Butler The Beast?

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Three days after Fort Sumter was fired upon, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, alarmed at Washington’s isolation, begged Governor Andrew to send him 1,500 militiamen for the capital’s defense. Butler realized that if the men were dispatched in a unit, in a brigade instead of three regiments, they would need a brigadier general to command them. Butler wired Cameron, “You have called for a brigade of Massachusetts troops; why not call for a brigadier general and staff?” Butler also knew that the state treasury lacked the money to mobilize and transport the troops; he influenced a number of Boston banks to advance the funds—on condition that he lead the brigade. Andrew had no option but to place the Lowell lawyer in command. President Lincoln was not displeased to see so prominent a Hunker Democrat in a general’s uniform rallying to support the Union, and Butler, in sash and gilt epaulettes, recalled that Presidencies were often won on the battlefield.

Washington lay like a beleaguered island in a Southern sea, and Massachusetts was the first to respond to Lincoln’s appeal for troops. Butler dispatched his 6th Regiment ahead as an advance guard. In Philadelphia, Butler learned that the 6th had been attacked as it crossed through Baltimore en route to Washington. Three militiamen had been killed, and eight wounded. The mob had seized control of the city. No more troops could pass through.

Butler acted with vigor and dispatch. He sent the rest of his brigade to Annapolis by sea; he converted the Naval Academy into his base while readying himself to commandeer the railroad line to the capital. The governor of Maryland called a special session of the legislature, and Butler announced that if the members passed an ordinance of secession he would arrest every last man of them. He sent a squad of soldiers to impound the state’s Great Seal, without which no legislative act would be legal. With Butler’s firm measures and his opening of the railroad to Washington, secessionist sentiment in Maryland abated. In circumventing disloyal Baltimore and in providing Washington with troops, Butler was the first Northern general to make his mark.

Even New England Whigs thought him a hero, and he seemed even more heroic when, on May 13, 1861, he and the Massachusetts 6th seized Baltimore without a casualty. But in so doing Butler had disregarded the operations plan of Winfield Scott, the crusty, ancient General in Chief; Scott demoted Butler to the command of Fortress Monroe, a squat bastion on the Yorktown Peninsula. But to salve the sting, Secretary of War Cameron promoted Butler to major general.

Now Butler had twelve regiments in his command. As an organizer he was efficient and ingenious, and he was determined to make his fortress a model garrison. One of his problems was how to deal with slaves who had escaped to his lines. The property of those in rebellion could be taken as contraband of war; Butler declared that slaves were property, hence “contrabands” and subject to confiscation. Since human contrabands could no longer be held captive, they were free. The General’s adroit legalism became a practical means of destroying slavery long before President Lincoln felt able to issue his formal proclamation. “Contraband of war” became a Northern catch phrase, bringing Butler the hearty applause of the abolitionists.

Butler’s military reputation had reached its highwater mark, for his first operation out of Fortress Monroe turned into the North’s first rout. In a promising beginning, he took the military post of Newport News, but in mid-June he sent two regiments under the command of another Massachusetts political general, Ebenezer Pierce, up the Peninsula against the Confederate stronghold at Big Bethel. Marching in the darkness, the two units fired upon each other; then, neglecting to send out scouts, they wandered within point-blank range of Rebel batteries. Butler’s troops broke and ran. Big Bethel shattered Northern visions of a quickly-put-down rebellion. Butler blamed Pierce. The country blamed Butler.

Later that summer, Butler engineered a minor amphibious success at Pamlico Sound; this, in the dismal aftermath of Bull Run, was magnified into a great Union victory. Lincoln gratefully gave Butler a leave of absence to raise more troops in New England for Flag Officer David Farragut’s amphibious expedition against New Orleans.

The South considered New Orleans, its largest and wealthiest city, to be impregnable. Seventy miles to the south of it lay Forts Jackson and St. Philip, guarding the approaches along the Mississippi. Nevertheless, Farragut and Commander David Porter sailed past the forts by night in April of 1862; New Orleans fell. Butler’s army of occupation arrived without firing a shot.

The General rode through sullen streets and heard jeers that he would never see his home again. He proclaimed martial law, promising “to restore order, maintain public tranquillity and enforce peace and quiet under the laws and constitution of the United States.” When the mayor refused to co-operate as Butler wanted, he took over comolete civil administration.