December 31, 1864 (Saturday)
The day previous, General Grant informed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had a message for him (Welles) from him (Grant). Grant had something big in the works for Fort Fisher, but didn’t really want to deal with Welles in its planning. Instead, Grant wrote directly to Admiral David Dixon Porter (who answered to Welles) and through Stanton who was supposed to relay Grant’s message to Welles. In one round about way or another, Welles would have to go along with whatever was happening, even though he really wasn’t sure what it was.
Secretary Stanton wasn’t really known for being a friendly chap, and Welles had almost no love for him. Still, on this day, things were a bit different. “Stanton I found in a very pleasant mood,” wrote Welles in his diary entry for this date, “not at all disposed to defend or justify Butler, whose course he commented on and disapproved.”
So sour were Stanton’s normal moods that what followed somehow passed for “very pleasant”: In doing this, however, he censured Porter as being indiscreet and at fault; but when I dissented and asked wherein he was to blame, Stanton made no attempt to specify, but spoke of him as blatant, boisterous, bragging, etc.”
Perhaps taking advantage of Stanton’s surprising pleasantness, Welles shared his opinion that actually Grant was not “entirely exempt from blame in having permitted such a man as Butler to have command of such an expedition.” He suggested that Grant dissociate himself from Butler, “that Butler should be sent to some distant position, where he might exercise his peculiar and extraordinary talent as a police officer or military governor, but not to trust him with any important military command.”
Stanton’s reaction to Welles’ unsolicited opinion was not recorded, but it’s probably safe to assume that his “very pleasant” mood had waned to, at best, just regularly pleasant.
Grant originally wanted almost nobody to know about the second expedition against Fort Fisher, North Carolina, but realized he would probably have to tell Welles something. Stanton had warned Grant that the Navy could not be trusted with secrets, and Welles did his very best to prove Stanton correct.
“Stanton said no one but himself and the telegraph-operator knew the contents [of Grant’s order],” continued Welles, unsatisfied with such closed ranked. “I told him I should inform [Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Gustavas] Fox, for I must have some one to assist and with whom alone I would consult.” It can only be assumed that Fox would then need an assistant, who would, in turn, need an assistant.
Later, Fox visited Stanton to see if he could hold up a steamboat in Baltimore so that a naval officer could deliver Grant’s message to Porter “to hold his own, for Grant promises to send a military force by Monday or at the farthest by Tuesday.” Stanton’s “very pleasant mood” probably did not last much past this.
Welles spent the rest of the day with a naval officer who was delivering dispatches from Admiral Porter concerning Butler’s debacle before Fort Fisher. Together, they visited President Lincoln, who apparently just took it all in. He still wanted to meet with Grant about what to do with Butler.
And as for Butler, he was back in the field with his portion of the Army of the James just north of their namesake. Since late October, he had been digging a canal to bypass a few Rebel batteries. He planned to open it on the following day, and said to Grant the he “should be happy to see yourself and friends at headquarters” for the big show. Grant, tersely replied: “Do not wait for me in your explosion. I doubt my ability to be up in the morning.”
According to his chief of staff, Horace Porter, “General Grant had become very tired of discussing methods of warfare which were like some of the problems described in algebra as ‘more curious than useful,’ and he was not sufficiently interested in the canal to be present at the explosion which was expected to complete it.”
The canal itself was opened, but went unused until after the war when it became the preferred shipping channel on the James. Butler’s fate might not be so fortunate.
In a passage from Horace Porter’s memoirs concerning happenings around this time, we learn that Grant had been sent myriad ideas for how to take Richmond. He detailed a few, which must be shared for a bit of New Years levity, if nothing more:
About this time all the cranks in the country, besides men of real inventive genius, were sending extraordinary plans and suggestions for capturing Richmond. A proposition from an engineer was received one day, accompanied by elaborate drawings and calculations, which had evidently involved intense labor on the part of the author. His plan was to build a masonry wall around Richmond, of an elevation higher than the tallest houses, then to fill the inclosure with water pumped from the James River, and drown out the garrison and people like rats in a cage. The exact number of pumps required and their capacity had been figured out to a nicety.
Another inventive genius, whose mind seemed to run in the direction of the science of chemistry and the practice of sternutation, sent in a chemical formula for making an all-powerful snuff. In his communication he assured the commanding general that after a series of experiments he had made with it on people and animals, he was sure that if shells were filled with it and exploded within the enemy’s lines, the troops would be seized with such violent fits of sneezing that they would soon become physically exhausted with the effort, and the Union army could walk over at its leisure and pick them up as prisoners without itself losing a man.
A certain officer had figured out from statistics that the James River froze over about once in seven years, and that this was the seventh year, and advised that troops be massed in such a position that when the upper part of the James changed from a liquid to a solid, columns could be rushed across it on the ice to a position in rear of the enemy’s lines, and Richmond would be at our mercy.
A sorcerer in Rochester sent the general word that he had cast his horoscope, and gave him a clear and unclouded insight into his future, and added to its general attractiveness by telling him how gloriously he was going to succeed in taking Richmond.
One evening the general referred to these emanations of the prolific brains of our people, and the many novel suggestions made to him, beginning with the famous powder-boat sent against Fort Fisher, and closed the conversation by saying: “This is a very suggestive age. Some people seem to think that an army can be whipped by waiting for rivers to freeze over, exploding powder at a distance, drowning out troops, or setting them to sneezing; but it will always be found in the end that the only way to whip an army is to go out and fight it.”