Do You Trust Ben Butler?

Recently Phillip W. Magness challenged Mark Neely’s claim that a conversation that Benjamin F. Butler reportedly had with Abraham Lincoln on the eve of Lincoln’s assassination about the colonization of black Union veterans abroad might have taken place, even if not in the way that Butler told the tale.  Let’s look at the complete account offered by Butler (I’ve put some parts in bold because I plan to discuss them):

A conversation was held between us after the negotiations had failed at Hampton Roads, and in the course of the conversation he said to me : —

“But what shall we do with the negroes after they are free? I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes. Certainly they cannot if we don’t get rid of the negroes whom we have armed and disciplined and who have fought with us, to the amount, I believe, of some one hundred and fifty thousand men. I believe that it would be better to export them all to some fertile country with a good climate, which they could have to themselves.

“You have been a stanch friend of the race from the time you first advised me to enlist them at New Orleans. You have had a good deal of experience in moving bodies of men by water,— your movement up the James was a magnificent one. Now, we shall have no use for our very large navy; what, then, are our difficulties in sending all the blacks away?

“If these black soldiers of ours go back to the South I am afraid that they will be but little better off with their masters than they were before, and yet they will be free men. I fear a race war, and it will be at least a guerilla war because we have taught these men how to fight. All the arms of the South are now in the hands of their troops, and when we capture them we of course will take their arms. There are plenty of men in the North who will furnish the negroes with arms if there is any oppression of them by their late masters.

“I wish you would carefully examine the question and give me your views upon it and go into the figures, as you did before in some degree, so as to show whether the negroes can be exported. I wish also you would give me any views that you have as to how to deal with the negro troops after the war. Some people think that we shall have trouble with our white troops after they are disbanded, but I don’t anticipate anything of that sort, for all the intelligent men among them were good citizens or they would not have been good soldiers. But the question of the colored troops troubles me exceedingly. I wish you would do this as soon as you can, because I am to go down to City Point shortly and may meet negotiators for peace there, and I may want to talk this matter over with General Grant if he isn’t too busy.

I said: “I will go over this matter with all diligence and tell you my conclusions as soon as I can.”

The second day after that, I called early in the morning and said: “Mr. President, I have gone very carefully over my calculations as to the power of the country to export the negroes of the South, and I assure you that using all your naval vessels and all the merchant marine fit to cross the seas with safety, it will be impossible for you to transport them to the nearest place that can be found fit for them,— and that is the Island of San Domingo,— half as fast as negro children will be born here.”

“I am afraid you are right, General,” was his answer; “but have you thought what we shall do with the negro soldiers?”

I said: “I have formulated a scheme which I will suggest to you, Mr. President. We have now enlisted one hundred and fifty thousand negro troops, more or less, infantry, cavalry, and artillery. They were enlisted for three years or for the war. We did not commence enlisting them in any numbers until the latter part of 1863 and in 1864. I assume that they have a year at least on an average to serve, and some of them two to three years. We have arms, equipment, clothing, and military material and everything necessary for three hundred thousand troops for five years. Until the war is declared ended by official proclamation, which cannot be done for some very considerable time, they can be ordered to serve wherever the commander-in-chief may direct.

“Now I have had some experience in digging canals. The reason why my canal, which was well dug, did not succeed you know. My experience during the war has shown me that the army organization is one of the very best for digging. Indeed, many of the troops have spent a large portion of their time in digging in forts and intrenchments, and especially the negroes, for they were always put into the work when possible. The United States wants a ship canal across the Isthmus of Darien at some proper and convenient point. Now, I know of a concession made by the United States of Colombia of a strip thirty miles wide across the Isthmus for that purpose. I have the confidence of the negroes. If you will put me in command of them, I will take them down there and dig the canal. It will cost the United States nothing but their pay, the clothing that they wear will be otherwise eaten by the moths, the arms are of no worth, as we have so many of them in excess; the wagons and equipments will otherwise rust out. I should set one third of them to digging. I should set another third to building the proper buildings for shelter and the rest to planting the ground and raising food. They will hardly need supplies from the government beyond the first season, having vegetable supplies which they will raise and which will be best for their health. After we get ourselves established we will petition Congress under your recommendation to send down to us our wives and children. You need not send down anybody to guard us, because if fifty thousand well-equipped men cannot take care of ourselves against anybody who would attack us in that neighborhood, we are not fit to go there. We shall thus form a colony there which will protect the canal and the interests of the United States against the world, and at least we shall protect the country from the guerilla warfare of the negro troops until the danger from it is over.”

He reflected a while, having given the matter his serious attention, and then spoke up, using his favorite phrase: “There is meat in that, General Butler; there is meat in that. But how will it affect our foreign relations? I want you to go and talk it over with Mr. Seward and get his objections, if he has any, and see how you can answer them. There is no special hurry about that, however. I will think it over, but nothing had better be said upon it which will get outside.”

“Well, then, Mr. President,” I said, “I will take time to elaborate my proposition carefully in writing before I present it to Mr. Seward.”

I bowed and retired, and that was the last interview I ever had with Abraham Lincoln.

Some days afterwards I called at Mr. Seward’s office, reaching it, as near as I can remember, about two o’clock in the afternoon. He promptly and graciously received me, and I stated to him that I came to see him at the request of the President, to place before him a plan that I had given to the President for disposing of the negro troops.

“Ah,” he said, “General, I should be very glad to hear it. I know Mr. Lincoln’s anxiety upon that question, for he has expressed it to me often, and I see no answer to his trouble. But you must excuse me this afternoon; it is mail day, as we say in the department, and I have got some important letters to write so that they may reach New York to-morrow morning. Come and take an early dinner with me at six o’clock, and after dinner we will discuss the matter at our cigars.”

Shortly before six o’clock, however, as he was returning from his drive, he was thrown from his carriage by his horses becoming frightened and running away, and was so seriously injured that his life was despaired of. He lay on his sick-bed until the 14th of April, when Lincoln was assassinated, and he himself was so brutally assaulted that he was detained in bed for many weeks afterwards.

Meantime, Mr. Lincoln had gone to City Point and remained absent several days, returning only to meet the assassin’s pistol.

Magness’s research indicated that, contrary to Neely, Butler and Lincoln met … after Lincoln returned from City Point.  However, it does not follow that the two men had the conversation outlined above.  Indeed, Butler’s account is quite problematic, and Magness’s efforts to brush away some of these issues is less than persuasive.

I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes.

Really?  Magness argues that the Lincoln/Butler meeting took place on April 11, 1865.  That same evening Lincoln for the first time offered in public his suggestion to extend the right to vote to those blacks who had served in the military or who were literate.  How could he have entertained such contrary perspectives?

You have had a good deal of experience in moving bodies of men by water,— your movement up the James was a magnificent one.

Good grief.  Lincoln expressed no such opinion at the time, and Butler was currently out of a command due to his mismanagement of the Fort Fisher expedition.  What puffery on Butler’s part.

because I am to go down to City Point shortly and may meet negotiators for peace there, and I may want to talk this matter over with General Grant if he isn’t too busy.

There’s no record of such a conversation with Grant, and Grant said nothing about this proposal.

Until the war is declared ended by official proclamation, which cannot be done for some very considerable time, they can be ordered to serve wherever the commander-in-chief may direct.

This is another odd aspect of Butler’s account … because it was not too long before he urged Lincoln’s successor to declare the war at an end as soon as possible.  Why?  Because that way Robert E. Lee would no longer be a prisoner of war, and, Butler thus reasoned, he would not be protected by the Appomattox terms and could be tried for treason.  You would think that given Johnson’s morbid concern about black soldiers in 1865 that Butler would have found him a ready audience for such a proposal, and yet there’s no evidence that such a conversation ever took place.  

I want you to go and talk it over with Mr. Seward and get his objections, if he has any, and see how you can answer them.

There are several problems here.  First, Seward never mentioned such a conversation.  Second, such a conversation would have to have occurred after Lincoln left for City Point (March 23) but before Seward’s injury from a carriage accident …. which took place before April 11 (and was in fact a consideration in Lincoln deciding to return from City Point).  If you are going to claim that Butler and Lincoln had this conversation April 11 (and, recall, Butler recalled two conversations with Lincoln several days apart), you would have to conclude that Butler was lying about his conversation with Seward.  Indeed, Magness, by claiming that there was just one Lincoln-Butler meeting, actually overlooks the fact that Butler said that there were two, which would, according to Butler’s own account, have to had take place before March 23.

I will take time to elaborate my proposition carefully in writing before I present it to Mr. Seward.

Where’s the document?  Why has none been produced in support of this story? 

Magness cleverly fixed upon Neely’s claim that no meeting could possibly have taken place and showed that Butler and Lincoln did indeed meet, although not when Butler recalled.  But the remainder of his argument raises more questions than it answers, because he had no proof as to what the two men may have talked about on April 11 (and he forgets to place the “second” meeting).  It’s difficult to reconcile what Magness says Butler says Lincoln said on April 11 with what Lincoln said in public that night, and other elements of the story simply don’t check out.

What do you think?




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16 thoughts on “Do You Trust Ben Butler?

  1. You have made some of the same points, more cogently than I would have, that occurred to me when I first read Magness’s article.

    To answer the question posed in the title: No, I do not trust Ben Butler. His entire account—regardless of the issue of whether the meeting took place—simply does not ring true.

  2. I have always thought that Butler’s account doesn’t pass the credibility “smell test.” As you’ve pointed out, even if we acknowledge that Butler met with Lincoln later that the original Butler claim, there are still too many inconsistencies. The points about the claim to have met with Seward, yet there is no account from Seward and no document to support this, which Butler’s account would indicate he intended to write in support of this plan, as well as no subsequent attempts to continue with such a plan working with Johnson, who certainly would have been receptive to the idea of removing blacks from the South, after Lincoln’s death are particularly telling. It seems Magness wants to resurrect and rehabilitate the Butler story and hitch it to some evidence of diplomatic efforts by the administration to find some possible voluntary outlets for Southern freedmen, and interpret it as an ongoing policy of attempted massive relocation of blacks, and it just doesn’t hold up, in my opinion.

    Thanks for taking the time to go through the Butler statement carefully and pointing out its problems and inconsistencies.

  3. It doesn’t appear that this conversation covered the lucrative activities of “Spoons” and his brother down New Orleans way when he was in command of the occupied city. The answer is that I wouldn’t rely on Butler to verify what day July 4 falls on. Butler was a crafty self-promoter and a skilled lawyer without much apparent fealty to the unvarnished truth. Why Lincoln would have had this extended, revealing discussion with a guy who had long since lost his political clout escapes me.

  4. Yes Ben is a bit of a bullshitter. the “magnificent” was good for a laugh. He was good to his voters though and I might have voted for him, there is nothing unusual about corrupt politicians being good politicians,you could argue it might even be a Bay State tradition , with the likes of James M Curley, Billy “the Corrupt Midget” Bulger and Tom “Tommy Taxes” Fineran having held office. But not for a moment could I ever believe that account by Spoons.

  5. Butler’s account seems pretty self-serving. Having just lost his command after the Fort Fisher campaign, why would Lincoln consider Butler for anything as complicated as this purported scheme? Why does no one else seem to have mentioned it.

  6. *** “You have had a good deal of experience in moving bodies of men by water,— your movement up the James was a magnificent one.”
    Good grief. Lincoln expressed no such opinion at the time, and Butler was currently out of a command due to his mismanagement of the Fort Fisher expedition. What puffery on Butler’s part. ***

    Puffery is right! Someone should have explained to Butler that when you make up a story you should not stretch it too far out of bounds. This quote really is hilarious!

  7. The only thing “magnificent” about Butler was the size of his cranium. A shameless self-promoter if ever there was one. I’m reminded of his conduct after the capture of Fort Hatteras in August 1861, when he raced his naval counterpart back to Washington to personally take credit for the victory. As one officer said: “Had they both remained, we might have had the whole coast in our possession.”

  8. The whole Butler clan was slightly off. His nephew served as U.S. consul general in Egypt in the 1870s until his recall due to excessive drinking that led to a shooting spree and his purchase of harem women. Sadly, this did not make him unusual of the diplomatic corp of the Gilded Age.

  9. And I should have added, that in my own research for my dissertation on the Grant administration’s foreign policy toward the Caribbean, I found that the Spanish minister to the United States accused Butler of extorting large sums of money from Spanish citizens in New Orleans while he was the commanding general. Hamilton Fish, Grant’s secretary of state, denied ever seeing the accusation, though I suspected that he wasn’t surprised by it. To be fair to Butler, I also found telegrams from the Cuban junta to him, making me suspect the Spanish wanted to discredit a prominent Cuban supporter.

  10. Short answer: Nope.

    One wonders, given his undoubted abilities as an attorney, if Lincoln could have safely switched him to the JAG or PMG corps at some point…it appears he would have been reasonably capable in a staff or administrative position; however much of a grifter he was, he seems to have kept New Orleans fairly quiet after the US forces re-took control in 1862…

    Same for Banks, given his executive experience in Massachusetts; seems like he should have been left as a PMG or military governor somewhere.

  11. “can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes.

    Really? Magness argues that the Lincoln/Butler meeting took place on April 11, 1865. That same evening Lincoln for the first time offered in public his suggestion to extend the right to vote to those blacks who had served in the military or who were literate. How could he have entertained such contrary perspectives?”

    He’s a politician.

    ***

    “You have had a good deal of experience in moving bodies of men by water,— your movement up the James was a magnificent one.

    Good grief. Lincoln expressed no such opinion at the time, and Butler was currently out of a command due to his mismanagement of the Fort Fisher expedition. What puffery on Butler’s part.”

    Not surprising that Butler would embellish certain events to make himself look good but what would be his motive to lie about the proposed/supposed colonization scheme?

    • “He’s a politician.”

      And exactly what does that explain? Nothing. After all, people have argued that Lincoln’s advocacy of colonization was little more that a politician’s way of making certain things acceptable …. like emancipation. I don’t happen to agree with those folks, but it seems you do. There’s far less political advantage in pushing for the enfranchisement of even some African Americans.

      As for Butler’s motive to lie, to make himself look good (and important). Just as when he denied ever doing anything wrong in New Orleans.

      No one’s offered any supporting evidence for Butler’s story. Even Magness has to admit that if Lincoln discussed this matter with Butler on April 11, much of the rest of Butler’s story becomes problematic, because the story he tells is inconsistent with an April 11 date.

      We can speculate on Butler’s motive after we first discover whether the story holds water. So far, I’ve seen nothing to show that it does. Neely’s overstatement opened the door for Magness’s counterattack, but Magness’s own belief in an April 11 date has its own problems.

  12. Make you will of it, but it looks like there’s at least something in the story. It’s not explicitly linked to Lincoln, but Grant and Seward both appear.

    From Magness’s new book, ‘Colonization After Emancipation':

    “It is also tempting to find fault in Butler’s suspiciously visionary claims about the Panama Canal, an engineering feat more closely associated with the decade of his writing than the Civil War. Such scrutiny may be less intuitive than it first appears. In November 1865 Seward posed a query to General Ulysses S. Grant about the possibility of using soldiers to dig a Darien canal. Grant’s response, offered in a private note, suggested, “Colored troops could be sent in sufficient numbers to guard the surveying party against hostile Indians and to do all the labor upon land.”” [114]

    Footnote: “Grant, who was still serving in the military at the time, indicates that his comments on Panama “were a private note,” “written without consultation with the Sec. of War whos [sic] approval would be necessary in case any such use was made of the Military forces of this country as are here mentioned” (Grant to Seward, November 10, 1865, in John Y. Simon, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, 15:413)” [157]

    • I would not interpret this as being part of the story. Grant had been looking for things for black troops to do (such as railroad construction) as well, and he’d been interested in a canal on some level since his own crossing of the Isthmus in 1852. If Seward mentions this to Grant, then there would be documentation for Butler’s story in Seward’s papers, since that’s how one connects the dots. Assuming that Grant and Lincoln talked about this stumbles over chronology yet again, although Magness doesn’t recognize that; same with Seward. Given Seward’s own interests in empire, his suggestion seems rooted in that idea. In short, Magness might do a little more looking into the context of this exchange.

  13. What school is Magness at? I haven’t seen that book before-it looks interesting, but it also looks awfully slim for a book from an academic press.

  14. He seems to have been at George Mason, but is also affiliated to American University. You’re right: it *is* slim, but it looks as though the amount of material involved sat awkwardly on the line between being more than an article’s worth and less than a normal book. Although Magness and his co-author refer to the existing debate on Lincoln and colonization, they do not repeat the Chiriqui or Ile a Vache stories in detail, which may explain it too.

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