Daniel Butterfield’s life story is filled with many memorable moments, including his rapid rise in the military ranks during the Civil War as well as a long-held and devoted attachment to his alma mater, Union College. Then, there’s the other stuff.
“He was a very bright and versatile guy with all kinds of interests,” said Frank Taormina, who will speak about Butterfield’s life at the Schenectady County Historical Society on Saturday at 2 p.m. “He did many things of note in his life, one of them donating $100,000 to Union College, but he was also part of a scandal during the Grant administration, getting involved with these two wheeler-dealer guys that were trying to pull off a stunt concerning the price of gold.”
Unquestionably, Butterfield was a mixed bag. General Fitz-John Porter, his superior during the Civil War, said that Butterfield “was an splendid commander and a good role model for anyone: quick, brave and his men had perfect confidence in him.”
Others, however, didn’t feel the same way. After he was wounded at Gettysburg, a fellow officer was reputed to have said that, “Butterfield, fortunately for him and to the joy of all, has gone home.”
According to numerous Civil War Web sites, Butterfield was thoroughly disliked by his fellow officers. He did, however, make some friends, such as General Joseph Hooker who was in command of the Army of the Potomac during the spring of 1863. Hooker, relieved of duty by Abraham Lincoln after being badly routed by Robert E. Lee’s confederate force at Chancellorsville, is the individual whose last name became synonymous with the term “prostitute.”
“Butterfield became closely associated with Joseph Hooker, who was a guy who evidently was quite often in the company of women,” said Taormina. “It was written that Butterfield provided the liquor, and Hooker provided the girls.”
Still, the record shows that Butterfield served well throughout the war. Born in Utica to a wealthy family, Butterfield was an 1849 graduate of Union College. He worked in his father’s firm, the American Express Company, and joined the Union Army as a First Sergeant in Washington, D.C., in April of 1861. Within his first month of active duty he was made a colonel in the 12th New York Infantry, and by July had been made a brigadier general. It was at the Seven Days Battles in Virginia in June of 1862 that Butterfield was wounded for the first time. Despite his injury, he “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 a renewed exertion.” Butterfield eventually was awarded the Medal of Honor for his display, but not until 1892.”
After recovering from his second wound at Gettysburg in 1863, Butterfield rejoined Hooker as his chief of staff in the western campaign. He was in charge of a division in the 20th Corps during Sherman’s March to the Sea, but after becoming ill he finished out the war on assignment at Vicksburg.
Butterfield’s other chief act that distinguished him was his composing of “Taps,” the bugle call which came to be used by both the North and South by the middle of the war. It became a musical fixture at military funerals, and was originally used to signal “lights out.”
“It had quite an emotional impact on people,” said Taormina. “It meant the end of the day, and apparently Butterfield was very much into the symbolic stuff of the war. He was also the guy that came up with all the different kind of insignias that would become patches that the soldiers would wear. He came up with a system to decorate the uniforms and the army adopted it.”
After the Civil War, Butterfield was appointed Assistant Treasurer of the United States by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869. Butterfield evidently informed two speculators when the government was planning to sell gold and received a $10,000 payment for his efforts. The scheme resulted in collapsing gold prices and what was called “Black Friday” on Sept. 24, 1869.
“After that he went back to work for his father with American Express,” said Taormina, like Butterfield a Union College graduate. “Despite the scandal he went on to do several good things in his life, including putting together a lecture series at Union College and donating money to build Butterfield Hall.”
Once part of the science and engineering program at Union, Butterfield Hall is now used by the college’s chemistry department.
Butterfield never married until 1886, at the age of 55, and he and his wife lived out their life in Cold Spring in downstate New York.
“His widow hired a well-known sculptor to build a statue of him at Central Park in New York, and there’s also a monument for him at West Point, even though he never went there,” said Taormina. “He also had a monument erected to honor the troops he commanded at Fredericksburg. The scandal taints him, but he did a lot of other things very well that he should be remembered for.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org.