Book Review: Union General Daniel Butterfield: A Civil War Biography

Union General Daniel Butterfield: A Civil War Biography. By James S. Pula. El Dorado Hills, California: Savas-Beatie, 2024. Hardcover, 265 pp. $32.95.

Reviewed by Donald C. Pfanz

Daniel Butterfield was a remarkable character. Born into affluence, he received a fine education in New York before obtaining employment in his father’s American Express Company, where he gained valuable experience in business management and administration, skills he would later use to good effect as an army officer. Butterfield had an interest in military matters, and the Civil War found him serving as colonel of the 12th New York State Militia. Despite the lack of a formal military education, he rose quickly through the Army of the Potomac’s ranks to command the Fifth Corps at the Battle of Fredericksburg. He later served the army as its chief of staff at both Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, where his organizational abilities and innovative reforms won him the praise of his superiors. When the army’s former leader, Joe Hooker, transferred to the West in the fall of 1863, Butterfield followed him there, becoming a division commander in Hooker’s XX Corps. Butterfield led the division capably during the Atlanta Campaign until illness forced him to relinquish his command in the summer of 1864.

Butterfield was a remarkable man indeed. In addition to his accomplishments on the field of battle must be added his composition of the bugle call “Taps,” the publication of an army manual, and the creation of the first corps badge system. And yet, as Dr. Pula points out, he receives little notice in Civil War histories, and the attention that he has received has been overwhelmingly negative in character. The author attempts to remedy that situation. Pula recounts his subject’s many contributions to the Union war effort and attempts to explain why, despite a sterling record, historians have largely ignored or disparaged the general. He succeeds remarkably well in the first instance, a little less so in the second.

The Army of the Potomac, from its very inception, was fractured by jealousy and politics. Many of its leading officers—men such as George Meade, William Franklin, Andrew Humphreys, and Winfield Hancock—were Democrats and political conservatives. According to Pula, they resented Butterfield’s rapid rise, both because he was a Republican and because he was not a member of the professional military fraternity. But there was something more behind the disparaging comments heaped on Butterfield by his colleagues—something to do with Butterfield’s personality. As Dr. Pula points out, Butterfield’s privileged upbringing coupled with his meteoric rise through the ranks (in just four months he rose from the command of a brigade to the command of a corps), may have led to a measure of conceit that his fellow generals at times found hard to bear.

But more importantly, it was his association with notorious personalities that tarred Butterfield’s reputation, for he was a close companion of officers such as Joseph Hooker and Daniel Sickles and of Radical Republican politicians such as Benjamin Wade and Zachariah Chandler. A more unsavory group of characters would be hard to find. Captain Charles Francis Adams referred to Hooker, Sickles, and Butterfield as the “drunk-murdering-arson dynasty now prevailing,” and went on to label them “our three humbugs, intriguers, and demagogues.” (Hooker was a notorious drinker; while in Congress Sickles had murdered his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key; and before the war Butterfield had been accused of setting fire to a building so that his fire company could be the first to put out the blaze.) Others agreed with his assessment. Pula attempts to defend Butterfield from such aspersions, and with some success, but still one cannot help but remember the adage, “Birds of a feather flock together,” especially when it is supported by the testimony of reputable men.

After the war, Butterfield resumed his successful business career and became a familiar figure at meetings of the Society of the Army of the Potomac and other veteran gatherings. He generously used his wealth to support the construction of an elaborate monument to the 12th and 44th New York Volunteers on Little Round Top at Gettysburg and an equally prestigious monument to the men of the Fifth Corps at the entrance to Fredericksburg National Cemetery. When Butterfield died in 1901, his wife secured for him a burial plot at West Point (despite the fact that he never attended the Academy) and erected there a magnificent monument that still stands today.

Dr. Pula’s goal was to write the first modern biography of an important and overlooked Union general, and he has succeeded admirably. In addition to his fine text, the book employs a bountiful selection of illustrations and 13 excellent maps by gifted cartographer Hal Jespersen.  The book’s publisher, Savas Beatie, is to be commended for employing footnotes rather than the more common endnotes, something of little importance to the casual reader, but a feature that serious historians will greatly appreciate.


Donald C. Pfanz is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. In his thirty-two-year career with the National Park Service, he worked at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park, Petersburg National Battlefield, and Fort Sumter National Monument. He is a founding member of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (now the American Battlefield Trust) and has written and edited numerous books about the Civil War, including Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life; Where Valor Sleeps: A History of Fredericksburg National Cemetery, 1866-1933; Clara Barton’s Civil War: Between Bullet and Hospital; and War So Terrible: A Popular History of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

3 Responses to Book Review: Union General Daniel Butterfield: A Civil War Biography

  1. Don, thank you very much for this in-depth review. we all appreciate it and I’m sure Dr Poola will enjoy reading it.

  2. When I think of Gen. Butterfield I always think of his disloyalty to Meade at the Congressional hearings after the Gettysburg battle. Of course Meade didn’t want to retain Butterfield when he took command. Perhaps this book will provide a more rounded picture.

  3. Thanks for an insightful review. And a shout out for the publisher, which continues to “up” its already impressive game by bringing quality, ground-breaking ACW books to market.

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