Henry Wolfe Butner might be the most famous military figure local residents have never heard of, a longtime Surry County historian suggested at a program Saturday.
During her presentation hosted by Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, Marion Venable — who is associated with Surry Community College — asked for a show of hands by audience members who were familiar with Butner. Only one person, also a local historian, had heard of him.
“General Henry Wolfe Butner is a man whose name needs to be celebrated,” Venable responded.
In detailing his story, she made the case that Butner, who rose to the ranks of Army brigadier and major general, should perhaps be a household name based on his vast achievements during the early 20th century. This included decorated service during World War I as an artillery commander.
“I want you all to hold on as we look at the military career of Henry Wolfe Butner,” Venable told the audience before detailing his event-filled career as the 2018 History Talks series kicked off at the museum Saturday. The series is including programs with World War I themes in recognition of this year being the centennial of the end of that conflict.
Venable’s talk, illustrated with numerous photographs, books and other materials, focused on how Butner went from a farm on Grassy Creek in Surry County to military fame. Butner was born and raised in Pinnacle, the son of Frank Butner, a merchant, and Sarah Wolfe Butner. The elder Butner had fought in the Civil War and was at the surrender at Appomattox in 1865.
Henry Butner, who was born in 1875, attended the Davis School, a military high school in North Carolina for young men, before being accepted as a cadet at West Point in 1894 and trained as an officer.
Butner never married, with Venable indicating that the military was his life. This included a whirlwind series of assignments with artillery units at Army bases around the country, including California, Kansas, Florida, Washington state, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona and others.
In December 1900, Butner also found himself stationed in Cuba. “Imagine going to Cuba in 1900 from Shoals, North Carolina,” Venable said, which was followed by an assignment to the Philippines with his regiment in 1909.
After war clouds gathered in Europe less than 10 years later, Butner joined the ranks of the Doughboys.
“May 1918 changed his life — he sailed to France with the 16th Artillery,” Venable said of Butner joining the American Expeditionary Force battling the Germans. After arriving in Europe, the Surry native was promoted to brigadier general, with his service there including the commanding of an artillery brigade.
Among the campaigns Butner participated in was the Battle of the Argonne Forest, a major part of the final Allied offensive of the war which stretched along the entire Western Front. It was fought from Sept. 26, 1918 until the Armistice ending World War I in November of that year.
Butner’s service in the war led to him being decorated with the Army Distinguished Service Medal and other honors.
Wasn’t done yet
Henry Wolfe Butner’s military service didn’t cease with “the war to end all wars,” but would continue for nearly 20 more years.
This included briefly serving as commanding officer of Fort Bragg during the 1920s, and in 1936, after Butner had become a major general, it was on to Panama where he led the Panama Canal Department.
“What an accolade for Surry County,” Venable said.
Butner, who was an avid golfer, suffered a stroke while playing and died in March 1937 at age 61. Members of the artillery unit he headed in World War I escorted his body to Arlington National Cemetery.
The Surry County native was so highly regarded in Army circles that the decision was made to name an installation in North Carolina after Butner, Venable continued. Camp Butner, located in Granville County, served as a training facility during World War II and as a POW camp for German prisoners.
After its military use ended, the 40,000-acre complex became the site of what it’s most known for today, a state hospital for the mentally ill. The town of Butner there also is named for the Surry County military leader.
In addition, a transport ship, the USS General Butner, was launched in 1943 and a school at Fort Bragg was dedicated in his name.
In summing up his many achievements, Venable indicated that Butner’s talents in weaponry originated from his days on the farm in Surry County — and an interest in gunsmithing instilled by family members.
“They said that he was a very accomplished marksman, using the old muzzle-loading, hair-trigger muskets his grandfather had made,” Venable said of accounts from those who knew Butner.
This helped shape the skills that later would to lead to his reputation as an “expert artilleryman” using the Army’s big guns.
Butner was known for his ability to see the big picture, Venable said, which seemed to be multi-dimensional in nature.
“This ability was not due to better eyesight, but when he saw a thing, it was in relation to everything around it,” the historian explained.
This was true on the battlefield or golf course, where Butner had a knack for always being able to find balls hit by members of his foursome no matter how deep in the rough they landed.
The Surry native also was praised for his qualities other than those of a military man, Venable said, relaying the words of a junior officer after Butner’s death, John Nesbitt. He had served in Butner’s command and was impressed by the always-smooth function of the general’s headquarters.
“This was entirely due to his calm and composed manner in handling all situations that arose,” Nesbitt stated.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.