Grant Requests the Removal of Butler – Just to be Safe

January 4, 1864 (Wednesday)

Grant: Hello, you must be going.

Grant: Hello, you must be going.

The troops of General Alfred Terry stood by the docks at Bermuda Hundred for nearly a day before the first transports finally arrived. They had no real idea to where they were headed, but the general suspicion was to reinforce General Sherman in Savannah. This was, however, not the case.

Most of them had just returned from an incredibly failed expedition to take Fort Fisher, near Wilmington, North Carolina. But what none of them knew was that they were now going back after only a few days of rest. It would take another full day to load the men and set them off for Fortress Monroe, and then to the Naval fleet lying off Fisher.

While General Terry, who would leave the following day, prepared his men for the new expedition, General Grant was thinking back upon the old. Grant had received letters about the first expedition from the likes of Admiral David Dixon Porter and the Secretary of the Navy. The whole operation seemed to be botched by Benjamin Butler, from beginning to unceremonious end.

And so on this date, Grant wrote to Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War. “I am contrained to request the removal of Mag. Gen. B.F. Butler from the command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina,” he began. “I do this with reluctance, but the good of the service requires it. In my absence General Butler necessarily commands, and there is a lack of confidence felt in his military ability, making him an unsafe commander for a large army. His administration of the affairs of his department is also objectionable.”

Grant made no mention at all of Fort Fisher or of anything specific. Instead, he seemed to suddenly realize that if he had to leave the Richmond/Petersburg area for any reason at all, it would be Butler, who commanded a department, and not George Meade, who commanded only an army, who would take his place. It’s unlikely that Grant had ever trusted Butler as his de facto second in command, but it was this fact that had apparently stopped him from personally overseeing the second Fort Fisher expedition.

The success of this second attempt was essential, Grant knew. And he vowed to Admiral Porter that General Terry would be guided by his (Porter’s) council. “In addition to this,” wrote Grant, “I will send all the men that can be used.” Nothing at all could stop this now.

As for Butler, since his return, he was busy writing up his official report, which Grant would soon encourage him to publish as a matter of record. Already, he knew the accusations against him and much of it would be spent defending his poor decisions.

Butler: It's as if my political clout disappeared at once!

Butler: It’s as if my political clout disappeared at once!

The following day, when General Terry was about to leave, Grant joined him on the docks, boarding the steamer on the James River, which would take them to Fortress Monroe. After some small amount of time, Grant finally sat Terry down to explain in fully the details of his mission – even Terry had no idea what awaited him.

“The object is to renew the attempt to capture Fort Fisher,” said Grant to Terry, “and in case of success to take possession of Wilmington. It is of the greatest importance that there should be a complete understanding and harmony of action between you and Admiral Porter. I want you to consult the admiral fully, and let there be no misunderstanding in regard to the plan of cooperation in all its details. I served with Admiral Porter on the Mississippi, and have a high appreciate of his courage and judgment. I want to urge upon you to land with all dispatch, and intrench yourself in a position from which you can operate against Fort Fisher, and not to abandon it until the fort is captured or you receive further instructions form me.”

Grant also informed Terry to report directly to him, bypassing the typical chain of command which would have went through Butler. Soon, the vessels would appear off the coast of North Carolin.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p395; Part 2, p29-30, 35; Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter. []
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