In December, 1860, after the election of Abraham Lincoln was an established fact, there was a gathering of politicians at Washington, Mr. Butler among the rest. South Carolina had passed the ordinance of secession, and had sent commissioners or embassadors to negotiate a treaty with the general government. Mr. Butler told his Southern friends that they were hastening on a war; that the North would never consent to a disunion of the States, and that he should be among the first to offer to fight for the Union. He counselled the administration to receive the South Carolina commissioners, listen to their communication, arrest them, and try them for high treason. Mr. Butler foresaw a great war, and on his return to Massachusetts advised Governor Andrew to prepare the militia for the event. This was quietly done by dropping those who could not be depended upon to leave the State, and enlisting others in their stead. Arms and clothing were also prepared. On April 15, 1861, a telegram was received by Governor Andrew from Senator Henry Wilson asking for troops to defend the capital. A little before five o’clock, Mr. Butler was, trying, a case before a court in Boston, when Colonel Edward F. Jones, of the sixth regiment, brought to him for endorsement an order from Governor Andrew to muster his regiment forthwith on Boston Common, prepared to go to the defence of Washington. Two days later Mr. Butler received the order to take command of the troops.
General Butler’s command consisted of four regiments. The sixth was despatched immediately to Washington by the way of Baltimore, two regiments were sent in transports to garrison Fortress Monroe, while General Butler accompanied the eighth regiment in person. At Philadelphia, on the nineteenth of April, General Butler was apprised of the attack on the sixth regiment during their passage through Baltimore, and he resolved to open communication with the capital through Annapolis.
At Annapolis, General Butler’s great executive qualities came into prominence. He was placed in command of the “Department of Annapolis,” and systematically attended to the forwarding of troops and the formation of a great army. On May 13, with his command, he occupied the city of Baltimore, a strategic movement of great importance. On May 16, he was commissioned major-general, and on the twenty-second was saluted as the commander of Fortress Monroe. Two days later, he gave to the country the expressive phrase “contraband of war,” which proved the deathblow of American slavery.
A skirmish at Great Bethel, June 10, was unimportant in its results except that it caused the loss of twenty-five Union soldiers, Major Theodore Winthrop among the number, and was a defeat for the Northern army. This was quickly followed by the disastrous battle of Bull Run, which fairly aroused the North to action.
On August 18, General Butler resigned the command of the department of Virginia to General Wool, and accepted a command under him. The first duty entrusted to General Butler was an expedition sent to reduce the forts at Hatteras Inlet, in which with a small force he was successful.