Benjamin Butler

From New World Encyclopedia

Benjamin Franklin Butler
Benjamin Butler

33rd Governor of Massachusetts
In office
January 4, 1883 – January 3, 1884
Preceded by John Davis Long
Succeeded by George D. Robinson

Born November 5, 1818
Deerfield, New Hampshire, USA
Died January 11, 1893
Washington, D.C., USA
Political party Democrat, Republican, Greenback
Spouse Sarah Hildreth
Profession Politician, Lawyer, General

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 its governor. He is a highly noted controversial figure of the American Civil War. He was given jurisdiction over the Northern occupied city of New Orleans. His policies regarding slaves as "contrabands" caused great rift and rancor. His ineffectual leadership in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and the fiasco of Fort Fisher rank him as one of the most disregarded "political generals" of the war. He was widely reviled for years after the war by Southerners, who gave him the nickname "Beast Butler." After the war, Butler returned to politics and later retired to his personal endeavors in law and writing his memoirs until his death in 1893. On the one side, he did not hesitate to use his office to line his own pocket. On the other, he promoted women's suffrage, took a strong stand against the Ku Klux Klan and tried to assist the economically poor through various pieces of legislation. Perhaps his best and worst sides competed within his personality. He wanted to serve society but could not resist serving his own interests simultaneously.

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. His mother was Charlotte Ellison Butler. After the death of his father from yellow fever, his mother operated a boarding house in Lowell, Massachusetts. Butler completed Lowell high school in 1834. He attended Waterville College (now Colby College) in Maine and graduated in 1838. Butler's dreams of one day attending West Point were never fulfilled. 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 belonged to the Masons and the City Guard. 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 U.S. Army during the Civil War.[1]

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 in lieu of the standard fourteen-hour day. 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 convention of 1860 at Charleston, South Carolina, he advocated the nomination of Jefferson Davis (voting for him on the first fifty-seven 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.[2]

Civil War

Benjamin Franklin Butler

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 the Governor of Maryland 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. Lincoln appointed him the first major general of U.S. Volunteers, ranking from May 16, 1861.[2]

Assigned command of Fort Monroe in Virginia, Butler declined to return to their owners fugitive slaves who had come within his lines, on the grounds that, as laborers for fortifications, and so on, they were contraband of war, thereby justifying granting these slaves a relative freedom, in spite of the Fugitive Slave Law. The U.S. Congress later mandated that other Union commanders refuse to return slaves to their erstwhile masters. Butler resorted to tactics of spying and he was the first to test the new Gatling gun in battle. In the conduct of tactical operations, Butler was almost uniformly unsuccessful, and his first action at Big Bethel, Virginia, was a humiliating defeat for the Union Army. He had been attempting to take the Confederate capital at Richmond by way of the James River. He was also head of the Department of Virginia.[2]

Later, in 1861, Butler commanded an expeditionary force that, in conjunction with the U.S. Navy, took Forts Hatteras and Clark in North Carolina. In May 1862, he commanded the force that occupied New Orleans after it was captured by the Navy and turned over to him by Admiral David Glasgow Farragut. In the administration of that city he showed great firmness and severity. New Orleans was unusually healthy and orderly during the Butler regime. Butler was also responsible for preventing the ravishing effects of yellow fever for engulfing the city, as they had been known to in the past. He was adamant in inspecting ships coming into harbor for signs of disease.[3] 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," and "Spoons," for his alleged habit of pilfering the silverware of Southern homes in which he stayed.[2]

On June 7 he had executed one 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.[4]

After returning home to Lowell for a year, Butler was awarded command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina in November 1863, 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.

Butler would soon journey to Norfolk, Virginia to combat yellow fever here. Candidates for president, Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase and current president Abraham Lincoln south him as their vice president candidates in the election of 1864, but Butler decline both offers. He would spend election day in New York attempting to prevent riots like the one that broke out there in 1863 from taking place.[5]

Butler would go on to attempt the seizure of Wilmington, North Carolina in order to seal off the port there from Confederate ships. It was his mismanagement of the expedition against Fort Fisher, North Carolina, that finally led to his recall by General Grant in December. He resigned his commission on November 30, 1865. Attempting to capture the fort with the cooperation of the Navy ended with dismal results. A subsequent, second expedition on the fort not involving Butler proved successful.[5]

Postbellum political career

Benjamin Franklin Butler

Butler was a Republican Member of the U.S. 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 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.[5]

Butler was one of the managers selected by the House to conduct the unsuccessful trial of impeachment, before the Senate, of President Johnson, opening the case and taking the most prominent part in it.[5]

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 Committee on the Judiciary in the 43rd Congress.[5]

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 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.[5]

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 plot in Hildreth Cemetery, Lowell, Massachusetts. His descendants include the famous scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr., suffragist and artist Blanche Ames, Butler Ames, and George Plimpton.[5]


In his early days as a politician Butler was know for his support of labor reform issues, pushing for better conditions and pay. He was thought to promote a less positive agenda in the South during the Civil War, where he was depicted as a monster. Butler's policy regarding fugitive slaves as contraband was the first of its kind. The South was inflamed by this decision. Butler was considered a tyrant by the Confederacy. It was widely rumored that he was cruel and harsh in his measures to keep order, thus hatred was the general attitude of the South towards his person. This is attested to by the fact that he had a price placed on his head, levied by the president of the Confederacy himself.

Despite his criticisms, Butler did prove efficient in managing New Orleans while it was under his administrative control. Its economy and bureaucratic systems ran smoothly during the years of his tenure. Butler also imposed standards of cleanliness that drastically affected the spread of illness in disease-prone regions of the South.

On the battlefield, Butler proved inept. He would never be the kind of soldier that he had longed to one day become. To compensate for his shortcomings, espionage and innovative war machines were employed, but in the end Butler's ineptitude was flagrantly obvious and he was dismissed from the battlefield. He would return to his life in politics a man forever changed by his war experiences. In the coming years Butler would again push for liberal policies, most notably in regards to the condition of former slaves. His most famous piece of legislation was the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1871 which aimed to protect African Americans from racist attacks. He also promoted assistance to the poor, additional labor reform, female suffrage, and monetary reform, among other things.[5]


  1. Kathleen R. Zebley, "Benjamin Franklin Butler," in Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, eds. David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), 329.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Zebley, 330.
  3. Zebley, 330-331.
  4. Zebley, 330. It is also rumored that Butler aided Mumford's widow in securing employment some time after the execution of her husband.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Zebley, 331.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Butler, Benjamin F. The Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General B. F. Butler: Butlers Book..Boston: A. M. Thayer & Co., 1992. Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General B. F. Butler Retrieved August 27, 2019.
  • Catton, Bruce. The Coming Fury: The Centennial History of the Civil War, Volume 1. New York: Doubleday, 19961. ASIN B00DACZ9K6
  • Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0804736413
  • Parton, James. Ben Butler in New Orleans. Unknown Publisher, 1863.
  • Summers, Mark Wahlgren. Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion: The Making of a President, 1884. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
  • Trefousse, Hans Louis. Ben Butler;: The South Called Him Beast! London: Octagon Press, 1974.
  • Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964. ISBN 0807108227
  • Zebley, Kathleen R. "Benjamin Franklin Butler." In Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, 392-31. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. ISBN 039304758X
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved September 28, 2023.

Preceded by:
John B. Alley
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 5th congressional district

March 4, 1867 – March 3, 1873
Succeeded by: Daniel W. Gooch
Preceded by:
Nathaniel P. Banks
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 6th congressional district

March 4, 1873 – March 3, 1875
Succeeded by: Charles Thompson
Preceded by:
John K. Tarbox
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 7th congressional district

March 4, 1877 – March 3, 1879
Succeeded by: William A. Russell
Preceded by:
John D. Long
Governor of Massachusetts
January 4, 1883 – January 3, 1884
Succeeded by:
George D. Robinson
Preceded by:
James Baird Weaver
Greenback Party presidential candidate
1884 (lost)
Succeeded by:


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.