Western Virginia’s Rebels; Politicking in Washington; Butler Promoted

Thursday, May 16, 1861

At General Robert E. Lee’s request, Col. George A. Porterfield arrived at the B&O Railroad hub of Grafton, western Virginia on the 14th to the cold reception of the town’s Unionists and the silence from the officers who were to meet him at the depot.

Porterfield found the few Rebel troops in Fetterman, two miles north of Grafton. He then attempted to concentrate whatever troops had been raised in the surrounding counties. He found small and mostly unarmed militia units in Pruntytown (three miles west of Fetterman), Philippi (17 miles south), and Clarksburg (20 mile west). Other units were forming, but were completely without arms or uniforms, except for a company at Weston (45 miles southwest), which had old flintlock muskets, and one in Fairmont (20 miles northwest) that somehow managed to scrounge themselves up a cannon.

All of these units were ordered to march towards Grafton.

Porterfield had “found great diversity of opinion and much bitterness of feeling among the people of this region,” also noting, “they are apparently upon the verge of civil war.” He blamed this on “a few bad men” who stirred up “rebellion among the people.”

Of dire importance were the “traitors” who had “seized the guns and ammunition of the State, to be used against its authority.” Entire militia companies that were once Virginia Militia had taken up arms against their state.

He requested the best arms from Harpers Ferry to be sent at once. He suggested some refitted rifles as his personal preference, even though they were without bayonets. The effectiveness of which, in this hilly country, would not be as needed as elsewhere, “although the bayonet, of course, would be desirable.”1


Harney in Missouri to be Fired, Replaced with Lyon

In Washington, the fate of General William Harney, commander of the Department of the West, was about to be decided. Harney had been relieved once before and reinstated a couple of weeks later. This effort was undertaken by Captain Lyon and Frank Blair, Jr., brother of Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair. Their reasoning was that they suspected Harney of being a secessionist. He was not and though reinstated, the fight to remove him continued.

Montgomery Blair had drafted an order to remove Harney from command, replacing him with Lyon, who would be appointed a Brigadier-General. Lincoln was handed the proposal in hopes that he would agree and sign it. Before the President would agree to it, however, he wanted to first confer with General Scott.

As for the Secretary of War Simon Cameron, he wasn’t at first convinced that Lyon was the right man for the job. The Colonel’s rashness, especially over the Camp Jackson affair, didn’t win him any favors. However, he was soon convinced by a messenger sent on Lyon’s behalf.

The convincing must have been contagious. By that afternoon, the order for Harney’s removal was approved with one condition: It would be up to Frank Blair, Jr. to decide whether or not Harney should be given the order. It wasn’t much of a condition, of course, since Blair was in on the plot to remove him.2


Union General Benjamin Butler had taken Baltimore without orders and had been relieved of his command of the Department of Annapolis. He was ordered to Washington by Lincoln, and had arrived on a special train from Baltimore.

News of his promotion to Major-General had reached him, but prior to receiving the official notice, he decided to pay a visit to General Scott. The General received him coldly, and Butler (according to his incredibly self-serving autobiography) ripped into Scott accusing him of “not knowing what he was talking about.” Butler also revealed that this venting was so emotional that “upon my return to my quarters I threw myself on my lounge, and burst into a flood of tears.”3

Though he does not mention it in his memoirs, Butler met with the President, Blair and Cameron where he was officially promoted to Major-General.4

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p855. []
  2. The Life and Military Services of Gen. William Selby Harney by L. U. Reavis, Bryan, Brand & co., 1878 – This is a VERY pro-Harney book. Thankfully, it contains many primary letters and documents, even if they are haphazardly arranged. Harney’s dismissal order appears in Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p374. []
  3. Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences by Benjamin Butler. []
  4. Abraham Lincoln a History, Volume 4 by John Nicolay & John Hay. The promotion order was signed by Cameron and dated May 16, 1861. A letter from Mrs. Butler to a friend dated May 15th (appearing in Private and Official Correspondence) makes mention of Gen. Butler receiving the promotion and being assigned to Fortress Monroe. This letter is very clearly mistaken in the date. However, towards the end of the letter, Mrs. Butler “dates” it as “Monday Night,” which would be Monday, May 20, which is probably correct. []
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One thought on “Western Virginia’s Rebels; Politicking in Washington; Butler Promoted

  1. I find it terrifically interesting that Butler so irritated his superior that he was “fired”. On the way to his new assignment he was then promoted. Isn’t communication a wonderful thing?? =)

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