Yes, I Picked Benjamin Butler for My Fantasy Draft

ECW welcomes guest author Bryan Cheeseboro.

Benjamin Butler

Recently, I enjoyed “The Civil War Fantasy Draft” presented by The American Battlefield Trust on their Facebook page as part of their new Zoom Goes the History video series.  As we are under social distancing restrictions that have canceled sporting events, the “draft”- in the fashion of an NFL or NBA draft-featured eleven stay-at-home historians selecting their “picks” for their fictional armies.  The program was lots of fun and I think I learned a thing or two as well.  And just like any professional sports draft event, I imagine Civil War historians/fans were at home screaming at their laptops or other video devices with utterances such as “How in the world could you pick/not pick (insert Civil War general’s name here)?”

While many of my picks were selected during the draft, one was not; and I felt his omission was unfortunate.  My pick was Benjamin F. Butler.  This probably comes as a surprise, as many historians believe he was a poor general.  According to one source, Butler was “one of the most incompetent” of the North’s generals.[1] I won’t try and challenge Butler’s reputation as a battlefield commander, but what he could not do on the field, he achieved in other areas that contributed to the final United States victory in the war.

He was among the first responders to President Lincoln’s call for troops after Sumter.  His swift actions in April 1861 helped secure safe passage for troops en route to Washington City; and he took command in Baltimore by mounting guns on Federal Hill, which point towards the Inner Harbor to this day.

General Butler meets with Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory, who escaped from slavery in a rowboat that took them to Fort Monroe. Butler trumped the Confederates with their own words by declaring them seized “property” that would not be returned to aid the enemy’s war effort. New York Public Library Digital Collection.

At Fort Monroe, Virginia, in May, he received fugitive slaves.  With the Fugitive Slave Act still in effect, he answered Confederates who came to retrieve the slaves with their own language- the enslaved people were property, which he considered to be “contraband of war.”  But they would not be returned to slavery as long as they were used against the Union war effort.[2]

He was in command of the army of occupation at New Orleans, after that city was captured in April 1862.  While General Order (the “Woman Order”) No. 28 was highly controversial, it was effective and stopped the harassment of Union soldiers, maintaining authority and command in the city.

In September 1862, he organized the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, an African-American regiment that was previously raised as a state militia unit, but for the Confederacy.  But the Confederate Louisiana Native Guard never saw any real service and was twice disbanded, especially as the Confederate States retained its national policy against enlisting black men.  Butler not only accepted the regiment; he accepted its commissioned black officers- the first such commissions in the war.[3]

At the battle of New Market Heights/Chaffin’s Farm in September 1864, he commanded the Army of the James, which contained over a dozen Black regiments.  The battle was a Union victory and 23 Union soldiers, including 14 soldiers of various United States Colored Infantry regiments, were awarded the Medal of Honor.  At one time, Butler had actually doubted the abilities of black men to be soldiers at all.  From this battle he created an additional award- the Butler Medal, which he paid for with his own money. It was awarded to about 200 black soldiers.[4]

Battles of the Civil War-like any war- did not exist in a vacuum and had connections to political elections, economics, slavery, emancipation, and support from the home front.  And those connections were often just as important as military victories on the battlefield.  Benjamin F. Butler was a lawyer and a politician whose expertise in those areas made up for whatever shortcomings he had as a military tactician and strategist.  He played extremely important roles in many places that led to final Union victory.

Bryan Cheeseboro works every day with original Civil War records at the National Archives. He is also a board member of The Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington, DC; a Civil War military and civilian reenactor; and creator of The Civil War Era Historian’s Page on Facebook.

Sources

Butler, Benjamin F. Butler’s Book: A Review of His Legal, Political, and Military Career.  Boston: A. M. Thayer & Co. Book Publishers, 1892.

Faust, Patricia L, ed. Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1986.

Glathaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: Free Press, 1990.

Trudeau, Noah Andre: Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865.  Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1998.

[1] John D. Kellmann’s entry for Ben Butler is from the book (Faust, Patricia L., ed.) Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War.  New York: Harper Perennial (a division of Harper Collins Publishers); p. 98.

[2] Butler, Benjamin F. Butler’s Book: A Review of His Legal, Political, and Military Career.  Boston: A. M. Thayer & Co. Book Publishers, 1892; pp. 256, 257.

[3] Glathaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers.  New York: Free Press, 1990; p. 8.

[4] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865.  Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1998; p. 300.

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6 Responses to Yes, I Picked Benjamin Butler for My Fantasy Draft

  1. Great choice! I also find Butler to be one of the most fascinating characters of the Civil War and I think much of the bad reputation is because of him becoming an advocate for the rights of African-Americans and relentless in his stance against Southerners who wanted to return to the old ways.

  2. Joe Lafleur says:

    Great choice of guest author and an interesting piece on Butler. I am happy to be continually impressed with more modern interpretations and progressive ways of reexamining past interpretations. This piece is a great example of this in a tidy snippet.

    • Meg Groeling says:

      I was reminded by Kevin Levin this morning that Butler’s actions in New Orleans were also instrumental in keeping yet another plague from the shores of New Orleans. Science at the time thought yellow fever was caused by smelly garbage. By cleaning the streets of the city, Butler helped eradicate mosquitoes, which actually cause yellow fever. Didn’t he also quarantine the harbor? I love Butler!

  3. 1. I really enjoyed the CW Draft as well. Yes, I was one of those people screaming at my laptop. Better yet, it was during dinner and my husband suffered through my commentary for each pick. One of my picks, P.G.T. Beauregard, wasn’t chosen either.
    2. Is there a good. unbiased biography about Butler out there that I can pick up? I was thinking about this the other day and this post has made me eager to learn more. Anyone have suggestions?
    Thank you for this post!

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      Sheritta Bitikofer
      The following link is to Portrait Monthly of the New York Illustrated News for July 1863. The full page artist sketch of Major General Benjamin Butler is on page 3 and his brief biography on page 2. The reason I recommend beginning study of Butler with this magazine article is that it acts as “time capsule,” capturing the general as he was perceived in middle of the war (before the unfortunate events under General Grant, later.) And it exemplifies the expression “horses for courses” …some leaders are best at initiating actions early on (General Kellogg Swift at seizing Cairo Illinois; Fremont at acquiring needed small arms and artillery in Europe, and returning to initiate defenses of St. Louis; Butler at forcing the landing of Northern Volunteers at Annapolis, and arguably saving the Capital at Washington.) Butler also recruited many of the infantrymen that took part in the Operation against New Orleans launched from Ship Island Mississippi; and if General Butler had resigned in July 1863, he would likely be remembered today much differently than is currently the case. (One could say, “He overstayed his welcome.”)
      https://archive.org/details/portraitmonthlyo00newy/page/3/mode/1up
      All the best
      Mike Maxwell

  4. John Pryor says:

    Bryan made the best defense of Butler I’ve ever seen! Unfortunately, when all is said and done, a Civil War is still won on the battlefield, and with one or two exceptions, who worked harder to lose it than Ben? His poor reputation did not require Lost Cause enthusiasts to exaggerate or create, Grant could not wait to get rid of him. Perhaps if he had blown up with his gunpowder ship off Ft Fisher his reputation must have received a boost.

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