History has not been kind to Benjamin Franklin Butler. In most general histories of the Civil War Butler comes across as the conniving political general who blundered his way to prominence, stole spoons, and insulted Southern womanhood to the point where Jeff Davis put a bounty on his head and he was referred to as “Beast.” Like him or not, however, Butler had a profound influence on the trajectory of the war. While most people are familiar with his famous “contraband” order at Fortress Monroe, his capture and subsequent occupation of New Orleans, and his tenure as the commander of the Army of the James, some may not be as familiar with his post-war career in the United States Congress during Reconstruction.
It was in that body, during the debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1875, that Butler explained his transformation from a Democrat who supported Breckinridge during the election of 1860 and had very convention views on slavery, to a Radical Republican and supporter of equal rights for African Americans. By this point in his career, Butler always drew large crowds because his biting wit and sarcasm could enflame his Southern colleagues and you never quite knew when his grandiloquence would cause an uproar. (One of the finest examples of this kind of rhetoric came when he critiqued Southern objections to the act – “What are the objections made to this bill? The first objection stated on the other side is that this bill establishes social equality. By no means, by no means…I am inclined to think that the only equality the blacks ever have in the South is social equality; for I understand the highest exhibition of social equality is communication between the sexes…”)
On this particular day, however, Butler hearkened back to Thursday, September 29, 1864 – the Battle New Market Heights. According to Butler, it was the bravery he witnessed on that field of honor that convinced him that African Americans were capable of, and deserving of, equality and the benefits of citizenship. As he addressed the Congress he recalled:
I came into command…in Virginia in 1863. I there organized twenty-five regiments, with some that were sent to me, and disciplined them. Still all my brother officers of the regular army said my colored soldiers would not fight; and I felt it was necessary that they should fight to show that their race was capable of the duties of citizens; for one of the highest duties of citizens is to defend their own liberties and their country’s flag and honor. On the 29th of September, 1864, I was ordered by the commanding general…to cross the James River at two points and attack the enemy’s line of works…and there are men on the floor who will remember that day, I doubt not, as I do myself…I went myself with the colored troops, to attack the enemy at New Market Heights, which was the key to the enemy’s flank on the north side of James River. That work was a redoubt built on the top of a hill of some considerable elevation; then running down into a marsh; in that marsh was a brook; then rising again to a plain which gently rolled away toward the river. On that plain, when the flash of dawn was breaking, I placed a column of three thousand colored troops, in close column by division, right in front, with guns at “right shoulder shift.”
I said: “That work must be taken by the weight of your column; not a shot must be fired;” and to prevent their firing I had the caps taken from the nipples of their guns. Then I said, “Your cry, when you charge, will be, ‘Remember Fort Pillow!’” and as the sun rose up in the heavens the order was given, “Forward!” and they marched forward as steadily as if on parade.
Butler then goes on to detail the assaults made by his friend Charles J. Paine’s Division upon the New Market Line. As I mentioned before, Butler had a price on his head and therefore did not go forward with his men. When the victory was won, however, he rode to the front and left the following account of the carnage that he witnessed:
It became my painful duty, sir, to follow in the track of that charging column, and there, in a space not wider than the clerk’s desk…lay the dead bodies of five hundred and forty-three of my colored soldiers, slain in defense of their country, and who had laid down their lives to uphold its flag and its honor as a willing sacrifice; and as I rode along among them, guiding my horse this way and that way lest he should profane with his hoofs what seemed to me the sacred dead, and as I looked on their bronzed faces upturned in the shining sun to heaven as if in mute appeal against the wrongs of that country…feeling I had wronged them in the past and believing what was the future of my country towards them…I swore to myself a solemn oath, “May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I ever fail to defend the rights of these men who have given their blood for me and my country this day and for their race forever!” and, God help me, I will keep that oath.
In this speech Butler reveals that it was seeing the aftermath of the battle of the New Market Heights that turned him into an ardent supporter of African American rights.
He concluded his remarks with the following admonition:
Now, Mr. Speaker, these men have fought for their country…they have shown themselves our equals in battle; as citizens they are kind, quiet, temperate, laborious; they have shown that they know how to exercise the right of suffrage which we have given to them, for they always vote right; they vote the Republican ticket, and all the powers of death and hell cannot persuade them to do otherwise. They show that they knew more than their masters did, for they always knew how to be loyal. They have industry, they have temperance, they have all the good qualities of citizens, they have bravery, they have culture, they have power, they have eloquence. And who shall say that they shall not have what the Constitution gives them – equal rights!
With this stirring conclusion, he took his seat. His vivid depiction of the fighting that took place at New Market Heights and the change it wrought in his thinking makes this one of the most revealing and important speeches that Ben Butler ever gave. After Butler and authors like Joseph T. Wilson, George Washington Williams, and William Wells Brown ceased speaking and writing, the Battle of New Market Heights was virtually forgotten for almost a century.
Let us hope that is not the case as we steam full speed ahead into the Sesquicentennial.
Oh, and do you know how followed up Butler’s speech on the House floor that day? Robert B. Vance -the representative from North Carolina, who also just happened to be the brother of Zebulon Vance.