Did Ben Butler meet with Lincoln in 1865?

The answer is “Yes.” Ben Butler met with Abraham Lincoln at the White House in April 1865 a few days before Lincoln’s death. The documentation of this meeting is complex though, and has been misread by some historians.

In 1892 Maj. General Benjamin F. Butler published an autobiography in which he offered a detailed account of his final conversation with Abraham Lincoln, not long before the President was assassinated in 1865. The events occurred almost 30 years prior but as Butler told it, the President approached him in the final days of the Civil War about resuming black colonization after the war. Butler returned “some few days” later with a proposed a scheme to transport the former slaves to Panama and put them to work digging a canal.

The story was not new when it appeared in Butler’s Book. In fact, he had shared it in print at least twice before. A similar version appeared in 1886 in a chapter that Butler contributed to Allen Thorndike Rice’s Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time. It was also recounted in much greater brevity by the New York Times in 1884, being used for biographical material in an article about Butler.

The story circulated widely in Butler’s lifetime and quickly became part of the Lincoln lore, though its distance from the actual meeting was not without problems. By the time he wrote the more famous version in 1892, Butler’s memory had faded and he mistook the dates of his conversations by placing them in late March or early April 1865 – shortly before Lincoln’s departure to City Point, Virginia on March 23 and Secretary of State William Seward’s injury in a carriage accident on April 5. Yet Butler was not in Washington until after Lincoln left, suggesting a problem with Butler’s timing.

While several subsequent historians cited the mistaken dates as “proof” that Butler fabricated the entire incident, it is noteworthy that the placement of the meeting before Lincoln’s City Point trip only appears in the third and furthest removed version. The earlier 1886 account claims they met “after the surrender of Lee, and he [Lincoln] had been to Richmond,” which would place it no earlier than April 9. The 1884 version dates it to “a few days before Booth’s bullet did its fatal work” on April 14.

Fortunately one contemporary record of their meeting survived in the form of a letter informing Butler that Lincoln would meet him at the White House at 9 am on April 11. The letter incidentally matches Butler’s recollected time for the second part of his conversation with the President, which happened “early in the morning.” This would also seemingly place the first part on April 9th or 10th shortly after Lincoln returned from City Point. It is known that Butler, having been in Washington for the past two weeks, was waiting for the President’s return before departing back to Massachusetts.

The only record of the conversation the two men had are the ones relayed in Butler’s account of his final meetings, and the authenticity and extent of the colonization proposal must be weighed accordingly.  Yet we now know for certain that Butler and Lincoln had their final encounter in that brief window between April 9-11, 1865 – just as the general claimed several decades later.

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