Saturday, June 08, 2013

Benjamin "Beast" Butler: Unlikely Liberator

Benjamin “Beast” Butler was not a great officer, but he did amass some notoriety during the war by, among other things, authorizing Union troops to treat women in New Orleans as prostitutes (which earned him that “Beast” designation) and later getting “bottled up” in the Bermuda Hundred. Most of all, he acquired some fame as the first Union officer who refused to return to their masters slaves who escaped to Union lines, on the theory that they were “contraband property of war.”

James Oakes book Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 is a delight, not least for his recounting of incidents such as the circumstances under which Butler, having been exiled by Winfield Scott to Fortress Monroe at Hampton Roads, made and sought approval for his decision in May 1861.  But I enjoyed even more Oakes’ brief recap of Butler’s pre-war biography, which made him the most unlikely of liberators. A military wannabe who was unable to secure an appointment to West Point, Butler instead became a lawyer and Democratic politician in Massachusetts. In the late 1840s and early 1850s Butler flirted with Free Soil Democrats and Conscience Whigs, but later in the decade he returned to his Democratic roots, going so far as to support John Breckinridge for president in 1860:

Rather than embrace the new antislavery Republican Party, Butler went back to the Democrats. He campaigned for James Buchanan in 1856, endorsed the proslavery Lecompton Constitution for Kansas, supported the Dred Scott decision, and appealed to white workers with racial demagoguery. At his party’s tumultuous 1860 nominating convention in Charleston, South Carolina, Butler voted more than fifty times for Jefferson Davis and ended up supporting John Breckinridge, the proslavery Democrat. Butler even apologized for having once flirted with the Free Soil Party. The best that can be said of Butler’s antislavery record is that it was unimpressive.

As Oakes goes on to explain, secession and Fort Sumter – coupled, perhaps, with the opportunity to realize his long-suppressed dreams of a military career – turned Butler around. And having acquired the opportunity, Butler, although no great military man, was smart enough to understand the logic of war, and of the Republican Party:

[P]roperty of whatever nature, used or capable of being used for warlike purposes, and especially when being so used, may be captured and held either on sea or on shore as property contraband of war.

About the illustration at the top of the post, entitled The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine (1861):

On May 27, 1861, Benjamin Butler, commander of the Union army in Virginia and North Carolina, decreed that slaves who fled to Union lines were legitimate "contraband of war," and were not subject to return to their Confederate owners. The declaration precipitated scores of escapes to Union lines around Fortress Monroe, Butler's headquarters in Virginia. In this crudely drawn caricature, a slave stands before the Union fort taunting his plantation master. The planter (right) waves his whip and cries, "Come back you black rascal." The slave replies, "Can't come back nohow massa Dis chile's contraban." Hordes of other slaves are seen leaving the fields and heading toward the fort.

The second image is a pictorial envelope.  The figure says, "By golly massa Butler, I like dis better dan workin' in de field for ole Sesesh massa."

The third image is also a pictorial envelope, entitled Contraband of War; or, Volunteer Sappers and Miners From the "F.F.V." shows "African-American men with mining tools in-hand, volunteering to join the Union Army." The figures say, "Massa Butler, we's jest seceed from de 'meen-asses junction,' and wants to 'list in the counterband regiment. We's no great hands at fightin' , but we kin run 'most as fast as our old massas did toder night, Now, ef you wants any trenches or forti'cations made, we's de niggers to call upon in dat ar line."   "F.F.V." seems to refer to First Families of Virginia.

In the fourth image, an "African-American boy clings to the leg of General Butler. Butler extends his sword to fend-off slave owner with whip and dog."  General Butler says, "can't see it."

The fifth image is an 1861 print on an envelope that

shows a slave at the Union fort taunting his plantation master. The planter (left) waves his whip and cries, "Come back you black rascal." The slave replies, "Can't come back nohow massa Dis chile's contraban." Other slaves are seen leaving the fields and heading toward the fort. On May 27, 1861, Benjamin Butler, commander of the Union army in Virginia and North Carolina, decreed that slaves who fled to Union lines were legitimate "contraband of war," and were not subject to return to their Confederate owners. The declaration precipitated scores of escapes to Union lines around Fortress Monroe,

What the Hell Happened to William Seward? A Followup

In What the Hell Happened to William Seward? I explored William Seward's pre-Civil War reputation for anti-slavery radicalism in light of his surprisingly conciliatory approach in the years immediately before the war and particularly his frantic attempts to keep the upper South in the Union during the late winter and spring of 1860.  In brief, I wondered whether Seward's earlier radical reputation wasn't overblown:

So where does this leave me? I'm not sure. As this post suggests, I guess I'm inclined to see more continuity than disjunction - more conservatism and caution underlying a radical image from fairly early on. Most people become more conservative as they grow older, but the change tends to be moderate and evolutionary. The evidence, however, is fairly thin and ambiguous, and there's always the concern that I'm reading more in earlier events because I know what will come later.

In his book Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, James Oakes comes at Seward from a somewhat different angle.  Oakes suggests that Seward was prepared to be conciliatory toward the South in the months immediately preceding the war because he, like many Republicans at the time, fervently believed that Lincoln's election meant that slavery was as good as dead.  Since the war against slavery was already won, why engage in needless antagonism?

Even more than most Republicans, Seward was convinced that the mere election of Lincoln signaled the overthrow of the Slave Power and with it the inevitable destruction of slavery. . . . Now that the hour of slavery’s demise was at hand, the only thing Republicans had to do was hold the Union together until Lincoln’s inauguration. There would be no need for any “overt act” against slavery because slavery was doomed anyway.


Republicans in general, and Seward in particular, believed that slavery’s fate was already sealed by their electoral victory. Convinced that slavery could be abolished peacefully, the conciliators urged fellow Republicans to speak as softly as possible – perhaps say nothing at all. Why add fuel to the secessionist fire? . . . There was no need for war because the Slave Power had been dislodged and federal policy was about to shift in a dramatically antislavery direction.

Oakes emphasizes that, although Seward “assumed” a “conciliatory posture,” he steadfastly refused “to compromise basic Republican principles.” If anything, “Seward [was] willing to conciliate because [he was] not willing to compromise."

While Oakes’s broader point that Seward “believed that slavery’s fate was already sealed” may be correct, I do not think it fully explains Seward’s actions in the period. For one thing, although Seward may not have compromised “basic Republican principles,” he came perilously close to doing so.  As I pointed out in my earlier post, as early as November 1860, Seward seems to be have been in cahoots with Thurlow Weed when Weed floated a trial balloon proposing to strengthen the Fugitive Slave Act and extend the old Missouri Compromise line.

More broadly, Oakes fails to account for the frantic desperation that Seward displayed in dealing with the border states and the Confederate commissioners, desperation that was so frantic that he misled the all parties in one way or another - a fact to which Oakes briefly alludes in part but glosses over (emphasis added):

So fervently did Seward believe that war was unnecessary to destroy slavery that he made heroic but misleading efforts cultivate unionists in the Upper South in a desperate attempt to limit the scope of secession to the Deep South.

About the illustration, entitled The Abolition Catastrophe, Or the November Smash-up (1864):

 Lincoln's support of abolition is portrayed here as a liability in his race to the White House against Democratic candidate George B. McClellan. At top a smoothly run train "Union" heads straight for the White House. The engine is labeled "Democracy" and the first car, in which McClellan stands in the role of engineer, flies a flag "Constitution." The other cars are labeled "Union" and are occupied by happy, cheering Democrats. McClellan taunts, "Wouldn't you like to swap horses now? Lincoln?" (probably a reference to Lincoln's replacement of him as commander of the Army of the Potomac). Several of his passengers comment on the wreck of the Republican train below: "H-ll, H ll, I'm used to Railroad accidents but that beats Vibbards all to smash." New York governor Horatio Seymour: "I thought little Mac could take the train through better than I could." "It's no use talking Ben [Union general Benjamin F. Butler]! I told you I was on the right train . . . thunder there's John McKeon [prominent Democrat and New York lawyer ] with us." "Little Mac is the boy to smash up all the Misceganationists." "Politics does make strange bed fellows . . . the d . . . l if there aint Fernandy!" "Fernandy" is Fernando Wood, prominent Peace Democrat and mayor of New York. "Good-bye Horace [Horace Greeley]! Nigger on the brain flummoxed you." "Thus ends the Abolition Party!" "Be the powers the gintleman with his pantaloons in his bootleg is having a high time of it." "Good-bye old Greenbacks!" to Salmon P. Chase, who leaves with a satchel at right. Chase, who resigned his post as secretary of the treasury on June 29, says, "Thank God, I got off that train in the nick of time." In contrast, Lincoln's train, below, is far behind after having crashed on rocks "Confiscation," "Emancipation," "$400,000,000,000 Public Debt," "To Whom It May Concern," and "Abolitionism." Lincoln himself is hurled into the air, and says, "Dont mention it Mac, this reminds me of a . . ." This reference is to Lincoln's rumored penchant for telling humorous stories at inappropriate moments. (See "The Commander-in-Chief Conciliating the Soldier's Votes," no. 1864-30.) "Tribune" publisher and abolitionist Horace Greeley, also in the air, says, "I told you Abe that 'To whom it may concern' would be the death of us." (See "The Sportsman Upset by the Recoil of His Own Gun," no. 1864-31.) A black man crushed in the wreck accuses Lincoln, "Wars de rest ob dis ole darkey? Dis wot yer call 'mancipation'?" Another black man hurtles through the air, retorting, "Lor Amighty Massa Linkum, is dis wot yer call 'Elewating de Nigger'?" Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, hanging out of the train, moans, "Oh! dear! If I could telegraph this to Dix I'd make it out a Victory." Preacher and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher holds a black child to his breast and prays, "Oh! my brethering! Plymouth Church will try to save the Platform." The notorious Union general Ben Butler exclaims, "H--ll! I've Preyed $2,000,000 already!" The four clean-shaven men in the train are identifiable as Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, New York journalist and state political leader Thurlow Weed, Secretary of State William Seward, and John McKeon. Sumner: "Say Seward will praying save us?" Seward: "Oh! I'm a goner! Ask Thurlow, he's my spiritual Adviser." Weed: "Pray! yes, pray Brother, Butler will lead." At left Maximilian, puppet emperor of Mexico, confers with John Bull and Napoleon III of France, saying, "Oh Main Got'vi I vas send over to dis land of Greasers to pe chawed up py de Yankees." John Bull's opinion is ". . . This will never do. The Monroe doctrine must be put down." Napoleon III says, ". . . by Gar, if dat train gets to de White House, its all up with my Mexico." During the Civil War, Napoleon III tried to establish a puppet state in Mexico under Emperor Maximilian. At bottom left are prices and ordering instructions for obtaining copies of the print.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Of Guelzo, Gettysburg, Meade and Natural Born Citizenship

Over at Bull Runnings, Harry Smeltzer has a great interview with Prof. Allen C. Guelzo of Gettysburg College on the occasion of the release of Prof. Guelzo’s new book on the Battle of Gettysburg, entitled Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. Prof. Guelzo is a fine writer and a wonderful speaker, but I hadn’t considered reading yet another Gettysburg book until I saw the interview.

While I won’t supply too many spoilers, I particularly enjoyed Prof. Guelzo’s take on George Gordon Meade. I, like most people, I suspect, have never given much thought to his personality or political views. Other than being aware of the old “Snapping Turtle” sobriquet, suggesting a short temper and perhaps a didn’t-suffer-fools-gladly outlook, I didn’t give him much thought, assuming he was an apolitical do-your-duty career officer type in the best Army tradition. Prof. Guelzo, however, paints a startling portrait of a McLellanesque Democrat who believed that radical Republicans were intentionally prolonging the war and who was not above giving advice to the Confederate peace commissioners on the talking points they should use in their negotiations. Yikes!

I do, however, want to correct, and at the same time reassure, Prof. Guelzo on one point. In the interview, Professor G (if I may be so familiar) asserts that he became a “harmless drudge” writing history after he learned that he could not become president:

I am an Army brat (born in Yokahama, Japan; when I discovered in 5th grade that this disabled me constitutionally from being president, I was left with nothing better to do in life than write history).

Well, Professor G, assuming (as I do) that your mother was a United States citizen at the time of your birth, you are wrong. A child born of an American citizen is constitutionally eligible to become president even if he or she is not born on U.S. soil. Here is an excerpt from a post by NRO’s Ed Whelan on the subject:

As this Congressional Research Service report sums it up (p. 25; see also pp. 16-21), the “overwhelming evidence of historical intent, general understandings [in 18th-century America], and common law principles underlying American jurisprudence thus indicate[s] that the most reasonable interpretation of ‘natural born’ citizens would include those who are U.S. citizens ‘at birth’ or ‘by birth,’ . . . under existing federal statutory law incorporation long-standing concepts of jus sanguinis, the law of descent.” In other words, there is strong originalist material to support the semantic signal that “natural born Citizen” identifies someone who is a citizen by virtue of the circumstances of his birth – as distinguished from someone who is naturalized later in life as a citizen

So no more books about the Civil War or that boring old Abraham Lincoln, Professor G. 2016 awaits!

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Was Slavery on the Way Out in 1860? The Republican Plan

In a series of posts written a number of years ago, I argued that slavery was a thriving institution in 1860 and that there was every reason to think that, but for the Civil War, it would have continued indefinitely,  See Was Slavery on the Way Out in 1860?  Was Slavery on the Way Out in 1860? II  Was Slavery on the Way Out in 1860? III and Was Slavery on the Way Out in 1860? Prof. Freehling Says No!. I also made the same argument in a thread at Civil War Talk called (strangely enough) Was Slavery on the Way Out?

In the intervening years I have not run across any counter-arguments that have caused me to alter that opinion, and James Oakes' fine new book Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 only reinforces that view.  As Oakes describes it, on the eve of the secession crisis, Republicans optimistically expected that they would be able to set slavery on the path to extinction using a Freedom National-Slavery Local approach consisting of the following elements:

- Ban slavery from the territories and the District of Columbia (the former would require reversing Dred Scott).

- No admission of new slave states.

- "A number of Republicans also proposed that the federal government purchase and then emancipate all the slaves in the Border States."

- "The most radical Republicans" "would restore 'free speech' to the South" by reversing the Jacksonian era practice of permitting postmasters to refuse to deliver abolitionist mail directed to the slave states.

- Other radical Republicans wanted to regulate the domestic slave trade "by taxing every slave sold across state lines and outlawing the coastwise entirely."

Republicans expected this program to succeed because they were convinced that slavery was an economically backward relic:
Even shorn of its more radical elements, the basic Republican goal remained the same: Pressed down into the Gulf States, denied access to fresh western soils, and deprived of the life-giving support of federal power, slavery even in the cotton South would eventually become unprofitable, maybe even dangerous.  Slavery's intrinsic weaknesses would become steadily more apparent.  The blight of economic backwardness would spread across the South, its arrogant aristocracy would become ever more disdainful of democracy, and the slaves would become increasingly restless and insurrectionary.  A homegrown antislavery movement would spring up within the slave states.  It might take awhile, although most Republicans expected that abolition, accelerating over time, would be accomplished within a generation.

But the evidence suggests, I believe, that Republicans profoundly misunderstood and underestimated both the institution of slavery and the attitudes of white southerners.  Slavery was not economically moribund, and southern whites, rich and poor alike, were deeply invested in it, as their tenacious defense of the institution, both during and the after the war, was to show.  In light of these considerations, the Republican program was thin gruel indeed.

About the illustration, entitled The National Game. Three "Outs" and One "Run" (New York, Currier & Ives, 1860):
A pro-Lincoln satire, deposited for copyright weeks before the 1860 presidential election. The contest is portrayed as a baseball game in which Lincoln has defeated (left to right) John Bell, Stephen A. Douglas, and John C. Breckinridge. Lincoln (right) stands with his foot on "Home Base," advising the others, "Gentlemen, if any of you should ever take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have a good bat' and strike a fair ball' to make a clean score' & a home run.'" His "good bat" is actually a wooden rail labeled "Equal Rights and Free Territory." Lincoln wears a belt inscribed "Wide Awake Club." (See no. 1860-14 on the Wide-Awakes.) A skunk stands near the other candidates, signifying that they have been "skunk'd." Breckinridge (center), a Southern Democrat, holds his nose, saying, "I guess I'd better leave for Kentucky, for I smell something strong around here, and begin to think, that we are completely skunk'd.'" His bat is labeled "Slavery Extension" and his belt "Disunion Club." At far left John Bell of the Constitutional Union party observes, "It appears to me very singular that we three should strike foul' and be put out' while old Abe made such a good lick.' Bell's belt says "Union Club," and his bat "Fusion." Regular Democratic nominee Douglas replies, "That's because he had that confounded rail, to strike with, I thought our fusion would be a short stop' to his career." He grasps a bat labeled "Non Intervention."
Related Posts with Thumbnails