Ames Adamson* | Major General Benjamin Butler
David Sitler* | Major John B. Cary
Benjamin Sterling* | Lieutenant Kelly
John G. Williams* | Shephard Mallory
*member Actor's Equity
The American Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865. It remains to this day, the bloodiest conflict in American history with a total 620,000 military deaths.
It began when seven Southern slave states declared their secession and formed the Confederate States of America. The first six states to secede had the highest proportions of slaves in their populations--almost fifty per cent of their total population. Hostilities began on April 12th, 1861, when Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter, a key fort held by Union troops in South Carolina.
It is important to note that the Civil War did not begin as a fight to end slavery. Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until January of 1863. Rather, it began as a struggle to preserve the Union and to prevent the Southern states from seceding over the controversial issue of expanding slavery into the Western territories. As President Lincoln stated:
“I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves."
At the beginning of the Civil War, The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was still in effect, and President Lincoln had made a pledge not to interfere with slavery where it existed.
Benjamin Franklin Butler (1818-1893) was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire and raised in Lowell Massachusetts, where his mother was a proprietor of a boarding house for textile-mill workers. His father, John, had fought in the War of 1812 and later became a privateer, dying of yellow fever in the Caribbean. As a boy, Butler was an eager student and avid reader. He was enticed by the stories of elderly neighborhood men who had fought in the Revolutionary War, and dreamed of a military career himself. Despite his desire to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he was rejected, and instead attended Waterbury College where he decided to study law. Admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1840, he began practicing in Lowell and quickly gained a reputation as a tenacious courtroom opponent. His business grew along with his formidable reputation, and he soon opened an office in Boston. In 1844, Butler married Sarah Hildreth, an accomplished actress who had appeared on the New York stage. They had one daughter and two sons. In 1845, at the age of twenty-seven, he was admitted to the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, making him possibly the youngest attorney to argue a case before the High Court. He was soon drawn into politics, and was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1853, advancing to a seat in the state Senate in 1859. In the time leading up to the 1860 presidential elections, Butler had emerged as one of New England's more prominent politicians, and had been elected brigadier-general of Massachusetts militia. Within days after the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter, Butler raised a regiment and led his troops to Washington to protect the Capitol. Shortly thereafter, he assigned the command of Fort Monroe in Virginia. Over the next four years Butler became one of the most colorful personalities (and most disliked generals) of the war.
On May 23, 1861, a mere five weeks after the beginning of the American Civil War, three slaves made their escape from Sewell’s Point Virginia. At midnight, they took a small boat across the water and in the early light of dawn approached the walls of the Union Fort Monroe. They did not know if they would see their families again. They did not know if they would be returned to their owners and be punished or killed. But the great risk they took would mark the beginning of the end of slavery in America.
It has been a pleasure and a privilege to bring Richard Strand’s powerful and well-crafted play to the 59E59. For the better part of two decades I have been working primarily on plays by dead playwrights—so it has been particularly rewarding to come across a new play of such importance and relevance. Not only does Butler center on the most defining historic event of our country, the American Civil War, it tells a crucial story that many of us never knew. Perhaps most important, it does this against the backdrop of something larger and more powerful than the conflict itself—humanity. At its core, Butler is ultimately about the journey of changing our perspective.
In a small military office, two men match wits. They challenge each other in a heated debate. A third man is drawn into the conflict. Slowly but surely, each person begins to see things differently than they have before. It is a difficult process, and yet it is the key to all understanding, compassion, acceptance, forgiveness and redemption; the ability to see things from another person’s point of view. How much violence and intolerance would cease, whether against people of different races, religions, or sexual orientation, if we could truly “see things differently?”