Saturday, December 8, 2012

Capt. Butler, saved for posterity

Frank Butler, a 6-foot-6 21-year-old from Bennington, N.H., joined the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers in the fall of 1861. With the encouragement of his regimental commander, Colonel Edward E. Cross, he went to school and became a signal officer. His promotion to captain was dated Dec. 15, 1862, the day he arrived at Falmouth, Va., at the headquarters of Franz Sigel, a Union major general of German descent already known as “The Hero of Pea Ridge.” The next day Butler wrote his family a letter. He wanted them to know the truth about the Battle of Fredericksburg, which had been fought nearby on Dec. 13.

“The papers may gloss it over,” he wrote, but “those that have witnessed the sight since will all say 10,000 Union troops were murdered. That is the name: ’Twas not a battle, ’twas murder. The enemy did not lose 10 men.”

Butler’s numbers were exaggerated, but his assessment of the battle was not.

He stood at the signal station observation post looking through a glass. “The rebs could be seen strip[p]ing our dead – rifling their pockets, &c., &c., just as plain as I can see a man in Grandfathers yard. Our men lay bare in the streets stripped of everything.”

Butler blamed Washington politicians for the defeat. “The people will never know 1/2 the truth. I never yet thro' all our reverses [have] been the least discouraged but fell, back on the idea that 'Uncle Sam'  when awake & earnest could whip them in 1 month. But they have fought like vengeance and with good heads to guide & sincerity for their purpose have beat us all out. We have good men enough & good officers in the field . . . but Washington with all its officials was sunk. 'Tis damnably shameful. I never was so angry.”

Yesterday I had the privilege of delivering copies of Captain Butler’s papers, including this letter, to the New Hampshire Historical Society. Tom Jameson, a descendant of Butler's, lent me the papers to use in Our War. It was his wish that researchers have access to Butler’s letters home, letters to him and other papers associated with his military service during the Civil War. Jameson is also giving a set of the papers, in two handsome leather-bound volumes, to the historical society in Bennington, Butler’s hometown.

I tell Butler’s story in the July 30, 1864, chapter of Our War titled “A race with time.” He rode to Gettysburg with Colonel Cross and was present at Cross’s death, so I also quoted him extensively in the July 2, 1863, chapter “Three soldiers at Gettysburg.” And Butler’s friend, Herbert B. Titus of Chesterfield, wrote Butler a colorful account of being shot at Antietam, which I included in the Sept. 17, 1862, chapter “Rush to battle.”

Tom Jameson was one of eight people who lent me the papers of a soldier (or soldiers) in the family.  What a thrill it was to be the first historian to use most of these papers. It is equally gratifying to know that Tom and some of the others intend to give their papers to public archives.

It has been distressing in recent years to see many collections of Civil War letters dispersed one by one through sale on eBay. Apparently people make more money selling them individually, but this scatters the letters to the four winds and makes it impossible for historians to follow a soldier’s story over time.

Thanks, Tom, for the use of the Butler letters – and thanks for recognizing the importance of giving them to posterity.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this Mike and thanks to the likes of Tom Jameson for his actions in making these accessible to future generations.

    D. Morin