Phillip W. Magness

Historian – 19th century United States

Why I consider Ben Butler (mostly) credible

My dispute with Allen Guelzo has stirred up a bit of debate about the issue of colonization during the Lincoln presidency and my own interpretations of the evidence. I don’t plan to use this blog to weigh in on every point of the discussion, some of which are addressed in my latest article on the subject. I also highly recommend this extended comment by my friend Sebastian Page addressing some of the issues raised, which has been kindly highlighted on the website of fellow historian Brooks Simpson.BenjaminButler

Much of the ongoing discussion, including the comment that Seb addressed in his remarks, revolves around Gen. Benjamin F. Butler’s famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) colonization anecdote, dated to a few days before Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865. I first weighed in on this subject in 2008, challenging works by Mark E. Neely and others that sought to discredit Butler’s story. I also revisited it briefly – adding new evidence since the 2008 study – in Colonization after Emancipation, and have a forthcoming article contextualizing it further within the historiography of the colonization movement. I’d encourage any reader wishing for a detailed examination of the subject to consult these sources, but as the topic remains ripe I’ll also take the moment to address a few particulars of Butler’s story.

To begin with, I do in fact consider Butler’s colonization anecdote credible…mostly. There are a few important caveats to this characterization and Butler’s telling is not without its faults. The story’s timing, its contents, and the issues it raises are also complicated, so it’s best to examine them in turn.

It’s Actually Three Butler Stories:

The first thing to clarify about the Butler anecdote is that it actually comes from three separate versions of increasingly greater detail though also distance in time from the event itself:

1884 – The earliest version is the shortest and least well known. I discovered it after my 2008 article was published and first brought it to public attention in Colonization after Emancipation.  It appears as part of the back story of an article in the New York Times about Sidney Webster, a lobbyist and close friend of Butler and diplomat Caleb Cushing. The account is succinct, specific, largely free of embellishing personal details and purported dialogue, and may have even originated in a telling conveyed to the reporter by Webster himself.

1886 – Butler committed a more detailed version of the story to print as part of an invited contribution to a book of Lincoln anecdotes by Allen Thorndike Rice, the editor of the popular North American Review magazine. This version has been known for many years and is readily available in Rice’s book, although it was largely neglected from examinations of Butler’s account prior to my 2008 article.

1892 – Butler published an even longer version of the story in his thousand-page autobiography and memoir, often referred to as Butler’s Book. This version is by far the best known of the three. It is also the furthest in distance from the actual event, and the account in which Butler’s failing memory and personal embellishments are at their most pronounced. It is important for our purposes to remember that Butler’s already poor eyesight was failing at the time he composed the book. The autobiography was recorded almost entirely by dictation to a hired stenographer.

Almost all criticisms of the Butler story rely exclusively upon the 1892 account, which makes for an odd starting point because it is the least reliable and furthest removed of the three. It is also the best known version by far, but since all three are now readily available to historians it also requires a conscious negligence of the other two to construct an argument against Butler’s credibility entirely upon the weakest example while ignoring the other two versions. A full account should address all three, as clues shared between them both attest to a core consistency in the story and reveal particular details that Butler increasingly embellished or altered with the passage of time. I suggest the comparison chart on pp. 112-113 of Colonization after Emancipation as a starting point on the similarities and differences. Most notably though the timeline issues that plague the 1892 account and form the basis of Neely’s attempt to discredit it are not present in the two earlier versions, both of which support an April 1865 date.

The Date(s) of Butler’s Meeting(s) with Lincoln:

It is absolutely certain that Butler met with Lincoln in private at the White House around 9 a.m. on April 11, 1865. Butler was in Washington during the final week of Lincoln’s life, and a note from Lincoln’s secretary confirming their appointment at this time may be found in Butler’s papers at the Library of Congress.

As noted previous critiques of the Butler story including Neely’s have rested almost entirely upon the issue of this date, and specifically its portrayal in the 1892 version where Butler places it before Lincoln’s visit to City Point and Richmond, Virginia in late March and early April 1865. This is quite clearly in error as Butler was not in Washington prior to Lincoln’s departure for City Point. It is also a mistake that is entirely unique to the 1892 version and stems from no greater malice than the general’s declining health and ability to recall precise details.

The 1884 version, by contrast, dates the story to “a few days before Booth’s bullet did its fatal work.” (April 14, 1865)

The 1886 version places it “after the surrender of Lee, and he [Lincoln] had been to Richmond.” (April 9, 1865)

This gives us an important piece of evidence, as both the 1884 and 1886 versions are consistent with the appointment on April 11, 1865. They similarly coincide with Lincoln and Butler’s mutual presence in Washington. Butler had been in Washington for about two weeks when Lincoln returned from Richmond on April 9th. Butler then departed for Massachusetts on the morning of April 14, the same day Lincoln was shot.Butler-Timeline

This time-frame of April 9-14 is also critically important because Butler actually claimed the conversation took place over a couple of back to back encounters. Most prior critics of the Butler story have missed this small detail, though as I pointed out in my 2008 article Butler actually described “a two-part meeting separated by two or “some few days,” the second occurring in the morning.” In addition to the confirmed meeting on April 11, this brief window provided ample opportunity for the two to cross paths. Butler was staying at Willard’s Hotel near the White House and spent the last days of his stay in Washington conducting political business. He also delivered an address to the same crowd that gathered on the White House lawn to here Lincoln on April 10, where Lincoln famously asked the band to play the newly “captured” tune “Dixie.”

We can accordingly place Butler’s claimed meeting on the timeline with confidence and reject challenges raised against it on the issue of the date.

Colonization after 1864:

Butler’s story is famous because of the late date it attaches to Lincoln’s colonization interests, at least if it is to be believed. This is an observation that was famously made by George M. Fredrickson in the early 1970s, who at the time considered Butler’s story generally credible. But Fredrickson was commenting on another trend that was already in vogue at the time and achieved widespread popularity among historians in the decades since: a belief that Lincoln abandoned colonization sometime at or shortly after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

This theory – never seriously proffered before the second half of the 20th century – is demonstrably in error, as Seb Page and I showed in Colonization after Emancipation and a number of other scholarly articles on the subject. We have traced Lincoln’s active pursuit of colonization through the beginning of 1864 through a “second wave” of projects in British Honduras, Guiana, and Suriname. Political setbacks certainly stalled the policy in the last year of the war, though there is ample evidence that colonization’s claimed demise has been severely overstated. No direct evidence has ever been shown that Lincoln ever personally abandoned the idea except for a cryptic, awkwardly worded diary entry by John Hay suggesting the president “sloughed off” the idea – a claim that is contradicted in other contemporary records.

  • In February and March 1864 Lincoln ignored a series of high profile and widely published demands by Rep. Henry Winter Davis and other Radicals in Congress that he repudiate colonization. This call was provoked by two successive speeches from Congressman Frank Blair, endorsing colonization in Lincoln’s name. Blair was widely interpreted at the time as speaking on behalf of the president and James Garfield confided as much in a letter following the second speech.
  • In July 1864 after Congress repealed the funding for colonization in a last minute rider to a much-needed budget bill, Lincoln described it as an “unfriendly” amendment in a conversation with his colonization assistant James Mitchell. This was recorded in several subsequent letters by Mitchell, dating back to 1865.
  • In September and October 1864 Lincoln intervened on Mitchell’s behalf to have his salary restored following the budget cut. Lincoln submitted a case to the Attorney General, asking if he could continue to employ Mitchell for colonization purposes without the repealed appropriation. Though the legal circumstances of this request are murky, Lincoln may have been attempting to use a different statute – still in effect – that authorized colonization funding out of the proceeds of land sales from unpaid federal tax seizures. In 1864 Mitchell requested a statement of funds in this account from the Treasury Department, suggesting that Lincoln was aware of the possibility.
  • On November 30, 1864 Attorney General Edward Bates offered Lincoln an informal answer to his request about the legality of retaining Mitchell as an “assistant or aid in the matter of executing the several acts of Congress relating to the emigration or Colonizing of the freed blacks.” Bates advised Lincoln that “you have the same right to continue Mr Mitchell that you had to appoint him originally.”
  • In late 1864 Lincoln had a conversation with Mitchell in which he reportedly decided to place colonization on hold pending the outcome of the Confederates’ last-ditch proposal to arm its own slaves. The conversation is related in an early 1865 letter from Mitchell, written while the next steps around colonization were being discussed among its supporters in Congress.
  • In late December 1864 Lincoln apparently authorized Mitchell’s back pay, which had been suspended after the repeal of his budget in July. Colonization office accounts for the year reflect that he received his salary.
  • On January 31, 1865 Mitchell met with Thaddeus Stevens, Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, to discuss a proposal to partially restore the funding of the colonization office. Stevens – who despite his radicalism had previously been a supporter of limited colonization – acquiesced and handed Mitchell a signed pledge of support to give to the president.

Taken together with multiple recorded attestations of his continued support for colonization from Lincoln’s contemporaries, these documented incidents are entirely consistent with a Lincoln who would similarly raise the issue of colonization in a conversation with Butler in April 1865. It is certainly worth pointing out that colonization was probably *not* the only option Lincoln had under consideration in 1865. He was probably uncertain about the future of race relations in the United States and simultaneously entertaining multiple ideas. But resuming colonization – a voluntary proposition that he had always adhered to – was almost certainly among them.

Colonization and Black Citizenship:

One of the most common arguments used to dismiss Butler’s story is Lincoln’s apparent acceptance of black citizenship. The most visible form of this article is based on his tepid though public endorsement of limited black voting rights at the end of the war, and indeed on the same day as his April 11 meeting with Butler.

It is frequently asserted and assumed that this and other nods to black citizenship are inherently at odds with the resumption of voluntary colonization abroad, and yet the theorized underlying contradiction is almost never explored. There is actually little reason to consider the two propositions as mutually exclusive of one another because Lincoln’s motive for colonization came not from a wish to deny the blessings of citizenship to African-Americans, but rather a genuine fear that they would never be permitted to live as equals among a racist and violence-prone white majority. Lincoln stressed this point at length when discussing colonization in the 1862 address, while also hinting that his negotiating terms included protection for citizenship rights among the colonists – “I would endeavor to have you made equals.”

There is also little reason to believe that Lincoln underwent a drastic anti-colonization evolutionary reckoning on the issue of citizenship, even as he almost certainly “grew” on certain particulars such as voting rights. Lincoln had long included room for some conceptualization of black citizenship as part of his critique of Dred Scott, and just as importantly DID NOT see this as inconsistent with colonization. His administration famously issued an opinion in November 1862 lending legal credence to free black citizenship at the same time that his public advocacy of colonization was in full swing. If the two propositions were not in conflict in Lincoln’s mind in 1862, why would they be in 1865?

What then are we to make of Lincoln’s nod to black voting rights in 1865? Quite simply he was entertaining multiple propositions at once, be it citizenship at home or resettlement abroad. Of equal importance Lincoln’s colonization program was always a voluntary proposition – more of a safety valve for African-Americans to escape racial violence, than a scheme of obligatory deportation.

Consistent Points in Butler’s Account:

There are also a number of details specific to Butler’s three versions of the story that lend it a core of credibility. They match well with other independently verifiable events, or echo other elements of Lincoln’s known colonization efforts.

  • Butler associates the proposed colonization scheme with the proposed Panama Canal. Building the canal had actually been something of a hallmark of Lincoln’s colonization advocacy. In Lincoln’s well known and somewhat notorious “colonization address” of August 14, 1862 he suggested the colonists would find employment building the canal – a “great highway from the Atlantic or Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.” The isthmian crossing was also a pressing matter of U.S. foreign policy in early 1865. A few months prior to the Butler meeting, political instability in Colombia had disrupted the transfer of troops from the West Coast of the United States through Panama. Between 1865 and 1867 the United States also unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a canal treaty with Colombia.
  • Despite a few embellishments and a largely imagined dialogue with Lincoln, Butler also accurately represented Lincoln’s recurring fears of white racism and racial violence against the the freed slaves in a postwar south. Lincoln made this concern a distinctive feature of his colonization argument in the 1862 address, and repeated it in conversations following the New York Draft Riots of 1863.
  • Butler’s story implies that naval vessels and troop transports from the late war effort could be enlisted to carry colonists. This detail is consistent with a recommendation that James Mitchell made as early as 1862, where he advised against initiating mass colonization – even with the funding it then enjoyed – until the conclusion of the war effort. It also fit well with Lincoln’s pressing concerns about transportation costs, which presented recurring practical and cost problems for any colonization venture.
  • Butler’s details hint at his familiarity with certain specific details of Lincoln’s other colonization ventures that were not widely known at the time. The 1886 account mentions that Lincoln previously “attempted to make some provision at Demerara” for colonization – a possible reference to one of the “second wave” projects in the British colony of Guiana that was almost completely unknown until recent times.
  • Butler’s 1865 story is actually not the only instance in which he discussed colonization with Lincoln. His autobiography relates a separate conversation from about two years earlier where Lincoln “talked of a favorite project he had of getting rid of the negroes by colonization, and he asked me what I thought of it.” Butler was doubtful of the project’s feasibility at the time and informed Lincoln as much, reflecting his own outlook on colonization which wavered between cautious skepticism and offering occasional nods to voluntary colonization for many years after the Civil War was over. Still, Lincoln seems to have previously approached Butler on colonization at a time when he was still openly touting the policy in his speeches. This suggests that the 1865 conversation, far from being a fanciful invention inserted at random into Lincoln’s final days, was actually a resumption of previous discussions the two men had held on the subject.

Inconsistent Points in Butler’s Account:

At the outset of this post I noted a few caveats to my assessment of the Butler story as mostly credible, or at least credible to the extent that it reflects a Lincoln who was still actively entertaining colonization at the end of his life. In noting this I also readily acknowledge that the stories are flawed and show signs of embellishment, particularly in the third and final version from 1892. Note that exhibiting flaws is not the same thing as being “discredited” by those flaws and, when they are evaluated from a measured and careful vantage point the acknowledged flaws do little to negate the thrust of the story. Still they are worth exploring:

  • In the 1886 and especially the 1892 accounts, Butler places words of great praise for his own military ability in Lincoln’s mouth. This includes supposed presidential nods to his troop movements along the James River, his embarrassment in the wake of the Fort Fisher expedition, and his dubious engineering scheme from the Dutch Gap canal. Butler likely inserted these words of praise to provide presidential cover for his military shortcomings including those that had caused him political embarrassment at later points.
  • At one point in the 1892 version, Butler has Lincoln dismissing fears of racial violence among the former Confederates, who will become “good citizens or they would not have been good soldiers.” Lincoln is unlikely to have expressed such views, and in fact Butler contradicts himself on this point as his Lincoln expresses a concern that the freedmen “will be but little better off with their masters than they were before” and hints openly of racial oppression by the former Confederates. No immediately evident explanation for this odd attribution exists, though it may reflect the fact that the text was dictated as a story with no reference to even prior versions of it in print and therefore drifted into inconsistent areas of embellishment on the moment.
  • Throughout the discussion and particularly in the 1892 account, Butler shows a habit of elevating himself inside the particulars of the scheme. He not only recounts a discussion about colonization but volunteers himself as Lincoln’s personal choice to lead the next colonization expedition. He similarly claims originating credit for the canal idea and places himself at the center of any negotiations that were to follow from it. Might Lincoln have envisioned a role for Butler in colonization? Easily, and in fact Lincoln tapped an assortment of political figures of all stripes but no particular ability in moving masses of persons on his previous colonization schemes: Samuel Pomeroy, Caleb B. Smith, and Montgomery Blair to name a few. But was the scheme described by Butler also built entirely of Butler’s mind and placed confidently in Butler’s direction? Probably not.
  • The 1886 and 1892 versions of Butler’s story offer one detail of timing that is out of sync with the rest of the story. Butler refers to the April 5, 1865 carriage accident that left Secretary of State William Seward bedridden, and suggests it prevented him from further discussion of the proposed colonization scheme. As this incident predates Lincoln’s return to Washington it could not have happened as Butler suggests. How might we explain it then? Butler was in Washington when the carriage accident occurred, would have known about its newsworthiness, and very easily could have crossed paths with Seward in the days prior. With no specific day-to-day journal of Butler’s visit to consult as he composed his memoirs and other writings, Occam’s Razor tells us it’s probably a simple case of failing memory.

Considerations of Historiography:

Butler’s story did not emerge in a vacuum, nor was it kept in obscurity until modern times by a dispersal of records. It became widely known in Butler’s own lifetime, and the lifetime of many still-living close associates of Abraham Lincoln. Butler was an incessant self-promoter and quite literally purchased thousands of complimentary copies of his autobiography for members of Congress and the upper levels of the government, leaders of industry, and celebrities in his day. Among the noteworthy figures who sent back letters of praise to Butler upon receiving the book were Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Harrison, Julia Dent Grant, Oliver O. Howard, Andrew Carnegie, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. This is not to say that Butler’s every word enjoyed their endorsement or that they expressed specific merit in the colonization story, but only that the book was widely read and widely disseminated to the point that the colonization anecdote quickly became an accepted and oft-repeated part of the Lincoln biographical corpus.

It also remained there for more than half a century. It appeared in several biographical works on Lincoln from the 1890s onward. It was included in several early histories of the colonization movement from the 1910s through the 1950s. It was treated as credible in the works of pioneering African-American historians including Carter G. Woodson, Charles Wesley, and W.E.B. DuBois.

The great question is why. Why did the story attain widespread acknowledgement in an era when many Lincoln contemporaries were still alive, and with no evident contradiction or voices to accuse Butler of libeling Lincoln? Why did most early 20th century historians, white and black, accept it as truthful? It would involve a patronizing indulgence in presentism of the worst sort to chalk these early observations up to a supposed lack of historical sophistication, or to cast them aside as outdated relics of an older form of doing scholarship.

I will propose something entirely different: early historians and Lincoln contemporaries alike accepted the Butler story because they considered it to be consistent with a Lincoln who had always earnestly maintained and presented himself as a supporter of colonization. Butler’s story only fell from historical favor after the mid 20th century, and it is hardly a coincidence that this act of historical condemnation mirrors the emergence of a comparatively liberal and enlightened view of race relations in the present era.

Thoughts on Butler’s Credibility:

Benjamin F. Butler’s reputation has suffered in the eyes of most historians and not without reason. He ranks among the most “colorful” figures in the entire Civil War, had a bad habit of inserting himself into the middle of controversy, and proved to be a shameless promoter of his own very limited military skill. His postwar career was marked by constant, complex, and sometimes distasteful political scheming of the type that made him devoted friends and bitter enemies alike.

But what does Butler’s personal biography actually tell us about the particulars of his colonization story with Lincoln? That we should be on the lookout for any self-serving embellishments? Duly noted, and I have done so listing several examples above. But exercising caution around certain particulars in Butler’s story and tossing out the entirety of his claim are two very different propositions. One is the province of the responsible historian, obliged to evaluate his sources. The other is an act of convenient contrivance, having no connection to the particulars of the colonization story save an opinion that finds it distasteful and yet dismissing it outright for reasons that hearken back to the darkest caricatures of Butler to emerge from the Dunning School of yesteryear, or more problematic, an uncritical echo of the original of wartime Confederate disdain for the man they called “Beast.”

Careless use of the caricatured Butler has resulted in the projection of its worst attributes onto the general’s relationship with Lincoln. He’s simply assumed to be a source of annoyance, a political manipulator and agitator, and thus an unlikely conversant for a sensitive private meeting in April 1865 let alone any other point of Lincoln’s term in office. A favored and recurring “source” for this depiction in the secondary literature traces not to any historical document, but to a 1928 novel by Honore Morrow in which a purely fictionalized Lincoln refers to the general as “full of poison gas as a dead dog.”

Entirely lost to the discussion is any historically grounded reflection of what Lincoln actually thought of Butler. On that note Lincoln’s private secretary William O. Stoddard suggests a different and much friendlier relationship: “As for Ben Butler, he is a kind of favorite with the President.”

This might also explain why for all the aspersion cast onto the colonization story, most of its critics are at a perpetual loss to explain Butler’s supposed motive in attaching a detailed fabricated conversation to Lincoln’s final days. True, it has been suggested that Butler wished to make himself look good next to a comparatively unenlightened Lincoln. But does this not project a late 20th century deprecation of colonization’s illiberal qualities onto an earlier time when colonization was well within the political mainstream? And does it not conflict with the fact that Butler himself wavered between support and opposition to colonization into the late 1870s, at times giving nod to both Liberia and Ulysses S. Grant’s quasi-emigrationist attempt to annex the Dominican Republic as something of a place of refuge for southern freedmen? If Butler was intending to libel Lincoln by making a point of comparison with himself, he picked a policy that was neither considered a libel by his readers nor far removed from the political company he personally kept.

It has also been supposed that Butler wished to show he retained continued continued access to Lincoln after his military career faltered in early 1865. But is the documented certainty of the April 11, 1865 meeting not prima facie evidence that he still had the president’s ear, all supposition otherwise notwithstanding?

So why, then, invent and thrice repeat a conversation that consistently reflects Lincoln entertaining a proposition on a policy that he is indeed known to have supported, and for which no conclusive evidence has ever been offered to sustain the theory that he changed his mind? Butler certainly contrived particulars of the dialogue from his encounter with Lincoln and added individual embellishments to its later versions that served his self-portrayal in specifically advantageous if isolated ways. But the conversation itself serves no particular purpose save to relate a memorable anecdote on the date of a meeting that we absolutely know to have happened on the dates claimed.

A Further Challenge to Butler Skeptics:

As I noted at the outset of this post I do consider the the core of the Butler colonization anecdote to be (mostly) credible, with a few duly acknowledged caveats, all delineated above. I also readily acknowledge that my interpretation of the Butler evidence might easily differ from others who examine the same evidence. But I do challenge any Butler skeptics to actually engage and examine that evidence presented by myself and others.

It adds absolutely nothing to the discussion though to stomp about in blanket dismissal, declaring “Beast” Butler a liar or a non-credible witness on account of his latter-day reputation, or to repeat old tropes of “consensus” that only came into vogue in the late 20th century when colonization took on a reputation as a controversial spot on Lincoln’s record. Take up the question of what *specifically* makes the Butler colonization story suspect, and build your case from there.

If you believe that Butler conflicts with some theorized abandonment of colonization on Lincoln’s part, then it is incumbent upon you to also demonstrate where and when Lincoln abandoned colonization. And in doing so, you should also account for other evidence from late 1864 and early 1865 that suggests Lincoln was trying to preserve and restart the Emigration Office. If you believe that it conflicts with Lincoln’s views on black citizenship, then you need to clarify – with evidence – how they conflicted in Lincoln’s mind. If you believe Butler is a faulty witness to the particulars of his April 11, 1865 meeting, then you need to explain which particulars are faulty and why, and offer a reasonable theory of motive that would explain his generation and repetition of the story.

In any case, that’s a discussion I will openly welcome.


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