2nd Lieutenant Francis W. Butler, Company K, 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry: 1st Sergeant Thomas Livermore had this to say about Butler: “He was . . . a rather green and boyish fellow to my eyes, and in his six feet six or thereabouts, awkward as well.” This image is a detail of the one farther down the page. (Image courtesy of David Morin.)
While looking for information about the 5th New Hampshire’s time at Camp California for an earlier post, I found the following passage in a letter written by 2nd Lieutenant Francis W. Butler to his family on December 22, 1861:
The case is this, viz. that 1st Lt J.B. David insulted me and in a fit of passion struck me on the face I preferred charges against him and with the advice of Col Cross & Capt. Hapgood plus the Genl arrested him and the Col. said he should be cashiered (dismissed shamefully from the service) well this put the entire Regt in a ferment. they all said I did right and still did not wish to Court Martial an officer of the 5th as it would bring shame upon its name the Adjt. & Maj. came to see me & then I told them I had no reason to/ to retract any thing said or done they begged and finally the Col. was so fair & good I agreed to leave it to the 3 Field officers they sent David a reprimand and I dropped the thing. I wish I had carried it out he’ll be cautious in future. the Col. says change Cos. and I am going to try to get on the Genls Staff. Breed was pleased enough to think I had got him. but now I have got to have a great care lest he snatches me Ill not write the particulars but could in a few minutes it arose from a photograph the Col. sent me. When I 1st spoke to the Col he said he expected it said he and other officers had noticed their ill treatment of myself and was glad I had pluck to defend myself—poor, miserable, wretched Heaven forsaken He’ll deserving shakk He wont strike me or any one else The Maj. told in the presence of myself & David Capt Hapgood & others that Mr. Butler was a nice young officer and he had all confidence in him he could believe every word I said.[i]
Undoubtedly, something had gone badly wrong in Company K to which both David and Butler belonged.
This story initially intrigued me because it does not appear in Mike Pride and Mark Travis’s My Brave Boys. But the more I thought about this passage, the more questions I had. Why had 1st Lieutenant James B. David insulted Butler and struck him in the face? Why did the field officers of the regiment arrest David but then seek to avoid a court martial? And if these field officers had noticed Butler’s ill-treatment in previous weeks, why had they done nothing before? Where was Captain Richard Welch, Butler’s company commander, in all of this? And if Butler was such a “nice young officer,” why did Colonel Edward Cross, the commander of the regiment, send the young man to a camp of instruction for the Signal Corps? In the end, what does this incident tell us about honor and discipline?
Thomas Livermore as a young 1st Sergeant. (Image courtesy of David Morin.)
The only account I’ve been able to locate that provides some insight into this incident appears in Thomas Livermore’s Days and Events (1920). At the time, Livermore was the 1st Sergeant in Company K. He eventually rose to the rank of captain in the 5th New Hampshire before transferring out of the regiment. His narrative must be approached with some caution because he wrote it several years after the war (between 1867 and 1872) and revised it substantially before his death in 1918. There are inaccuracies in Days and Events, and the work is clearly influenced by Livermore’s predilections. But as we shall see, Livermore is fairly straightforward and honest about his biases.[ii]
In Days and Events, Livermore writes:
Captain [Welch] and Lieutenant [David] seemed to dislike Second Lieutenant [Butler], and finally treated him contemptuously and insultingly. I did not know him very well and had neither like nor dislike for him; he was, however, a rather green and boyish fellow to my eyes, and in his six feet six or thereabouts, awkward as well, and possibly the dislike of my superiors somewhat infected me. However Lieutenant [Butler] soon was selected, as an educated man, to join the Signal Corps of the Army, and we then saw little of him. I think that this treatment [by Welch and David] prejudiced the colonel against the two superiors, and finally, by trading watches with their men as ill became officers, they in my opinion confirmed his dislike and drew catastrophe upon them, though I think [Welch] was also marked because he was too ignorant and indolent for a good captain. One day an order came from somewhere above directing that the officers of the 5th should be examined as to their competency to hold commissions. A brigade board examined them, and in a few days an order from the War Department, dated February 15, 1862, directed the discharge of Captains [Welch] and [Edmund Brown] and First Lieutenants [James B. David] and [Elijah W. Johnson].[iii]
This account simultaneously leaves out a number of things while revealing many others. For now, I’d like to confine myself to two observations about Livermore as an observer. First, as a non-commissioned officer, his perspective was somewhat limited; he was not fully privy to the goings on among the company commanders and the field officers of the regiment.[iv] Second, there is a disarming, self-conscious honesty in this passage. Livermore admits that his indifferent opinion of Butler was probably influenced by Welch and David—while conceding, here and elsewhere, that Welch and David were probably in the wrong.
Captain Richard Welch of Company K, 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry: According to Livermore, he was “a man of medium height, with a decidedly Roman, perhaps Israelitish nose, black whiskers, owing part of their color to dye, a face wrinkled very much at the corner of his eyes, which twinkled in a manner half common to rogues and half to good-natured numskulls.”(Image courtesy of David Morin.)
Clearly, the trouble started with Welch, the commander of Company K, a lazy officer who never took his responsibilities seriously and sought to avoid exercising command so he wouldn’t alienate his men. It speaks volumes that he never bothered to master drill. It is also revealing that Butler’s account of the incident does not mention Welch doing anything to deal with the situation. Had Welch been more “present” and conscientious, matters would not have spiraled out of control.[v]
But spiral out of control they did, largely because Welch and David obviously disliked Butler. Getting at the root of this dislike is difficult at this great distance in time, but there are certainly some clues. Welch, who was a farmer of moderate means from Plaistow, NH, was old enough to be Butler’s father, and according to Livermore, was “a wicked old man” whose eyes twinkled “in a manner half common to rogues and half to good-natured numskulls.”[vi] David was accustomed to being the cock of the walk in his home town of Amherst, NH, where his father, Barnabas B. David, was the definition of a local worthy. The elder David was the wealthy co-owner of a whip factory that employed a number of townspeople. In addition to the whip factory, he engaged in other business ventures, including railroad speculation. Over the course of his life, he represented Amherst in the state legislature, served as a town selectman, and became a deacon in the Congregationalist Church. His house was so large and impressive that an image of it appeared in the History of the Town Amherst. The younger David, who worked as a clerk in his father’s business, was at the center of this empire, and it’s hard to avoid the impression that he felt somewhat entitled. It appears that when it came to his duties as an officer, David took his cue from Welch.[vii]
Butler’s background was very different. His father, John D. Butler, was a rich real estate broker who resided in Greenfield, NH. The elder Butler, who owned $5,000 in real estate and possessed a personal estate of $30,000, could have bought Barnabas B. David three times over (indeed, according to an inflation calculator I used, Butler’s estate was worth more than a million dollars in today’s money). I have not yet been able to obtain a history of Greenfield to see what role the elder Butler played in town. However, it is clear that he had great ambitions for his son who attended Francestown Academy (Francestown, NH) and Kimball Union Academy (Meridien, NH). Indeed, Francis Butler was preparing to take the entrance examination for Dartmouth College when he decided to enlist in the 5th New Hampshire.[viii]
How did Welch and Butler size up the tall and awkward, “green and boyish” Butler? It appears they saw an earnest fellow who was younger than his years and inexperienced in the ways of the world. That is, despite his great size (he was 6’ 6” and weighed 200 lbs.), the young Butler could be taken advantage of and treated with contumely. At the same time, Welch and David could not avoid feeling inferior as they contemplated Butler’s wealth, education and status. This is where I imagine the trouble could have started. Inspired by a desire to compensate for their feelings of inferiority and a resentment at the young man’s privileged station, Welch and David treated Butler “contemptuously and insultingly” because they could get away with it; the young 2nd lieutenant did not have the temperament or experience to deal with such behavior. This situation seems to have persisted for some time and was awkward for all who witnessed it. It appears that Colonel Edward Cross clearly understood what was going on, for as Butler wrote: “When I 1st spoke to the Col he said he expected it said he and other officers had noticed their ill treatment of myself and was glad I had pluck to defend myself.” In other words, Cross had seen Welch and David mistreating Butler, had expected that this mistreatment would culminate in some sort of incident, and was glad that Butler had pressed charges so that matters had come to a head.
1st Lieutenant James B. David, Company K, 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. Livermore believed David had treated Butler “contemptuously and insultingly.” However, Livermore owed his stripes to David and considered him “my good friend.” (Image courtesy of David Morin.)
But why had David precipitated this reckoning by hitting Butler? The sources are silent on this question, but in his letter, Butler wrote that he thought either David or Welch would soon “be sent home for we have an examination of officers next wk and I hope they’ll fail.” Presumably, Butler was referring to the brigade board of review that would test the officers to see if they were competent to hold their commissions. One wonders if the proximity of the examination led to a moment of self-awareness on David’s part. Did it suddenly dawn on him that his days as an officer in the 5th New Hampshire were numbered? Did David use some pretext to take out his stress or frustration on Butler who had become a convenient whipping boy? Whatever the case, I find it significant (or at least interesting) that this incident occurred so close in time to the officer examinations. It also seems worthy of note that both Livermore and Butler’s accounts mention the latter’s mistreatment in almost the same breath as the brigade board of review.
Butler’s charges presented Cross with both an opportunity and a problem. These charges gave Cross the chance to intervene decisively. But what exactly would this intervention look like? According to Butler’s account, the leaders of the regiment appeared to waver before reaching a decision. Brigadier General O. O. Howard (who commanded the brigade to which the 5th New Hampshire belonged) only arrested David after Butler had conferred with Cross and Captain Charles Hapgood (Company I). Of all the company commanders, it’s not clear why Hapgood was consulted. The only thing I can think of is that he hailed from Amherst—David’s home town. Did Cross look to Hapgood for information about David’s background? It’s impossible to say. At this point, according to Butler, David was finished; the colonel had it in mind to cashier him. But then, according to Butler’s narrative, the “entire” regiment fell into a “ferment” for fear that a court martial would dishonor the regiment. The expression is vague, but whatever it represented gave Cross pause. I take it that these words applied to the officers, not the entire regiment. Had the latter been the case, the enlisted men in Company K whose letters or diaries are extant—Livermore, George Gove, and Miles Peabody—would certainly have mentioned the incident. Did the officers really worry that David’s court martial would bring shame on the 5th New Hampshire? Or was this argument a cover for something else? It’s hard to know one way or the other. It appears, though, that several officers reasoned that if they did not court martial David, they could keep the incident a secret. Did Cross, who appears to have been aware of Butler’s ill-treatment for some time, start to think that a court martial would determine that the regiment’s officers had been negligent because they had not stooped Welch and David’s abuse sooner? At this point, Cross may have started thinking that he could rid himself of the useless and troublesome 1st lieutenant in a more discreet manner. Perhaps the brigade board of review could order David’s discharge for incompetence. In other words, it was better for the regiment to expose itself to charges that several of its officers were unfit rather than dishonorable.
This image of Francis Butler was probably taken during the winter of 1861-1862. (Image courtesy of David Morin.)
Whatever the case, Adjutant Charles Dodd and Major William Cook were sent to convince Butler to drop charges against David. Their efforts proved unavailing until Cross was “so fair & good” that Butler agreed to leave the decision to the three field officers—Cross, Cook, and Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Langley. Butler does not explain how Cross was “fair & good.” It could be that at this point Cross suggested Butler change companies for a fresh start. Or maybe they discussed how Cross would support Butler’s desire for a staff position. Did Cross broach the idea of sending Butler to a camp of instruction for the Signals Corps? None of this is clear, but we will tackle this question anon. Whatever the case, by deferring to the field officers, Butler all but ensured that David would escape with a reprimand—and a brief reprieve until the brigade board of review showed up to examine various officers in the regiment.
When exactly these examinations took place is not clear. Neither Pride and Travis nor Robert Grandchamp give a precise date. In all likelihood, the examinations took place shortly before January 14, 1862 which is when the regiment set out for picket duty on Edsall’s Hill.[ix] On January 20, 1862, Cross wrote ominously to his close friend, Henry O. Kent, that with regard to the regiment, “I have yet made no changes. But there will be changes soon.”[x] It seems likely that Cross wrote the foregoing with such confidence because the brigade board of review had already done its work, and he had a good idea of what the results would be.
As Livermore reported in his passage, two captains (Edmund Brown of Company B and Welch) and two 1st lieutenants (Elijah Johnson of Company I and David) were discharged in mid-February for having failed their examinations.[xi] Welch and David were replaced by Richard Cross (Company H), the colonel’s brother, and Charles Ballou (Company G), respectively. Indeed, according to Sergeant George Gove, Cross and Ballou took over the company before Welch and David left camp.[xii] That Cross chose these men to take over the company is instructive. Richard Cross, who had served in the Corps of Engineers as an enlisted man before the war, brought regular army experience to the company and a determination to impose his will. Having lived in California for much of the 1850s and where he worked as a miner, bookkeeper, farmer, and translator there, Ballou was a man who had seen much of the world and knew how to navigate it. Company K, then, fell under a new regime that its members appear to have welcomed.
Captain Richard Cross, Company K, 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry: Captain Richard Cross, Colonel Edward Cross’s brother, took over Company K after Welch was discharged. Livermore wrote that Cross “had obtained very severe ideas of discipline; he was not illiterate, and although erratic, was a good officer, and could bring a company up as well as any officer in that regiment.” (Image courtesy of David Morin.)
Brown and Johnson left the regiment without a fuss, and in fact, it is likely that the latter anticipated his discharge by resigning in late January. The unfortunate Welch and David, however, decided to fight their discharges by using their political leverage with New Hampshire’s congressional delegation (all of whom were Republicans). In early March, they returned to Camp California, where the regiment was quartered, hoping that Cross would allow them to resume their commands. The encounter did not go well. Cross threatened to run David through with a sword, and when he realized that his former subordinate was unarmed, challenged him to fight. David, who had learned his lesson, albeit too late, told the colonel he had not come to brawl. Cross abused the two men “shamefully” before storming out of the room. In came Major Cook who grabbed David by the coat and threw him to the floor, scratching him in the face. Welch and David beat a hasty retreat. They complained of their treatment to their Republican friends, but their time with the 5th New Hampshire was over.[xiii]
As for Butler, he was already long gone by the time Welch and David were chased out of Camp California. In a December 28, 1861 letter to his sister, Sergeant George Gove wrote that Butler had been selected for training as a signals officer.[xiv] By mid-January, Butler was writing to his family from a camp of signal instruction.[xv] His parting from Cross was characterized by several ambiguities. It is clear from his letter that Butler wanted to leave the 5th New Hampshire. We also know that Butler did not accept Cross’s offer of a transfer to a different company. Not only that, but a command in another infantry regiment did not seem to interest Butler. He mentioned looking for a staff position, and he ended up in the Signals Corps. These preferences may have been a product of Butler’s education and ambition. Or maybe Butler’s experiences in Company K convinced him that he did not have the makings of an infantry officer. Cross promised to use his influence to advance Butler’s career, but what is interesting is that the colonel did not try to stop the young 2nd lieutenant from leaving. Throughout the war, Cross cultivated young, talented enlisted men to become officers; the 5th New Hampshire almost always promoted from within. However, Cross often proved extremely jealous of these officers and sought to prevent them from leaving the regiment. Livermore himself was a good example of this phenomenon.[xvi] And yet, Cross let Butler go. Did Cross perhaps understand that the rough-and-tumble world of company command was not a good fit for Butler?
This story interests me partly because it reveals something about the principals involved and how they related to one another. For example, Butler’s letter shows that Cross was perhaps not so headstrong and impetuous as he is sometimes made out to be. But I also find this tale intriguing because of what it indicates about honor—especially who had it and how it was upheld or protected. Welch and particularly David had dishonored themselves by treating Butler as they did—“contemptuously and insultingly” as Livermore put it. They had abused their positions of authority and shown a lack of restraint at a time when self-control was one of the hallmarks of a gentleman, that is, a man of honor. And yet, it is not entirely clear if Butler had met contemporary standards of honor either. In the Northern states during the Civil War, a strong man who showed forbearance in the face of offense was praiseworthy for his gentility—but most Northerners understood that even an honorable man was justified in retaliating once he had reached his limit. Meanwhile, a weak man who tolerated abuse because he was not willing to stand up for himself was contemptible. Where exactly did Butler fall in this spectrum between strong and weak men? To answer that question, we would have to know something about the nature and duration of the abuse that he received at the hands of Welch and David. In this context, it is worth remembering the way in which Butler and Cross parted. Although neither bore malice toward the other, they appear to have agreed that it was best if Butler left the regiment.
Then there are those officers who worried about the dishonor a court martial would inflict on the regiment. It would have been interesting to find out what precisely their arguments were. Was it the mere fact of an officer being court-martialed? Were they concerned that news of David’s behavior would become public with a court martial? In other words, did they fear that the regiment would have to bear the weight of David’s dishonor? Or did these officers worry that the details of Welch, David, and Butler’s relationship reflected badly on the 5th New Hampshire? I would be interested to know what these men thought was the connection between the honor of the regiment and the honor of its individual members.
The March 1862 encounter between Cross and Cook on the one hand, and Welch and David on the other, also gives us something to think about with regard to honor. At first glance, Cross’s behavior was hardly an expression of gentility and restraint, and there is reason to believe that he and Cook had been drinking (according to the account presented by Welch and David to their Republican allies). Furthermore, as Robert Grandchamp points out, Welch and David had some grounds for complaint. First, Cross had only placed officers he did not like before the board; he had not exposed his favorites to scrutiny. Second, he had a strong antipathy for Republicans (which Welch and David were). And, third, Cross had appointed his own brother to fill the vacancy caused by Welch’s departure.[xvii] While it is hard to defend Cross’s actions in this instance, there were some important mitigating circumstances. For one thing, there was no denying Welch and David’s incompetence; a legitimate brigade board of review had reached that determination. Whether other officers had not been subjected to examination or Republican officers had a more difficult time in the 5th New Hampshire (they did not) was beside the point; Welch and David had shown they were incapable. Undoubtedly, Cross resented the way in which the two former officers sought to use political connections, especially Republican ones, to reassume their positions, challenge his authority, and undermine the regiment’s combat effectiveness. For another, David had lost caste; he had dishonored himself with his behavior while serving in the 5th New Hampshire, and he had threatened to bring shame on the regiment. Through his general carelessness and laxity, as well as his abuse of Butler, Welch had almost abetted David’s actions. Welch, then, also had something to answer for in this matter of honor. Perhaps menacing them with a sword was not appropriate, but what was the correct way to deal with men such as these?[xviii]
Finally, this incident—or series of incidents—shows us how questions of honor and discipline overlapped during this period. In the Northern armies, questions of honor were increasingly becoming matters of discipline. That makes sense; the military was trying to replace the subjectivity that often characterized disputes about honor with a discipline that was characterized by objectivity. But the incident we’ve dissected in this post shows how officers often found it difficult to deal with disputes about honor through disciplinary measures.
All of the issues I’ve raised at the end of the post provide much food for thought. I realize that this post has been full of “maybes” and “perhapses,” but this blog is a place for educated surmises and informed speculation. With some luck, once I’ve had a chance to do more research in various archives, I can squeeze the uncertainty out of this story.
[i] Butler to family, December 22, 1861, Butler Papers, New Hampshire Historical Association.
[ii] https://www.library.unh.edu/find/archives/collections/thomas-l-livermore-diary-1860-1866. Days and Events, which was eventually published in 1920, differs from the original “diary” that was written between 1867 and 1872. Throughout this post, I quote from the book. The diary is in the Special Collections and Archives of the UNH Library, and I will study it closely once I become more familiar with the book and the regiment.
[iii] Thomas Livermore, Days and Events 1860-1866 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920), 37.
[iv] George Gove, who was then a Sergeant in Company K, makes no mention of this incident in his correspondence. In a December 28, 1861 letter to his sister, he merely mentions that Butler had been chosen to become a signals officer. Clearly, the non-commissioned officers in the company did not know the half of what had transpired. See Gove to Julia Parsons, December 28, 1861, Parsons Family Papers, UNH Special Collections.
[v] See Livermore, Days and Events, 34-35; Robert Grandchamp, Colonel Edward E. Cross, New Hampshire Fighting Fifth: A Civil War Biography (Jefferson, NH: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2013), 84-85; Mike Pride and Mark Travis, My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001), 53.
[vi] Livermore, Days and Events, 36.
[vii] The Census of 1860 lists Barnabas B. David as possessing $8000 in real estate and $2500 in personal estate.
See also Daniel F. Secomb, History of Amherst (Concord, NH: Printed by Evans, Sleeper, and Woodbury, 1883), p. 152, 154, 155, 211, 246, 305, 308, 309, 455, 559, 560 ; “United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M7WJ-YQY : 19 March 2020), B B David, 1860.
[viii] https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/104606554; “United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M7WP-24S : 19 March 2020), J D Butler, 1860. See also William Child, A History of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 (Bristol, NH: R. W. Musgrove, Printer, 1893), 322.
[ix] On January 14, 1862, Butler wrote to his family that he had received letters from Cross that day and the day before. He enclosed one of the two letters which announced that the “the Captains have been examined, but the result has not transpired.” Thus the examinations took place before January 14. Butler to family, January 14, 1862, Butler Papers, New Hampshire Historical Association.
[x] Walter Holden, William E. Ross, and Elizabeth Slomba (eds.), Stand Firm and Fire Low: The Civil War Writings of Colonel Edward E. Cross (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2003), 102.
[xi] There is some question as to what happened because the discharges of these men all took place on different dates. According to Ayling’s Revised Register, Elijah W. Johnson was discharged on January 28, 1861 while Waite’s New Hampshire in the Rebellion has it that he resigned on January 24, 1861. Edmund Brown is listed in Ayling as having been discharged on February 15, 1862 (Waite has him discharged on February 2, 1862). Both sources have Richard Welch discharged on February 15, 1862 (Waite specifically mentions that this was the doing of the War Department). Finally, Ayling lists David as “discharged for incompetence” on February 15, 1862 while Wait accounts for him as being discharged by the War Department (same as Welch). It appears that Johnson knew what the results of his examination would be and didn’t waste any time leaving while the others were probably discharged on February 15 (which is when the orders from the War Department were dated). Presumably, none of the officers who failed their exams were still with the regiment when Cross announced the changes to his men on February 23.
[xii] Gove wrote to his sister on February 9, 1862 that Richard Cross had already taken over Company K and that Welch had not left yet. Awkward!
[xiii] Accounts of this incident appear in Grandchamp, Colonel Edward E. Cross, 85-86; Pride and Travis, My Brave Boys, 65-66.
[xiv] See the letter referred to in Note iv.
[xv] See the letter referred to in Note ix.
[xvi] See Chapters XXI and XXII in Days and Events. During the Gettysburg campaign, Cross was extremely reluctant to let Livermore leave the regiment and take a position with the ambulance corps.
[xvii] Grandchamp, Colonel Edward E. Cross, 85.
[xviii] For an extremely interesting investigation of honor, manhood, and gentility in the Northern army, see Lorien Foote, The Gentleman and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army (New York: New York University Press, 2010).