Ben Butler and the Contrabands

Posted on
Fort Monroe, Old Point Comfort, Virginia, ca. 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When Union general Benjamin Franklin Butler arrived at Fort Monroe, Virginia, he immediately sought to show the Virginians that his troops could go anywhere they wished on the Peninsula. On May 23, 1861, Butler sent Colonel J. Wolcock Phelps into Hampton. The Union troops marched into the town and then returned to the fort. In the ensuing confusion, three men enslaved by Colonel Charles King Mallory escaped. Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory seeking their freedom, made their way onto Fort Monroe. Butler refused to return the runaways and called them ‘Contraband of War.’ Their decision helped transform the Civil War into a conflict between the states and a struggle for freedom.

FORT MONROE: THE KEY TO THE SOUTH

Winfield Scott recognized Fort Monroe as key to his policy of bringing his native state of Virginia back into the Union. He believed that the enforcements he had already sent and the additional troops he intended to transfer to the Peninsula necessitated a change in command. Scott needed a high-ranking officer to command the growing number of troops on Old Point Comfort.  He wanted an aggressive leader who would actively contest Confederate positions threatening the Hampton Roads anchorage and secure the Peninsula as an avenue of approach against Richmond. Scott’s selection was somewhat of a surprise. Instead of detailing a veteran officer to this critical post, he chose the sharpster lawyer and slick politician turned militia officer, Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler.    Read more

First Assault on Fort Fisher: Ben Butler and the Powder Boat Scheme

Posted on

Fort Fisher, N.C., Interior view of first three traverses on land face, 1865. Timothy H. O’Sullivan, photographer. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had long recognized Wilmington, North Carolina, as the key blockade runners’ haven in the war. He had tried to create an expedition to capture Wilmington’s prime defender, Fort Fisher. Welles, in conjunction with Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, conceived an attack where monitors would pass through Cape Fear’s Old Inlet and bombard Fort Fisher from the rear. A great idea: however, this mode of assault was impractical as the new Passaic-class monitors had too drafts too deep to enter the river. The Federals; nevertheless, did not forget about Cape Fear.

CONCEPT CONCEIVED

The Federals knew that Wilmington needed to be closed; yet, they also recognized the magnitude and extent of the Cape Fear defenses. Fort Fisher was key to General Robert E. Lee’s defense of Petersburg and Richmond. The food, weapons, ammunition, clothing, and medicines that Lee’s army relied upon all came from Wilmington, North Carolina. If this port city were to be captured, Lee would have to abandon his trenches outside of Petersburg.   Read more