Ingenious Inventions (November 29, 1864)

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

In his notebook entry for November 27, Theodore Lyman described how General Benjamin Butler said “when they made him a lawyer they spoiled a good mechanic; when they made him a general they spoiled a good lawyer.” Butler did have a weakness for invention. In fact, it will soon help lead to his downfall, following the failure of his great scheme to destroy Fort Fisher by stuffing a vessel with explosives and blowing it up.

I did not have room to tell you of the ingenious inventions of General Butler for the destruction of the enemy. He never is happy unless he has half a dozen contrivances on hand. One man has brought a fire-engine, wherewith he proposes to squirt on earthworks and wash them all down! An idea that Benjamin considered highly practicable. Then, with his Greek fire, he proposed to hold a redoubt with only five men and a small garden engine. “Certainly,” said General Meade; “only your engine fires thirty feet, and a minie rifle 3000 yards, and I am afraid your five men might be killed, before they had a chance to burn up their adversaries!” Also he is going to get a gun that shoots seven miles and, taking direction by compass, burn the city of Richmond with shells of Greek fire. If that don’t do, he has an auger that bores a tunnel five feet in diameter, and he is going to bore to Richmond, and suddenly pop up in somebody’s basement, while the family are at breakfast! So you see he is ingenious. It is really summer warm today; there are swarms of flies, and I saw a bumble-bee and a grasshopper.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 284. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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