150 Years Ago This Week: Gen. Butler is sacked

January 1865

As the second week of January 1865 began, the general-in-chief of the U. S. Armies, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant, wired President Lincoln from his headquarters at Petersburg and asked the commander-in-chief to relieve Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler. “I have a lack of confidence in his military ability,” Gen. Grant wrote, “making him an unsafe commander of a large army.”

Grant was no doubt thinking that Butler, by order of rank, would have commanded in the absence of Grant. Butler was by far the most controversial figure in the North; since the Ft. Fisher fiasco the previous month, there was increased agitation that Gen. Butler be sacked.

On Saturday, Jan. 7, the active military career of Gen. Butler came to an end. Orders were issued by War Department removing Gen. Butler from command of the Army of the James and of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. His replacement was Maj. Gen. Edwin O. C. Ord. For a long time, Gen. Butler had held high military posts, possibly because President Lincoln felt that the Democratic Butler was less of an obstacle that way; there had to be an end of it, and the failure at Ft. Fisher brought matters to a head. Gen. Butler had to go, no matter what the political implications.

The Danish ironclad Sphinx left Copenhagen in Denmark on Jan. 7, bound for Quiberon Bay, France. The ship had been secretly purchased by the Confederacy and soon was to be commissioned the C.S.S. Stonewall.

Gen. Ord assumed command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina and the Army of the James on Jan. 8. The next day, the Constitutional Convention of Tennessee adopted an amendment abolishing slavery in the state, and would put it to a vote of the people. In Washington, the debate over the amendment to abolish slavery in the United States continued heatedly.

Rep. John Kasson of Iowa stated, “you will never, never have reliable peace in this country while that institution exists, the perpetual occasion of moral, intellectual, and physical warfare.” Fernando Wood of New York said, “The Almighty has fixed the distinction of the races; the Almighty has made the black man inferior, and, sir, by no legislation, by no partisan success, by no revolution, can you wipe out this distinction. You may make the black man free, but when you have done that, what have you done?”

Once again the combined army-navy expedition now under way towards Ft. Fisher near Wilmington, N.C., was being delayed by storms and raging seas. On Jan. 11, the Constitutional Convention of Missouri, meeting in St. Louis, adopted an ordinance abolishing slavery. In West Virginia, Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. Thomas Rosser raided near Beverly in bad weather; the Southerners captured almost 600 Union soldiers, causing 28 casualties and capturing a considerable number of rations and supplies. The success of the Confederate troopers was blamed by the North on Federal carelessness and a lack of discipline.

In Richmond, President Davis planned to bring the Army of Tennessee east from northern Mississippi to oppose Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s armies on their advance into South Carolina. On Jan. 12, the combined Union army and navy expedition arrived off Ft. Fisher. Col. William Lamb, commanding Ft. Fisher, notified Gen. Braxton Bragg, commanding Confederate forces in the Wilmington area, of the expedition’s arrival.

Starting on Jan. 13 and lasting three days, packing the greatest firepower in U.S. Naval history (627 guns in 29 vessels) under Adm. David Porter, the ships began bombarding Ft. Fisher, while Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry’s 8,000 troops began to go ashore just north of the fort. There was no opposition from the 6,000 Confederates between Wilmington and the fort. The naval guns fired some 20,000 projectiles at Ft. Fisher in the three days of bombardment, battering the fort’s guns and ramparts, while Gen. Terry’s Union troops constructed defensive works facing north, in preparation to hold off Gen. Bragg’s Confederates should they move south to reinforce Ft. Fisher.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.