“It seems but little better than murder to give important commands to such men as [Nathaniel P.] Banks, [Benjamin F.] Butler, [John A.] McClernand, [Franz] Sigel, and Lew. Wallace, and yet it seems impossible to prevent it.”
General Henry W. Halleck, letter to General William T. Sherman, April 29, 1864
Butler during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign in May of 1864 threw away chance after chance to take Richmond, with a timidity that rose to astonishing levels and an ineptitude at leading his forces that defies belief.
While Grant was occupying Lee in the Overland Campaign, Butler was to take his 33,000 man Army of the James and strike at Richmond.
The above map is of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, but it is useful for understanding the geography of the 1864 Bermuda Hundred Campaign. Butler’s army steamed up the James to the fishing village of Bermuda Hundred and disembarked on May 5, 1864 the same day that fighting began in the Wilderness. Richmond was only a short distance away and it appeared to be merely a matter of marching for Butler to take it.
Butler was opposed by General P.G. T. Beauregard who now had the finest hour of his mixed record during the Civil War. Stripping the Richmond garrison and bringing into his ranks militia consisting of men too old, and boys too young, to be conscripted into the Confederate Army, he assembled a force of 18,000 men. After a week, Butler’s slow motion advance on Richmond came to an end at the Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, also known as the battle of Proctor’s Creek, where Beauregard’s ragtag force launched an attack which convinced the demoralized Butler to withdraw to Bermuda Hundred.
Beauregard constructed the Howlett Line, a series of Confederate fortifications that kept the Army of the James bottled up at Bermuda Hundred until Lee withdrew from Richmond on April 2, 1865. In the Civil War there were defeats, debacles and the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, where Butler made bad generalship almost an art form.
Grant summed up Butler’s generalship well in his Personal Memoirs when he recalled a conversation with his Chief of Engineers:
He said that the general occupied a place between the James and Appomattox rivers which was of great strength, and where with an inferior force he could hold it for an indefinite length of time against a superior; but that he could do nothing offensively. I then asked him why Butler could not move out from his lines and push across the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad to the rear and on the south side of Richmond. He replied that it was impracticable, because the enemy had substantially the same line across the neck of land that General Butler had. He then took out his pencil and drew a sketch of the locality, remarking that the position was like a bottle and that Butler’s line of intrenchments across the neck represented the cork; that the enemy had built an equally strong line immediately in front of him across the neck; and it was therefore as if Butler was in a bottle. He was perfectly safe against an attack; but, as Barnard expressed it, the enemy had corked the bottle and with a small force could hold the cork in its place.