Today marks the anniversary of the opening of one of the most fascinating and misunderstood campaigns of the entire Civil War – the Bermuda Hundred Campaign.
Part of Grant’s overall strategy to strike a coordinated blow against Confederate forces in Virginia and Georgia, the Bermuda Hundred Campaign was devised by Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin F. Butler in April of 1864. The plan called for Butler’s Army of the James to establish a base on the Bermuda Hundred peninsula which was located on the south side of the James River between Richmond and Petersburg. Once the base was established, the Army of the James would be perfectly situated to threaten both important cities.
Immediately after the campaign had concluded, the phrase “bottled up” became synonymous with both the campaign and Butler himself, who had to endure the nickname “Bottled Up Butler” for the rest of his life. The phrase seems to have originated with Brigadier General John Barnard, who had met with Grant concerning Bermuda Hundred and compared Butler’s position there to a tightly corked bottle. Grant then used the phrase in his Final Report of Military Operations in 1865, and it appears to have stuck thereafter.
Civil War historians, eager to heap scorn upon the controversial Butler, used the phrase to poke fun at what they thought to be Butler’s incompetence. It got to the point where Grant actually took the time to explain the use of the phrase in his memoirs, stating that “in making my subsequent report I used that expression…never thinking that anything had been said that would attract attention – as this did, very much to the annoyance, no doubt, of General Butler and, I know, very much to my own” (Grant, Personal Memoirs, 377).
As we all know, once an erroneous idea becomes entrenched in people’s minds it is virtually impossible to eradicate. Nowhere is this phenomenon more acute than in the world of Civil War history. Consider this short list of other commonly held beliefs that permeate the literature:
• Lee would have won the war if he’d won at Gettysburg
• 7,000 Union soldiers fell dead in 30 minutes at Cold Harbor
• The Confederacy would have won the war if Stonewall Jackson had survived his wounding at Chancellorsville
• Albert Sidney Johnston was the best general in all of the Confederacy and had he not been killed at Shiloh, the battle would have been a Confederate victory
• Grant was a mindless butcher who won the war solely by overwhelming numbers and attrition
And so on, and so forth. You get the idea.
The beginning of one of those myths was set in motion 146 years ago today.