Thursday, November 9, 2017

Butler & Peck: A Bit of Intrigue in North Carolina




Major General Benjamin F. Butler, LOC
Major General John J. Peck, LOC

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During a recent visit to the Library of Congress, I came across correspondence about a scheme hatched by Benjamin Butler and John Peck to divvy up command in the mid-Atlantic states. The November 25, 1863 letter, transcribed below, discusses a ploy to simultaneously expand Butler’s geographical command while granting Peck his own department in North Carolina. The letter, which does not appear in the Official Records or Butler's published papers, reveals a surprising pulse of ambition in John Peck, who was generally viewed as a conservative, unremarkable officer. Benjamin Butler, on the other hand, was no stranger such maneuvers.
The exchange between the pair occurred shortly after Benjamin Butler had taken command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. At the time, Major General Peck supervised the North Carolina District at New Bern, part of the Butler’s department. Within days of assuming his new post, Butler toured the principal Union positions in North Carolina, including New Bern, Washington, and Plymouth. During the visit, Butler and Peck discussed the organization of the Department. Peck followed up on this conversation with the note below, proposing an arrangement that would simultaneously expand Butler’s command while giving Peck an independent department.
       The letter mostly speaks for itself. However, “Gen’l Dix” refers to Major General John A. Dix, who had requested Peck's service in the Department of the East, a command that included New York and New England. Further, the “Admiral” mentioned in the letter is Samuel Phillips Lee, who led the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. A cousin of Robert E. Lee, Phillips Lee supposedly once quipped that he would join the Confederacy only “when I find the word Virginia in my commission.”   
       The arrangement discussed in Peck's letter never went off and the general remained in command at New Bern. However, in April of 1864, Butler relieved Peck from command during the Confederate offensive against Plymouth. In another letter, also in the Butler papers, an angry Peck complained that the Massachusetts general had induced him to remain in North Carolina by offering “many reasons and considerations of a confidential character which can hardly have escaped your memory.” [Peck to Butler, April 24, 1864, General Correspondence, Benjamin F. Butler Papers, Library of Congress.]  

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Major General John Peck to Major General Benjamin Butler, November 25, 1863
General Correspondence, Benjamin F. Butler Papers, Library of Congress.
Peck to Butler, Nov. 25, 1863 (image of first page)

 Transcription

Private.
Answered
                                                    Head-Quarters, Army and District of North Carolina,
                                                                                            Newbern, N.C. Nov 25, 1863.
 Maj Gen’l B. F. Butler,

Dear Gen’l,
I arrived at headquarters about noon yesterday after a most charming and delightful trip, for which I am wholly indebted to you and Mrs. & Miss Butler and your party. My only regret was that during our interview below, the Ladies passed to the Spaulding and I was deprived of the pleasure of saying goodbye, and of inviting the Ladies to N.C. when you should visit it. That commission I charged upon you, having full faith that you would execute it in accord with my wishes.
On leaving Hatteras my Boat grounded on the swash and did not get off until near day break. The Neuse was all in dense fog and in consequence we were detained some hours.
The Admiral I sent to Beaufort & he proposed leaving this morning for Wilmington squadron. He says that here before the blockade was not sought for, but now all wish to join it, because of prize money. He says some 30[?] vessels are there. This consideration of course operates with more or less to keep up the blockade in preference to blocking up the rivers and cutting off the trade.
The Navy oppose any gun boats, as you suggested, because they reduce their amount of prize money.
General, in view of the application of Gen’l Dix, and of the full confidential interview which you was too kind as to honor me with, touching commands & c. I venture to present for consideration a new proposition, and it arises from a wish to remain in N.C. for a while.
Your observation and your examination of the map have [__ ___] shown that North Carolina is not the proper compliment of the Dept of Virginia, and that in N.C. ought to be independent. Again the Middle Dept is the compliment of your command in Virg.
Now Gen’l suppose you secure the Middle and give me N.C. You can do this from your influence at Court, if it meets your approbation, Gen’l Dix and friends would be pleased, and I am assured that the Treas. Dept. would be entirely satisfied in respect to their interest.
Gen’l I make a suggestion with full confidence that you will appreciate my motives and understand that it is not prompted by any desire to get out of your command, or to interfere with or curtail your Department to limits, or for the purpose of an embarrassing your relations with the Government. An amicable management by which you shall be the substantial gainer to what I wish to shadow forth.
All is quiet. There are indications of a breaking up of our pleasant weather by long rain storms. During my absence a mess of papers have accumulated for my attention, which I doubt not are exceeded by the pile up on your table.
With my remembrance to your family I remain.

Sincerely Yours,
John Peck

P.S.
I wish very much copies of your speech and of the late decision of the U.S. court to which allusion was made when you was here.