Ousted!

This week 150 years ago, the controversial military career of Federal Major General Benjamin F. Butler came to an end.

Federal Maj Gen B.F. Butler | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Federal Maj Gen B.F. Butler | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Butler had recently commanded army troops in the failed assault on Fort Fisher guarding Wilmington, North Carolina. When President Abraham Lincoln asked General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant “what you now understand of the Wilmington expedition, present & prospective,” Grant answered, “The Wilmington expedition has proven a gross and culpable failure… Who is to blame I hope will be known.” Lincoln and Grant both already knew who was to blame, and on December 30, Lincoln indicated to his cabinet that Butler’s days were numbered.[1]

Two days later, another Butler-led project ended in failure. Federal troops dug a canal at Dutch Gap on the James River that would enable Federal warships to bypass a tricky bend in the waterway and attack the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. The project’s conclusion was to be a New Year’s Day explosion to open the canal, but the blast only filled the canal with dirt. So Butler abandoned the project after several months of hard labor. This sealed Butler’s fate.[2]

Grant wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton requesting Butler’s removal: “I do this with reluctance, but the good of the service requires it. In my absence General Butler necessarily commands, and there is a lack of confidence felt in his military ability, making him an unsafe commander for a large army. His administration of the affairs in his department is also objectionable.”[3]

Learning that Stanton was out of town, Grant then appealed directly to Lincoln: “I wrote a letter to the Secretary of War, which was mailed yesterday, asking to have General Butler removed from command… I telegraph asking you that prompt action may be taken in the matter.”[4]

Lincoln promptly issued General Order Number 1 “by the direction of the President of the United States… Maj. Gen. B.F. Butler is relieved of command of the Department of North Carolina and Virginia… (He) will repair to Lowell, Mass., and report by letter to the Adjutant General of the Army.”[5]

This ended the military career of the most controversial Federal commander in the war. In 1861, he had refused to return fugitive slaves to their masters, calling them “contraband of war” and creating a controversy within the Lincoln administration about the Federal handling of slaves early in the conflict.[6]

In 1862, Butler had commanded the Federal military occupation of New Orleans, where he earned the scorn of the people for his dictatorial rule. Confederates called him “Beast” in reference to the biblical Antichrist, and President Jefferson Davis had issued a decree charging Butler with war crimes and authorizing any Confederate officer who captured him to execute him on the spot.[7]

The Lincoln administration had used the Confederates’ hatred of Butler to their advantage by appointing him as top Federal prisoner exchange agent in 1863. Since the Confederacy had branded Butler an “outlaw,” they refused to deal with him, giving the Federals a propaganda advantage by declaring that the Confederates refused to exchange prisoners.[8]

Butler had originally been commissioned a general for political reasons; before the war Butler had been a Democrat (ironically backing Jefferson Davis for president in 1860), and his generalship under the Republican Lincoln administration was intended to display a unified political front against the Confederacy. But by 1865, Lincoln had been reelected, and Butler was now expendable. Command passed to Major General E.O.C. Ord, and Butler soon embarked on a political career that became just as controversial as his military career.[9]

—–

  • [1] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 616
  • [2] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 618
  • [3] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15439-15449
  • [4] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15439-15449; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 620; Wagner, Margaret E., The American Civil War in 365 Days (Abrams, NY: Library of Congress)
  • [5] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15439-15449
  • [6] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 77-78; White, Howard Ray (2012-12-18). Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition); Ward, Geoffrey C.; Burns, Ric; Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 59-60; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 368-69; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 56
  • [7] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 206, 210, 211-12, 300; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 55-56; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 533; White, Howard Ray (2012-12-18). Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition) Kindle Locations 49049-49051
  • [8] White, Howard Ray (2012-12-18). Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition), Kindle Locations 52849-52856
  • [9] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 620-21; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15449-15459
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One thought on “Butler Ousted!

  1. […] of War Edwin M. Stanton issued orders removing Benjamin F. Butler as commander of the Federal Department of Virginia and North Carolina and the Army of the […]

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