by Cliff McCarthy
Before Major General Benjamin Butler created the “Western Bay State Regiment” and its eastern counterpart, he was commander of Fort Monroe, a solitary Union outpost in Virginia on a peninsula extending into Chesapeake Bay. This is the location of a new play entitled “Butler”, artfully written by Richard Strand and produced by the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass. It is playing there until June 13th.
Throughout his life, Ben Butler was an interesting, controversial, and sometimes contradictory character, but this play is less concerned with his biography than focusing on one moment in his career. Although little-recognized at the time, the small decision Butler made at Fort Monroe would have a dramatic impact. It is not hyperbolic to claim that it was a direct precursor to the emancipation of southern slaves and to Union victory in the Civil War.
The decision was forced on Butler when three enslaved men from the newly-seceded state of Virginia, who had been employed in constructing fortifications for the Confederate Army, escaped across the river and arrived at the entrance to Fort Monroe seeking asylum. The Fugitive Slave Act required the return of this southern “property” to its owner, yet if returned, the slaves would be punished and then again put to work aiding the Rebels. When an agent for the slaveowner did indeed come calling under a flag of truce, Butler was forced to decide the fates of the refugees. With his politician’s instincts and his lawyer’s mind, perhaps Butler was precisely the correct person to devise the brilliant solution that would have ramifications that resonated until the war’s end.
It is a little-known incident, but one that deserves the attention given it by this play. The four cast members (Wally Dunn, Ben Cole, John Hickok, and Maurice Jones) do a superb job of creating their characters and the script, as whole, is well-written and intelligent. It’s funny and dramatic and entertaining. That the dialogue, as presented — a fugitive slave in turns insulting, attacking, and intellectually leading General Butler to his decision — could never have happened that way is of little consequence to the audience. Call it literary license. The fact pattern of the incident is correct.
While not directly related to the 31st Massachusetts, this play should be of interest to any Civil War buff or fan of General Butler. More information can be found at the Barrington Stage Company website.