Tuesday, July 03, 2012

General Daniel Butterfield: Tarnished Hero


We often forget that history is not only shaped by events, but it is also made by individuals.
A case in point is Gen. Daniel Butterfield. The circumstances of his modification of an existing bugle call to create the mournful Taps we know today were explored in these pages last week.
But Butterfield himself is a perplexing and enigmatic figure whose career deserves close examination.
His rise in the military was meteoric by any standard. Shortly after the 1861 Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, he joined the Army in Washington, D.C., on April 16, as a first sergeant
Despite having little military background other than part-time militia service, within two weeks he obtained a commission as a colonel in the 12th New York Infantry. By July he was in command of a brigade. By September he was a brigadier general.
Butterfield joined the Fifth Corps of Gen. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac for the unsuccessful Peninsula Campaign to capture Richmond, Virginia. While his troops recuperated at Harrison's Landing  after the grueling withdrawal that culminated the campaign, he experimented with bugle calls.
Butterfield continued in command of a brigade at the disastrous second battle of Bull Run and the battle of Antietam, a Union victory but also the bloodiest day of the war.
In the battle of Fredericksburg, he commanded the Fifth Corps, one of the two corps that failed to take the key position of Marye's Heights, despite 16 frontal attacks.
When Gen. Joseph Hooker was given command of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, he set a bad example for the conduct of generals and their staffs by creating a backstabbing network of political cronies that included his chief of staff, Daniel Butterfield, now a major general.
During this period, his headquarters was described by cavalry officer Charles F. Adams, Jr., as “a combination of a bar-room and a brothel."
As an officer, Butterfield was thoroughly disliked by other officers. After he was wounded at Gettysburg in July of 1863 by a fragment of a spent artillery shell, a fellow officer wrote, "Fortunately for him and the joy of all, he has gone home." But their elation was short-lived. Butterfield returned to headquarters after a brief recuperation. Following his mustering out of the volunteer forces in 1865, he returned to private life.

The Gold Conspiracy
During the Civil War, the United States government issued large sums of paper money backed only by credit. In the war years, the U.S. national debt rose from $64 million to over $2.8 billion.
After the war ended, the government began a policy of buying back “greenbacks” with gold and using the paper money to buy U.S. bonds. In 1869, two crafty speculators, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, sought to profit from this practice by cornering the gold market. 
The conspirators needed two additional key players: someone with access to newly elected President Ulysses S. Grant and someone willing to tip them off when the government intended to sell gold.
They found the first in Abel Corbin, a 61-year-old widower who had married Grant’s younger sister, 37-year-old Jennie. The other player who would leak insider information to them was Daniel Butterfield.
Corbin convinced Grant to appoint Butterfield as assistant secretary of the treasury. Stationed in New York in the sub-treasury building on Wall Street, his job was to handle sales of gold by the government in the nearby exchange called the Gold Room.
Corbin arranged a meeting with Gould, who immediately handed Butterfield a personal check for $10,000. The new appointee, whose annual salary was $8,000, quietly pocketed the money.
In order to gain leverage for the gold scam, Gould purchased the Tenth National Bank in New York, a Wall Street bank with a reputation for making sweetheart deals with favored clients.
Whenever Grant visited New York, Corbin arranged for the conspirators to meet with the president. Gould's pitch to Grant was that it would be advantageous to Western farmers if the price of gold went up since a bumper grain crop was forecast and gold was the medium of payment for international transactions. Grant listened but remained noncommittal. Gould mistook Grant's silence for agreement.
On September 1, 1869, Gould instructed his brokers to purchase $1.5 million in gold for Corbin's account and another 1.5 million for Butterfield. For every dollar increase in the price of gold, each would net a $15,000 profit.
Gould and Fisk began buying gold aggressively. By Wednesday, September 22, gold closed at $141, up almost four dollars. Gould and Fisk together owned some $50-$60 million in gold. That day’s price rise generated a profit of over $1.75 million for the two conspirators. Gold closed on September 23 at $144.50, up another $3.50.
During the two-week gold-buying frenzy, treasury secretary George Boutwell in Washington had followed developments closely. On the evening of Thursday, September 23 he met with Grant and reported that gold's gyrations had caused the stock market and commerce to nearly come to a halt. Furious at having been used, Grant instructed Boutwell to sell gold "to save the country from a panic" if the price advanced on Friday morning.
By 9:30 the next morning, the price of gold was at $150, with the conspirators snapping up every offer. By 11 o'clock the price had crept up to $155 and was edging toward $160.
The treasury secretary reported these numbers to Grant and suggested that the government sell $3 million in gold from the New York sub-treasury. "You’d better make it $5 million,” said Grant. Boutwell hurried back to his office and dictated a telegram to Butterfield, splitting the difference:

Black Friday
To keep Butterfield from tipping off the conspirators, Boutwell issued a simultaneous press release. The news hit the gold exchange like a bombshell. Gold, which had been hovering between $160 and $162, plummeted to $133 in minutes. Dozens of brokerages and hundreds of gold buyers went bankrupt. The day would become known as Black Friday. It would take years for American business and agriculture to recover.
 Jay Gould and Jim Fisk survived simply by refusing to pay for the gold they had ordered. Butterfield was allowed to resign his Treasury post.
In testimony before a committee investigating the gold conspiracy, Butterfield raised eyebrows by insisting the $10,000 he accepted from Gould was an interest-free real estate loan with no documentation or repayment date.
To escape further scrutiny, Butterfield took his family on an extended tour of Europe. For two years he lived off his investments, studying the London and Paris postal systems, and waiting for the heat to die down back home.
He returned to New York from Europe two years later and rejoined the American Express Company, the business his father had founded. Butterfield prospered, branching into ventures ranging from steamboats to apartment houses to banks. He ran twice for Congress on the Republican ticket and was a serious contender for that party’s nomination for governor in the 1890s.
 Successful and wealthy, he lived in grand style on Cragside, his estate overlooking the Hudson in Cold Spring, N.Y. Thirty years after the event, he managed to wangle a Medal of Honor in 1892 for his action during the battle at Gaines' Mill on June 27, 1862. One of 1,522 such medals awarded during or after the Civil War, the citation read: "Seized the colors of the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers at a critical moment and, under a galling fire of the enemy, encouraged the depleted ranks to renewed exertion.”
On Memorial Day in 1901, Daniel Butterfield dedicated the monument he had erected at the Fredericksburg battlefield to commemorate the service of his Fifth Corps. A short time later, he died of a stroke on July 17, 1901, at his home in Cold Spring at the age of 70.
Although not a West Point graduate, Butterfield was buried in the West Point Cemetery, where his towering grave monument is one of the largest and most ornate. His wife, Julia Lorillard Butterfield, survived him. She continued to live at Cragside, and died on August 6, 1913, four months short of her 90th birthday.
The Butterfield house and grounds eventually passed into the hands of the Fathers of Mercy, a Roman Catholic congregation of missionary priests founded in France. It was destroyed in a spectacular fire the night of December 20, 1979.

The Butterfield Statue Controversy
An amusing sidebar to the Daniel Butterfield story concerns a statue of him commissioned by his widow. In her will, Mrs. Butterfield had specifically directed the executors "to cause to be erected in the Borough of Manhattan, near or in Central Park, a colossal statue of Gen. Daniel Butterfield, representing him wearing a cocked hat and standing with his arms folded, as shown in a picture of him in a bronze bas relief in the rooms of the Historical Society at Utica, New York."
While the statue was being created, a running battle began between the executors of the will and sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who would later design and carve Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Borglum had been asked to modify the statue so often and so extensively that the exasperated sculptor signed his name on the top of Butterfield's head. "That's the only part of the original statue in which they didn't make one change," he commented wryly.
Borglum's statue was cast by the Gorham Company and erected on February 23, 1918, not near or in Central Park but in Sakura Park, at West 122 Street Street, east of Grant's Tomb. ("Sakura" means "cherry tree" in Japanese.) Opened in 1912, the park was planted with cherry trees as a gift from the Japanese people.
The sculptor had agreed to create and erect the statue for $54,000 and had been paid $21,600. Claiming that the sculpture was not artistic, did not resemble General Butterfield and was not colossal, the executors of Mrs. Butterfield's will refused to pay the balance, so Borglum sued. A year and a half later, a jury viewed the statue and returned the verdict that the sculptor had complied with the terms of the contract.
Whether the balance, which covered the casting of the statue, was ever paid is not known. Mrs. Butterfield’s estate was worth millions, and money was not a problem.

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