Hold Onto Your Cap: Butler’s Wild Ride to Washington

Saturday, August 31, 1861

Since the fall of Fort Hatteras, Union General Butler had noticed the importance of holding this section of North Carolina coast. After he gave his report to General Wool, his commander at Fortress Monroe, Wool sent him to Washington on “Official Business.” This was, apparently, to convince the War Department to not abandon North Carolina. In particular, Wool wished to take a place called “Edisto… the resort of South Carolina during the Summer.” Butler was all for it.1

Towards evening, he took a steamer to Annapolis and then went by rail via the Annapolis & Elk Ridge Railroad, a line that Butler was very familiar with. Upon reaching the station at Elkton, where it junctioned with the Baltimore & Ohio, nineteen miles north of Washington, Butler was told that he could go no farther that night.

As Butler told it after the war, a discussion ensued with the engineer of his train who said it was too dangerous. Butler, however, had “not come here for safety. Why is it too dangerous?”

A north-bound freight was due to leave Washington at midnight. It was 11:15pm.2 Butler then suggested that if they detached all of the cars and he rode in the cab with the engineer, the train would be pulling less weight.

“Shall we go slow,” asked the timid engineer, “so that we shall find out when a train is coming before we reach it, in time to back out?”

The incredibly daring and brave General Butler insisted that they could “hack out very quickly… let her go as fast as she can go!”

“Hold onto your cap, General,” exclaimed the now emboldened pilot as he threw open the throttle and steamed south to Washington at full speed.

The nineteen miles was covered in forty minutes.3

Before he hopped out of the cab, Butler slapped a twenty dollar gold coin in the engineer’s hand and was off to Postmaster Blair’s house. Still awake, Blair and Gustavus Fox, now the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, were in the study. When he saw Butler, Fox cried out, “Where from?”

“Direct from Hatteras!” the victorious Butler barked before telling both of his great victory on the North Carolina coast. Both Fox and Blair insisted that they go across the street to the White House to wake up President Lincoln. After fifteen minutes, the President, still in his incredibly long night shirt, joined them in the Cabinet room.

There, Fox related the story of the capture of Hatteras, which made the six foot, four inch tall Lincoln so jubilant that he hugged the five foot tall Assistant Secretary in a very awkward embrace and proceeded to dance around the room, twisting and twirling in unbridled joy over the great victory of General Butler.

After fixing his nightshirt, which had been jostled about during the dancing, Lincoln took Butler by the hand (apparently only wishing to dance with Fox), thanked him and asked the General to return the next day at 10am for the morning Cabinet meeting.4


Floyd is None the Wiser5

Two days prior, Confederate General Floyd, commander of the Army of the Kanawha at Carnifex Ferry, western Virginia, was convinced that the route of Col. Tyler’s 7th Ohio Regiment had sent General Cox’s entire command at Gauley Bridge, twenty-six miles southwest of Floyd’s command, storming back down the Kanawha Valley to the Ohio River. Though such a notion was absurd, Floyd continued to believe it. However, there was a rumor that Cox’s entire command had left Gauley Bridge to attack him at Carnifex. Though probably a myth, Floyd had to do something in preparation.

Floyd wrote to General Wise at Dogwood Gap, sixteen miles east of Gauley, asking him to send his strongest regiment, some cavalry and artillery to the cliffs opposite Carnifex Ferry in case they were needed. With the rest of his Legion, Wise was to move west to occupy the old Union camp at Gauley Bridge.

Wise, who was much closer to the Federal camp at Gauley, insisted that the enemy was still there. They had moved for a day or so, but were now back in their camp.6 Wise, as ordered by Floyd, was preparing to take Hawks Nest, eight miles closer to Gauley.

Wise’s Legion was weakened by half due to a measles outbreak, while his cavalry was reduced by half due to lack of forage. He had but 1,800 men at arms. If he was to send Floyd what was requested, he would have only 1,100 men and one cannon left.

General Wise calculated that the Union forces still on his side of the Gauley River numbered 700. With the guns at Gauley Bridge covering their withdraw, an attack could very well destroy him, the attacker. And so Wise refused to help his misguided commander.7

  1. Private and official correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, The Plimpton Press, 1917. []
  2. You know, if you can trust that Butler fellow. []
  3. Ok, so not quite full speed, but it’s a good story, General. []
  4. Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benj. F. Butler, A. M. Thayer, 1892. This story is only related here and probably has some truth to it (Butler did make it to Washington on the 31st). How many of the specifics are true is anybody’s guess. []
  5. Get it? []
  6. Oddly, General Cox makes no claim to have moved for a day or so, as far as I could tell. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p822-823. []
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4 thoughts on “Hold Onto Your Cap: Butler’s Wild Ride to Washington

  1. Thanks for the amusing anecdote about Butler. A good insight to his character and political shenanigans can be found in Ludwell H. Johnson’s “Red River Campaign: Politics & Cotton in the Civil War”. This work is as much about the cotton trade between the opposing sides as it is about the campaign itself.

    1. A lot of the diaries written after the war tell of similar, nearly-impossible feats of human endeavor. So far as I’ve read, it seems to be mostly on the Union side, though the post-war writers on the Confederate side *did* have a lot of explaining to do.

      There was one CS writer from Mosby’s crew who wrote a book in which he claims that the south won at Gettysburg. It was pretty amazing. He had a lot of other such tall tales, but it was a really fun read.

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