Boating with the Beast (August 4, 1864)

Benjamin Butler, photographed at Bermuda Landing in late July or early August, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Benjamin Butler, photographed at Bermuda Landing in late July or early August, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman accompanies General Meade, staff members, and the French observers on a boat trip with General Butler. Butler was one of the war’s great characters. An influential Democratic politician from Massachusetts, he had voted 57 consecutive times to nominate Jefferson Davis for president at the Democratic convention in 1860. As one of Lincoln’s “political generals,” he had helped keep Baltimore pacified at the beginning of the war and later established a reputation as the (perhaps) corrupt and (certainly) hated administrator of New Orleans. Southerners called him “Beast” or “Spoons,” the latter nickname for his supposed tendency to steal everything he could, including silverware. Perhaps his greatest impact on the war took place when he was in command of Fort Monroe in Virginia and allowed escaped slaves to enter his lines as so-called “contrabands of war,” an early step towards Union policies to end slavery. He proved fairly inept as commander of the Army of the James but, as we saw earlier, Grant failed in his attempt to replace him with William F. “Baldy” Smith as field commander.

Detail of a sketch Alfred Waud made of Benjamin Butler (Library of Congress).

Detail of a sketch Alfred Waud made of Benjamin Butler. Perhaps this defensive posture could be considered “an attitude of fence” (Library of Congress).

This was quite a festal day for us. The General, accompanied by the Frenchies, Rosencrantz, Bache, Biddle and myself, paid a grand visit to Butler. Butler was in high feather. He is as proud of all his “fixin’s” as a farmer over a prime potato patch. We first got on the Greyhound, an elegant steamer (Butler believes in making himself comfortable), and proceeded down the Appomattox, past City Point, and then bore up the James, passing Bermuda Hundred, with its flotilla of schooners and steamers. . . . We had got a good bit above Bermuda Hundred and were paddling along bravely when we came in sight of two gunboats; that is, common steamers with some heavy guns on board. There are many in the river and they go up and down to keep it clear. As we drew near, I saw the men were at quarters and the guns run out. We passed between the first boat and the high wooded bank, when I beheld the gunboat captain dancing up and down on the paddle-box and roaring to us: “The left bank is lined with sh-a-a-rpshooters!” It would have edified you to have seen the swift dignity with which General Meade and his gallant Staff stepped from the open, upper deck to the shady seclusion of the cabin! Our skipper jingled “Stop her,” with his engine-room bell, and stop she did. Here was a chance for war-god Butler. “Hey? What? Sharpshooters? Pshaw! Fiddledeedee! Stop her! Who said stop her? Mr. DeRay, tell the Captain to go on, instantly!” And Butler danced out on the open deck and stood, like George II at Dettingen, in “an attitude of fence.” I, who looked for a brisk volley of musketry, fully expected to see him get a bullet in his extensive stomach. Meanwhile the Captain went on, and, as soon as we were clear, the naval party in the rear (or “astern,” we ought to say) let go one big gun, with a tremendous whang! and sent a projectile about the size of a flour barrel on shore, severely wounding a great many bushes and trees. The other gunboat went ahead of us and kept up a little marine combat, all on her own hook. Whether there really were sharpshooters, I know not: I only think, if there were, it would be difficult to say which party was the more scared. . . .

Finally we went on shore where our horses were waiting, for this is not over three and a half miles from the Appomattox, though it is fifteen or sixteen miles round by the river. From the top of the cliff we had a splendid view of the cultivated country towards Richmond. And so, after inspecting more of Benjamin’s apple-pie batteries, we went home.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 204-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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