Historians writing about General Benjamin Butler love to point out his not-ready-for-Hollywood personal appearance. “His features were brutish,” Adam Goodheart says in 1861, adding a bit of psychological analysis: “inwardly, he nursed the outsize vanity of certain physically ugly men.” (It’s a lame generalization in an otherwise good book: “inwardly, he nursed the outsize vanity of certain [fill in the blank with anything at all; tall, short, fat, thin, etc] men.”)
True, Butler’s conduct could be ugly. As military commander over New Orleans, he issued General Order No. 28, which decreed that a woman could be treated as a prostitute if she insulted a Union soldier. The universal disgust aroused by the Order earned Butler the nickname “Beast” and, together with Butler’s ham-handed relations with civil authorities and questionable financial dealings, surely damaged the Union cause.
Yet — would the nickname “Beast” have stuck to a more dashing fellow? I can’t help wonder how history would see Butler if he’d had a movie-star visage.
Let’s pose a few true Butler stories against the “Beast.”
In 1856, when the floor of the building at a crowded political rally threatened to collapse, Butler averted a fatal stampede by calming the panicked crowd and directing them out.
His letters to his wife reveal a tender and attentive husband. “Be you sure to write me every day,” he implored from New Orleans, “— long letters as little sad as possible, and portray the shades of your mind — and not sad at all about me, for in truth you have no occasion.” And from Petersburg, “How are you feeling — cheerful and happy? Indeed and indeed I think you ought so to do; if a husband’s deep, deep love will be of any avail to make one happy. Write me every day, dearest, do.”
Grant hagiographers enjoy posing Butler — a lawyer and politician who “earned” command by political appointment — against their bluff, West Point educated hero. (Grant was also winner of Most Handsome CW General contest here.) Butler certainly did not rival Grant in military prowess. But he did secure the wavering cities of Annapolis and Baltimore, Maryland, for the Union in May 1861, and in June secured Fort Monroe, Virginia.
At Fort Monroe, Butler made his most important contribution to the War effort, not in battle but through a clever legality. Overstepping his authority once again, he decreed that slaves who escaped to Union territory were not subject to the U.S. Fugitive Slave Law. The reasoning went, “upon the Confederate theory of [slaves being] property only,” if said property served military purposes, such as digging fortifications, then the Union could retain them as “contraband.” Butler’s “contraband” order laid the groundwork for Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
Again exceeding his authority, Butler extended the protection of the Union to black people, including women and children, who didn’t serve military objectives. “Of the humantiarian aspect I have no doubt,” he wrote Gen. Scott.
In 1864 he wrote to the Sec. of War: “I have not proposed to allow negroes to be taken from Fort Monroe, where they are free, into the slave state of Delaware, where they may be sold into slavery.” (Throughout the War, Delaware’s General Assembly resisted Federal efforts at emancipation; its slaves were not legally free until December 1865, after national passage of the 13th Amendment.)
When Pres. Lincoln’s administration moved to bar fugitive slaves from crossing Union lines, Butler declared that he would not enforce such a policy and further declared that the fugitives were not only “contraband,” but that they were free. “In a state of rebellion I would confiscate that which was used to oppose my arms,” he wrote the Sec. of War, “… and if, in so doing, it should be objected that human beings were brought to the free enjoyment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, such objection might not require much consideration.”
Butler approved what was likely the first instance of arming a black man for the Union cause. He perceived the potential of escaped slaves to gather vital intelligence. In New Orleans, he enlisted the first African American troops — overstepping, again, his authority. He commanded several regiments of U.S. Colored Troops, and agitated, without success, that they receive treatment and compensation equal to whites’. He struck silver medals, at his own expense, for his USCT regiment that fought at Richmond.
After the War, as a radical Republican, he helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (which was overturned in 1883). He also supported women’s suffrage.
Butler wasn’t born a steadfast civil rights advocate. In his early career, he supported the Dred Scott ruling that African Americans had no rights. He voted for Jefferson Davis at the 1860 Democratic National Convention, for the sake of party unity.
The War changed Butler. Or rather, meeting fugitive slaves changed him. Seeing his Colored Troops in battle transformed him into an impassioned abolitionist. He wrote to his wife:
Poor fellows, they seem to have so little to fight for in this contest, with the weight of prejudice loaded upon them, their lives given to a country which has given them not yet justice, not to say fostering care. To us, there is patriotism, fame, love of country, pride, ambition, all to spur us on, but to the negro, none of all these for his guerdon of honor. But there is one boon they love to fight for, freedom for themselves and their race forever, and may my “right hand forget her cunning” but they shall have that. The man who says the negro will not fight is a coward, and his liver is white, and that is all there is truly white about him. His soul is blacker than the dead faces of these dead negroes, upturned to heaven in solemn protest against him and his prejudices. I have not been so much moved during this war as I was by this sight. Dead men and many of them I have seen, alas! too many, but no such touching sight as this.
Should a man who wrote such words go down in history as “ugly”?
Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler….; Adam Goodheart, 1861: The Civil War Awakening; Douglas Harper, “Slavery in the North” via slavenorth.com; “Major-General Butler,” Harper’s Weekly, June 1, 1861, via sonofthesouth.net
The ballad “The Irish Volunteer,” written and performed by Irish-American Joe English and published in 1864, tells the story of an Irish rebel’s son who fought the Confederate rebels during the American Civil War. The tune was “The Irish Jaunting Car” — the same used for 1861 Confederate song “The Bonny Blue Flag,” by Irish Confederate Harry McCarthy. (Random Walt Whitman connection: The song’s publishers, Dick & Fitzgerald, were at 18 Ann Street, Manhattan, the heart of the publishing and printing industry where Walt got his start as a journeyman printer and a journalist.)
Here, Oregon artist Stella Blue sings it for you. The Irish Volunteer [JOE ENGLISH] (the link opens a new tab/window, come on back and read this as you listen)
The ballad opens with the June 1798 Battle of Vinegar Hill, Ireland, during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. At Vinegar Hill, British and Irish forces counted roughly even, but the British literally outgunned the Irish, who were routed.
My name is Tim McDonald, I’m a native of the Isle,
I was born among old Erin’s bogs when I was but a child.
My father fought in Ninety-eight, for liberty so dear;
He fell upon old Vinegar Hill, like an Irish volunteer.
Then raise the harp of Erin, boys, the flag we all revere—
We’ll fight and fall beneath its folds, like Irish volunteers!
Chorus — Then raise the harp, etc.
Relative to the American Civil War, the casualties were slight — “only” about 500 to 1000 Irish and 100 British. Most of the Irish rebels lived to fight another day — or eventually to immigrate to the United States, where their sons (or, to be literalistic, their grandsons) would fight in the American Civil War.
When I was driven from my home by an oppressor’s hand,
I cut my sticks and greased my brogues, and came o’er to this land.
I found a home and many friends, and some that I love dear;
Be jabbers! I’ll stick to them like bricks and an Irish volunteer.
Then fill your glasses up, my boys, and drink a hearty cheer,
To the land of our adoption and the Irish volunteer!
Chorus — Then fill your glasses, etc.
The volunteer’s new “home and many friends” might have been on Vinegar Hill, this one in Brooklyn, near the Navy Ship Yard. Walt Whitman and his family (of solid English and Dutch descent with deep American roots) lived on Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill, as did many Irish immigrants driven over the water by the Potato Famine and another lost rebellion, that of 1848. The volunteer would have done well as a bricklayer there. Brooklyn was expanding exponentially, and devastating fires made brick a far better siding than wood. But when the Secession War broke out, he traded hod and spade for a rifle.
Now when the traitors in the south commenced a warlike raid,
I quickly then laid down my hod, to the devil went my spade!
To a recruiting-office then I went, that happened to be near,
And joined the good old Sixty-ninth, like an Irish volunteer.
Then fill the ranks and march away! — no traitors do we fear;
We’ll drive them all to blazes, says the Irish volunteer.
Chorus — Then fill the ranks, etc.
The 69th Infantry Regiment of New York has a line of battle stretching from the Civil War through the Afghanistan War, with lineage roots back to the American Revolution. In the Civil War era, it was riddled with tensions among those who wished to use it as a hammer for Irish independence, and scorned by American “nativists” who believed that people born outside the United States — especially those not of British heritage — could not be “true” Americans.
The 69th took the chance to show their side of the story when the Prince of Wales visited New York in 1860. The regiment, under command of Colonel Michael Corcoran, an Irish rebel in his own right, would not turn out to parade.
When the Prince of Wales came over here, and made a hubbaboo,
Oh, everybody turned out, you know, in gold and tinsel too;
But then the good old Sixty-ninth didn’t like these lords or peers—
They wouldn’t give a d–n for kings, the Irish volunteers!
We love the land of Liberty, its laws we will revere,
“But the divil take nobility!” says the Irish volunteer!
Chorus — We love the land, etc.
Defiance of British royalty did not resolve their loyalty, though. Like Whitman, many of Corcoran’s followers balked at waging a war, as they saw it, instigated by abolitionists, whom they viewed as fanatic Union-breakers. The Regiment swung in doubt: were they Irish or American? The 69th resolved the question with their valor at Bull Run and subsquent battles. Legend has it, when they pushed back their brothers, the Louisianna Irish “Tigers” at Malvern Hill, Virginia, they earned the title “Fighting Irish” from the rebel commander himself, R.E. Lee.
Now if the traitors in the South should ever cross our roads,
We’ll drive them to the divil, as Saint Patrick did the toads;
We’ll give them all short nooses that come just below the ears,
Made strong and good of Irish hemp by Irish volunteers.
Then here’s to brave McClellan, whom the army now reveres–
He’ll lead us on to victory, the Irish volunteers.
Chorus — Then here’s to brave, etc.
Unfortunately, their beloved General McClellan nullified their advance at Malvern Hill by pulling back over the James River, leaving the field, and Richmond, to the Confederates. At Antietam, too, where the Irish 69th suffered 60 percent casualties, McClellan stopped Lee’s advance, but allowed him and his army to slip away, a scenario that would replay at Gettysburg under Union General Meade.
Now fill your glasses up, my boys, a toast come drink with me,
May Erin’s Harp and the Starry Flag united ever be;
May traitors quake, and rebels shake, and tremble in their fears,
When next they meet the Yankee boys and Irish volunteers!
God bless the name of Washington! that name this land reveres;
Success to Meagher and Nugent, and their Irish volunteers!
Chorus — God bless the name, etc.
The Irish volunteer reasserts his loyalty to America, bringing together “Yankee boys and Irish volunteers” to defy “traitors,” blessing their country’s founder George Washington, and cheering the commanders of the 69th, Meagher and Nugent, both Irish-born, both officers who paid loyal service to the United States, along with their Fighting Irish.
Please go to HOME PAGE for the “Song of Myself” PDF.
W. asked Corning [candidate for the pulpit of the Unitarian church on Benson street]: “And what may be the subject of your sermon tomorrow?” “My subject? Why—the tragedy of the ages.” “And what may be the tragedy of the ages?” “The crucifixion.” “What crucifixion?” “The crucifixion of Jesus, of course.” “You call that the tragedy of the ages?” “Yes—what do you call it?”
“It is a tragedy. But the tragedy? O no! I don’t think I would be willing to call it the tragedy.” “Do you know any tragedy that meant so much to man?” “Twenty thousand tragedies—all equally significant.” “I’m no bigot—I don’t think I make any unreasonable fuss over Jesus—but I never looked at the thing the way you do.” “Probably not. But do it now—just for once. Think of the other tragedies, just for once: the tragedies of the average man—the tragedies of every-day—the tragedies of war and peace—the obscured, the lost, tragedies: they are all cut out of the same goods. I think too much is made of the execution of Jesus Christ. I know Jesus Christ would not have approved of this himself: he knew that his life was only another life, any other life, told big; he never wished to shine, especially to shine at the general expense. Think of the other tragedies, the twenty thousand, just for once, Mr. Corning.” C. said: “I have no doubt all you say is true. You would not find me ready to quarrel with your point of view.” W. laughed quietly. “The masters in history have had lots of chance: they have been glorified beyond recognition: now give the other fellows a chance: glorify the average man a bit: put in a word for his sorrows, his tragedies, just for once, just for once.” Corning said: “You ought to be in that pulpit instead of me, tomorrow, Mr. Whitman. You would tell the people something it would do them good to hear.” “I am not necessary,” replied W. graciously: “You have the thing all in yourself if you will only let it out. We get into such grooves—that’s the trouble—passing traditions and exaggerations down from one generation to another unquestioned. After awhile we begin to think even the lies must be true.” — from Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. I, p.103 (May 5, 1888), via The Walt Whitman Archive
The Mexican War, though only two years long, weighs heavily among the direct causes of the American Civil War. The new territories won by the United States raised new tensions over the bounds of slavery. The Mexican War also nourished ambitions for a generation of military officers, including West Pointers U.S. Grant and R.E. Lee.
When the War broke out in 1846, Mexico had been independent from Spain for 25 years, but had not yet recovered from the collapse of the colonial system. Internal factionalism and social and economic instability weakened her.
The United States, meanwhile, was gripped by the idea of “Manifest Destiny,” a term coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan. Manifest Destiny held that the American people had a sacred duty to redeem the rest of the continent with the spread of democracy and virtue. The belief had its sincere adherents, including Walt Whitman, but for many it cloaked a hunger for land — and for a coast-to-coast slave market. James K. Polk, U.S. president from 1845 to 1849, believed completely and aggressively in Manifest Destiny, and that included taking Mexican territory.
The pretext for war with Mexico was easy enough to come by. Mexico did not recognize the 1845 annexation of Texas to the United States, and the subsequent U.S. military presence along the Rio Grande kindled animosity. President Polk pushed Mexico not only to recognize Texas as part of the United States, but also to sell lower California. He pushed hard, and to his surprise Mexico pushed back. The two nations went to war.
Although Manifest Destiny is often presented as a sentiment held uniformly by the people of the United States, many citizens were indifferent if not outright hostile to expansion and considered the war on Mexico an outrage. “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the [annexation of Texas],” said U.S. Grant in his memoirs, “and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.” Grant, at least in hindsight, considered “the occupation, separation and annexation [of Texas], from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.”
Walt Whitman opposed slavery, but he not only fiercely supported war with Mexico, he advocated the annexation of “the main bulk of that republic.” Disclaiming a “lust of power and territory,” his opinion is a textbook illustration of Manifest Destiny: “We pant to see our country and its rule far-reaching, only inasmuch as it will take off the shackles that prevent men the even chance of being happy and good….” (Years later, during the American Civil War, Whitman thought differently. On pondering what he considered “the united wish of all the nations of the world that [the United States’] union should be broken,” he reflected “Mexico, the only one to whom we have ever really done wrong, [is] now the only one who prays for us and for our triumph, with genuine prayer.”)
The United States won the Mexican War, gaining what would later be nearly all of the states of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah, and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. The United States — the southern United States — now reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The new acquisitions rocked the already uneasy and forced balance of slave and free states and territories.
Victory left some of its winners floundering. Ulysses S. Grant resigned from the army a few years later, only to fail at one business venture after another, including farming his in-laws’ property with the use of slave labor. Robert E. Lee stayed in — the alternative was to be a plantation master at his wife’s ancestral property, Arlington, a role that he detested — but he chafed at military assignments that offered little hope of promotion.
The Civil War revived ambition and gave it scope. Mexican War veterans who achieved fame and the rank of general in the Civil War include Confederates P.G.T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, James Longstreet, George Picket, and Edmund Kirby Smith; and Federals John C. Frémont, Joe Hooker, George McClellan, George Meade, Winfield Scott, and William Tecumseh Sherman.
Generals R.E. Lee and U.S. Grant first met each other not on a Civil War battlefield, but in Mexico, as Grant famously recalled when they met again at Appomattox, Virginia. Peace would never have advanced these men to the prominence they achieved in the Civil War.
Grant, U.S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.” Whitman, Walt, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 11 and June 6, 1846, via nationalhumanitiescenter.org. “Attitude of Foreign Governments during the War,” in Specimen Days, via The Walt Whitman Archive