Tag Archives: Benjamin Butler

“Boyle would have been hung”: The scapegoat for Butler’s failed raid

Yes, the Battle of Morton’s Ford was a diversion … poorly conceived diversion at that.  A diversion from what?

In late January and early February 1864, Major-General Benjamin Butler, commanding the Army of the James on the Virginia Peninsula, gained information that the Confederate garrison of Richmond was weakened to support operations in North Carolina.  And at the same time, Butler learned of Confederate plans to move prisoners of war from Richmond to Andersonville.  So sensing an opportunity, and identifying a waning opportunity, Butler proposed a raid on Richmond.  Butler convinced officials in Washington this was practical, and secured support.  And that support included a demonstration by the Army of the Potomac, which as we’ve seen resulted in fighting at Morton’s Ford.

But, for all practical purposes, this raid never stepped off.  A deserter from the Federal ranks had tipped off the Confederates as to Butler’s intention.  When Brigadier-General Isaac Wistar arrived at Bottom’s Bridge on the early morning of February 7, he found a large force of Confederates commanded by Brigadier-General Eppa Hunton.  So for all practical purposes, the entire operation failed right there.   For everything done at Morton’s Ford, good or bad, there was no net gain.  All was for naught.

On the morning February 8, Butler reported the failure to Washington.  Butler needed a scapegoat, and he was quick to lay blame.  The telegram sent, addressed directly to President Abraham Lincoln, read:

After much preparation I made a raid on Richmond to release our prisoners there. Everything worked precisely as I expected. The troops reached Bottom’s Bridge, 10 miles from Richmond, at 2.30 o’clock on Sunday morning, but we found a force of the enemy posted there to meet us, evidently informed of our intention, none having been there before for two months. They had destroyed the bridge and fallen trees across the road to prevent the passing of the cavalry. Finding the enemy were informed and prepared, we were obliged to retire. The flag-of-truce boat came down from Richmond to-day, bringing a copy of the Examiner, in which it is said that they were prepared for us from information received from a Yankee deserter. Who that deserter was that gave the information you will see by a dispatch just received by me from General Wistar. I send it to you that you may see how your clemency has been misplaced. I desire that you will revoke your order suspending executions in this department. Please answer by telegraph.

The report from Wister, mentioned in the telegram, read (emphasis mine):

Major-General Butler:
Private William Boyle, New York Mounted Rifles, under sentence of death for murder of Lieutenant Disosway, was allowed to escape by Private Abraham, of One hundred and thirty-ninth New York, the sentinel over him, four days previous to my movement. It is said he also told him that large numbers of cavalry and infantry were concentrated here to take Richmond. During my absence the commander here has learned that Boyle reached Richmond, and was arrested and placed in Castle Thunder. Boyle would have been hung long ago but for the President’s order suspending till further orders the execution of capital sentences. Abrams is in close custody. Charges against him went forward a week ago.
I. J. Wistar,
Brigadier-General.

Words from William Boyle unraveled Butler’s plan.  And Butler laid out the chain of events that led up to the debacle, attempting to shift blame.  If only Private Abraham had been more attentive to his responsibilities guarding Boyle.  If only Lincoln had allowed these executions.  If.. If… If.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 144.)

150 years ago: An objection to the use of USCT troops in Virginia

Francis H. Pierpont is most remembered as the “Father of West Virginia.”  Lesser known is his role as the Governor of “restored” Virginia.  After West Virginia was admitted as a state in June 1863, Arthur I. Boreman became the state’s first governor. But Pierpont remained governor of the areas of Virginia, outside of West Virginia, under Federal control.  That area included parts of Northern Virginia (where the provisional capital was in Alexandria), Hampton Roads, Norfolk, and the Eastern Shore counties on the DelMarVa peninsula. Around this time 150 years ago, Pierpont raised an issue with the way Major-General Benjamin Butler had garrisoned those Eastern Shore counties (the Virginia counties were placed in his jurisdiction, and administered separately from the Maryland Eastern Shore for this time).  Pierpont raised those issues in a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on January 27, 1864:

Hon. E. M. Stanton,  Secretary of War, Washington, D.C.:

SIR: It is with deep regret that I feel compelled in the discharge of my official duty, however humble, to call your attention to the occupation of Accomack and Northampton Counties with colored troops to act as a provost guard. I am informed that 600 colored troops are sent to those counties, I suppose to take the place of the white troops there. Two companies of white troops is a large estimate for those counties, and from the number of those sent, I suppose, as a matter of course, the white ones will be removed.

Discipline is the first requisite for troops of any color, but from my observation veteran troops soon lose their discipline when placed on a roving service such as required in those counties, and none but soldiers of the best habits should be placed on that duty. These colored troops are new recruits just from bondage. Their own welfare requires discipline, hence their place is in the field or fortification where they can be under the eye of their officers.

This disposition of troops will have a bad effect on the white soldier in the field. Evil-disposed persons will circulate the news through the army that colored troops are sent back for guard duty, where there is no danger, while the white man is sent into the front of the battle. Pardon these suggestions.

But the great objection is the positive insolence of these colored soldiers, undisciplined as they are, to the white citizen. It is at the risk of the life of the citizen that we make any complaint of their bad conduct. I know you would not leave your wife and daughters in a community of armed negroes, undisciplined and just liberated from bondage, with no other armed protection. My information is that it is a terrible stroke to the Union cause in that section. Union men are justly frightened for the safety of their families. The citizens there are disarmed. I am happy to say the Union cause was growing daily in those counties.

The Legislature of the State has ordered a State convention to abolish slavery in the State. The delegates are all elected, and I have not heard of a single man being elected who is not in favor of abolishing slavery. The people in Accomack and Northampton will lose from 6,000 to 8,000 slaves, but still they bear it–must bear it. A number of slave-holders are with us, and the Union cause growing. Is it right now to torture both parties with the terrible apprehensions that must haunt them by the presence of these troops, when all reflecting men must doubt the propriety of it, looking alone to the good of the soldier, the service, and the policy in reference to the white soldiers? The same state of affairs exists at Portsmouth.

It is painful to me to raise these questions, but I am sure the honor of your administration requires the correction of abuses where they exist. I am satisfied these things are not done by your orders.
I am, yours, &c.
F. H. Peirpoint [sic].

There are so many different threads to follow here.  Not the least of which is the presence of USCT units in an area where slaves were still held.  The sound of a record needle scratching the vinyl should be going through your head in that last paragraph.

But as I like to focus on the Emancipation Proclamation as an executive order with a decided focus on military operation and policy, let me take up that line.  The troops mentioned were the 10th USCT.  Lieutenant-Colonel Edward H. Powell, commanding the regiment, reported arriving and relieving parts of the First Maryland (Eastern Shore) on January 21, 1864.  When Butler sent Powell to the Virginia Eastern Shore, he provided instructions which read in part:

The officer in command of the Tenth U.S. Colored will caution all his officers that there must be the strictest diligence and vigilance that no outrages of any sort are committed by his troops, for both he and his officers will be held personally responsible by me if any such are committed. The inhabitants there fear greatly the quartering of negro troops in their midst. I depend upon him and the good conduct of his troops to correct that misapprehension, for I assure both him and them that the most summary punishment will be visited upon them for any breach of discipline, especially any that shall affect peaceable men. The commanding officer will immediately take measures to recruit his regiment to the fullest extent. He will give receipts to all loyal men who have taken the oath prescribed by the President’s proclamation for any slave which may be recruited. He will report to me immediately any deficiency in his officers, incompetency, or any vacancy that may exist, that the one may be taken notice of and the other filled….

Clearly Butler was aware of the issues later raised by Pierpont.  In fact, he addressed such in a letter to Elizabeth Upshur, a resident of Northampton County, on January 10, responding to her inquiry about rumors concerning a USCT garrison:

 If I could believe for a moment any of the consequences would follow which you detail it certainly should not be done. Experience, however, has shown that colored troops properly officered are less aggressive than white ones in the places where they are quartered, from the fact that they have been accustomed from their childhood to give up their will to the will of those who are over them.

Butler spent a paragraph assuaging her fears and dismissing reports of poor conduct by the regiments in North Carolina.  He concluded the letter, “Therefore calm your fears.  I will hold myself responsible that no outrage shall be committed against any peaceful citizens.

Again, looking at this as a military extension of the Emancipation Proclamation, consider the twist.  In a county that was except from militarily enforced abolition, emancipated slaves, which were formed into a regiment authorized by the Proclamation, were ordered to perform garrison details.  There was still significant reluctance, despite the performance of USCT regiments in the summer of 1863, to place those regiments on the front lines in the major field armies.  And as noted above, there was reluctance to have the USCT perform garrison duties in some areas to relieve white soldiers.  At some point, due to weight of numbers if nothing else, the USCT would have to be used for something.

Considering Butler’s remark about the “properly officered” USCTs, I am reminded of similar conclusions from Morris Island in September.  That’s where the “military thread” leads in this case.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 371, 375, 432-3.)

150 Years Ago: The turning of the leaves and changes of command

After the Confederate campaigns into Maryland and Kentucky petered out in the fall of 1862, there were several changes in the lineup of Federal field commanders. I suspect most readers are familiar with the relief of George McClellan, replaced by Ambrose Burnside, which occurred this week 150 years ago. At the end of last month, I wrote about William Rosecrans moving to command the “new” Department of the Cumberland which was really the “old” Army of the Ohio.

But there was another change of command queued up for the fall of 1862, and it also occurred, on paper at least, during the early days of November:

GENERAL ORDERS, No. 184.
WAR DEPARTMENT, ADJT. GEN’S. OFFICE,
Washington, November 8, 1862.
By direction of the President of the United States Maj. Gen. N. P. Banks is assigned to the command of the Department of the Gulf, including the State of Texas.

By order of the Secretary of War:
E. D. TOWNSEND,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

And with General Banks then in charge of the Department of the Gulf, who was on the outs?

More explicit orders came the next day from General Henry Halleck:

… The President of the United States having assigned you to command of the Department of the Gulf, you will immediately proceed with the troops assembling in transports at Fort Monroe to New Orleans and relieve Major-General Butler….

McClellan, Buell, and Butler…. all going on the bench. Burnside, Rosecrans, and Banks now taking the field. And meanwhile some fellow named John McClernand was traveling west with these orders in hand:

WAR DEPARTMENT,
Washington City, October 21, 1862.
Ordered, That Major-General McClernand be, and he is, directed to proceed to the States of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, to organize the troops remaining in those States and to be raised by volunteering or draft, and forward them with all dispatch to Memphis, Cairo, or such other points as may hereafter be designated by the general-in-chief, to the end that, when a sufficient force not required by the operations of General Grant’s command shall be raised, an expedition may be organized under General McClernand’s command against Vicksburg and to clear the Mississippi River and open navigation to New Orleans.
The forces so organized will remain subject to the designation of the general-in-chief, and be employed according to such exigencies as the service in his judgment may require.

EDWIN M. STANTON,
Secretary of War.

On the outside, it appeared that even General U.S. Grant was also vulnerable (although through the lens of history we know better).

Were all these changes an indication of failures in the field by these generals? Or was it a change in direction, emanating from the chief strategist in the White House? Or a little of both?

(Citations above from OR, Series I, Volume 15, Serial 21, page 590 and Series I, Volume 17, Serial 25, page 282.)