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NP: May 6, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 1: When Butler Came Along

When Butler Came Along

A century ago—in May, 1864—a person of intense interest to this city and vicinity was Benjamin Franklin Butler, otherwise and less formally called “Beast.” General Butler’s approach marked the beginning of the campaign for Petersburg. History is likely to think of that operation as commencing in June, but it is a safe guess that the residents themselves felt thoroughly embattled in May. Nor were there feelings soothed by the nature of Butler’s reputation, with respect to either his treatment of southern ladies in New Orleans or his allegedly acquisitive interest in southern spoons.

(This is the first of several articles [41 in all!] which will take notice here of some of the anniversaries of the campaign for Petersburg. Granted a profound local boredom with all such matters, a centennial by its nature occurs only every hundred years. Under the circumstances, an apology for taking cognizance of the events should not have to be too profound.)

A Union offensive was known to be developing in April, 1864. As it turned out, Butler with his Army of the James was supposed to move in Southern Virginia while Grant’s great campaign was beginning in northern Virginia. Butler was to divert attention from the latter, to operate against the communications of the Confederate capital, and if possible to take Richmond1. The consensus of history is that almost anyone except General Butler could have taken the lightly defended cities of Petersburg and Richmond. He was a person of varied talents, political and monetary, but military leadership was not among them.

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Butler came up the James River on May 5 [1864]—yesterday. His force included some 35,000 troops, traveling by way of a fleet of river steamers, sloops, coasters, barges, and other assorted vessels.  He landed at City Point, and although City Point would have been the base from which to operate against the Petersburg rail center2, he soon moved over to Bermuda Hundred. There in time, as Grant was to observe, he became as completely shut off from further operations directly against Richmond as if he had been in a bottle strongly corked.

But all of that was unwritten history a century ago today. Petersburg was thrown into great excitement, with much ringing of bells and citizens rushing to arms. Some 900 men, including the second class militia, were placed in the defenses.

The scratch force was strengthened by the arrival on May 6 [1864] of South Carolina troops under General Johnson Hagood, in time to meet Butler’s troops at Port Walthall Junction3. Soon General Henry A. Wise’s brigade arrived and was put in position to defend Petersburg from the direction of City Point.4 Hoke’s division, other reinforcements, and General P. G. T. Beauregard himself arrived within a few days.

Hagood’s and Wise’s were the first of a series of timely arrivals which would mark the early phases of the campaign against Petersburg. Except for their appearance, even Butler might have taken Petersburg in May, 1864. As matters turned out, the sense of deliverance was great. The ladies of Petersburg presented a flag to the South Carolina forces. The ministers of the city thanked them from their pulpits. Merchants invited the soldiers to make purchases in their stores and to keep their money.

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Another event of the day—May 6 [1864]—was adoption by Petersburg’s governing body of a resolution commending General Pickett, of Gettysburg memory, who for months had been in charge of the department embracing Petersburg and whose tenure was expiring.

The resolution expressed entire and explicit confidence in General Pickett and tendered thanks to him as commander of the department. It further resolved that the war itself was just and holy. It asked that the city should be defended to the last extremity and that under no circumstances should it be surrendered. It was a wish which would come very close to being granted.

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In view of the raids which he planned, Butler was not as inactive as the legend has it. But he seems to have found his real satisfaction in having almost Homeric wrangles with his subordinates, especially Generals [Quincy] Gillmore and [William F. “Baldy”] Smith.5 Except for his political power, probably he would have been sacked at this time. Almost nobody admired or trusted him, but nobody could get anything very concrete on him. For reasons still not clear, Grant tolerated him.6 The truth must be that he was one of the greatest ‘fixers’ of all times.  He would spend some months on the local scene before going on to other pastures. Later he would be Governor of Massachusetts.

When Harvard made an exception in the case of Butler, to its custom of awarding honorary degrees to governors of Massachusetts, the general would retort by appearing in the “yard” in full uniform. One biographer describes Butler as living denial that honesty pays. Undismayed by all such criticism, Butler himself summarized his career by saying he had done nothing but good all of his life, and that consistently.7


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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:


  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: Butler’s movement with his Army of the James resulted in the May 1864 Bermuda Hundred Campaign.
  2. City Point did indeed become the Union nerve center as the Siege of Petersburg wore on.  Supplies were shipped there, and Grant made his headquarters there.
  3. SOPO Editor’s Note: The Battle of Port Walthall Junction was fought on May 6-7, 1864 and prevented Butler from moving further south on Petersburg.
  4. Wise and his Virginians would be tested in mid-June 1864 at the First and Second Battles of Petersburg.
  5. Butler’s corps commanders were Quincy Gillmore and William F. “Baldy” Smith.  Gillmore had charge of the X Corps, and Smith was in command of XVIII Corps.  Not one of these men would still be around at the end of the Siege of Petersburg.
  6. SOPO Editor’s Note: The reason is clear now if it wasn’t then.  Butler was a war Democrat, and his support was key if Lincoln was to be reelected in the Fall of 1864.  If Grant had been allowed to sack Butler, I’m certain he would have, and quickly.  As it was, Butler was untouchable until after the election of 1864 in November.  He was sacked soon after the disastrous Christmas Day 1864 first assault on Fort Fisher near Wilmington, North Carolina.
  7. “When Butler Came Along.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  May 6, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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