Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

In Which I Almost Agreed with Brag Bowling

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on June 22, 2011

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

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8 Responses

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  1. Margaret Blough said, on June 22, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    Another point on Butler and New Orleans. What kind of commander would he have been if he’d let the women of New Orleans abuse his soldiers with impunity?

    I love the argument that the Butler should have enforced the Fugitive Slave Act when invoked by those claiming the legal right to secede. I think it was the sheer hypocrisy of that claim which played a critical role in his actions and in the official support for his actions. It’s also part of a series of actions by the US government that those who take comfort in the mantra that the EP didn’t free a single slave don’t seem capable of accepting: the message, repeatedly reinforced, to slaves in Confederate-controlled territory from the US government that if slaves fled from their owners and made it to Union army lines, they would be free.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 22, 2011 at 9:09 pm

      I love the argument that the Butler should have enforced the Fugitive Slave Act when invoked by those claiming the legal right to secede.

      These are the same folks who today insist that the Confederacy was an independent country, but simultaneously contend that Lincoln unconstitutionally invaded a state.

      those who take comfort in the mantra that the EP didn’t free a single slave

      Foner skewers that one in Fiery Trial, where he explains — with a map — how the EP did immediately free about 50K slaves in the Sea Islands, Florida Keys, in swathes along the Mississippi, and so on.

      Not that those folks would be caught dead reading Foner.

  2. BorderRuffian said, on June 23, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Ms. MB:
    “Another point on Butler and New Orleans. What kind of commander would he have been if he’d let the women of New Orleans abuse his soldiers with impunity?”

    Yes, I have seen the actual orders issued by Gen. Butler. He imprisoned a woman (more than one IIRC) on Ship Island for two years at hard labor for what I would hardly describe as any insult or abuse. And we shouldn’t forget the guy who was hung for tearing down a flag either…

    AH:
    “…[Bowling] 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.”

    …and from the older post that you linked:
    “…Butler also imposed a strict quarantine. How effective were Butler’s efforts? According to Bell, during the fever season of 1862 — the hottest months of late summer and early fall, ending with the first cold front — the number of fatalities to yellow fever in the Crescent City were two.

    Such a small number is hard to credit, but it appears to be true. Furthermore, deaths remained astonishingly low during the next three years of Federal military occupation. A total of eleven New Orleanians died of yellow fever between 1862 and 1865.”

    Actually, the quarantine station existed before Butler’s arrival and I note from a link provided in the older post that you *omit* the fact that there were only 15 deaths from yellow fever in 1860 and 0 (zero) in 1861 when the city was under Confederate control (actually in control through April of 1862)…

    …but good luck in your attempt to ressurect the character of Ben Butler. You will certainly need it.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 23, 2011 at 10:35 am

      Actually, the quarantine station existed before Butler’s arrival. . . .

      You’re confusing the quarantine station — which existed in every seaport, to inspect (and if necessary, hold) incoming ships, with a quarantine of the city imposed by Butler. Entirely different things.

      you *omit* the fact that there were only 15 deaths from yellow fever in 1860 and 0 (zero) in 1861 when the city was under Confederate control (actually in control through April of 1862)…

      Readers can look at the numbers for themselves, as you did, and draw their own conclusions. I wouldn’t have linked it if I were trying to hide something. Yellow Fever deaths in New Orleans went up and down markedly during the 19th century, but I don’t see any other four-year stretch during that period when deaths were as low as the eleven during Union occupation, 1862-65.

      You accuse me of cherry-picking data, but you yourself ignore the nearly 5,000 dead in 1858, the 185 in 1866, and the more than 3,000 in 1867.

      It is true that the original source for the linked table, George Augustin’s History of Yellow Fever, identifies no cases in New Orleans in 1861. But if you think that is a credit to Confederate authorities, as opposed to being a lucky year, or perhaps a lack of good record-keeping during that turbulent year, you’d do well to point to specific, active measures taken by them to prevent the disease, as Butler and his successors enacted.

      …but good luck in your attempt to ressurect the character of Ben Butler. You will certainly need it.

      Ben Butler certainly had his failings. But I hope this post, and others, will at least give readers a better sense of the man’s legacy in its full form, as opposed to a two-dimensional caricature of “Beast” Butler and chamber pots. I’m not such a fool to think I’m going to change the minds of people who prefer the cartoon version of history, but if I can present factual and accurate information that challenges peoples’ perceptions — that gets them to say, “I never knew that” — then that’s a good thing.

  3. […] var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true};     Andy, over at Dead Confederates, has a post about Benjamin Butler that is worth a read. One commenter who is obviously not a fan of Butler, said, “And we […]

  4. Richard said, on June 23, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Confederate Veteran 1912
    William Bruce Mumford, executed by Benjamin F. Butler for taking down the United States flag
    http://onslowcountyconfederates.wordpress.com/2011/06/14/william-bruce-mumford-executed-by-benj-e-butler-for-taking-down-the-united-states-flag/

    Gen. Butler is an interesting figure. I dont think he gets enough credit for his role in emancipation.

  5. KarlGottschalk said, on June 24, 2011 at 6:49 am

    Well, apparently Professor Simpson doesn’t trust the word of Benjamin Butler when Butler wrote that he had talked with President Lincoln shortly before his assassination and that Lincoln was in favor of a colonization scheme for Negro soldiers and their families that Butler proposed.. Lincoln purportedly told Butler as part of this conversation:

    “But what shall we do with the negroes after they are free? I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes. ”

    If Butler’s account is true, and if Lincoln had lived, the legacy of both Lincoln and Butler might now be very different!

    And here’s Brooks in the comments section of the same post on Butler’s overall credibility:

    “As for Butler’s motive to lie, to make himself look good (and important). Just as when he denied ever doing anything wrong in New Orleans.”

    See Simpson’s post of May 20 titled “Do you trust Ben Butler?” on his blog Crossroads.

    • Brooks D. Simpson said, on July 16, 2011 at 9:02 pm

      I’ve got to attract a better class of stalker than Karl Gottschalk. What the little Dukie’s comment has to do with anything in Andy’s post is left to his fellow Blue Devils to explain.


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