Our General

In defense of Union General Benjamin Butler

Drawing down the border of her dress, my conductor showed me a sight more revolting than I trust ever again to behold.

The poor girl's back was flayed until the quivering flesh resembled a fresh beefsteak scorched on a gridiron. With a cold chill creeping through my veins, I turned away from the sickening spectacle, and for an explanation of the affair scanned the various persons about the room.

In the centre of the group, at his writing-table, sat the General. His head rested on his hand, and he was evidently endeavoring to fix his attention upon the remarks of a tall, swarthy-looking man who stood opposite, and who, I soon discovered, was the owner of the girl, and was attempting a defence of the foul outrage he had committed upon the unresisting and helpless person of his unfortunate victim, who stood smarting, but silent, under the dreadful pain inflicted by the brutal lash.

By the side of the slaveholder stood our Adjutant-General, his face livid with almost irrepressible rage, and his fists tight-clenched, as if to violently restrain himself from visiting the guilty wretch with summary and retributive justice. Disposed about the room, in various attitudes, but all exhibiting in their countenances the same mingling of horror and indignation, were other members of the Staff,--while, near the door, stood three or four house-servants, who were witnesses in the case.

To the charge of having administered the inhuman castigation, Landry (the owner of the girl) pleaded guilty, but urged in extenuation that the girl had dared to make an effort for that freedom which her instincts, drawn from the veins of her abuser, had taught her was the God-given right of all who possess the germ of immortality, no matter what the color of the casket in which it is hidden.

I say "drawn from the veins of her abuser," because she declared she was his daughter,--and every one in the room, looking upon the man and woman confronting each other, confessed that the resemblance justified the assertion.

After the conclusion of all the evidence in the case, the General continued in the same position as before, and remained for some time apparently lost in abstraction. I shall never forget the singular expression on his face.

I had been accustomed to see him in a storm of passion at any instance of oppression or flagrant injustice; but on this occasion he was too deeply affected to obtain relief in the usual way.

His whole air was one of dejection, almost listlessness; his indignation too intense, and his anger too stern, to find expression even in his countenance.

Never have I seen that peculiar look but on three or four occasions similar to the one I am narrating, when I knew he was pondering upon the baleful curse that had cast its withering blight upon all around, until the manhood and humanity were crushed out of the people, and outrages such as the above were looked upon with complacency, and the perpetrators treated as respected and worthy citizens,--and that he was realizing the great truth, that, however man might endeavor to guide this war to the advantage of a favorite idea or sagacious policy, the Almighty was directing it surely and steadily for the purification of our country from this greatest of national sins.

But to return to my story. After sitting in the mood which I have described at such length, the General again turned to the prisoner, and said, in a quiet, subdued tone of voice,--

"Mr. Landry, I dare not trust myself to decide to-day what punishment would be meet for your offence, for I am in that state of mind that I fear I might exceed the strict demands of justice. I shall therefore place you under guard for the present, until I conclude upon your sentence."

A few days after, a number of influential citizens having represented to the General that Mr. Landry was not only a "high-toned gentleman," but a person of unusual "AMIABILITY" of character, and was consequently entitled to no small degree of leniency, he answered, that, in consideration of the prisoner's "high-toned" character, and especially of his "amiability," of which he had seen so remarkable a proof, he had determined to meet their views, and therefore ordered that Landry give a deed of manumission to the girl, and pay a fine of five hundred dollars, to be placed in the hands of a trustee for her benefit.

It is the passing through such scenes as I have described, and the contemplation of the condition to which Slavery has reduced society at the South, combined with a natural inclination to espouse the cause of the oppressed, that has placed General Butler in the front rank of the "Champions of Freedom."

I remember, so long ago as last July, his turning to me, after reading the story of our sad reverses in Virginia, and remarking that he believed God was directing the issues of the war for a great purpose, and that only in so far as we followed His guidance should we be successful. I have heard him repeat this in effect several times since, and have seen the conviction growing within his mind deeper and deeper, as events proved its correctness, down to the present time.

And yet an Episcopal clergyman of New York told me, the other evening, that General Butler was an Atheist.

* * * * *

General Butler's forbearance and kindness of heart are, I think, well illustrated in the true history of his controversy with General Phelps last summer, in regard to the employment of negroes coming within our lines. His position on that question was at that time somewhat misunderstood. Indeed, a gentleman observed to me only a short time since, referring to General Butler's allowing General Phelps to resign, "General Butler served General Phelps just right."

"So he did," I replied; "but you and I probably differ some in our ideas of right and wrong."

The case, in brief, was this.

General Phelps--as good a man, as honest and whole-souled a patriot, and as brave and thorough a soldier as there is in the service--was in command at Carrolton,--our principal line of defence. The negroes escaping from the plantations had gathered about his camp to the number of many hundreds. General Phelps almost immediately initiated steps toward making them soldiers. The residents, greatly alarmed, or affecting to be, lest they should soon be the victims of an ungovernable armed mob, addressed the most urgent remonstrances to General Butler against General Phelps's proceedings. The General was much perplexed; the Government had not yet indicated any policy on this important subject, and although I am satisfied his sympathies were with General Phelps, (the alacrity with which he soon after organized negro regiments is the best evidence of this,) he did not feel justified in officially approving his course. Determined to avoid anything like a bitter opposition to a measure that his head and heart both told him was intrinsically right, he sought for a means of compromise. Circumstances soon furnished the opportunity.

The enemy was threatening the city with speedy attack, and it was deemed of the highest importance to cut away the thick growth of trees in front of Carrolton for nearly a mile. The General at once ordered General Phelps to set his negro brigade at this work, and in the order was particular to quote General Phelps's own opinion, previously delivered, on the necessity of the project. General Phelps, who was determined that the negroes should be soldiers or nothing, evasively declined obeying the order. General Butler then wrote him a letter presenting fresh arguments, showing how essential it was that the soldiers, who would soon be obliged to defend the city, should be spared as far as possible from unusual fatigue-duty, and inclosed a peremptory order for the performance of the work by the negroes. By the same messenger he also sent a confidential letter, which I wrote at his dictation, in which, in terms of the warmest friendship and honest appreciation of General Phelps's exalted courage, sincere patriotism, and other noble qualities, he begged him not to place himself in an attitude of hostility to his commanding officer. A more delicate, generous, or considerate letter I never read; but it was of no avail. General Phelps persisted in his refusal to obey, and tendered his resignation. What did General Butler do?

He would have been justified in the arrest and court-martial of General Phelps, and few men could resist so good an opportunity to assert their authority; but he knew that General Phelps had been for years the victim of the Slave Power, until his mind had become so absorbed in detestation of the institution that he was conscientiously and inexorably opposed to the slightest step that could even remotely be construed as assisting in its support. Moreover, General Butler's esteem for General Phelps was deep and sincere; and those who know the General well will readily understand how repugnant to his nature is the abrupt change from warm friendship to open hostility.

But to recur to my question,--What did General Butler do? He simply forwarded General Phelps's resignation to Washington, with the earnest request that the Government would proclaim some policy in regard to the contrabands, and shortly after, learning that the story of an intended attack on the city at that time was a canard, allowed the matter to drop. When, a little later, the enrolment of negroes in the United States' service was in order, where were they so promptly enlisted and equipped as in the grand old "Department of the Gulf"?

Reading the other day the retaliatory resolutions of the Rebel Congress recalled to my mind the terrible earnestness with which the General declared in New Orleans, "For every one of my black soldiers who may be murdered by their captors, two Rebel soldiers shall hang." And I know he meant it.

* * * * *

The London "Times" has said that General Butler is a "monster of cruelty," devoid of every sentiment of benevolence or tenderness, and the cry has been taken up and echoed by the press of Continental Europe. Perhaps he is; but the thirty-four thousand poor people of New Orleans whom he fed every day refuse to believe it. I could wish that some of these libellers of his humanity had been in New Orleans to see the character of the crowd that thronged his office from morning till night. There were persons of almost every condition and color,--the great majority being poor and wretched men and women, who brought their every grief and trouble to lay at the feet of the man whom they believed possessed of the power and the will to redress every wrong and heal every sorrow. Was it surprising? Did it look as though they feared his fierce anger and his cruel wrath? Was it not rather the humble testimony of their instinct that he whose first and every act in their city was for the amelioration of suffering was the one to whom they should apply for relief in every woe? And what patience he exhibited under this great and increasing addition to his official cares! Unless the complaint or request were frivolous or disloyal, he always listened respectfully, and then applied the remedy to the wrong, or carefully explained the means suited to the relief of the distress, and the proper course for obtaining it.

Shortly after our arrival in New Orleans, the Sisters in charge of the Orphan Asylum of St. Elizabeth called upon the General and represented that institution as in a state of literal destitution from lack of provisions and the money with which to procure them. This unfortunate condition of suffering was one of the legitimate consequences of active Secession, and no one could be held responsible for it but the leaders of the Rebellion. But the General did not stop to discuss the question of responsibility; he knew that here were several hundred children who were crying for bread, and with characteristic promptitude gave them an order on the Chief Commissary for a very large amount of stores,--to be charged to his personal account,--adding a sum of five hundred dollars in money from his pocket.

The Convent of the Sacred Heart, near New Orleans, owed its continued existence almost entirely to his individual charities; and the same may be said of all the benevolent institutions in and about the city.

I have rarely seen him more angry than when he discovered that a committee of the City Council, who held, as trustees, the Touro Fund, left by its generous donor for the support of orphans, had outraged their trust by applying a large amount of the legacy to the purchase of munitions of war for the Rebellion. He had them brought under guard to the office, and, unable to restrain his contempt for the dishonor of the act, expressed his opinion in terms that must have scathed them fearfully, unless their sensibilities were utterly callous. He then sent them to Fort Pickens, there to remain until every cent of the money they had so wantonly diverted from its legitimate purpose should be repaid.

* * * * *

One of the most striking of the General's traits is the quick comprehension which enables him to meet almost any question with a ready and commonly a witty reply.

During the earlier period of our occupation of New Orleans, persons were constantly applying to him to give them an order to search within our lines for runaway negroes; and it is a good illustration of the assurance of our enemies, that in a majority of cases the persons so applying were avowed traitors. The following is a fair sample of the conversation that would follow such an application.

"General, I wish you would give me an order to search for my negro," the visitor would commence.

"Have you lost your horse?" the General would ask, in reply.

"No, Sir."

"Have you lost your mule?" the General would add.

"No, Sir," the applicant for the order would answer, looking exceedingly puzzled at such unusual questions.

"Well, Sir, if you had lost your horse or your mule, would you come and ask me to neglect my duty to the Government for the purpose of assisting you to catch them?"

"Of course not," the visitor would reply, with increasing astonishment.

"Then why should you expect me to employ myself in hunting after any other article of your property?"

And with this comforting and practical application of the Dred-Scott decision, the ex-owner of the fugitive slave would take his departure, a wiser, and, I doubt not, a sadder man.

During an interview between the General and the Reverend Doctor Leacock, (Rector of Grace Church in New Orleans, and one of the three Episcopal clergymen who refused to read the prayer for the President, and were therefore sent North as prisoners, under my charge,) in which the General urged upon the Doctor his views on the injurious influence of disloyalty in the pulpit, sustaining his argument by prolific quotations from Scripture, recited with an accuracy and appositeness that few theologians could exceed, the Doctor replied,--

"But, General, your insisting upon the taking of the oath of allegiance is causing half of my church-members to perjure themselves."

"If that is the case, I am glad I have not had the spiritual charge of your church for the last nine years," (just the term of Dr. Leacock's pastorate,) the General answered, promptly.

After a lengthy conversation, the Doctor finally asked,--

"Well, General, are you going to shut up the churches?"

"No, Sir, I am more likely to shut up the ministers," he replied.

To the casual observer this would appear but a brilliant repartee, while, in fact, it was significant as indicative of a sagacious policy. Closing the churches would have given warrant to the charge of interference with the observances of religion. So careful was the General to avoid anything of this nature, that, in every instance where a clergyman was removed from his church, the very next Sunday found his pulpit occupied by a loyal minister.

As a great many excellent Churchmen have misunderstood the cause of the arrest of clergymen in New Orleans, I think I must add a word of explanation. The ministers so arrested were of the Episcopal denomination, in which the rector is required to read a liturgy prescribed by the General Convention. In this liturgy occurs "a prayer for the President of the United States," and its omission in their reading of the service was clearly an overt act of disloyalty, in that it was by unmistakable implication a declaration that they did not recognize the authority of the President of the United States; and it is a fact not generally known, that this omission in the service was supplied by the minister's regularly announcing, "A few moments will now be spent in silent prayer." Who can doubt the character and burden of this voiceless petition, when it is understood that it was the successor to an audible appeal--which General Butler suppressed--to Heaven for Jefferson Davis and the success of his cause?

* * * * *

Another of the General's strongest characteristics is his firm faith, his ardent hopefulness. Never have I known him despondent as to the final result of this war. He believes it to be a struggle for principle and right, and therefore his confidence in the ultimate success of our arms never falters. Frequently disheartened myself at our apparent ill-fortune, I have listened to his cheerful predictions and expressions of unflagging trust, and have come away strengthened and confident.

After our return to the North, an ex-mayor of Chicago was introduced to the General at the St. Nicholas Hotel in New York. It was just at a time when our cause looked very gloomy. The Mayor was evidently much depressed by the indications of national misfortune, and in a tone of great despondency asked the General,--

"Do you believe we shall ever get through this war successfully?"

"Yes, Sir," the General answered, very decidedly.

"Well, but how?" asked the Mayor.

"God knows, I don't; but I know He does, so I am satisfied," the General replied.

And in this reply was contained an admirable expression of that earnest faith in the inevitable triumph of good over evil which forms so prominent a part of his nature.

* * * * *

In this short sketch I have either entirely avoided or merely hinted at the traits which have given General Butler a world-wide distinction. His wonderful energy, his sagacity, his courage, his great executive and administrative ability, and, more than all, the marvellous comprehension, which, at the firing of the first gun at Fort Sumter, enabled him to grasp the subject of this Rebellion in all its magnitude and bearings, and in the means and measures for its suppression, are attributes made familiar to the world as "household words" by his unprecedented administration in New Orleans.

The story of the years of experience crowded into those eight short months of our sojourn in that city is worthy the pen of our country's ablest historian, and would fill volumes.

To relate all the instances of General Butler's kindness and generosity, his forbearance and magnanimity, while in New Orleans, would require more than all the space between the covers of the "Atlantic."

I have undertaken the grateful task of recording some of the more prominent scenes, where he displayed the kindly, genial traits so utterly inconsistent with the indiscriminate charges of cruelty, injustice, and wrong, preferred by his enemies,--traits that have inexpressibly endeared their possessor to every officer and soldier in his late army. Said an officer, but just returned from New Orleans, to me a few days since,--"I have heard of the infatuation of the Army of the Potomac to its earlier leader, but I do not believe their devotion is near so deep and earnest as that of the faithful men who followed General Butler from New England and the Northwest, through the campaign of New Orleans."

Not one of us who have been closely associated with him but watches with intense interest for the opportunity to arrive when he shall prove himself to be (as every one of us believes him to be) among the foremost of those predestined to lead our country through its baptism of blood and fire to a higher and grander destiny and glory than the most ardent dared even to hope for before the war.

Happy then shall I be, if in these few pages I have conveyed to the indulgent readers of this article some idea of the inner life and character of OUR GENERAL.

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