Sunday, July 23, 2017

Brigadier-General Benjamin F. Butler to Governor John A. Andrew, May 9, 1861

Department of Annapolis, Headquarters,
ANNAPOLIS, May 9, 1861

To his Excellency, JOHN A. ANDREW, Governor and Commander-in-Chief

SIR: I have delayed replying to your excellency's despatch of the 25th of April in my other despatches, because, as it involved disapprobation of an act done, couched in the kindest language, I suppose the interests of the country could not suffer in the delay; and incessant labor up to the present moment has prevented me giving full consideration to the topic. Temporary illness which forbids bodily activity gives me now a moment's pause.

The telegraph, with more than usual accuracy, has rightly informed your excellency that I had offered the services of the Massachusetts troops under my command to aid the authorities in Maryland in suppressing the threatened slave insurrection. Fortunately for us all the rumor of such an outbreak was without a substantial foundation. Assuming, as your excellency does in your despatch, that I was carrying on military operations in an enemy's country when a war a l'outrance was to be waged, my act might be an act of discussion. And in that view, acting in the light of the Baltimore murders and the apparent hostile position of Maryland, your excellency might, without mature reflection, have come to the conclusion of disapprobation expressed in your despatch. But the facts, especially as now aided by their results, will entirely justify my act and reinstate me in your excellency’s good opinion.

True, I landed on the soil of Maryland against the formal protest of its governor and of the corporate authorities of Annapolis, and expecting opposition only from insurgents assembled in riotous contempt of the laws of the State. Before, by letter, at the time of landing, by personal interview, I had informed Governor Hicks that the soldiers of the Union, under my command, were armed only against the insurgents and disturbers of the peace of Maryland and of the United States. I received from Governor Hicks assurances of the loyalty of the State to the Union, — assurances which subsequent events have fully justified. The mayor of Annapolis also informed me that the city authorities would in no wise oppose me, but that I was in great danger from the excited and riotous crowds of Baltimore, pouring down upon me and in numbers beyond the control of the police. I assured both the governor and the mayor that I had no fear of a Baltimore or other mob, and that, supported by the authorities of the State and city, I should suppress all hostile demonstrations against the laws of Maryland and the United States, and that I would protect both myself and the city of Annapolis from any disorderly persons whatsoever. On the morning following my landing, I was informed that the city of Annapolis and environs were in danger from an insurrection of the slave population, in defiance of the laws of the State. What was I to do? I had promised to put down a white mob and to preserve and enforce the laws against that. Ought I to allow a black one any preference in the breach of the laws? I understood that I was armed against all infractions of the laws, whether by white or black, and upon that understanding I acted, certainly with promptness and efficiency; and your excellency’s shadow of disapprobation, arising from a misunderstanding of the facts, has caused all the regret I have for that action. The question seemed to me to be neither military nor political, and was not to be so treated. It was simply a question of good faith and honesty of purpose. The benign effect of my course was instantly seen. The good but timid people of Annapolis, who had fled from their houses at our approach, immediately returned; business assumed its accustomed channels; quiet and order prevailed in the city; confidence took the place of distrust, friendship of enmity, brotherly kindness of sectional hate, and I believe to-day there is no city in the Union more loyal than the city of Annapolis. I think, therefore, I may safely point to the results for my justification. The vote of the neighborhood county of Washington, a few days since, for its delegate to the legislature, wherein four thousand out of five thousand votes were thrown for a delegate favorable to the Union, is among the many happy fruits of firmness of purpose, efficiency of action, and integrity of mission. I believe, indeed, that it will not require a personal interchange of views, as suggested in your despatch, to bring our minds in accordance; a simple statement of the facts will suffice.

But I am to act hereafter, it may be, in an enemy's country, among a servile population, when the question may arise, as it has not yet arisen, as well in a moral and Christian as in a political and military point of view. What shall I do? Will your excellency bear with me a moment while this question is discussed?

I appreciate fully your excellency’s suggestion as to the inherent weakness of the rebels, arising from the preponderance of their servile population. The question, then, is, “In what manner shall we take advantage of that weakness?” By allowing, and of course arming, that population to rise upon the defenceless women and children of the country, carrying rapine, arson, and murder – all the horrors of San Domingo a million times magnified – among those whom we hope to reunite with us as brethren, many of whom are already so, and all who are worth preserving will be, when this horrible madness shall have passed away or be thrashed out of them? Would your excellency advise the troops under my command to make war in person upon the defenceless women and children of any part of the Union, accompanied with brutalities too horrible to be named? You will say, “God forbid.” If we may not do so in person, shall we arm others to do so over whom we can have no restraint, exercise no control, and who, when once they have tasted blood, may turn the very arms we put in their hands against ourselves as a part of the oppressing white race? The reading of history, so familiar to your excellency, will tell you the bitterest cause of complaint which our fathers had against Great Britain in the War of the Revolution was the arming by the British Ministry of the red men with the tomahawk and the scalping knife against the women and children of the colonies, so that the phrase “May we not use all the means which God and Nature have put in our power to subjugate the colonies?” has passed into a legend of infamy against the leader of that ministry who used it in Parliament. Shall history teach us in vain? Could we justify ourselves to ourselves? Although with arms in our hands amid the savage wildness of camp and field, we may have blunted many of the finer moral sensibilities in letting loose four millions of worse than savages upon the homes and hearths of the South. Can we be justified to the Christian community of Massachusetts? Would such a course be consonant with the teachings of our holy religion? I have a very decided opinion on the subject, and if anyone desires, as I know your excellency does not, this unhappy contest to be prosecuted in that manner, some instrument other than myself must be found to carry it on. I may not discuss the political bearings of this topic. When I went from under the shadow of my roof tree I left all politics behind me, to be resumed when every part of the Union is loyal to the flag, and the potency of the government through the ballot-box is established.

Passing the moral and the Christian view, let us examine the subject as a military question. Is not that state already subjugated which requires the bayonets of those armed in opposition to its rulers to preserve it from the horrors of a servile war? As the least experienced of military men, I would have no doubt of the entire subjugation of a State brought to that condition. When, therefore, — unless I am better advised, — any community in the United States who have met me in honorable warfare, or even in the prosecution of a rebellious war in an honorable manner, shall call upon me for protection against the nameless horrors of a servile insurrection, they shall have it, and from the moment that call is obeyed I have no doubt we shall be friends and not enemies.

The possibilities that dishonorable means of defence are to be taken by the rebels against the government I do not now contemplate. If, as has been done in a single instance, my men are to be attacked by poison, or, as in another, stricken down by the assassin's knife and thus murdered, the community using such weapons may be required to be taught that it holds within its own border a more potent means for deadly purposes and indiscriminate slaughter than any which it can administer to us.

Trusting that these views may meet your excellency's approval, I have the honor to be,

Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,

SOURCE: Jessie Ames Marshall, Editor, Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler During the Period of the Civil War, Volume 1: April 1860 – June 1862, p. 38-41

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