January 7, 1865 (Saturday)
General Grant had not taken a liking to Benjamin Butler, and the failed attempt to take Fort Fisher did him no favors with the General-in-Chief. On January 4th, Grant wrote to the War Department asking that Butler be relieved. The reason given was that since Butler outranked George Meade, if Grant had to be absent from the Petersburg area for any length of time, it was Butler who would be in charge of everything. Grant saw him as “an unsafe commander for a large army.”
Grant had tried before to have Butler relieved. In June of 1864, Grant had asked Chief-of-Staff Henry Halleck if they couldn’t fine another place for Butler to command where he could do no harm. Grant had no specific grounds then to relieve Butler, but was hoping Halleck might be able to scrape something together. The problem there was that, for the time being, any order relieving Butler had to go through President Lincoln.
There was, for a time, a scheme to place Butler like a figurehead over his department, ordering him to be headquartered at Fortress Monroe, leaving the troops in the field in Baldy Smith. The orders were drawn up and Lincoln even agreed to them before rethinking this move and took his name off the order. Butler caught wind of this and confronted Grant over it. Grant backed down, explaining that it had all been a mistake. The whole thing quickly went away.
Butler had been kept around as Lincoln understood that having Democrats in the upper ranks served a political end. But now that he was reelected, such a need was not there. And since Butler could serve no other purpose, his fate was sealed.
The letter to the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had missed him, as Stanton was en route to Savannah to visit with William Tecumseh Sherman. In that light, Grant wrote to Lincoln himself.
“I wrote a letter to the Secretary of War, which was mailed yesterday, asking to have General Butler removed from command. Learning that the Secretary left Washington yesterday, I telegraph you asking that prompt action may be taken in the matter.”
Lincoln received the letter late in the evening, and must have had a chance to read over Grant’s reasoning as expressed to Secretary Stanton. The next morning, Lincoln issued the order:
By direction of the President of the United States, Maj. Gen B.F. Butler is relieved from the command of the Department of North Carolina and Virginia. Lieutenant-General Grant will designate an officer to take this command temporarily. Major-General Butler, on being relieved, will repair to Lowell, Mass., and report by letter to the Adjutant-General of the Army.
Halleck also informed Grant that the order wouldn’t be made public until Butler himself was notified. This would come the following morning. Butler noted in his memoirs that he had no idea this was happening. “Everything of the official correspondence in relation to the current movements of the Army of the James went on without any intimation to me of any change of our official relations,” wrote Butler, “and without any information as to any comment by Grant upon my report of the operations against Fort Fisher.”
Butler claimed to be completely unaware. “I noticed nothing,” he continued, “except, perhaps, a want of cordiality in his [Grant’s] manner.” But around noon of the 8th, Butler “received, through the hands of Colonel Babcock, a crony of W.F. Smith, and a member of Grant’s staff, who I had always known was bitterly opposed to me, a sealed envelope” which contained the above orders. While Butler would soon depart for Fortress Monroe, Grant had appointed General Edward Ord to command the now-vacant seat.
The mood of the army was either indifferent or jubilant. Almost nobody was sad to see him go. Theodore Lyman, a member of Meade’s staff, had this to say in his diary upon learning the news:
“Ben Butler has been relieved & ordered to Lowell! Ho! ho! ho! That is brave – Fort Fisher was the handle. Now with Banks and Butler tied up, we have the field clear for a good spring campaign.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 2, p52, 61; Autobiography by Benjamin Butler; Lincoln and His Generals by T. Harry Williams; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman. [↩]