January 7, 1865 – The controversial military career of Federal Major General Benjamin F. Butler finally came to an end.
Butler commanded the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. This included the Army of the James, which was working with the Army of the Potomac to lay siege to Richmond and Petersburg. He had recently commanded army troops in the failed assault on Fort Fisher, off the North Carolina coast. Two days later, another Butler-led project ended ignominiously when explosives failed to open the Dutch Gap Canal.
President Abraham Lincoln had employed Butler because, as a former Democrat, he held significant influence over fellow Democrats to support Lincoln’s Republican policies. But Lincoln had been recently reelected, so Butler’s usefulness was finished. When a group of Kentucky Unionists lobbied Lincoln to put the politician-turned-general in charge of their state, Lincoln told them:
“You howled when Butler went to New Orleans. Others howled when he was removed from that command. Somebody has been howling ever since at his assignment to military command. How long will it be before you, who are howling for his assignment to rule Kentucky, will be howling to me to remove him?”
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, thought little of Butler’s military ability. It especially concerned Grant that Butler was next in line to command both the Armies of the Potomac and the James if Grant left the Richmond-Petersburg theater. From a practical standpoint, Grant needed someone more trustworthy for such an important assignment. Therefore, Grant wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on the 4th:
“I am constrained to request the removal of Maj. Gen. B. F. Butler from the command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. 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 of his department is also objectionable.”
Grant mailed the letter on the 5th but found out the next day that Stanton had left for Savannah to meet with Major General William T. Sherman. So Grant moved the request up to Lincoln: “I wrote a letter to the Secretary of War, which was mailed yesterday, asking to have General Butler removed from command. Learning that the Secretary left Washington yesterday, I telegraph you asking that prompt action may be taken in the matter.” Lincoln obliged by quickly issuing General Order Number 1 on the morning of the 7th:
“By direction of the President of the United States, Maj. Gen B.F. Butler is relieved from the command of the Department of North Carolina and Virginia. Lieutenant-General Grant will designate an officer to take this command temporarily. Major-General Butler, on being relieved, will repair to Lowell, Mass., and report by letter to the Adjutant-General of the Army.”
Butler claimed that he had no idea he was being ousted. He later wrote:
“Everything of the official correspondence in relation to the current movements of the Army of the James went on without any intimation to me of any change of our official relations, and without any information as to any comment by Grant upon my report of the operations against Fort Fisher. I noticed nothing except, perhaps, a want of cordiality in his manner.”
But around noon on the 8th, Butler “received, through the hands of Colonel (Orville) Babcock, a crony of W.F. (“Baldy”) Smith, and a member of Grant’s staff, who I had always known was bitterly opposed to me, a sealed envelope” containing Lincoln’s directive. This ended the military career of the most controversial Federal commander in the war.
In 1861, Butler had refused to return fugitive slaves to their masters, calling them “contraband of war” and creating the first major controversy within the Lincoln administration over slave policy. In 1862, Butler earned the scorn of southerners for his dictatorial rule over New Orleans. Confederates called him “Beast” Butler in reference to the biblical Antichrist, and President Jefferson Davis had charged Butler with war crimes and authorized his immediate execution if captured (ironically, Butler had backed Davis for president at the contentious Democratic National Convention of 1860).
The Lincoln administration had used the Confederates’ hatred of Butler to their advantage by appointing him 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 edge by declaring that the Confederates refused to exchange prisoners.
Some in the Federal high command feared that Grant had blundered by pushing Butler’s removal at a time when he was becoming increasingly scrutinized because he still had not captured Richmond. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, wrote his wife:
“Grant undoubtedly has lost prestige, owing to his failure to accomplish more, but as I know it has not been in his power to do more I cannot approve of unmerited censure, any more than I approved of the fulsome praise showered on him before the campaign commenced.”
Meade believed that removing Butler could be the final insult to Butler’s allies in Congress, especially those on the powerful Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Meade told his wife that the committee would hold hearings on the Fort Fisher debacle and Butler’s removal, and they would probably take Butler’s side. Meade predicted, “This is the beginning of a war on Grant.”
But the ousting of Butler did not cause as much of a stir in Washington as expected, mainly because by this time it was clear that the Federals were winning the war, and the Fort Fisher defeat would soon be avenged by a new expedition that finally captured it. And since Butler was not well liked among the rank and file, none raised a fuss when he left.
Major General E.O.C. Ord became the new commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, which included the Army of the James and the new expedition being fitted out to try capturing Fort Fisher again. And Butler went on to resume a political career that would become just as controversial as his military one.
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