Butlerdom (November 27, 1864)

Artist William Waud sketched the activity at "Ben Butler's canal at Dutch Gap." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Artist William Waud sketched the activity at “Ben Butler’s canal at Dutch Gap.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Both George Meade and Theodore Lyman write home about a visit to Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, commander of the Army of the James. Lyman, of course, provides the most detail. The Dutch Gap Canal was Butler’s ambitious scheme to foil the Confederate defense at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River by digging a canal across a neck of land and bypass them altogether. It was perfectly feasible on paper but a very difficult feat to accomplish. The canal was eventually completed, but not until after the war ended. Grant, who had attempted something similar against Vicksburg, seemed happy to let Butler occupy himself with canal digging.

Yesterday I accompanied General Grant on a visit to General Butler’s lines and the famous Dutch Gap Canal, which I had never seen. We had a very pleasant day, remaining with Butler till after dark to witness some experiments with the Greek fire, and getting home about 11 p.m.

I send you an extract from the Washington Chronicle, received to-day. It confirms what General Grant told me, and is designed to make people believe that I was already appointed when Sheridan was made. As Forney is closely allied with the powers that be, I take it for granted the above supposition is correct, and that he speaks by authority and for a purpose. I have no objection to this being arranged, so long as the essential point, justice to me, is conceded.

I had a visit this evening from Dr. McEuen who is here to take away his son Charles, who is major of the One Hundred and Ninety-eighth Pennsylvania, and who is now quite sick with fever. The doctor seems in good spirits and not much changed, except being considerable greyer than I used to see him years ago.

Lyman provides a characteristically entertaining account of the visit to “Butlerdom.” He also discusses a major change in the Army of the Potomac—the departure of Winfield Scott Hancock and his replacement at the head of the II Corps by Andrew Humphreys. The latter general, who had served as Meade’s chief of staff since just after Gettysburg, had long hungered for his own corps command—within limits. Back in July, Grant had suggested him for command of the X Corps in the Army of the James, which included African-American soldiers. Humphreys declined the offer because he did not want to command blacks, telling Grant, “I confess that while I have the kindliest feelings for the negro race and gladly see anything done that promises to ameliorate their condition, yet as they are not my own people, nor my own race, I could not feel towards negro troops as I have always felt towards the troops I have commanded, that their character, their reputation, their honor was a part of mine, that the two were so intimately connected that they could not be separated.”

Lyman provides an alternate account of the visit in his journal entry, which you can read in Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (edited by David W. Lowe, it is recommended reading). Lowe identifies “Pet” as Oliver Spencer Halsted, a New Jersey politician. He also describes Maj. Gen. John Gibbon’s reaction to Humphreys’ promotion to corps command. “Gibbon is mad, considering the appointment of Humphreys, to temporary command of the corps, a slight. He’s a fool! Gen. Meade has done everything for him, and now he sulks and asks to be relieved.”

Lyman’s almost Dickensian account of the visit will continue tomorrow.

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

I think I will occupy the remainder of this letter with an account of our picnic yesterday to Butlerdom. The day was further remarkable for the departure of my dear General Humphreys to take command of the 2d Army Corps. For Hancock has got a leave of absence, and will doubtless be put to recruiting fresh troops, while it is hoped that the President will permanently assign Humphreys to this Corps. He is in high glee at going, and will be in despair if a big fight is not got up for his special benefit. He was a great favorite and was escorted by some fifteen mounted officers of the Staff to his new quarters, at which compliment I think he was gratified. I regretted not to be with him, but had to go with the General, who started by the mail train, at 8 a.m., to be early at Grant’s Headquarters, whence they were to start. We took our horses on a freight car. In the train we found Generals [Gouverneur] Warren and [Samuel] Crawford, who were invited to be of the party. Arrived at City Point, we discovered that the Lieutenant-General was still in bed, whereat Meade did laugh, but the three stars soon appeared and went to breakfast. After which meal, our horses were put on the boat and we put ourselves on, and off we started. The party was a big one. There were Generals Grant, Meade, Warren, Crawford and [Rufus] Ingalls, and several Staff officers. There were then the bourgeois: to wit, a great many “Turkeys” (gentlemen who had come down to distribute those Thanksgiving fowls); two men who wanted to sell a steamer; one Senator, viz., [James] Nesmith of Oregon, and one political blackguard named H____, whose special business was to praise a certain Greek fire, of which more anon. This fellow’s name is usually prefixed by “Pet.” He has wild hair and beard and a face showing a certain ability; his distinguishing mark, I am told, is the absence of any sort of morality or principle. With him was his son, a small and old boy, of whom they said that, if papa could not get the best at a game of poker, son would come in and assist. Senator Nesmith is a child of the people, and was prepared for his congressional duties by a residence of twenty-five years among the Indians. When he first got to Washington, he had never before seen a railroad, a telegraph, or a gas-light. “Senator Fessenden asked me what I thought of things. ‘Well,’ says I, ‘when I first came along I was full of the dignity of the position to which I had been elected; but now all I want to know is, who in thunder ever sent you fellers here!’“ He has plenty of brains, this same, but is a very coarse man. The “Turkeys” were of various sorts: several of them were Club men, e.g., Mr. Benson, a gentleman who seemed a middle-aged beau, with much politeness and no particular brains. He kept bowing and smiling and backing into persons, and offering his chair to everyone, from orderlies up to General Grant. He requested to know whether in my opinion he could be properly considered as having been “under fire; because,” said he, “I stood on the Avery house and could see the shells explode in the air, you know!” All this motley crowd started at once for Deep Bottom; nor should I omit to say that we had also on board a Secesh bishop—Leigh of Georgia—who was going by flag of truce to Richmond. He had remained in Atlanta, and Sherman had told him if he wished to get back, he must go via Richmond. From him they got a good deal of entertaining conversation. His opinion of Sherman was very high and complimentary. “The old Book tells us,” he said, “that the race may not be to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, and we feel that Providence will not desert our righteous cause.” “Yes,” said General Meade, “but then we feel that Providence will not desert our cause; now how are you going to settle that question?” Whereat they both laughed. The bishop was a scholastic, quiet-looking man, and no great fire-eater, I fancy. The boat made fast at Aiken’s landing, halfway between Deep Bottom and Dutch Gap. A Staff officer was there to receive us and conduct us, two miles, to General Butler’s Headquarters. Some rode and some were in ambulances. The James Army people always take pretty good care of themselves, and here I found log houses, with board roofs, and high chimneys, for the accommodation of the gentlemen of the Staff. You might know it was Butler’s Headquarters by the fact that, instead of the common ensign, he had a captured Reb battle-flag stuck up! This chieftain asked in the general officers and we were left to the care of the Staff, who were not behindhand in their civility. . . . Presently Butler climbed on his horse and led the way to see Fort Harrison, which was captured in the movements at the end of September. It was well worth seeing, for on our side of the river we have no hills: it is pretty much one plain with gullies. But here was a regular hill, of some size, dominating the whole country about. How they took the place, I hardly see, for the land is often for a mile in front of it, and the Rebs had artillery in position and a regular infantry running quite to the river. . . .

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 248. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 279-82. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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