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Benjamin Franklin Butler (November 5, 1818 – January 11, 1893) was an American lawyer and politician who represented Massachusetts in the United States House of Representatives and later served as the 33rd Governor of Massachusetts.

During the American Civil War, his administration of occupied New Orleans, his policies regarding slaves as contraband, his ineffectual leadership in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and the fiasco of Fort Fisher rank him as one of the most controversial political generals of the war. He was widely reviled for years after the war by Southern whites, who gave him the nickname "Beast Butler."

Early life[]

Butler was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire, the son of Captain John Butler, who served under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 (during the Battle of New Orleans). He was named after Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. After the death of his father, his mother, Charlotte (Ellison) Butler, operated a boarding house in Lowell, Massachusetts. He attended Waterville College (now Colby College) in Maine and graduated in 1838. He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1840, began practice at Lowell, and soon attained distinction as a lawyer, particularly in criminal cases. He married Sarah Hildreth, a stage actress and daughter of Dr. Israel Hildreth of Lowell, in 1842. Their daughter, Blanche, eventually married Adelbert Ames, a Mississippi senator who had served in the United States Army during the Civil War.

Entering politics as a Democrat, Butler first attracted general attention by his vigorous campaign in Lowell advocating the passage of a law establishing a ten-hour day for laborers. He was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1853, and of the Massachusetts Senate in 1859, and was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions from 1848 to 1860. In the 1860 Democratic National Convention at Charleston, South Carolina, he advocated the nomination of Jefferson Davis (voting for him on the first 57 ballots) and opposed Stephen A. Douglas, and in the ensuing campaign he supported John C. Breckinridge. His military career prior to the Civil War began with him as a third lieutenant in the Massachusetts Militia in 1839; he was promoted to brigadier general of the militia in 1855. These ranks were closely associated with his political positions and Butler received little practical military experience to prepare him for the coming conflict.

Civil War[]

Baltimore and Virginia operations[]

After rioting in Baltimore, Governor John A. Andrew sent Butler with a force of Massachusetts troops to reopen communication between the Union states and Washington, D.C. A major railroad connection from the Northeast passed through Baltimore and immediately after the start of the war it was unclear whether Maryland would stay in the Union. Butler arrived with the 8th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment by steamer at Annapolis on April 20, 1861. He employed his expert negotiation skills with Governor Thomas H. Hicks and, by April 22, his regiment had disembarked and was put to work repairing damaged railroad tracks around Baltimore. At the same time, the 7th New York Infantry arrived and Butler assumed command of the entire force; his military career would be characterized by his eagerness to assume authority in the absence of official instructions. While Butler remained at Annapolis, the New Yorkers were the first Union troops to march into Washington following President Lincoln's initial call for volunteers. On May 13, Butler's remaining force occupied Baltimore without opposition. On May 14, Union artillery and scores of camps crowned Federal Hill and Union troops patrolled the streets, further supported by the heavy artillery in Fort McHenry. Butler's reward for his aggressive but unauthorized premature action was to be relieved of command by a livid General Winfield Scott. However, Lincoln appointed him one of the first major generals of U.S. Volunteers, ranking from May 16, 1861. (Also on that day, appointments were given to John A. Dix and Nathaniel P. Banks. Both appeared on the promotion order before Butler, making him the third highest ranking major general of volunteers.)

Butler was assigned command of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, and of the Department of Virginia. In the conduct of tactical operations in Virginia, Butler was almost uniformly unsuccessful. His first action at Battle of Big Bethel was a humiliating defeat for the Union Army. While in command at Fort Monroe, Butler declined to return to their owners fugitive slaves who had come within his lines, on the grounds that, as laborers for building fortifications and other military activities, they were contraband of war, thereby justifying granting these slaves a relative freedom, in spite of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The U.S. Congress later mandated that other Union commanders refuse to return slaves to their former masters.

New Orleans[]

File:Benjamin Franklin Butler politician - Brady-Handy.jpg

General Benjamin Franklin Butler

Later, in 1861, Butler commanded an expeditionary force that, in conjunction with the United States Navy, took Forts Hatteras and Clark in North Carolina. He directed the first Union expedition to Ship Island, off the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in December 1861.[1] In May 1862, he commanded the force that occupied New Orleans after it was captured by the Navy. In the administration of that city he showed great firmness and severity. New Orleans was unusually healthy and orderly during the Butler regime. Many of his acts, however, gave great offense, such as the seizure of $800,000 that had been deposited in the office of the Dutch consul and his imprisonment of the French Champagne magnate Charles Heidsieck. Most notorious was Butler's General Order No. 28 of May 15, issued after some provocation, that if any woman should insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and shall be held liable to be treated as a "woman of the town plying her avocation", i.e., a prostitute. This order provoked protests both in the North and the South, and also abroad, particularly in England and France, and it was doubtless the cause of his removal from command of the Department of the Gulf on December 17, 1862. He was nicknamed "'Beast' Butler" or alternatively "'Spoons' Butler," the latter nickname derived for his alleged habit of pilfering the silverware of Southern homes in which he stayed.

Butler censored New Orleans newspapers. He closed The Picayune when it ran an editorial that he found offensive. Historian John D. Winters wrote that most of the newspapers "were allowed to reopen later but were so rigidly controlled that all color and interest were drained away" and that churches that planned a special day of prayer and fasting for the Confederacy were forbidden from doing so. Several clergymen were placed under arrest for refusing to pray for President Lincoln. The Episcopal churches were closed, and their three ministers were sent to New York City under military escort.[2]

On June 7, Butler had executed William B. Mumford, who had torn down a United States flag placed by Admiral Farragut on the United States Mint in New Orleans; for this execution, he was denounced (December 1862) by Confederate President Jefferson Davis in General Order 111 as a felon deserving capital punishment, who if captured should be reserved for execution.

Butler also took aim at foreign consuls in New Orleans, particularly George Coppell of Great Britain, whom he suspended for refusal to cooperate with the Union. Instead, Butler accused Coppell of giving aid to the Confederate cause. U.S. Secretary of State William Henry Seward sent Reverdy Johnson to New Orleans to investigate complaints of foreign consuls against certain Butler policies. Even when told by President Lincoln to restore a sugar shipment claimed by Europeans, Butler undermined the order. He also imposed a strict quarantine to protect against yellow fever, which had the added impact of delaying foreign commerce and bringing complaints to his headquarters from most foreign consuls.[3]

Army of the James[]

In November 1863, Butler commanded the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, and, in May 1864, the forces under his command were designated the Army of the James. He was ordered to attack in the direction of Petersburg from the east, destroying the rail links supplying Richmond and distracting Robert E. Lee, in conjunction with attacks from the north by Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had little use for Butler's military skills, but Butler had strong political connections that kept him in positions beyond his competence. Rather than striking immediately at Petersburg as ordered, Butler's offensive bogged down east of Richmond in the area called the Bermuda Hundred, immobilized by the greatly inferior force of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, and he was unable to accomplish any of his assigned objectives. But it was his mismanagement of the expedition against Fort Fisher, North Carolina, that finally led to his recall by General Grant.

Fort Fisher and the demise of Butler's military service[]

Butler's status as a key political ally of President Abraham Lincoln prevented General Grant from removing him from military service prior to the presidential election of November 1864. After the election, however, Grant wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in early 1865 asking free rein to relieve Butler from military service. Since Stanton was traveling outside Washington, D.C., at the time, Grant appealed directly to Lincoln for permission to terminate Butler. In General Order Number 1, Lincoln relieved Butler from command of the Department of North Carolina and Virginia and ordered him to report to Lowell, Massachusetts.[4]

Grant informed Butler on January 8, 1865, and named Maj. Gen. Edward O. C. Ord to replace him as commander of the Army of the James. The grounds given by Grant were vague, but Butler focused his defense on his failure to take Fort Fisher, and used his considerable political connections to get a hearing before the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War in mid-January 1865. At his hearing Butler produced charts and duplicates of reports by subordinates to prove he had been right to call off his attack of Fort Fisher, despite orders from General Grant to the contrary. Butler claimed the fort was impregnable. To his embarrassment, news of the fall of Fort Fisher came during the committee hearings—a follow-up expedition led by Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry captured the fort on January 15—and Butler's career was over.[4]

Postbellum political career[]

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Benjamin Franklin Butler

File:General Butler's Monument (Rear).jpg

Butler's memorial at the Hildreth family cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts

Butler was a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives from 1867 to 1875 and again in 1877 to 1879. Despite his pre-war allegiance as a Democrat, in Congress he was conspicuous as a Radical Republican in Reconstruction legislation, and wrote the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (Ku Klux Klan Act). Along with Republican Senator Charles Sumner, he proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, a seminal and far-reaching law banning racial discrimination in public accommodations. The law was declared unconstitutional, and racial minorities in the United States would have to wait nearly a century before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would revive, and expand, the provisions of the law Butler backed.

Butler was one of the managers selected by the House to conduct the unsuccessful trial of impeachment of President Johnson, before the Senate, opening the case and taking the most prominent part.

He exercised a marked influence over President Grant and was regarded as his spokesman in the House. He was one of the foremost advocates of the payment in greenbacks of the government bonds. During his time in the House, he served as chairman of the Committee on Revision of the Laws in the 42nd Congress and the Judiciary Committee in the 43rd Congress.

In 1872, Butler was among the several high-profile investors who were deceived by Philip Arnold in a famous diamond and gemstone hoax.

Butler ran unsuccessfully for governor of Massachusetts as an independent in 1878, and also, in 1879, when he ran on the Democratic and Greenback tickets, but, in 1882, he was elected by the Democrats, who won no other state offices. From 1883 to 1884, he was Governor of Massachusetts. As Governor, he appointed the first Irish-American judge, and the first African-American Judge—George Lewis Ruffin. He also appointed the first woman to executive office, Clara Barton, to head the Mass. Reformatory for Women. As presidential nominee of the Greenback and Anti-Monopoly parties, he polled 175,370 votes in the presidential election of 1884. He had bitterly opposed the nomination by the Democratic party of Grover Cleveland and tried to defeat him by throwing his own votes in Massachusetts and New York to the Republican candidate, James G. Blaine.

Butler's income as a lawyer was estimated at $100,000 per year shortly before his death. He was an able but erratic administrator, and a brilliant lawyer. As a politician, he excited bitter opposition, and was charged, apparently with justice, with corruption and venality in conniving at, and sharing, the profits of illicit trade with the Confederates carried on by his brother at New Orleans and by his brother-in-law in the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, while General Butler was in command.

Butler died while attending court in Washington, D.C.. He is buried in his wife's family cemetery, behind the main Hildreth Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts. His descendants include the famous scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr., suffragist and artist Blanche Ames Ames, Butler Ames, and George Plimpton.

See also[]


  1. Mississippi History Now: Union Soldiers on Ship Island During the Civil War
  2. Winters, p. 131.
  3. Winters, pp. 128-129
  4. 4.0 4.1 Foote, pp. 739-40.


External links[]

Template:Start box |- ! colspan="3" style="background: #CF9C65;" | Military offices

|- style="text-align: center;" |- style="text-align:center;" |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"|Preceded by
none |width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Commander of the Army of the James
April 28, 1864-January 8, 1865 |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"| Succeeded by
Edward Ord |- |- ! colspan="3" style="background: #cccccc" | United States House of Representatives Template:USRepSuccessionBox Template:USRepSuccessionBox Template:USRepSuccessionBox Template:S-off |- style="text-align: center;" |- style="text-align:center;" |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"|Preceded by
John D. Long |width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Governor of Massachusetts
January 4, 1883 – January 3, 1884 |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"| Succeeded by
George D. Robinson |- Template:S-ppo |- style="text-align: center;" |- style="text-align:center;" |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"|Preceded by
James Baird Weaver |width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Greenback Party presidential candidate
1884 (lost) |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"| Succeeded by
(none) |- |} Template:Governors of Massachusetts

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