My expectations for Brag Bowling’s contributions to the Washington Post‘s A House Divided group blog are, shall we say, not high. But is it too much ask that he not contradict himself in consecutive sentences? Apparently it is.
In answering the question, “how novel was Gen. Butler’s decision to treat escaped slaves as contraband and did he do it for humane or military reasons?”, Bowling launches into predictable tropes about Butler, identifying him as a “political general” in the first clause, and referencing the nickname “Beast” Butler, in the second sentence. Nothing surprising about that, if you’ve read his earlier contributions to the blog, a couple of which I’ve discussed here and here.
The whiplash-inducing contradiction in this new piece comes in the middle of the third paragraph, to wit:
Butler used the novel legal approach of viewing them as “property” and calling them “contraband of war”. This enabled Butler to ignore both the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which would have required that they be returned to their owners.
Did you catch that? Bowling first criticizes Butler as being wrong for recognizing slaves as property, and then wrong again for not returning them to their owners.
More to the point, Bowling seems to forget that Butler’s “novel legal approach of viewing them as ‘property’ ” conforms entirely to their status both under U.S. and Confederate law. Indeed, it was the explicit claim by Southerners of their property rights in the form of slaves that both drove their decision to secede from the Union, and subsequently provided Butler with the rationale to designate those same slaves as “contraband of war” when they were put to work building fortifications. It takes some real chutzpah to deny that slaves are property, then demand their return to you as their owner.
It’s true enough that Ben Butler was never a great battlefield tactician. But his contributions, which Bowling dismisses as being in the political arena, and (presumably) therefore irrelevant to his assessment, were substantial nonetheless. Bowling makes passing reference to Butler’s “ruthless occupation” of New Orleans, but omits that the “political general’s” quarantine and general cleanup of that city almost certainly saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives that would have been lost to that perennial scourge of the Crescent City, yellow fever. He omits Butler’s commitment to African American troops in the Federal army, and his willingness to test them in battle when other, better-known commanders like Sherman, were unwilling to give them a chance. And of course he omits Butler’s postwar career in Congress, when he wrote the first draft of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, a key measure that helped to reign in the abuses of the Ku Klux Klan in the South in the years after the war.
Bowling forgets to acknowledge those things, but you can be certain he remembered to mention the chamber pot with Butler’s picture in the bottom. One has to focus on the important stuff, I guess.
Oh, and that part where I almost agreed with Bowling? It was when I read this:
Northern abolitionists considered contrabands synonymous with emancipation even before Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. General Butler’s treatment of the contrabands, while mired in legal, political and cultural issues, was closely linked to the role of emancipation. When freedom did come to the slaves still in Confederate territory, the Union lines were flooded with the newly freed causing the U. S. government to implement new policies to provide them shelter, food, clothing and even some health care – all in part – because of Butler’s decisions at the beginning of the Civil War.
Then I looked again and realized I’d scrolled too far, and was reading the end of Frank Williams’ answer to the same question. My bad.
Image: “Contraband, Fortress Monroe,” Library of Congress
(This material originally appeared in January as a guest post on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at The Atlantic. It originated with Coates posting Hatton’s letter of May 10, 1864, and quickly became an exercise among followers of the blog in crowd-sourcing historical/genealogical research about Hatton himself. Special thanks goes to regular Golden Horde commenter KewHall, who found and shared critical mentions of Hatton that opened up the research on the latter parts of Hatton’s life.)
From the Christian Recorder newspaper, May 28, 1864:
Camp of the 1st U.S. Colored Troops,
Wilson’s landing, Charles City Co.,
May 10th 1864.
You are aware that Wilson’s Landing is on the James river, a few miles above Jamestown, the very spot where the first sons of Africa were landed, in the year 1620, if my memory serves me right, and from that day up to the breaking out of the rebellion, was looked upon as an inferior race by all civilized nations.
But behold what has been revealed in the past three or four years; why the colored men have ascended upon a platform of equality, and the slave can now apply the lash to the tender flesh of his master, for this day I am now an eye witness of the fact. The country being principally inhabited by wealthy farmers, there are a great many men in the regiment who are refugees from this place.
While out on a foraging expedition we captured Mr. Clayton [sic., Clopton], a noted reb in this part of the country, and from his appearance, one of the F.F.V’s; on the day before we captured several colored women that belonged to Mr. C., who had given them a most unmerciful whipping previous to their departure.
On the arrival of Mr. C. in camp, the commanding officer determined to let the women have their revenge, and ordered Mr. C. to be tied to a tree in front of headquarters, and William Harris, a soldier in our regiment, and a member of Co. E, who was acquainted with the gentleman, and who used to belong to him, was called upon to undress him, and introduce him to the ladies I mentioned before. Mr. Harris played his part conspicuously, bringing the blood from his loins at every stroke, and not forgetting to remind the gentleman of days gone by.
After giving him some fifteen or twenty well-directed strokes, the ladies, one after another, came up and gave him a like number, to remind him that they were no longer his, but safely housed in Abraham’s bosom, and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner, and guarded by their own patriotic, though once down-trodden race.
Oh, that I had the tongue to express my feelings while standing upon the banks of the James river, on the soil of Virginia, the mother state of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse! The day is clear, the fields of grain are beautiful and the birds are singing sweet melodious songs, while poor Mr. C. is crying to his servants for mercy. Let all who sympathize for the South take this narrative for a mirror.
G.W.H. was George W. Hatton, a 22-year-old soldier from Maryland. He was born in Prince Georges County in about 1842. I think he was born free, although another, second-hand source from decades later describes him as having been a slave at some point.
George first appears in the 1860 U.S. Census he appears in the household of Henry Hatton, a 50-year-old blacksmith, and his wife Margaret (50). They hold $900 in real property and $150 in personal property, and live near Long Old Fields, Maryland. Both Henry and Margaret can read and write. Living with them are their children: Martha, 21 Henry, 18, occupied as a farmhand George, 17, occupied as a farmhand Sarah, 14 Susan, 9 Josephine, 4 Also living with the Hattons is one Henry Brent, age 75. All the Hattons are listed as “mulatto.”
At some point between 1860 and 1863, it appears that the Hattons moved from Maryland into the District of Columbia. George W. Hatton enlisted for a term of three years in the 1st U.S. Colored Troops on June 8, 1863, becoming one of the first men to enlist in the newly-created USCT units. Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin tell the story in Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America:
In the nation’s capital, too, Negroes were under attack. But the victims were men enlisting to fight, and their attackers were not Confederate soldiers. The first colored man in the Washington enlistment line was Catto’s friend Billy Wormley. Almost at once, whites in the street, including policemen, began shouting threats at the sight of colored men being issued guns and uniforms. A man in the enlistment line shouted back. George W. Hatton dared the police to shoot him if they needed to kill a Negro for enlisting. Wormely said the same. The police glared, but no one fired.
Guards at Mason’s Island inspect passes at the ferry leading across the Potomac to Georgetown, in the distance. The island, where Hatton’s regiment was formed, was a convenient site for units raised in the capital — close to the city, but somewhat isolated from it. The island was also connected to the Virginia shore by a short causeway, and then by the Aqueduct Bridge to Georgetown and Washington. Library of Congress.
Hatton joined the unit at Mason’s Island (now Theodore Roosevelt Island) in the Potomac River that same day. He enlisted with the rank of sergeant, presumably due to his ability to read and write — and possibly also as a result of his behavior outside the recruiting office. His service record describes him at enlistment as five-foot-six, a “dark mulatto,” black hair and eyes, with “front tooth out.” On October 19, 1863, Hatton was granted a two-week furlough for illness, to return on November 3. He may have gotten an extension, as his record indicates he returned to duty on November 21. A later entry in his record indicates his pay was “to be stopped [for the loss of] 1 knapsack & 1 pr Govt. Coatstraps.” In the spring his pay was stopped again for three separate pair of shoulder scales (50 cents each), and on May 20, 1864 — ten days after writing the letter TNC posted — he was promoted to first sergeant.
The whipping of William Henry Clopton (1810-1876) that Hatton wrote about became a relatively well-known incident in the war. Clopton was the owner of Selwood in Charles City County, Virginia, and had developed a reputation for cruelty that set him apart from other slaveholders in the region. The Union general commanding, Edward A Wild, was a physician in civilian life with a strong abolitionist bent. He described the event:
[Clopton] has acquired a notoriety as the most cruel Slave Master in this region, but in my presence he put on the character of a Sniveling Saint. I found half a dozen women among our [slave] refugees, whom he had often whipped unmercifully – I laid him bare and placed a whip into the hands of the Women, three of Whom took turns in settling some old scores on their master’s back. A black man, whom he had abused, finished the administration of Poetical justice. . . . I wish that his back had been as deeply scarred as those of the women, but I abstained and left it to them.
George W. Hatton was absent sick in hospital for a time in the late spring. By the time he returned to his regiment, he was anxious to be in the thick of the fight, and chafing that senior white officers were still reluctant to try the USCTs in hard combat. On June 13, he mailed off another letter to the Christian Recorder:
Since I wrote to you last, our regiment has been in several engagements; the first, at Wilson’s Landing, on the 24th of May last, and the heroism displayed by the gallant boys of the 1st, needs no comment, for they have won for themselves unfading laurels, to be stamped on the pages of history. The next, was in front of Petersburg, Va., on the 9th of the present month; it was not what might be termed a general engagement, though it was quite a brisk skirmish, the boys were in hope they were going into the doomed city; but an order soon came for them to fall back. I suppose the General in charge found the odds too great against his small force, which was composed of the 5th Ohio, colored, 6th U.S., colored, and the 1st U.S. colored cavalry. The casualties were small, not worth mentioning in our letters. When marching to the field of battle, by the side of my captain, who is one of the brave sons of old Massachusetts, I feel that I am a man, fighting for a Government that recognizes me as such; but, behold, when I call my wandering mind to view facts, and the ground upon which I stand, I find that the leaders of the Government are still keeping us far behind the times. I appeal to the leaders of this great Republic to know the reason why they hesitate to give us our God-given rights. I do not expect to have all the enjoyments of home, but, undoubtedly, would not have any objection to being put on an equal footing with my brother white soldier. We responded to the call of the Government at the time when her very metropolis was threatened with conflagration, willing to stand by her until the very last drop of blood be drained from our veins, on the promise of being treated as white soldiers, but, ah, I have been a soldier for more than a year, for the small sum of seven dollars per month. I want to know if the star spangled banner represents such unjust deeds.
He didn’t have long to wait. Two days after posting his letter, First Sergeant Hatton was wounded during the Union assaults on Confederate lines at Petersburg. As part of the 3rd Division of the XVIII Corps, the 1st USCT helped to capture a small segment of the Confederate line, but the overall attack was a failure due to disorganization and late reinforcement of Union forces, and the two sides settled into a long siege.
Service records show that Hatton received a “G.S.W. [gunshot wound] Left Knee.” There is no record of an amputation, but clearly the wound was serious and caused lasting impairment. He was several months in various hospitals, where he discovered that the discrimination he’d experienced as a recruit carried over into the medical wards, as well. He was transferred to the military hospital at Fortress Monroe a few days after being wounded, and upon his arrival wrote to his father Henry, to come and take him home to Washington where he could recover with his family. The scene that followed, he wrote the Christian Recorder, was more hurtful to him than the wound to his knee:
My father complied with my request, and arrived at Fortress Monroe on the 30th. I was overjoyed to see him. Today, he departed with a hung-down head, leaving me with an aching heart. I must here state the cause of my trouble. It is as follows:
On my father’s arrival at the hospital he stated the object of his visit to the doctor in charge, who, very short and snappish, referred him to Dr. White, one of the head surgeons. Father immediately proceeded to Dr. White’s office, where he expected to receive a little satisfaction, but to his heart-rending surprise, received none. After making every exertion in his power to get a furlough, he failed in so doing, without receiving the slightest shadow of satisfaction.
All of this I was willing to stand, as I had discharged my duty as a soldier from the first of May, 1863, up to the time I was wounded, for the low United States’ degrading sum of $7 per month, that no man but the poor, down-trodden, uneducated, patriotic black man would be willing to fight for. Yes, I stand all this; but the great wound I received at the hospital was this: A white man, whose name I did not learn, came from Washington with my father for the same purpose, to see his son and carry him home. His success needs no comment; let it suffice to say that he was white, and he carried his son home.
Such deception as that I thought was crucified at the battle of Fort Wagner; buried at Milliken’s Bend; rose the third day, and descended into everlasting forgetfulness in the Appomattox River at the battle of Petersburg.
Mr. Editor, when, oh! when can one of my color, and in my Position, at this time, find a comforter? When will my people be a nation? I fear, never on the American soil; though we may crush this cursed rebellion.
Hatton’s service record through the end of the war shows several alternate periods of being present for duty and absent in hospital. In August 1864, two months after his injury, he was transferred to the Summit House General Hospital in Philadelphia, where his wound was treated with “cold water dressing.” He was returned to duty in late November. Hatton was eventually discharged for disability on June 16, 1865, while with his regiment in North Carolina, with the notation that “he is entitled to transportation from place of discharge to place of enlistment.” He applied for (and apparently received) a disability pension on August 24, 1865. One interesting entry in Hatton’s service record is the note that “back pay at rate of $10 per month due soldier as Sergt from date of enlistment to Feby 29.64.” This notation reflects the differential pay given to white and black Union soldiers up to that date. Congress eventually corrected the inequity, but only back to January 1, 1864 for freedmen; soldiers like Hatton, who’d been free at the outbreak of the war, received back pay all the way to the date of their enlistment.
To be continued. . . .