≡ Menu

FRASER MAG: A Visit to General Butler and the Army of the James, Part the First

A Visit to General Butler and the Army of the James, Part the First.1

Part The First.

TOWARDS the close of last September [1864], an American acquaintance offered the writer a pass to the army and a letter of introduction to General Butler. After some hesitation I determined to accept the General’s hospitality. A short but intimate acquaintance with him, however, was sufficient to show that there were points in his character for which he had not been given due credit; and which, when known, dispel some of the prejudice against him which I venture to think is founded mainly upon ignorance of his true nature.

According to the terms of my pass, I started from Baltimore. After a voyage of eighteen hours down the Bay of the Chesapeake, in a crowded mail-boat, Fortress Monroe came into view. This fort claims a notice in passing by reason of its national as well as local importance. Together with another fort, now in process of construction opposite to it upon the Rip-Raps shoal, Fortress Monroe will effectually bar the passage of the few hundred yards of channel which intervene, and unite the Bay of Norfolk with that of the Chesapeake.

This channel is important for two reasons. It is the only outlet by which the produce of the district watered by the James river and its tributaries can reach the Chesapeake and the Atlantic. It forms also a link in the important chain of land-locked bays, sounds, and rivers which, united by canals, connect New England and Pennsylvania with North Carolina. One of the principal canals is that which, passing through the Dismal Swamp, connects Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds with Norfolk.

The importance of this inland water communication between Boston and Wilmington, North Carolina, almost without entering the Atlantic, would immediately be felt in case of war with a maritime power.

The holders of Fortress Monroe, therefore, possess the control of the commercial future of Norfolk, Richmond, Petersburg, and of the farms along the James river, whose crops of tobacco, cotton, and corn were, until the war, the pride and boast of Americans.

In Hampton Roads and round Fortress Monroe we passed a large fleet of transports, composed principally of ordinary river-steamers: beyond, close by the scene of the encounter of the first iron-clads, lay the captured Confederate ram Atlanta, resembling a house roofed with railroad iron submerged to the eaves, with guns pointing out of its attic windows.2

The James river presents few features worthy of notice. In breadth and general appearance it resembles in its lower course Southampton water. The channel is so tortuous as to make the distance from Fort Monroe to City Point by the river eighty-five miles; while, as the crow flies, it is only sixty miles.

The situation of the country-houses upon the banks indicates considerable taste upon the part of their owners, as do occasional belts of ornamental trees, amongst which pines like the Scotch and Austrian may be observed, whose dark foliage contrasts well with the vivid green which is the prevailing tone of American forests. With this exception, here as elsewhere, American scenery repeats itself. One new tree, the cypress pine, as it is called, attracts attention. It grows in the water; the boughs feathering down to the stream and dipping into it. The stem is protected from the action of the current by a breakwater of its own roots which surround it with a series of miniature piles.

The banks rise as we advance. The Federal earthworks which crown the commanding bluffs are held chiefly by negro troops.3 At last the level top of City Point is seen, which commands the river for ten miles down the stream. A long line of quays fringe the river bank below; above, a huge bakery is building. Black and white carpenters were working together upon the roof of a long warehouse. Before the war this would not have been so. The Apomatox [sic, Appomattox] curves away to the left, a little below Bermuda. The Hundreds, as the neighbouring district is called, after some English reminiscence, slope upwards behind this town, and upon the plateau beyond is situated the camp of General Butler at Point of Rocks.

I found the General living under canvas, with few comforts about him. A new patent shell lay in one corner of the tent, General Birney sat in the other, facing a huge camp fire made of the twelve-foot split rails which compose the fences hereabouts. A model of a moveable signal-tower stood amongst the papers on the table. Its principle was that of a pair of lazy tongs. The lowest bars being contracted by windlasses, the machine lengthened itself and rose. It was thought that by means of such a machine a soldier might be elevated above the forest at various points to see the enemy or his works. But, as yet, the lookout men are satisfied with a high tree and airy scaffolding which tops every eminence.

General Butler’s welcome was most courteous and kind. Though he was engaged with General Birney, his second in command, making final arrangements for his advance the nest morning, he conversed for some minutes on general subjects. The impression produced by the first sight of him was, after all the reports I had heard, one of agreeable disappointment. As he sat looking over his papers, the light of the camp fire falling upon his broad massive forehead, gave prominence to this remarkable feature of his countenance, while his position and the shadow mitigated or concealed the tendency to corpulence and the unfortunate cast in the eyes, which are the less pleasing characteristics of his personal appearance. His broad chest and shoulders are exceptional in an American. In manner he is courteous and refined; his address is easy, but dignified.

When General Birney was gone, Butler told me that he was going to advance upon Richmond the next morning [September 29, 1864]. Simultaneous movements were to be made by Meade on Petersburg, and on Richmond by Sheridan from the north-west. Sheridan, however, checked in the Shenandoah valley, was unable to co-operate, and the army of the Potomac was repulsed at all points.4

Although he had so much upon his mind, Butler did not allow his anxiety to interfere with his duties as a host. He conversed pleasantly upon a considerable variety of subjects, and contrived to pay all the little attentions of a most thoughtful entertainer. Afterwards he produced a copy by photography of the map of the environs of Richmond, upon which his future movement was based, and pointed out the routes by which his army was to advance the next morning. The original had been found upon the body of General Gherardie [sic, Girardey]5 of the Confederate Engineers, and contained all the fortifications round Richmond accurately laid down and numbered, together with most of the fieldworks outside. It proved to be singularly correct; and to the possession of it General Butler is largely indebted for the success which he met with. In order to take the Confederates by surprise, he confided his intentions to his chief commanders only. The result was that the Confederates were for once found unprepared, and were forced to abandon, almost without a struggle, works which would have either held the Federals at bay, or would have been carried only at a fearful sacrifice of life.

General Butler’s openness upon this first evening of my visit was but a sample of his subsequent conduct. He took the greatest pains to enable me to see and hear everything. Whenever a general came in he would call me to hear his report, giving me also the fullest permission to ‘make any use I pleased of whatever I might see and hear.’

It appeared from the Confederate map that Richmond was about twelve miles distant from Aiken’s Landing and Deep Bottom, the points at which the army was to cross the James river.

The scene of future operations formed a triangle, of which the curving reaches of the James river, extending from Dutch Gap upon the left to Deep Bottom upon the right, were the base. The sides of the triangle were formed by two roads, the Old Pike on the left, near the river, and the Newmarket road on the right, which, converging, united at a point distant about three miles from Richmond.

Inside this triangle the Varina road, running up from the river, and nearly parallel with the Old Pike, met the Newmarket road at a point distant about five and a half miles from Richmond. Cross roads, of which the Kingsland and the Throgmorton or Mill roads were the chief, and forest tracks, connected these three roads, which at various points in their course, and especially where two or more joined, were commanded by forts or obstructed by field-works. The Old Pike was exposed to the fire of the five Confederate iron-clads, which as yet could descend the river at least as far as Dutch Gap.6

The junction of this and the Newmarket road was covered by the main line of works which surround Richmond, from which the city is distant at this point three miles, and only two miles at other points. On heights from half a mile to a mile in rear of these works, which were laid down as a series of connected redoubts, were placed large forts open to the rear, and flanked by ravines. They were situated in the only approaches to the town, which were of course swept by their guns. Being about a mile apart, and occupying eminences seemingly nearly equal in height, each one was able to support its neighbour on the right and left, and to aid in the defence of the lines in front.

The greater part of the country in the immediate vicinity of Richmond is as yet unreclaimed from the forest, throughout which are scattered small oases of cultivated land. The clearings, however, along the river bank were larger than those more inland, and often continuous. The former varied in extent from about two hundred to five hundred acres, and were generally narrow for their length: nearly all were densely overgrown with a tall weed, said to be almost ineradicable. The country generally undulates in long, low, rounded curves. The hollows between the undulations are nearly always occupied by small streams, which have either worn away the light crumbling soil and formed ravines of varying depth and steepness, or have made the ground on each side of them boggy and unsound. Such spots are densely overgrown with the characteristic trees of the region —the liquidambar, tulip-tree, and willow-leaved oak. The airy foliage of the last makes a pleasing contrast with the broad leaf of the tulip; while the deeply-indented and star-like leaves of the liquidambar combine the beauties of both. The Virginian laurel, holly, and other shrubs growing beneath them form a jungle of varying density. The ridges and drier localities, however, are covered with pines, under which the Virginian or red cedar grows in profusion. This kind of forest largely predominates.

Such a country, in spite of the rare occurrence of commanding hills; is obviously very defensible. The forest and ravines are natural barriers to an invader. The latter also narrow the space over which roads can be carried, and the few which exist are easily destroyed or obstructed. The turnpike roads which connect the towns are well made, but the forest tracks are too rude to bear long the traffic of an army, and may be readily broken up. They are formed by merely cutting off the trees at a height of about ten inches from the ground, the stumps being often left standing; hollows and streams are crossed upon pine logs laid side by side and pegged down to longer logs which span the place to be passed. This is termed ‘corduroy’ work.

The principal roads are easily stopped by field-works, made with a rapidity which causes much surprise to those who do not realize the facilities offered by the nature of the country. From the fact that the armies on both sides entrench themselves so quickly, it has been supposed that a large force of sappers and miners, with a corresponding train, is employed in the work. There is of course such a body, but in point of numbers it is comparatively insignificant. The pine forests and the skilled labour at hand render the work of fortification easy.

Farmers and negroes form a large proportion of either army, and both of these classes are as familiar with the use of the axe as the English labourer with the spade. By a few adroit strokes two rows of pines are felled, so that the trees of one row shall fall across those of another, and almost exactly upon the place where they are required. A very little more labour removes the heads of the trees and places the stems in position. As these are not completely severed from their roots, a sort of wattled wall of great strength is produced, the chinks in which are roughly stopped by the earth which is thrown over from a shallow trench behind, or banked up in front. A rude but serviceable breastwork is the result. The treetops serve for abbattis, fire-wood, or for shelter. Such ‘breastworks’ cross the country for miles, and are usually made upon the forest edge «f a clearing; but where they run through the woods, a range is secured for the riflemen behind by felling the timber in front. By this process, called ‘slashing,’ the trees are felled outwards, at right angles to the work, narrow belts only being left in the hollows of a stream to cover the retreat of pickets or skirmishers. The enemy, therefore, is obliged to clamber through the tangled jungle of boughs which face him, without being at all sheltered from the withering fire of the defenders of the work.

Such were the works which caused the awful carnage of the battles in the Wilderness. There, owing to the density of the forest, no warning of their existence could be previously obtained, while the Confederates, after decimating their foes, would ‘skedaddle’ into the forest behind, perhaps without the loss of a man.

The rapidity with which a mile of forest is ‘slashed’ by their army is a source of great pride to both parties. If this were not the case works could not be made rapidly enough, for desirable situations are generally forest-grown, because the farmer avoids hilly ground when choosing the locality for a farm. The forts, however, such as Fort Harrison, the chief work on Chaffin’s Farm, have been made more leisurely, and are shapely earthworks, backed up with pine logs. This fort was a three-sided work, mounting twelve guns, two of which were of very large calibre. It was situated upon an isolated eminence, perhaps sixty feet above the surrounding country, and had a range varying from a mile and a half on the left to three-fourths of a mile on the right, over the clearing in front, from which the hill rose with an easy slope. The height of the parapet was about ten feet, and there was a ditch in front. From it ran on the right and left a strong double line of breastworks, strengthened by an occasional redoubt, and rifle-pits between. The rifle-pits are made upon the surface of the ground of four or five logs banked up with earth, and open to the rear, so that when taken they may afford no shelter to the enemy. Manned by steady troops, especially if armed with the Yankee ‘seven-shooter’ rifle, fortifications such as these prove to be impregnable; and the Federals begin to find it a hopeless task to try to lead men up to them when their comrades begin to fall thick and fast at a distance of three hundred yards.

The works on Chaffin’s Farm may be described as an irregular pentagon, or as a short wedge, of which Fort Harrison is the point, and looks down the Varina road. At a distance of about a mile to a mile and a half in rear of it ran a line of connected redoubts, which formed the butt of the wedge. Water-batteries and iron-clads in the river protect the right flank, and the latter sweep the low land for three or four miles in-shore, up the clearings. The deep roar of their guns and the peculiar hurtle of their monster shells were soon familiar sounds. These are found to demoralize the soldiers when the range is good; but they rarely do much mischief.

This position is remarkable as being the strongest upon the north bank of the James outside the lines of Richmond. It forms a pendant, so to speak, to Drewry’s Bluff, higher up on the opposite bank. Fort Harrison and Fort Darling are the chief salients of each position.

Such was the character of the works against which the army was advancing when General Butler and his staff reached the battle-field on the morning of September 29th [1864]. Upon crossing the river we found the trees which prow by the roadside dotted with the neat prospectus of the Embalmer-General to the army, whose suggestive notices had greeted the eyes of each soldier as he marched to the front. The chief of the medical staff pointed out their demoralizing influence; and the General sent the embalmer a civil order to desist from this method of advertising.

Soon after, we began to fall in with the wounded of the coloured division which had been the first to attack ‘Johnny’ that morning.7 The General stopped as he passed them, and inquired kindly whether they were much hurt, praising those who had carried their rifles with them off the field. The darkies replied with a smile of mixed pleasure and pride; indeed, unlike the white troops, who are apt to forget this part of discipline, they rarely fail to salute Butler both with hand and smile, seeming to recognize him as a friend. They may do so with reason, because it was he who was the chief advocate of their being enlisted as soldiers, thus elevating the free negro almost to the level of the white; and who asserted and acted upon the principle that slaves were contraband of war, and that being as such at the disposal of the conqueror, they could be set free.

We found General [David B.] Birney [commander of the 10th Corps] at a house, one or two of which are to be found upon each clearing according as it is occupied by one farmer or more. The house was characteristic of Virginia. It was built of brick and raised upon a basement of rubble and mortar. The living rooms, therefore, were approached by a flight of steps on each side of the house, sheltered by a white-pillared portico of wood. These entrances are connected by a passage out of which the rooms open, so that a constant current of air passes through the house to cool it in summer.

The house was, as usual, shaded by a grove of favourite trees, some of them brought from a distance. In front there had been a flower garden, a rarity in North America; and even now the dark-blue convolvulus was trailing along the foot-trodden waste, and struggling up the once neat but now broken paling. An apple orchard on the right of the house was flanked by a peach orchard on the left, and other signs of former comfort and wealth were visible. Behind the house in the shade were grouped, in a rude semicircle, the staffs of Generals [Benjamin] Butler, [David B.] Birney, and [August V.] Kautz. Their horses stood in knots on the right and left, held by orderlies or tied to trees, while their masters sat, stood, or reclined in every variety of attitude and position, the three generals being a little in advance of the rest. Butler sat in the centre, chatting or looking over maps or papers, wearing a small French cap with a waterproof cover, known as his ‘fighting cap.’ On his right stood General Kautz, the commander of the cavalry, which was slowly streaming past to the front—a short, thick-set soldier of the rough-and-ready type, with a bullet head and black beetling eyebrows. On the left General Birney leaned upon his sword with characteristic grace: he was of the medium height, his figure remarkably good, and but for a certain flatness of feature he would have been handsome. His smile. however, and the gentle expression of his countenance will be forgotten by few who knew him. He was at this time in high repute; and had recently been promoted to the rank of major-general, in answer to an extraordinary appeal made to the President by Grant and the chief commanders of the army. Few would have thought that the hand of death was even then upon him, and that he would fall a victim to disease before he had had time to verify the expectations of his admirers.8 The simplicity of the uniforms of these chiefs, and the variety of the hats which they wore, were remarkable: a double-breasted coat, three tiny stars upon the shoulder, and the yellow breastplate of his horse, alone marked a general.

All eyes were fixed upon a green knoll which rose from between two forest-clad ridges which curved downward in its front. The incessant rattle of musketry indicated the fierceness of the struggle. Meanwhile an aide-de-camp, emerging from a cloud of dust, announced the capture of Fort Harrison—which was then thought to be the key of the position—by [18th Corps commander Edward O. O. C] Ord on the left. Bimey then received orders to advance with the centre and to support the left wing. Soon after he had disappeared in the front, the signal flag of his (the 10th) corps was seen ascending the knoll, and announced the capture of the Newmarket Heights—a name with which the low ridge of which this knoll is an important part was, after capture, dignified—by signals to a correspondent stationed where we were. The position had been turned by a magnificent charge made by the Coloured Brigade [of William Birney, corps commaner David’s older brother], which entirely changed the tide of prejudice in their favour for the future. They had carried first a double line of rifle-pits, and then a formidable breastwork, charging across a clearing about six hundred yards wide, exposed to the concentrated fire of the Confederates, to which they did not return a shot. But out of three thousand who began the charge five hundred strewed the field.9 The Newmarket road, the principal approach to Richmond, was thus opened, and the army advanced along it and through the forest in a line nearly four miles in length. So rapidly had the Confederates retreated that a single prisoner only rewarded the captors of the position, nor did Kautz and his cavalry meet with a Southern soldier until they reached another fortified point upon the road three miles distant. Here a breastwork, strengthened with redoubts, crossed the country for about five miles, resting upon the fortifications of Chaffin’s Farm on the James river. This Kautz avoided, and, having a roving commission, passed towards the Darbytown road on the right. After a brief but sharp contest with the Federal infantry, this work also was abandoned by the Confederates, who retreated into the forts on Chaffin’s Farm behind it.

Upon three miles of the road which intervened between the scene of the first and second engagements there were but two houses, occupied by women and children. These houses were immediately appropriated to the medical staff, and sentinels were placed over the wells to secure the scanty supply of water for the use of the wounded. Of these many were sitting in knots on the road when Butler rode up, waiting for assistance, while the ambulance men with their stretchers were fully employed. The promptitude and energy of that branch of the service is beyond all praise; the wounded were removed within half an hour after they fell. The delegates of the two Commissions* contribute materially to this efficiency. The ambulances and waggons press so closely upon the heels of the army that their attendants have not unfrequently been wounded.

The third struggle of the day followed. Two forts [Fort Johnson and Fort Gilmer, both north of Fort Harrison] completely swept the Newmarket road: Foster’s division was set to assault them in rear whilst Birney attacked in front. Foster’s force, reduced by straggling to one-third of its proper strength, and wearied with marching, was repulsed; and Birney, after failing to make any impression, was obliged to retire by the arrival of reinforcements from Lee’s army. Under these circumstances it was decided that the army should retire for the night behind the second line of works captured. This position it still occupies.

* The United States Christian and Sanitary Commissions.

Supper followed, and the recapitulation of the events of the day. Most of us had been within five miles and a half of Richmond, having advanced nearly seven miles that morning, and the chief Confederate fort [Fort Harrison] had been taken. But the main advantages gained have generally been overlooked. A large number of works in progress were abandoned by the Confederates, the chief of which—a closed fort, four hundred yards in circumference, situated on a high bluff above Dutch Gap canal —would, when finished, have necessitated the abandonment of that enterprise, as the labourers could have been shelled from a third side, or would at least have rendered it useless, as the plunging fire of the guns would have closed the passage of the river above it even to iron-clads. Breastworks also were marked out and in progress, which would have made this district, which had been occupied with the loss of only two thousand men killed and wounded, as impassable as the Wilderness. And further, Kautz, who arrived later in the evening, reported that he had found the next road, parallel to those by which we had advanced (the Darbytown road), unobstructed by fortifications, and, supported by Terry’s division of infantry, had advanced to within two miles and a half of Richmond, being little annoyed by the scanty defenders of the principal line of works round Richmond, which he had examined. An avenue, therefore, was open, by which to assault the capital itself.

Throughout the day Butler had been calm and collected—the quivering of his hand as he wrote alone showing the intensity of his excitement; his voice was never raised. On receiving the news of the capture of Fort Harrison—a great success—he said nothing, but only turned to me with a quaint smile of triumph upon his face. When the repulse of his troops, in their assaults upon the remaining forts, was broken to him he was equally silent. He received the reports of aides and the suggestions of those about him with quiet courtesy, and, recasting them in his mind with great rapidity, issued his orders deliberately and clearly. But although master of the situation, he constantly expressed the wish that [18th Corps commander Godfrey] Weitzel [who took command after Ord was wounded] would come; contriving, however, so to prevent his anxiety making itself felt, that his staff chatted fearlessly under the trees, and enjoyed the stories with which he filled up the intervals as though the army was invincible. So, too, at night all slept quietly under the pines, whilst he was anticipating every moment an attack by Lee with the bulk of his army.

Weitzel arrived at night . He is a tall and powerful man, and speaks with a marked German accent. Of the same rank, but junior to Butler, he is chief of his engineers and his valued adviser. He has always been attached to Butler’s staff, but was only a lieutenant when he distinguished himself at the capture of New Orleans.

A Confederate Camp.—The next day, whilst riding over the ground which had been won the day before, General Butler came upon a breastwork of so formidable a character as to elicit from even General Grant an expression of thankfulness that its flank having been turned an assault had been avoided. Behind it stood a few tents. The rising mound upon which they were placed was flanked on either side by little running streams which, together with the hollow character of the wood and the dryness of the soil, had determined the position of the encampment. The bed-places of fir logs laid upon the stumps of four trees attested the skill of the Southern woodcutter; but this was the only sign of comfort visible. This had been the camp of the officers.

Across the stream on the left one or two fir-covered arbours, and bundles of fir boughs placed in a leaning position against the trees, marked the former dwelling-places of the privates. Upon the ground lay a Bible, Testament, and two books of hymns, all well stained by use. There were also a few Southern blankets like horse-cloths, made of cotton, some wooden spoons, and handfuls of ‘’Confederate’ beans, which resemble the seed of the scarlet-runner. Three rifles leaned against a tree, one an Enfield bearing the ‘Tower’ mark, the other two were the United States imitations of the Enfield, of Springfield manufacture. Numerous buttons strewed the ground, having been cut off the Federal uniforms, which were afterwards worn by the captors. Two tiny rolls of linen wrapped round with cotton, which excited some curiosity, were found to contain female hair.

The tents were appropriated by General Butler to the use of himself and staff, together with a table, chair, and two stools from the house of Mr. B. Aiken, adjoining. By the kind attention of some officer, General Butler was also provided with a stove and two high-backed seats from a deserted church, so that his tent was made quite comfortable. But in other respects he fared the same as the rest of the army; the stove-pipe alone distinguished his tent: it was said, indeed, that few generals lived so simply as he. His ambulance came from Point of Rocks once a-day with provisions; but as his tastes were simple, the black servants did not trouble themselves much with cooking. The only thing about which Butler is particular is his coffee; he rarely drinks spirits: I was even given to understand that in providing some whiskey he broke through a rule in my favour. His manner towards his black attendant was, in spite of ‘Steeve’s’ stupidity, remarkable for its gentleness.

The space which had been cleared of cedars in front of the tents was generally occupied by knots of refugees, or prisoners, clustered round two huge camp-fires, under guard of sentinels. On one occasion the General actually found himself sentry over more than a hundred prisoners, twenty of whom were officers. It happened that his escort, with the exception of two orderlies, were dispersed on various errands when the prisoners were brought in, nor was a cavalry soldier to be procured. The night was dark as pitch, and the rain was falling in torrents. The prisoners were grouped round two fires in front of the General’s tent, who, much amused at his position, placed his revolver on the table—‘It will be hard,’ he said, ‘if they bolt if I don’t hit one of them,’ and then continued the conversation which had been interrupted by the discovery. None of them, however, showed the slightest inclination to attempt to escape. Some, indeed, openly confessed that ‘they were sick of the war and had been so for a long time.’’ They were chiefly from Georgia and North Carolina; and it was asserted by the Federals that the troops of these States were disaffected and unmanageable, and that they were in consequence always sent to the front. The appearance of the men and of their officers rather suggested that they were the prime soldiers of the Southern army. The majority of the officers appeared to be thorough soldiers, full of fire and daring; and their looks showed that their spirit was unbroken and their hatred of the Yankee only increased by their mishap. They were for the most part captains, lieutenants, and ensigns, who had been captured in a sally made by Weitzel upon the Confederates when recoiling under the fire of the ‘seven-shooter’ rifles from the parapet of Fort Harrison. That out of ninety men thus captured within two hundred yards of the work, twenty were officers, is a sign of the vigour and bravery with which the Confederates are led. These officers appeared to be in manner, spirit, and physique much the superiors of those of the Federal army; indeed it seems probable that such is the case with the mass of the Confederate company officers.

Most of General Grant’s staff are remarkable for their soldierly bearing; a point in which too many Federal officers are deficient. General [John G.] Barnard, chief of Engineers, attracts especial attention, as he is almost the only grey-headed officer in the army.

But in point of appearance General Grant sadly disappoints expectation. He probably does not exceed five feet six inches in height; nor does his figure or demeanour compensate for this defect. It may have been that the repulse of Meade and Warren before Petersburg had made him especially gloomy on this occasion; but whatever the reason, no sign of animation was visible upon his face. Though I watched him covertly but intently for more than an hour, I could not discern the least change in the expression of his countenance; but he maintained a dogged and stolid look of abstraction, which accorded with the characteristic features of his face. His eyes are of a chilling blue grey, his lips thin and compressed, and drawn tightly over the teeth. His head is small, his ears large and projecting.

He had come to discuss the question of the defence of Butler’s present position, and a plan proposed by him for an assault upon the lines round Richmond.

Butler’s Engineers and those of Grant not agreeing, the latter, of course, had their way. The result seems to have proved their superior wisdom. They determined to fortify the Newmarket Heights three miles to the rear. Butler thought it would be sufficient to connect and strengthen the captured Confederate works in his immediate front. A fortnight after, Lee burst through these works; and but for the forts on Newmarket Heights would have cut off one of the two bridges by which Butler’s communications with his base at Bermuda Hundreds were maintained.10

The plan for an assault upon Richmond was suggested by various facts ascertained in the course of the two previous days. Butler had found one road, the Darbytown road, unobstructed, the fortifications being incomplete; which showed how unprepared the enemy was for an advance in force upon this side of the James river. He had also learned, by the concurrent testimony of prisoners and others, that these lines were only manned by the ‘minute-men,’ who had been summoned two days before by the alarm-bells of Richmond to leave their posts in the Government departments.11 These reports coincided with the experience of Kautz and Terry, and with the deductions which he drew as to the numbers and position of the Confederate army from his ‘Organization Book,’ to be mentioned presently.12

Basing his hopes of success upon the smallness of the number, and upon the inefficiency, of these minutemen, he proposed that Grant should lend him ten thousand men, with whom, together with his favourite division of coloured troops13, to make an assault upon two places, and by thus dividing the forces within to effect an entrance.

The places selected were the intervals between the redoubts, where, according to the story of a renegade officer, who spoke upon the clear and often-reiterated understanding that he was to pay the penalty of falsehood with his life, the ten-foot ditch in front of the works was provided with steps for the use of the riflemen, which with the additional aid of fascines would facilitate an assault at these points.

If the line could be carried by a sufficient force, great results might be expected. [Department of Richmond commander Richard S.] Ewell, who would be holding Chaffin’s Farm, three miles distant, against a simultaneous attack by the rest of Butler’s army, would be placed between two fires, and must surrender, or retreat across the James river, in which case the Federals, after destroying the three Confederate pontoon bridges, could make a dash at Richmond, assaulting the forts, if they failed to pass them by night. And there was reason to believe that Lee could not relieve the capital without abandoning, or seriously endangering, Petersburg.

Grant, however, decided that he could not spare a division; and as the Confederates subsequently completed their works, the Federals are now three miles to the rear of Terry’s position on September 29th and 30th.

From the deserters who gave the information about the fortifications, we also heard that the advance of the previous day had caused a panic in Richmond. The newspapers were not published for three days after, and the Whig of that day consisted only of a single page. It contained, however, the theatre advertisements and some comments upon previous performances. One of the deserters was a blacksmith, twenty-five years of age, who had escaped conscription by hiding whenever the pickets were coming round. He plied his trade by stealth, earning a good living. He was recognised by a former resident in Richmond, whom Butler kept with him to identify his townsmen. He said that flour was worth about from three hundred and fifty to four hundred and fifty dollars in Richmond; but that the high price was owing to the want of transportation. He stopped in the middle of a sentence on observing my English shooting boots. ‘Where did you get them, and what did you give for them?’ he said; ‘they would be worth four hundred dollars (Confederate) in Richmond,’ — constantly recurring to them with an envious glance. He said also that Danville was being strongly fortified in anticipation of the evacuation of Richmond.

Other deserters were not, however, so cool. Generally they showed the greatest anxiety to get to the rear, and some entreated not to be put in the front.

It was suggested in jest that if one of these deserters returned and told his comrades how well he had been treated, others would follow. So Butler called a prisoner and said, showing him some greenbacks, ‘Now, how much shall I give you to go back to your regiment and say how well we treated you?’ The man was startled. ‘I’ll let you escape to-night,’ continued the General, who, when the man said he could not get back, asked him the reason. He said, ‘Oh, those fellows over there shoot at everything they see.’

With regard to the treatment of prisoners by the South, it seems almost certain that the Southern army show them no ill-will, and take what care of them they can. The population, however, are perhaps devoid of a feeling of respect for a foe; but after carefully inquiring into each story that was told, and pressing the authors, I generally elicited the confession that the prisoners had exactly the same rations as the Confederate soldiers. They received, in fact, all that the South had to give. But the majority of Northerners have lived too luxurious a life to bear poor food and exposure in a very hot climate, especially if wounded also, and, of course, the difficulty of providing labour forces the Southern authorities to do less for them than they would otherwise do.

General Butler’s staff was composed of the sons of some of the best families in New England. They formed a body of young men of whose courtesy, refinement, and soldierly qualities, any country might be proud. They were brave to a fault, being all very young: a colonel, the chief of the staff, was not more than thirty; but youth is a characteristic of Federal officers.

The thoroughness of the education at West Point compensates in some instances for the inexperience of youth; but it was somewhat surprising to find that General Butler’s most trusted engineer, after General Weitzel, was only a lieutenant of twenty-four, almost fresh from that college.

General Butler rarely praises any one, but allows nothing to escape him, and with great tact, always contrives to make his satisfaction and confidence felt. He thus enhances the value of the praise which he reserves for cases of singular merit, such as the following:—Corporal Thomas Murphy, a young Irishman, had been the first to enter Fort Harrison, and on entering had captured with his own hand the bullet-rent colours of the 2oth Georgia Regiment, one of the oldest in the service. He was sent to present them to the General, who, upon his being introduced into the tent, rose from his chair, and, taking off his cap, welcomed him with a few well-chosen words of praise, and expressed his pleasure at seeing a man who had distinguished himself by such marked gallantry. After examining a specimen of the corporal’s handwriting, he dictated in his presence an order promoting him to the rank of second lieutenant (ensign) in the 8th Regiment of Coloured Infantry, ‘subject to the approval of the President.’ To these coloured regiments none but the bravest officers are appointed, as their efficiency depends upon the bravery of their white officers. The General further offered him—a great boon at a time when all furloughs had been recalled to swell the thinning ranks of Grant’s army—a fortnight’s leave ‘to visit his friends and to get his outfit;’ adding that he supposed he would prefer to see the close of the present movement before leaving the army. The young man hesitated; and at last summoned courage to say that he felt himself naturally unfitted to command others, and that he hoped he might be allowed to decline the honour. Butler was not a little surprised; but, finding that the young man spoke upon conviction, added to the order that, having declined promotion on this ground, the corporal was recommended to the President for a medal for distinguished gallantry, and was presented with twenty-five dollars by the Major-General commanding; then producing a roll of notes, he gave him the sum forthwith, expressing at the same time his regret that he did not accept the promotion. Considering that the pay of the army was now seven months in arrear, and that the soldiers were being induced to take United States bonds instead of pay, the present was more than usually valuable.

The climax of a curious conversation which Butler held with Colonel Ould, the Confederate Commissioner of Exchange, last autumn at Fortress Monroe, illustrates his confidence in his staff. They were speaking of the proclamation of President Davis, under which Butler, to use his own phrase, ‘is to be hanged at sight.’ Colonel Ould stated his belief that no one would be safer in the Confederacy than General Butler. ‘Well, Colonel,’ Butler replied,’you may go home and tell your authorities that I have a most devoted staff, and that I have given them strict orders that if anything happens to me at the hands of you Confederates, they shall go down to Fortress Monroe and hang immediately, out of the Confederate officers imprisoned there, ten of every grade above a field officer; and, Colonel, if you only leave one of my staff alive, I guarantee that he will do it.’ This story was told by Butler himself in the course of conversation, which not unfrequently turned upon the subject of this proclamation. His nickname of ‘the Beast’ was a never-failing source of amusement to him.

His administration at New Orleans formed another topic of conversation with himself and with his staff. A comparison of the various accounts thus received with those of others who were resident in the city at the time, induces a belief that the accounts of his rule there are untrustworthy. Many unusual difficulties evidently beset the General. The methods by which he met them, perhaps, do more credit to his ingenuity than his feelings and good taste; but there is no doubt that the ladies of New Orleans in particular were almost entirely forgetful of the characteristic refinement and decorum of their sex, and that it was necessary for the maintenance of discipline that they should be restrained from the gross insults which they offered to Federal officers in the public streets. The meaning of the notorious order, which was issued to check such practices, has been misunderstood in England. But though the wording of it may have been unfortunate, it is very doubtful whether it was meant to convey even an innuendo. It only extended a police regulation, enjoined by a statute law of the city, to those who would undermine the discipline of his army. It amounted to this: that individuals whose conduct in public resembled the conduct of a certain class, should share their liability to be locked up by the police as disorderly characters. The interpretation of this order, which gave rise to so much indignation in England (at which Americans have always smiled), is utterly inconsistent with the tenor of General Butler’s administration. He is the sternest of disciplinarians; and when at New Orleans, protected the personal rights of every inhabitant, of whatever political views, with an iron hand, although, to quote his own words,’he distributed Southern property amongst the poor of the city.’ The reasoning upon which he bases such confiscation is characteristic— ‘I saw that this rebellion was a war of the rich against the poor, for the retention of power in the hands of the few against the many, and I found no conclusion to it save the subjugation of the few and the disenthralment of the many. Therefore I have levied upon the wealthy rebel, and paid out nearly half-a-million dollars to feed forty thousand of the starving poor of all nations assembled here, made so by the war.’

The following was put forward by him as the motto of his administration there:—‘I hold,’ he wrote, ‘that rebellion is treason, and treason persisted in is death, and any punishment short of that due to a traitor, gives so much clear gain to him from the clemency of the Government. Upon this thesis I have administered the authority of the United States.’

The manner of a man acting upon such a thesis in a town seething with opposition is not likely to be particularly happy; but it is rather by the results that his admininistration [sic]should be judged. He claims to have ‘restored order, punished crime, opened commerce, and to have given the people of New Orleans complete protection for themselves and their families.’ And it is only just to state that residents in New Orleans have endorsed this claim, and said, that though they had not liked it at the time, yet there was no doubt that his administration had been productive of substantial good to New Orleans and to its people. No one will deny him credit for the great public improvements at New Orleans of which he was the author. He added greatly to the wealth of the city by reclaiming a large tract of land from the batture of the Mississippi; and to its healthiness by opening new streets and improving the old, and by the sanitary regulations, by which he demonstrated that yellow fever could be warded off from the city. Of this success he often speaks with triumph. He even went so far as to apologize to General Grant for his own remissness, which was, he said, the cause of yellow fever having this year appeared in Newberne, notorious for its filth.

The summary execution of the individual who, upon the entry of the Federal troops, tore down the Federal flag as soon as it was raised, and trampled it under foot in the public streets, was an act of great severity, for which his enemies, and the Confederates in particular, have condemned General Butler. But some military authorities will probably justify the act on the ground of the necessity of making an example to quell the fury and violence of opposition. This is the only overt act urged against him, though whispered insinuations are heard that he took undue advantage of his position to further his private interests; but as these allegations are as yet entirely unsupported by evidence, the just-minded will probably in this particular reserve their judgment of a man whose elevation, abilities, and wealth, contribute to surround him with jealousy and hatred. But a single charge has as yet been preferred against him; and in spite of suspicion carefully fostered, and of the alacrity of the judge who immediately attached all the General’s property in New York, including even the balance at his banker’s, it seems to have fallen to the ground. His own wealth, and the will of his brother who recently left him two-thirds of a large fortune, which it is asserted was amassed in New Orleans, under his brother’s administration—an assertion which requires proof—alone give colour to these suspicions. It is said that the General gave his brother unfair advantages over other merchants; but it is well known that the opening of the port of New Orleans, and the liberation of almost priceless merchandize warehoused there, gave any merchant who had credit extraordinary commercial opportunities; and General Butler’s presence, and reputed wealth, no doubt indirectly aided his brother towards obtaining the credit which the New Orleans bankers afforded him.

It should be remembered, moreover, that General Butler, in common with many other Federal officers, is a volunteer, who entered the army with commercial investments hung around him, and with similar operations only temporarily suspended; so that it is almost impossible that the success of these, which is really attributable to other and natural causes, should not give rise to suspicions of an undue use of high position. The main source of General Butler’s wealth is an enterprise upon which he entered not later than in the year 1857, the present success of which is owing entirely to his own sagacity in foreseeing at the outset that this rebellion must last for some years.

His ability is undeniable, and showed itself particularly in the complete and rapid discharge of his duties as a military commander, legislator, and judge. Besides managing an army of thirty thousand men, he originated civil, commercial, and sanitary regulations for the towns of his department, and decided the fate of refugees and noncombatant prisoners; tried spies and other suspicious characters, and offenders against military discipline. To these he added another occupation, that of examining nearly every prisoner of war sent in to him, in which he evinced great adroitness and insight into character, seeming to fathom a man at a glance, and to handle him accordingly. He had adopted a curious method of securing and arranging the information thus obtained, of which he was not a little proud, as it obviated to a considerable extent the difficulty of obtaining information, which is one of the most serious that besets the Federal Generals, who, in spite of their tall signal-towers on every high hill, are generally in total ignorance of the movements of the Confederates. His provost-marshal has written down from time to time in shorthand the answers of every prisoner. From these an abstract has been made in the form of a table, which contains the regiments arranged in their brigades, divisions, and corps; the commanders of each; and notes as to the effective strength of each; which is arrived at by cross-questioning successively the members of each regiment represented in a batch of prisoners, who meanwhile are not allowed to communicate with each other.

This table fills a book called The Organization Book, from its title, ‘The Organization of the Army of the Confederate States, General R. E. Lee commanding,’ of which army it is a skeleton rolster [sic, roster]. Its uses are various. Certain facts with reference to each regiment and brigade being entered there, such as the day it changed commanders, and the posts it has occupied, a series of questions are suggested, by the answers to which Butler can judge of the veracity or knowledge of his informant, as well as test the correctness and accuracy of the information already secured. Or by displaying a knowledge which he has obtained from the book, he makes a prisoner afraid to tell him a falsehood from a suspicion that the General knows too much about the subject already. But it is necessary to see the adroitness with which Butler uses this book to appreciate its full value. It enabled him, for instance, to discover the amount of reinforcements sent to Chaffin’s Farm in his front, and to trace the movements of the various parts of Lee’s army. He examined more than a hundred prisoners, and found from their evidence, when carefully sifted and pieced together, that certain regiments were in his front. He could refer by his book to their brigades, divisions, and corps, whose former position he already knew; and by further questions he discovered whether they were broken or not, and, if so, whither each part had moved. From inquiries such as these, extended over a long space of time, during which the history of nearly every regiment in the Confederate service has been compiled and verified, it appeared that the number of men for duty in the oldest Confederate regiments varied from thirty to an hundred, the latter being an exceptional number, while the former was proved, by the rolsters [sic, rosters] captured on the morning of the advance, to be the actual effective strength of the [T]hird Arkansas regiment. Companies of the 19th Alabama [sic, the 19th alabam was not at Petersburg] numbered four, nine, fourteen, thirteen, and thirty. These regiments had probably not been recruited from time to time as those of the Federals are, but their relics seem to have been brigaded together. One batch of about seventy prisoners contained all that remained of two regiments, which numbered six and nine men respectively. Regiments more recently raised, and which had suffered less from depletion, averaged about three hundred men. A company numbering sixty men was so exceptional, that an assertion to that effect was severely tested by General Butler before he would accept it. Such instances of depletion are not without parallel in Federal regiments; some of which, after being filled up with fresh recruits to a maximum of one thousand eight hundred men, have numbered from sixty-five to one hundred and fifty men for duty, when their term of service had expired. The large number of battle flags captured by the Federals, in comparatively small successes, bears upon this point.

General Butler estimated the entire army at Lee’s disposal at thirty-five thousand men, not including those detailed for service on special emergencies. Of these, the chief body, composed of the clerks of the Government departments in Richmond, consisted of three regiments of one thousand each. One of the lieutenants of this force, a dainty and clerklike individual, with a well-curled moustache and small pointed beard, was captured, and examined by General Butler. It should be stated that the General usually tells officers beforehand that they are at liberty to decline to answer his questions. The lieutenant attempted to evade them, assuming a jaunty air, and although he had confessed to being a cashier of Adam’s Express, or Parcel Delivery Company, in Richmond, when asked what number of men his regiment had for duty that morning, replied ‘that he could not count men, but could count gold and specie such as they had in Richmond.’ This was too much for Butler, who turned towards him fiercely. ‘Do you mean to tell me, sir,’ he cried, ‘that you have seen or touched either gold or specie in Richmond these two years?’ ‘Sir,’ he continued, ‘you might have declined to answer my questions, and I should have respected you, but you had no right to tell me these lies.’ Other curious scenes occurred during these examinations.

Two other officers took the oath of allegiance, and gave Butler much valuable information as to the defences of Richmond, volunteering to stake their lives upon its truth. The question, ‘Upon your life?’ and the reply  ‘Upon my life,’ which followed each important assertion, acquired a strange reality from the solemn tone and earnest manner in which they were spoken. In another scene figured a guerilla in disguise. He was brought in one morning—a tall, broad, athletic individual, with shaggy red hair and whiskers, wearing a greatcoat of the greenish-yellow hue, which the natives of these parts give to their home-spun by means of a dye extracted from the bark of the butternut, a species of walnut. He spoke with the accent of a German Jew; and after the usual stern admonition from the General that the oath was to be taken from the heart and not merely as a matter of form, swore fealty to the United States, declaring himself to be at heart its loyal subject. Next day ‘Butternut’ was sent back with further evidence as to his character. ‘I thought yesterday, Mr. Kell,’ said Butler, ‘that you were an honest man and well disposed to my Government?’ ‘And so I am,’ interrupted Kell. ‘Then why didn’t you come out to welcome our troops as the negroes do, Mr. Kell, with “God bress you, massa—I’se glad to see you “—instead of hiding yourself under the hay-mow?’ ‘Oh! I didn’t know what to do.’ ‘And pray, Mr. Kell, how came you to have three military saddles hidden under the haymow?’ Oh! they were old and of no account, and he had nothing to put them on, for the Southerners had impressed his horse. ‘And pray, Mr. Kell, how do you account for having ammunition of English manufacture hidden under the haymow?’ Oh! the children had picked it up in the road: a curious fact, as the General observed to him, seeing that no battle had taken place in the neighbourhood till the day this discovery was made, and that the Federals, at least, do not use English ammunition, while the Confederates could not afford to drop theirs about. So Mr. Kell was sent down to Fortress Monroe, to be kept at hard labour there as a very dangerous character.

But the General’s manner was not always so calm when the time came for what he calls ‘his dirty work,’ i.e., the trial of men and officers reported for cowardice, drunkenness, &c. After dismissing a captain ‘with disgrace’ from the service for gross cowardice and a lying defence, he turned round to him fiercely and ordered him to ‘take himself out of this department within twenty-four hours.’ He showed also the greatest indignation when a medical officer was reported to him for ‘being disgracefully, brutally, inhumanly, and insultingly drunk,’ when in charge of a hundred and fifty wounded. On finding that (owing to the rapid advance of the ambulances) thirty wounded negroes had been left for nearly twenty-four hours without any medical aid, he sent for the responsible persons, and reprimanded them severely for their neglect of coloured men. In hearing all cases he would send for every officer involved in the defence offered, in order to confront him with the prisoner; but having found that one officer had been reported without reason, taking the responsibility upon himself, Butler received him in his tent, taking off his hat as the officer entered, and concluded a most handsome apology, with the assurance that ‘so far from this matter being remembered to his disadvantage it should be remembered to his advantage.’

First Page:


Article Images (Zip File)


  1. Unknown Author. “A Visit to General Butler and the Army of the James, Part the First.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. 71, No. 424 (April 1865), pp. 434-448
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: The CSS Atlanta had been captured on June 17, 1863 by two Union monitors, the Nahant and Weehawken. The Atlanta was taken into Federal service and served on the James River during the Siege of Petersburg.  For more on the Atlanta, check out the Naval Historical Center’s page on the ship.
  3. SOPO Editor’s Note: Fort Powhatan is one such work along the James River prior to reaching City Point.
  4. SOPO Editor’s Note: I’m not sure what the author is referring to when he discusses Sheridan, but Meade’s Army of the Potomac was definitely involved in Grant’s Fifth Offensive.  The Fifth and Ninth Corps moved out past Poplar Spring Church and advanced across Pegram’s and Peebles’ farms from September 30-October 2, 1864.   Though they suffered quite a few captured, they extended the Union breastworks even further in that direction.  Much of their success was made possible by the severe alarm Butler threw into the Confederate leaders and public on September 29, 1864, keeping troops occupied north of the James River and preventing those troops from reinforcing Hill’s Third Corps along the Boydton Plank Road southwest of Petersburg.
  5. SOPO Editor’s Note: Girardey had been killed on August 16, 1864 during the Second Deep Bottom Campaign at Fussell’s Mill, shortly after having been made a Brigadier General and getting assigned to the command of Wright’s Georgia Brigade.
  6. SOPO Editor’s Note: The author is referring to the James River Squadron, which included the ironclads Richmond, Virginia II, and Fredericksburg as well as some gunboats.
  7. SOPO Editor’s Note: The “coloured division” was Brigadier General C. J. Paine’s 3rd Division, 18th Corps, Army of the James, temporarily attached to the 10th Corps for the assault on Fort Harrison on the morning of September 29, 1864.
  8. SOPO Editor’s Note: David B. Birney would be dead in less than a month.  He passed away on October 18, 1864 at his home in Philadelphia, felled by malaria rather than a bullet or shell.
  9. SOPO Editor’s Note: This paragraph refers to the Battle of New Market Heights, fought on the right end of the Army of the James’ line while Fort Harrison was contested on the left on September 29, 1864. Paine’s USCT division managed to drive off (or hurry along, if you go by Confederate accounts) the famous Texas Brigade, and action was continued north of Fort Harrison at Fort Gilmer.
  10. SOPO Editor’s Note: The author appears to be referring to the October 7, 1864 Battle of Darbytown and New Market Roads, Lee’s second to last designed offensive against the Union armies surrounding Richmond and Petersburg.  Lee did smash through Kautz’s cavalry division to the right of Fort Harrison, but the Yankee lines dug on New Market Road stopped the Confederate attack dead in its tracks.  The only point in which the author disagrees is the timing, when he mentions this happened “a fortnight” after the September 29-30, 1864 attacks described in this article.  In reality, Lee’s offensive occurred only a week later.
  11. SOPO Editor’s Note: This sentence refers to the Virginia Local Defense Troop battalions guarding Richmond.
  12. SOPO Editor’s Note: Butler was extremely good at utilizing his intelligence group to figure out locations and strengths of Confederate forces facing him.  He was often quite accurate in his assessments.  Whatever faults Butler may have had as a commander, gathering and properly assessing intelligence was definitely not one of them.
  13. SOPO Editor’s Note: Again, Paine’s 3rd Division, 18th Corps which contained all Black regiments, who were officered by Whites.
{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Reply