Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Put a Cork In It

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.

The landing at Bermuda Hundred was accomplished on May 5, 1864 and for the next fifteen days sporadic fighting at places such as Port Walthall Junction, Swift Creek, and Drewry’s Bluff proved inconclusive. By May 21, 1864 the Confederates finished the construction of the Howlett Line and settled in for a stalemate that would continue until the night of April 2, 1865. Many of the USCT units that would fight at New Market Heights were bloodied for the first time in these battles.

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).

To this day, however, the association of the phrase “bottled up” is synonymous with Bermuda Hundred. Jefferson Davis used the phrase in his Short History of the Confederate States of America and modern historians such as Bruce Catton, Allan Nevins, Harry Hansen, Clifford Dowdey, and James McPherson all use the phrase in their very short descriptions of the campaign. William Glenn Robertson, author of Back Door to Richmond: The Bermuda Hundred Campaign, April – June 1864 concludes that “even the most recent Civil War survey texts uncritically accept Barnard’s inappropriate characterization of Butler’s situation.” Why is it inappropriate? Well, it belies the fact that Butler retained complete freedom to move away from the peninsula by boat, which he did on numerous occasisions, especially when he consolidated his troops for the attack on Richmond that resulted in the battles at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison.

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.


  1. Very interseting post. I have always heard "bottled up" used in reference to Bermuda Hundred, but never stopped to think why.

  2. Great post. I am no expert on this campaign, but this is exactly what I thought when reading about it. The "political generals" always seem to get lumped together in the "incompetent" category in Civil War literature. But, no generals were without their flaws, their successes and failures, and I find Butler to be endlessly fascinating and overly maligned.

  3. Hi Bob,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree that some political generals do not necessarily fit the "incompetent" mold that they are conveniently placed in by historians. Thankfully, it seems like some much-maligned political generals are getting a more even-handed analysis these days. Jim Hessler's new book on Sickles and David Work's book on Lincoln's political generals are two examples that come to mind. While Ben Butler remains controversial for very good reasons, I tend to be more sympathetic the more I learn about him. He was very considerate to his USCT units and championed the cause of African Americans for the rest of his life. His sixteen page order to his subordinates for what would become Fort Harrison and New Market Heights proves he was no hack when it came to strategy. And I like the way he handled himself - calling out an artillery battery to shut up a noisy mob in New Orleans? Sounds like my kind of guy!