Butler The Beast?

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The following April, the army’s newly appointed General in Chief, U. S. Grant, conferred with Butler on Grant’s proposed spring offensive against Richmond. Grant was dubious about Butler’s military ability and bolstered him with Major Generals Quincy A. Gillmore and William F. “Baldy” Smith. Lincoln was considering burying Butler in the obscurity of the Vice Presidency, but when Simon Cameron relayed the offer of second spot on the Republican ticket for 1864, Butler turned it down: “Tell him ... I would not quit the field to be Vice President, even with himself as President, unless he will give me bond with sureties, in the full sum of his four years’ salary, that he will die or resign within three months after his inauguration.” Events were to give the statement a macabre tone: Mr. Lincoln was dead within a few weeks of his inauguration.

In Grant’s battle plan, Butler’s forces were to form the fourth prong of an attack on Richmond, thrusting from Fortress Monroe up the James River to attack from the rear. Butler’s troops occupied Bermuda Hundred, only twelve miles from Richmond, without opposition. Caught off guard, the Confederates had left their capital defended by only a skeleton force. Had he been a daring commander, Butler might have committed his forces at once and taken the city there and then. But, bluffed as to the strength of the defenses, wary before the unknown, and with a civilian’s fear of casualties in a bloody frontal attack, he hesitated. And Smith and Gillmore proceeded with a nonprofessional caution that made failure certain. A makeshift Confederate force drove Butler back to the Bermuda Hundred neck. Butler later blamed his subordinates, and even had Gillmore arrested for “mil- itary incapacity.” To Smith’s plea that the amateur general be got rid of, Grant replied sadly that he could not. Butler was still too strong politically.

Butler had one more chance for military triumph. Wilmington, North Carolina, the last port of entry for supplies to the South, lay within his department. If he could seize Fort Fisher, on the promontory that was the key to Wilmington, the city would fall and the Confederacy would face starvation. Butler concocted a scheme for putting the fort out of action by exploding a ship full of gunpowder directly in front of it.

Grant took a dim view of the idea, but he allowed Butler to go ahead and try it. Butler insisted on leading the military-naval expedition himself. When it came, the explosion was so ineffective that the Fort Fisher garrison thought a blockade runner had burst a boiler. Of the 6,500 troops Butler took to capture the fort, only one third landed on shore. Even so, these were enough to have taken the fort—had not Butler again lost his nerve. Alarmed at news that the fort was receiving reinforcements, he ordered a precipitate retreat. Seven hundred of his men were stranded, and had to be rescued by a disgusted Admiral David Porter, who had directed the naval part of the operation. The crew of Porter’s flagship manufactured a leather medal for Butler: on one side was a pair of running legs and the stars of a major general; on the other, the legend “In commemoration of his heroic conduct before Fort Fisher, Dec. 1864.” On January 8, 1865, Lincoln ordered Butler to “repair to Lowell, Mass.”

Hours after Lincoln’s assassination, Butler joined in caucus with Radical Republican leaders determined to get rid of “Lincoln influences.” Elected to Congress in 1866, Butler became head of the Committee on Reconstruction, and one of the South’s most unforgiving opponents. In the coming years his best efforts were directed at impeaching Andrew Johnson, whose conciliatory attitude he regarded as treasonable. The President’s removal of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, contrary to the Radical-sponsored Tenure of Office Act that required senatorial consent for such actions, gave Butler and his colleagues the pretext they had been waiting for. Johnson, for his defiance of the Radicals, should be impeached—and Ben Butler would spearhead the proceedings.

All Butler’s legal adroitness went into the trial. His grating voice opened the proceedings in a savage fourhour speech to the Senate, sitting as the court of judgment. A Harper’s Weekly reporter observed him as:

a man whose large pudgy body seemed literally bursting out of his extraordinary swallow tail coat, exposing a broad expanse of not too immaculate linen, and whose massive bald head with its little fringe of oily curls was probably familiar to every occupant of the galleries, for Benjamin F. Butler had not hidden his light under a bushel. There was power in the man’s coarse, big-featured face, force and aggressiveness in every line, but his curiously ill-mated eyes with their half-closed lids, his hard mouth and small, drooping moustache, all combined to create an uncomfortable impression of cunning and insincerity, and his whole personality was unattractive.

When the Senate failed by one vote to give the necessary two-thirds majority for conviction, a Washington newspaper put out an extra edition headlined “ SUICIDE OF BEN BUTLER .”