Lot 56: US Grant 1864 Autograph Telegram to Benjamin Butler Ordering Completion of the Dutch Gap Canal
Presidential Letters, Free Franks & Speeches: Washington to Bush + Important Autographs in History, Science & the Arts
26 October 2016
New York, NY, USALive Auction
Description: Just Days after the Failed Siege on Fort Fisher, Grant Sends Orders to Benjamin Butler to Complete the Dutch Gap Canal********** GRANT, ULYSSES S. (1822-1885). American general and 18th president of the United States. ADS. (“U.S. Grant Lt. Gen”). 1p. Oblong 8vo. City Point, Virginia, December 30, 1864. To BENJAMIN BUTLER (1818-1893), Union general and the controversial military governor of New Orleans. A telegraphic order marked “(Cipher)” by Grant in the upper left corner. ********** “I see no objection to opening the Canal at once. On the contrary I think it advisable to push it…”********** A graduate of West Point, Grant was a veteran of the Mexican-American war prior to taking command of Union forces during the Civil War. As a colonel, Grant first led volunteers from his home state of Illinois and distinguished himself at the Battle of Fort Donelson. Promoted to the rank of major-general by Lincoln, Grant continued to win important victories and became a trusted military advisor to the president. ********** “Although his military exploits were not such as to earn him a place beside Napoleon and Marlborough, in other respects [Butler’s] contributions to the Union cause were little short of monumental. Badly defeated in the action at Big Bethel while in command of Fort Monroe, Butler was the first to apply the term ‘contraband-of-war’ to slaves of Southern masters who fled into the Union lines,” (Generals in Blue, Warner). After his army’s successful 1862 campaign against New Orleans, Butler occupied the city. However, his “administration of New Orleans is the most controversial of his career. It is at least evident that he preserved the peace and effectively governed the city, improving sanitation, and doing other useful things. It is equally evident that his conduct of affairs was high-handed. Ignoring the United States government, he assumed full financial control, collecting taxes, and expending monies. He hung William Mumford for hauling down the United States flag. He seized $800,000 in bullion belonging to Southern owners, which had been left in charge of the French consul… Still more sensational was his Order No. 28,” which proclaimed that women insulting U.S. soldiers would be treated as though they were prostitutes, (DAB). These provocative actions led to Butler’s recall from New Orleans in December 1862. ********** Nonetheless, Butler’s popularity among Radical Republicans meant that “Lincoln could not relieve him until after the 1864 elections,” (The Civil War Dictionary). Among those not impressed with Butler’s military tactics was General Grant, who reluctantly dispatched Butler during the May 1864 Bermuda Hundred Campaign, the objective of which was to cut the Confederate rail link with Richmond. Butler ignored Grant’s orders to strike immediately and his hesitation caused his forces to become immobilized by Confederate troops. ********** By late 1864, the Union had seized every Confederate port except the nearly impregnable one at Wilmington, North Carolina. Heavily fortified, it was referred to as the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” Upon learning that Southern forces were being withdrawn from its fortifications to fight General Sherman in Atlanta, Grant sensed a chance to capture the port and plans were made to attack Wilmington’s Fort Fisher. Butler, as head of the Army of the James, oversaw the expedition, which rankled Admiral David D. Porter, commander of the blockading naval forces. Bad weather and poor communications due to the enmity between Butler and Porter interfered with the rendezvous of Union naval forces at Hampton Roads and a coordinated convergence on Fort Fisher. A series of angry missives about the misaligned attack were exchanged between Porter and Butler. Porter had arrived first in Wilmington and despite Butler’s absence, moved forward with the latter’s plan to set off the gunpowder-laden USS Louisiana and blow up the fort’s seawall. Grant disapproved of the plan which had received Lincoln’s blessing. On December 24, the USS Louisiana was ignited with minimal results. A furious Butler arrived on Christmas day to oversee the simultaneous naval bombardment and landing of ground troops. Though several Confederate battalions were forced to surrender, the fort and its defenders sustained minimal damage. When the weather began to threaten the mission, Butler became convinced that the fort was impregnable and despite the objections of Porter and directives from above, he ordered a retreat. By December 27, Butler had withdrawn all his forces from the area, and on the 30th, the date of our telegram, “the Wilmington fiasco was causing repercussions in Washington [and] at the Cabinet meeting Mr. Lincoln indicated Butler would be removed from command of the Army of the James,” (The Civil War Day by Day, Long). Lincoln also called for an investigation into the matter. Grant relieved Butler on January 8, 1865. ********** “The failure at Fort Fisher produced immediate effects. Lincoln recalled Butler, who never held another command. Porter blamed the Army, convinced the fort could have been taken by storm after the Navy had all but neutralized its defenses. The allegations stung the War Department and Grant, who pledged support for another attempt to seize Fort Fisher... Once ambivalent toward Wilmington, Grant now viewed the port as an essential forward base for Sherman’s campaign. In early January 1865, he placed Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry in command of nearly 9,000 troops for a second assault on Fort Fisher,” (The Civil War on the Atlantic Coast, 1861-1865, Moore). Terry and Porter’s Second Battle of Fort Fisher lasted from January 13-16, 1865, and was a success. “The [second] battle for Fort Fisher and the subsequent capture of Wilmington, models of Army-Navy cooperation, closed the last Confederate port while establishing a firm base for the rampaging Sherman. The war would end just two months later,” (ibid.). ********** After becoming mired on the Bermuda Hundred peninsula in May, Butler had proposed that a canal be built across Dutch Gap in order to bypass Confederate fortifications on the James River. Construction began in August 1864. Much of the work on the canal was done by paid former slaves who had been retained by the Union as “contraband of war,” using the precedent set by Butler and located in the Freedmen’s Colony of Roanoke Island. The digging of the canal continued through the end of December under the command of several army engineers. On January 1, 1865, presumably after receiving our orders from Grant, Butler oversaw the detonation of explosives at the bulkheads of the Dutch Canal. A contemporary report recounted the scene: “This afternoon, Gen. Butler, with most of the officers of his staff, rode down to the Gap, to witness the culminating act of the great enterprise of which he was the sole author, and in which he has taken so deep an interest. There was some delay in arranging the fuse, but as the New-Year’s sun began to redden in the west, and somewhat less than an hour before its selling, the explosion occurred. It was attended with but a slight report, and although dust was thrown to the height of one hundred feet, the concussion was barely sufficient to crack the ice on a mudpuddle near the edge of the crevice,” (“The Dutch Gap Canal; How the Work was Commenced and Prosecuted The Blowing Out of the Bulkhead,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 1, 1865). With its failure to destroy the dam which was the only remaining impediment to the completion of the canal and Butler’s removal from command a week later, the canal project languished until after the war. ********** Butler was never reassigned to active duty. He resigned his military commission in November 1865 and went into politics. As a congressman, he was heavily involved in the 1868 impeachment proceedings against Andrew Johnson. In the same year, he was the Democratic Party’s unsuccessful presidential candidate against his former commander Grant, whose two-term presidency lasted from 1869-1877. ********** Grant penned our orders from his headquarters at City Point, Virginia, the busy port city from which he commanded troops from 1864 to 1865 and which was the site of the famed March 1865 meeting between Lincoln, Grant, Porter, and Sherman aboard the River Queen. ********** Not included in Butler’s published correspondence. Neatly folded with the time, 2:30 PM, written in pencil above the date. Very fine.