In August 1918, Raymond M. Weaver, a professor at Columbia University, doing research for what would become the first biography of Melville, paid a visit to Melville's granddaughter, Eleanor Melville Metcalf, at her South Orange, New Jersey home. She gave him access to all the records of Melville that survived in the family: manuscripts, letters, journals, annotated books, photographs, and a variety of other material. Among these papers, Weaver was astonished to find a substantial manuscript for an unknown prose work entitled Billy Budd.
After producing a text that would later be described as "hastily transcribed", he published the first edition of the work in 1924 as Billy Budd, Foretopman in Volume XIII of the Standard Edition of Melville's Complete Works (London: Constable and Company). In 1928 he published another version of the text that, despite numerous variations, may be considered essentially the same text.
F. Barron Freeman published a second text in 1948, edited on different principles, as Melville's Billy Budd (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). He believed he stayed closer to what Melville wrote, but still relied on Weaver's text, with what are now considered mistaken assumptions and textual errors. Subsequent editions of Billy Budd up through the early 1960s are, strictly speaking, versions of one or the other of these two basic texts.
After several years of study, in 1962, Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., established what is now considered the correct, authoritative text. It was published by the University of Chicago Press, and contains both a "reading" and a "genetic" text. Most editions printed since then follow the Hayford-Sealts text.
Based on the confusing manuscripts, the published versions had many variations. For example, early versions gave the book's title as Billy Budd, Foretopman, while it now seems clear Melville intended Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative); some versions wrongly included as a preface a chapter that Melville had excised (the correct text has no preface). In addition, some early versions did not follow his change of the name of the ship to Bellipotent (from the Latin bellum war and potens powerful), from Indomitable, as Melville called it in an earlier draft. His full intentions in changing the name of the ship are unclear, since he used the name Bellipotent only six times.