‘Opprobrious and Threatening Language’ Banned by Butler

November 11, 1863 (Wednesday)

Maybe Butler's a little off...
Maybe Butler’s a little off…

Over the course of 1863, matters in North Carolina had deteriorated, devolving into a bloody Missouri-like existence for everyone. As if it had a perchant to be some kind of border state, Unionist sentiment ran strong in North Carolina. The occupation by Federal troops was a continual struggle for the citizens, who were subjected to raid upon raid, especially in the eastern counties. And as with any society based upon the institution of slavery, the fear of “negro uprisings” was a constant worry.

The raids by Yankee soldiers were more in the line of pillaging and luting than anything the Confiscation Acts had in mind. Since the state had already sent most of their men to fight and die for General Lee, there was little anyone could do to check them. Bands of partisan rangers roved about, to be sure, but they were of little help. Things grew more difficult when the Unionists took it upon themselves to form bands and terrorize their secessionist neighbors.

To make matters worse, Washington had finally found something for Benjamin Butler to do. On this date, he was placed in command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, comprised of the southern portion of the former and the eastern portion of the latter. From his new home in Fortress Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, Butler was to replace General John Foster, who had been almost tolerated by the citizens and was beloved by his men.

Don't worry about Foster, he'll be okay.
Don’t worry about Foster, he’ll be okay.

Butler had won few Southern friends due to his stint in New Orleans. The combination of his abolitionist ways and decidedly anti-Southern politics broiled the hearts of almost everyone, Unionists or Secessionist, in North Carolina.

Unlike many generals in the Union army, including George Meade, Butler openly accepted US Colored Regiments into his ranks. Many such regiments raised in the east from this time until the end of the war wound up under Butler’s command. This was his reputation, and it preceded him.

While Foster did much for the freed slaves of North Carolina, he seemed to be more of a centralist when it came to enlisting them in the army. This echoed the sentiments of many of the white troops under his command. Once Butler’s name was mentioned, all knew that this mood would change. Butler had “nigger on the brain,” bitterly complained one soldier in a letter home. The new commander would certainly “punish a man for looking crosswise at any of the Sable-brethren.”

Butler was also infamous for his treatment of civilians. This was made especially clear in New Orleans. From the first full day in his new office, Benjamin Butler set the tone:

“Representations having been made to the commanding general that certain disloyally disposed persons within this department do occasionally by force interfere with, and by opprobrious and threatening language insult and annoy, loyal persons employed in the quiet discharge of their lawful occupations, it is hereby announced that all such conduct and language is hereafter strictly forbidden, and will be punished with military severity.”

This was Butler to a ‘T’. Such an order could easily have been written in New Orleans, 1862, or even have been filed away under his hat for future use. All he had to do was change the date and place, and Butler had his order.

As for General Foster, he was (or would soon be) transfered to the Department of the Ohio. Of course, the department had been folded into Grant’s massive Military Division of the Mississippi, but it still functioned as a department within that division. Ambrose Burnside would be left, for a time, anyway, to command the Army of the Ohio.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p447, 448, 449; The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. []
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5 thoughts on “‘Opprobrious and Threatening Language’ Banned by Butler

  1. Hi Eric – Thank you for Civil War Daily Gazette. I read it every morning with my coffee and I’ve gained a new perspective on this by seeing it unfold on a day to day basis. But I must, again, step forward to defend Benjamin Butler. You say “he had few southern friends” as if that was a problem. Neither did General Sherman. You say, “The combination of his abolitionist ways and anti-southern politics broiled the hearts of everyone”, — Yes, I suppose the south would have preferred a general like McClellan, with his pro-southern politics. Yes, Butler was a forerunner in the effort to arm colored soldiers but by late 1863 that was a done deal. It seems like you are holding against him a number of historical stereotypes that ought to be examined. For a general to be hated by the south could mean that he was doing his job for the north.

    1. Hi Ray! Thanks for the input. Maybe I was a bit hard on Beast Butler. It’s strange, sometimes I’m accused of having a Yankee bias, while other times I’m accused of having Southern leanings. I’m pretty okay with that. Keeps ’em guessing.

    2. That said, I do personally support his politics and efforts to arm black troops. I just think he was sort of a dick. (pardon my french) This opinion came only from reading his Memoirs, which is the only thing I’ve really read (in full) about the guy.

  2. Am I the only Butler fan in the world? Even the Smithsonian likes him, btw. Maybe he just needs a new bio.

    Eric–I loved the other format more, but at least with this one I can Tweet, Facebook and Like! Pet that sweet tuxedo kitty for me!

    1. Butler was just sort of whiney. I mean, he was no Little Mac (who took whining to an artform), but he did himself no favors.

      Couldn’t you tweet / share the other format? Weird. I always thought it worked. It was supposed to. Juniper says hello.

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