“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,

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.)