William B. Greene to Gen. B. F. Butler, March 1864

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William Batchelder Greene served either three or four periods of military service. In his youth, he was a 2nd Lt. in the 7th US Infantry, and served under Gen. Bonneville in the Second Seminole War. When the American Civil War began, he returned from France to take command of the 14th Mass. Volunteer Infantry, later the 1st Mass. Heavy Artillery. He served through late 1862, at which point he resigned his commission. His 14-page resignation letter is an interesting document (and one which I hope to have available online soon), as his resignation came in the midst of a series of struggles and scandals involving some of his subordinates and, he claimed, the political (rather than military) commitments of some of his superiors. Interestingly, one of the superior officers with whom he remained friendly was one considered thoroughly scandalous by many other people, Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler. Butler had served with Greene in the 1853 Massachusetts State Constitutional Convention, and would later be involved with currency and bank reform politics. Benjamin Tucker opened his “Life” with a quote from Butler. In 1864, Greene served as a Civilian Military Aid to Butler, a position that seems to have involved running errands, looking in on Butler’s ailing wife, etc. But Butler seems to have thought that Greene should be serving in a military command capacity. I recently ran across a note from another general officer, declining Butler’s offer of Greene as a candidate for an artillery command position. And in March, 1864, Butler himself offered Greene command of a regiment of “galvanized Yankees,” prisoners from the Point Lookout POW camp who had sworn a loyalty oath. It appears that Greene never assumed command of the regiment, although he may have been involved with its organization. More on that later, as the pieces come together. However, Greene’s response to Butler, reproduced below, is more interesting for the personal details that it gives than for its military significance. There are biographical details and philosophical statements that are not to be found elsewhere. Enjoy!

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From William B. Greene to General Butler

JAMAICA PLAIN, Mass., March 16th, 1864.

GENERAL: You have had the kindness to offer me the command of a regiment to be composed of transfugees from the rebel army; that is, of men who, being prisoners of war in your hands, have voluntarily taken the oath of allegiance to the U. S., and have also voluntarily enlisted as soldiers of the Union. You were also so good as to assure me that the men appear to be sincere and honest in their professions, inasmuch as they have been placed where many of them might have deserted had they seen fit to do so, and inasmuch as several of them have received certificates of sincerity and good intention from the rebel prisoners themselves by being murdered in the prisoners’ camp.

I have the honor to say in reply, that I will with pleasure accept a commission as Colonel of the regiment of transfugees in question whenever it is tendered to me, provided, 1st That the commission dates from the fifth day of July, eighteen hundred and sixty one (July 5, 1861), the date of my old commission and muster into the service of the United States as Colonel of the Mass. 14th. I would suggest, respectfully, that several company officers who served under me have been made Colonels, and that I would not be willing to run the risk of finding myself brigaded under any of them by virtue of the mere date of my commission. I think these officers would themselves prefer to have my commission run from the fifth of July, 1861.

Moreover my men are to fight with ropes around their necks; and if my commission dates back, as I have requested, I shall have more opportunity to protect them from ignominy, since I shall run less risk of being brigaded under young officers who will neglect to take into consideration the exceptional position of my men. They will of course look upon me as a friend and protector, and it is right that I should stipulate for such rank as would give me a chance to do all that a Colonel could do for their welfare. I take the liberty to state furthermore that I was brigaded under Gen. King about the middle of August, 1861, at the time my regiment reported for duty at Washington; that I remained in his brigade for about ten days, when my regiment was transferred to the brigade of Gen. Richardson, where it remained for about three weeks; and that my regiment was assigned on the 14th day of September, 1861, to artillery duty under my own command, and was never, from that day forward, brigaded under any person other than myself until my resignation as Colonel of the Mass. 14th was accepted, which was at some time in the month of October, 1862, or a little more than a year subsequent to the date of the assignment of the regiment to artillery duty. I take the liberty to state further that I was twice placed in command of a brigade composed of several regiments (my own regiment was one of three battalions of 600 men each), and on neither of these occasions by mere accident or to fill a temporary vacancy, since, on each occasion, the brigade was created by the order which placed me in command of it. I have reason to believe that the second of the brigades here mentioned is still in existence.

2nd That my men shall not be exposed, unnecessarily, in the performance of such outpost duty as would render them liable to be taken and hanged in squads of eight or ten, but that the regiment shall have the opportunity to so fight that the men may defend each other, and die, if they must die, of wounds made by projectiles and cutting implements mentioned in the ordinance Manual, and not by the rope, and at the hands of the rebel Provost Marshals, and I respectfully request that such guaranties may be given in this respect as may be consistent with the interests of the service and custom of armies, and such also as may be considered sufficient and satisfactory by Major General Butler. Of course I do not request that any contract of this nature should be made with the men; for soldiers who make terms in their enlistment papers are worse than useless, and fit only to be disbanded. I should also consider it indelicate on my part to ask that any terms should be made with me. I therefore respectfully request that this matter may be arranged in a manner satisfactory to Major General Butler.

3rd. That I shall have an opportunity to examine the officers of the regiment with the liberty to object to such of them as I deem inefficient or incompetent, Major General Butler to take such action on my report as he may deem just, proper, and for the interest of the service; also that I shall have such authority in disciplining my regiment as is guaranteed to me by the articles of war and by the acts of Congress.

I would respectfully recommend that the regiment should be organized as a regiment of two battalions, with authority to add a third—and, if possible a fourth—battalion, as soon

as transfugees to the requisite number have been obtained. After my old regiment was assigned to artillery duty, I was authorized to enlist two new companies, and to organize the whole into three battalions of four companies each—each company to consist (if I remember rightly) of 151 enlisted men: all of which I accomplished without any difficulty. I suppose we can, if this plan pleases you, get good terms from the War Department, and obtain permission to organize battalions as fast as we can have the requisite number of companies, each company being filled to the minimum standard only. It would then be the duty of the Captains, and also their interest, to enlist up to the maximum standard as soon as circumstances might permit. I think the minimum standard is eighty-three enlisted men, and that eight companies must be organized before the Colonel can be mustered in, but am not sure of these figures as I have no present means of verifying them. A captain and two lieutenants suffice for a company of 83 enlisted men; but five company officers and several additional sergeants and corporals are none too many for a company of 150 enlisted men.

I take the liberty to suggest, also, that although military knowledge is always necessary to a military man, good business habits and familiarity with affairs are even more requisite to a Lieutenant Colonel of a regiment of several battalions than information strictly military. There is, I apprehend, no place in the line for the Lieut. Colonel of a regiment of several battalions; and his function is, if I am not mistaken, to replace the Colonel in the case of death or absence of the latter, or in case of the Colonel’s presence with the regiment, to render all possible assistance in attending to the accounts and to the incidental business of the regiment. The Lieut. Colonel has, usually, time to prepare himself by observation and experience, and by watching the movement of things, to replace the Colonel in command. The Majors, or battalion commanders ought to be competent military men, and either already conversant with the battalion and brigade drill, or capable of soon becoming so by study.

I would, respectfully suggest that the quarter-master and commissary officer of a regiment ought always to be possessed of considerable capacity, and especially so when the regiment is one of several battalions; also that in the case of this particular regiment the captains should be good judges of human nature, since we shall probably find, in each company, some very bad men, of criminal intentions, who are insincere in their present allegiance, and some men also, who were forced into the rebel army, and are unfit by natural temperament to serve under any colors. It comes to my mind the more naturally to think there may be men in the regt. capable of firing on their officers as soon as the first battle shall have commenced, inasmuch as I once had a gun snapped on me (in Florida) by a man who had been a pirate, and had been convicted as such and pardoned. If there are any such men in the regt., the Captains ought to know how to weed them out, and get them put to work with ball and chain before we go into action.

I apologize to the General for the length of this letter, but I do not know how I could make it shorter. The General will please notice that I put no absolute conditions to my acceptance of the commission except those which are guaranteed to me by the laws of Congress, the invariable custom of armies, and the articles of war, and also the one, special to this particular case, that my commission shall date from the fifth of July, 1861.

You are aware, General, that I have no politics, that I was originally a democrat, that I became a radical anti-slavery man when the fugitive slave-law was passed’ and that my democratic and anti-slavery principles have prevented me, for many years past, from voting, and that I shall probably refrain from principle from voting hereafter, so long as slavery is, in any way whatever, guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. I think my political record is, if not wise and judicious, at least consistent. Nevertheless I am a subject of the United States, the United States is endeavoring to put down an inexcusable rebellion, the Government of the United States is (with all its faults) the best in the world, and my allegiance is due to that Government. I would not, on any consideration, at the present time, after the experience I have had, volunteer my services; but if my services as a soldier are asked for, I do not feel at liberty to decline serving my country in a military capacity. Nevertheless, General, if anything happens to prevent me from receiving the commission, it will be a matter of rejoicing to me, since I have little to gain and much to lose by re-entering the service. I have bought me a house, with several acres of land around it, am engaged in superintending the education of my children, am now favored by Providence beyond the ordinary lot of men, am happy and contented, and shall be grateful to the country if it will leave me where I am. In the matter of accepting the commission, I will do my absolute duty, and nothing more. I had rather not have it than have it.

But, General, whatever may be the result, I shall always feel grateful for your kindness in remembering me, and in recognizing, as I have always recognized, our friendship of so many years standing. There are many reasons now existing why I should not have considered it my duty—reasons which it is not necessary to state—to accept a commission as Colonel, if that commission had been offered me by any person, now serving in the field, other than yourself. I have the honor to remain, General, very respectfully,

Your obliged friend and servant,


From General Butler


Hd., Qrs. Dept. of Va. and N. C., FORT MONROE, March 20th, 1804

Hon. E. M. STANTON, Sec. of War

SIR: I have now more than a minimum regiment of repentant Rebels, whom a friend of mine calls “Transfugees,” recruited at Point Lookout. They behave exceedingly well, are very quiet, and most of them I am certain are truly loyal, and I believe will make as efficient a regiment as there is in the service.

I should like to organize and arm it at once. I have had some experience with the samc sort of material, in Louisiana, having a regiment composed almost entirely of Rebel deserters.

By organizing the regiment at once I can have one more regiment, who will fight à l’outrance, for the Spring campaign. I have the honor to be very respectfully,

Your obt. servt., B. F. BUTLER, Maj. Gen. Comdg.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.

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