A Special Collections Mystery: Did the Butler Do It?

The Benjamin Franklin Butler Notebook contains a fiery diatribe against General Ulysses S. Grant. But did Butler actually write it?

The Suspect

Benjamin Franklin Butler (1838-1893) was one of the Civil War’s most controversial generals. Rising to the rank of major general in the Union Army largely through political appointment, Butler was castigated in the North for his military failures and reviled in the South for policies enacted while administering the wartime occupation of New Orleans.

The Evidence

The Benjamin Franklin Butler Notebook (Ms1990-060) arrived in Special Collections in 1990, as a donation from Elden E. Josh Billings, a collector of Civil War books and memorabilia. Containing approximately 125 pages, the notebook is devoted to a fiery attack, spanning several chapters, against Union leadership during the Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant is a favorite target of the writer, who charges the Army of the Potomacs commanding general with incompetence, recklessness, favoritism, and cowardice. The author supports his arguments with interspersed clippings from newspapers and reports. Divided into several chapters and heavily revised, the diatribe seems intended for publication.

The piece is unsigned and unfortunately incomplete, lacking several of the pages at the front. The only clue to authorship is a penciled note on the flyleaf:

“Manuscript book in hand of Gen. Benjam [sic] Franklin Butler, against General U. S. Grant, never published”
The Investigation

Though the writer defends Butler’s reputation while attacking Grant’s, an examination of the text suggests that Butler did not write it. The writer refers to Butler in the third person but then later refers to himself in the first person. Elsewhere, the writer mentions that he broke his sword (i.e., resigned his commission) rather than wage war on women, children and property. Butler, however, resigned his commission only after the wars end. The writer also mentions that he has never seen Grant, a statement certainly not true of Butler. Moreover, the text does not match the tone in Butlers published writings; nor does the handwriting match examples of Butler’s penmanship found online.

Evidence points toward Gustave Paul Cluseret (1823-1900), a French soldier of fortune, politician, writer, and artist as the items creator. In his critique of Grant and others, the writer refers to editorial pieces that he had published in Cluseret’s newspaper, The New Nation. The French general had come to the United States soon after the wars outbreak but soon gained a reputation as a rabble-rouser and was placed under arrest on unspecified charges in early 1863. Cluseret resigned his commission shortly thereafter and later became editor of The New Nation. Like Cluseret, the author of this piece shows personal familiarity with European military history, and the tone of the piece matches Cluserets known belligerent and iconoclastic nature.

Typical of the writer's charges against Grant is this passage, in which he charges Grant with absenting himself from his duties: "Grant, as usual, did nothing and saw nothing. . , as he was more comfortable at his head-quarters. . . he left his troops for pure Havans and champaign [sic], the green tree and delicious reveries in a recumbant [sic] position...
Typical of the writer’s anti-Grant tirade is a passage on this page, in which he charges Grant with negligence of duty: “Grant, as usual, did nothing and saw nothing. . , as he was more comfortable at his head-quarters. . . [H]e left his troops for pure Havanas and champaign [sic], the green tree and delicious reveries in a recumbant [sic] position. . .
To confirm Cluseret as the writer, we hoped to find published copies of the editorials to which the writer refers. Unfortunately, but few issues of the newspaper have survived, and of those remaining, none contains an editorial specifically issued under Cluserets name. (It seems likely, however, that any unsigned editorials in the paper would have been written by the editor.)

The alternative, then, was to find examples of Cluserets handwriting. I contacted counterparts in repositories that hold letters written by Cluseret but found that the handwriting in the copies provided didn’t match that in the notebook. On the other hand, the four letters obtained also do not match, bearing at least three different and distinct handwriting styles. It seems possible that Cluseret, whose command of English was said by contemporaries to have been limited, relied on a series of private secretaries to express his thoughts.

The Verdict

Unfortunately, with the information we have, authorship of the piece cannot be definitively credited. And so, because it bears Benjamin Butler’s name and arrived here as such, the item continues to be cataloged as the Benjamin Franklin Butler Notebook until more evidence may someday come to hand.