December 30, 1864 (Friday)
Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, found himself in a quandary. Though the army wasn’t his branch, his navy had been drawn into the drama surrounding the debacle that was the almost-battle of Fort Fisher. General Benjamin Butler had landed a few thousand troops and then decided to call off the assault. Admiral David Dixon Porter was enraged by such a non-act, and sent word to Washington.
By this time, General Grant, President Lincoln, and pretty well every official in the capital had a fairly good idea of what happened, though Grant was still trying to figure out just who to blame.
In Secretary Welles’ eyes, it was clear. As he wrote in his diary on the day previous: “General Grant ought never to have given him [Butler] this command. It is unfortunate that Butler is associated with Grant, for he [Butler] had great mental power which gives him undue ascendancy over his official superior. Certainly General Grant must have known that Butler was not the proper officer for such an expedition. Why did he give Butler this command?”
That same day (the 29th), Welles visited Lincoln with the reports from Porter. Since it was a military matter, and not a naval one, Lincoln wanted first to talk to Grant. Nevertheless, Lincoln told Welles to write to Grant about trying the assault once more.
This Welles did, explaining that all was actually near perfect for a landing precisely where Butler had failed. “The largest naval force ever assembled is ready to lend its co-operation,” wrote Welles to Grant. In the meantime, Porter would continue to bombard the fort so that new works cannot be built. But Welles warned Grant – if this wasn’t soon attempted, “the fleet will have to disperse, whence it cannot again be brought to this coast.”
Grant did not give his full reply to Welles, instead telling him to call upon Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for further information. In fact, Grant had no desire at all to deal with Welles. “I do not propose to correspond with the Navy Department about military operations except through you,” he told Stanton. By noon, Grant had already ordred Butler’s transports and a few others to be made ready. The quartermaster thought it would take three or four days to complete. This was fine with Grant, who assured Stanton that “not a person here knows the object of this but myself, [Grant’s] chief of staff, and cipher operator, who has to know it, of course. It will not be known to another.”
Where did Butler fit into all of this? Apparently nowhere at all. “When all is ready,” continued Grant, “I will send the troops and commander selected to Fortress Monroe and out to sea with sealed instructions not to be opened until they pass the Heads.” Though Grant couldn’t command the Navy, he wished for Admiral Porter to likewise be told nothing, apart from that he was to hold on until he heard from Welles.
This wasn’t really to avoid a confrontation with Butler. The first assault was more or less advertised as about to happen, and General Lee was able to dispatch a division to block Butler’s way. And though that wasn’t really why Butler begged off, Grant wanted to avoid a repeat non-performance. “I am in hopes by secrecy the enemy may be lulled into such security as to induce him to send his Wilmington forces against Sherman, or bring them back here by the time we are ready to start.”
From here on out, Grant would only be communicating with Secretary Welles through Secretary Stanton. This suited Stanton well enough, though he thought Grant should at least write to Admiral Porter “at the earliest possible moment.” Stanton also warned Grant that his order for the transports “will, of course, set … all the thousand and one guessers at work to nose out the object.”
This spoke to a much larger problem. “You cannot count upon any secrecy in the Navy,” Stanton confirmed. “Newspaper reporters have the run of that Department.” He thought it might be more interesting to let it slip that the troops were actually en route to Sherman “to enable him to march through the interior and garrison important points or else to attack Mobile.”
Grant, however, did take Stanton’s advice, and wrote directly to Porter, bypassing Welles entirely. Furthermore, Grant didn’t simply tell Porter to keep on keeping on. He spilled all of his ideas. “I took immediate steps to have transports collected, and am assured they will be ready with the coal and water on board by noon of the 2nd of January,” Grant wrote. “There will be no delay in embarking and sending off the troops.”
Just who should lead this expedition was suggested by Grant’s chief of staff, Horace Porter. “I suggested to the general that, in case another expedition should be sent, General A.H. Terry would be, for many reasons, the best officer to be placed in command.” Porter had served with Terry in an 1861 expedition which captured Hilton Head and Fort Pulaski. He knew him to be “the most experienced officer in the service in embarking and disembarking troops upon the sea-coast, looking after their welfare on transports, and intrenching rapidly on shore.”
Grant knew little of General Terry, but of late, he had taken notice of how he handled this troops along the James River. Horace Porter also suggested that since Butler was not a career military officer, but a volunteer, another volunteer, such as Terry, “should be given a chance to redeem the disaster.” Grant listened, but said nothing to his staff officer one way or the other.
To Admiral Porter, however, he told: “The commander of the expedition will probably be Major-General Terry. He will not know of it until he gets out to sea. He will go with sealed orders. It will not be necessary for me to let troops or commander know even that they are going any place until the steamers intended to carry them reach Fortress Monroe, as I will have all rations and other stores loaded beforehand.”
Back in Washington, Secretary Welles met with the President and some of the Cabinet, though not Stanton who was “as usual, absent.” Lincoln told Welles that Stanton was willing to relieve Butler, “but make a point whether Porter is any better.” Welles disagreed, though he could see where Stanton was coming from, admitting that Porter was “an energetic officer, though naval-wise not a lucky one, nor has he some of the qualities which give an easy time to those who administer the Department and would wish to economize in expenditures.”
Though the expedition was once again under way, the matter with Butler was just beginning. He had gloriously failed yet again, but this time, Lincoln, now re-elected, did not need Butler’s political clout. Perhaps things would take a different turn this time.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 3, p1091, 1098-1101; Diary by Gideon Welles; Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter. [↩]