On April 11, 1865, Major Gen. Benjamin F. Butler met with Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Some two decades later, Butler claimed that Lincoln called him in to discuss reviving colonization after the war was over. Specifically, Butler’s anecdote detailed a plan that would involve relocating the United States Colored Troops to Panama where they would be employed digging the interoceanic canal.
Butler’s story has since become a contentious matter in Lincoln lore with historians debating about his credibility, and one frequent critique holds that the proposed Panama scheme comes across as far fetched and therefore unlikely.
While General Butler’s testimony is not without its problems, many of which stem from its simple distance in time from the original event (for a full discussion, see here), he was not the only contemporary to propose a scheme of this type. In November 1865 no less a figure than Ulysses S. Grant contacted the State Department with a strikingly similar proposal – deploy the U.S. Colored Troops to Panama to survey and eventually construct a canal across the isthmus.
In this letter Grant describes his canal proposal to William H. Seward, in whose papers the original may be found.
Washington, Nov. 10th 1865
Hon. Wm. H. Seward
Sec. of State
In case it is determined by the United States Government to make a survey of the Isthmus of Darien for the purpose of determining the practicability of constructing a Ship Canal by that route, I have the honor to state that, in my opinion, the survey can be made without any special appropriation for the purpose. By making it a joint duty of the Army and Navy a suitable officer of each branch of the service could be selected to make the surveys. The Navy Dept. could furnish a vessel, or more if necessary, for guarding the Coast and furnishing details of men to work upon the Bays and streams of the interior. Colored troops could be sent in sufficient numbers to guard the surveying party against hostile Indians and to do all the labor upon the land.
The importance of the work contemplated I need not dwell upon, nor the importance of keeping it out of the hands of any other first class power than our own, for I presume that has fully attracted your attention.
your obt. svt.
P.S. This is written without consultation with the Sec. of War whos approval would be necessary in case any such use was made of the Military forces of the country as are here mentioned and is therefore a private note in answer to your request of this morning. U.S.G.