A Visit to Butler (July 22, 1864)

Alfred Waud sketched the activity at Point of Rocks near Benjamin Butler's headquarters (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud sketched the activity at Point of Rocks near Benjamin Butler’s headquarters (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman, French observer Francois De Chanal and Meade aide Frederick “Rosie” Rosenkrantz pay a visit to Benjamin Butler. The general gives them a hint about one of his great schemes of the war, his idea of reducing Confederate fortifications by exploding barges stuffed with gunpowder next to them. Butler will try this out in December against Fort Fisher, North Carolina, and, as De Chanal predicts, it will prove a miserable failure. But while it does no damage to the Confederates, the barge will blow up Butler’s military career. By the time of the Fort Fisher fiasco, the presidential election will be over and Grant will have a free hand to remove this politically connected general from the Army of the James.

Of course, even as Lyman visits Butler and the Army of the James, the Army of the Potomac is preparing its own big explosion, one that will also damage some military careers.

I had one of the most amusing excursions that I have had during the campaign—really quite a picnic. Colonel de Chanal, Rosy, and myself made the party. The distance to Butler’s Headquarters, whither we were bound, is about eight miles, and the road all the way was either through the woods or shaded by trees, and the dust had not yet had time to show its head after the rain. It was a new part of the country to me and very interesting. We struck the Appomattox at the Point of Rocks, where the river appears double by reason of a long, swampy island in the middle. The width, between the two steep, high, gravelly banks, cannot be less than 350 yards. Here is a pontoon bridge, and, near each end of it, on the top of the bank, a fort for its defence. Below it, too, lies a gunboat. Crossing this, we soon came to the Great Ben’s, who received us very hospitably, and exhibited a torpedo and a variety of new projectiles, the virtues of which in the destruction of the human race I explained in pure Gallic to the Colonel. During dinner he said to me: “They spoiled a good mechanic when they made me a lawyer, and a good lawyer when they made me general.” He delivered a long exposition (which I translated) on the virtues of a huge powder-boat, which he would explode between Moultrie and Sumter, by clockwork, and not only flatten both forts, but Charleston into the bargain! De Chanal replied (citing examples) that no such result would follow and that the effect would be limited to a very small radius. “No effect!” cried B., suddenly bursting into French, “mais pourquoi non?” “Ah,” said De C, with his sharp French eye, “mais pourquoi si?” . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 193-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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