Tag Archives: Benjamin Butler

“In anticipation of the crossing of the James…”: Engineers begin preparing for Grant’s move 150 years ago

In the evening of June 11, Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant sent a dispatch to Major-General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Army of the James on the south side of the James River.  In part, that message read:

The movement to transfer [the Army of the Potomac] to the south side of the Jame River will commence after dark to-morrow night.  Colonel Comstock, of my staff, was sent specifically to ascertain what was necessary to make your position secure in the interval … and also to ascertain what point on the river we should reach to effect a crossing…. Colonel Comstock has not yet returned, so that I cannot make instructions as definite as I would wish….

Grant went on to detail the proposed movements, starting with the Eighteenth Corps to move its infantry by boat.   That corps trains and the balance of the army to march across the Chickahominy at Long Bridge, and thence across the James.  Grant had already issued orders to Major-General George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac.  And Meade already had orders ready for the corps to move.  Keep in mind the intricacy and sensitivity of this move – the Army of the Potomac was to disengage on an active front, march dozens of miles across unsecured ground, cross a major river, and then reform south of the James preparing to give battle.  And all that with the trains trailing along.  A long haul:

June12_16Move

But, as Grant indicated, on June 11 there was no point fixed where the bulk of the Army of the Potomac would cross the James.  Details to be worked out, as he instructed Butler:

I wish you to direct the proper staff officers, your chief engineer and chief quartermaster, to commence at once the collection of all the means in their reach for crossing the army on its arrival.  If there is a point below City Point where a pontoon bridge can be thrown, have it laid.

Brigadier-General Godfrey Weitzel was the Chief Engineer of the Army of the James.  Weitzel had just completed a survey of the defenses along the James in the Bermuda Hundred sector, but now shifted his attention to facilitate the planned movement:

June 12, in anticipation of the crossing of the James River by the Army of the Potomac, I sent Lieutenant Michie, U.S. Engineers, to examine the river in the vicinity of Fort Powhatan to get all information on the subject. He reported the width of the river at the three points (A, B, C) to be, respectively, 1,250 feet, 1,570 feet, 1,992 feet; that the two approaches on the east bank at A would be from an old field across a marsh 1,000 yards wide; at B over a marsh about 800 yards wide; from these a spit of sand and gravel bordering the river from the bridgehead, averaging about forty feet wide and easily made into a good roadway sufficient for the passage of two columns of troops.

Lieutenant Peter Michie is no stranger to readers.  The previous summer he supervised construction of the Left Batteries on Morris Island.  Major-General Quincy Gillmore brought Michie north with the Tenth Corps.  (A good selection if I may add.)  The map below demonstrates the four possible crossing points surveyed by Michie and mentioned by Weitzel:

ORAtlasPl68Mp6

Weitzel went on to describe other preparations to support the crossing:

On the west bank the approaches to the two first were already prepared, leading by gradual ascent to the bluff on which Fort Powhatan is situated. It would require, to make approaches to the third, the clearing away of trees, making a ramp of one-third leading to the field above, the filling up of ruts and gullies and making a roadway to the Petersburg and City Point road. In consequence of these facts, I telegraphed to Lieutenant-Colonel Comstock, senior aide to General Grant, that if the passage was to be made here I would only require, at the farthest, previous notice of thirty-six hours to have the approaches for the bridge ready.

Grant had a crossing point.

Now came the difficult work – getting the army to the crossing point, laying pontoons at the crossing point, building and improving wharves, and improving the road networks.  150 years ago this day, the Federal engineers were coming to the fore… again.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part III, pages 754-5; Volume 40, Part I, page 676.)

 

“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.)