Benjamin Butler (politician)

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Benjamin Butler
Benjamin Franklin Butler Brady-Handy.jpg
Portrait by Brady-Handy studio, 1870s
33rd Governor of Massachusetts
In office
January 4, 1883 – January 3, 1884
Lieutenant Oliver Ames
Preceded by John D. Long
Succeeded by George D. Robinson
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 5th, 6th & 7th district
In office
March 4, 1867 – March 4, 1875 (5th and 6th)
March 4, 1877 – March 4, 1879 (7th)
Preceded by John B. Alley (5th)
Nathaniel P. Banks (6th)
John K. Tarbox (7th)
Succeeded by Daniel W. Gooch (5th)
Charles P. Thompson (6th)
William A. Russell (7th)
Member of the
Massachusetts Senate
In office
Preceded by Arthur P. Bonney
Succeeded by Ephraim B. Patch
Personal details
Born Benjamin Franklin Butler
November 5, 1818
Deerfield, New Hampshire
Died January 11, 1893 (aged 74)
Washington, D.C.
Resting place Hildreth Family Cemetery
Lowell, Massachusetts
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Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Sarah Hildreth (1844–1876)
Children Paul I (1845-1850)
Paul II (1852-1918)
Signature Benjamin Butler (politician)'s signature
Military service
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Union Army
Rank Union army maj gen rank insignia.jpg Major General
Commands Department of Virginia
Department of the Gulf
Army of the James
Battles/wars American Civil War

Benjamin Franklin Butler (November 5, 1818 – January 11, 1893) was an American lawyer, politician and soldier. Born in New Hampshire and raised in Massachusetts, Butler served in the Massachusetts legislature and as an officer in the state militia. During the American Civil War, Butler served as a major general in the Union Army, in which he helped create the legal idea of effectively freeing fugitive slaves as contraband in service of military objectives. That initiative by Butler eventually led to a political groundswell to include general emancipation and slavery's destruction as official war goals for the Union. However, Butler also became a despised figure in the South during the Union occupation of New Orleans. After the war, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives from Massachusetts, and later served as the 33rd Governor of Massachusetts from 1883 to 1884.

In 1868, while serving in Congress, Butler had a prominent role in the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. As Chairman of the House Committee on Reconstruction, Butler authored the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, that gave federal authority to prosecute and destroy the Klan in the South.

Butler authored, along with Sen. Charles Sumner, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, signed into law by President Grant. This law, a final act of Reconstruction, gave African American US citizens the right to public accommodation such as hotels, restaurants, lodging, and public entertainment establishments.

Early life


Benjamin Franklin Butler was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire, the sixth and youngest child of John Butler and Charlotte Ellison Butler. His father served under General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 and later became a privateer, dying of yellow fever in the West Indies not long after Benjamin was born.[1] He was named after Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. His elder brother, Andrew Jackson Butler (1815–1864), would serve as a colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War and joined him in New Orleans.[2] Butler's mother was a devout Baptist who encouraged him to read the Bible and prepare for the ministry.[1] In 1827, at the age of nine, Butler was awarded a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy, where he spent one term. He was described by a schoolmate as "a reckless, impetuous, headstrong, boy", and regularly got into fights.[3]

Further education

Butler's mother moved the family in 1828 to Lowell, Massachusetts, where she operated a boarding house for workers at the textile mills. He attended the public schools there, from which he was almost expelled for fighting, the principal describing him as a boy who "might be led, but could not be driven."[4] He attended Waterville (now Colby) College in pursuit of his mother's wish that he prepare for the ministry, but eventually rebelled against the idea. In 1836 Butler sought permission to go instead to West Point for a military education, but did not receive one of the few places available. He continued his studies at Waterville, where he sharpened his rhetorical skills in theological discussions, and began to adopt Democratic political views. He graduated in August 1838.[5]

Law clerkship and studies

Butler returned to Lowell, where he clerked and read law as an apprentice with a local lawyer. He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1840, and opened a practice in Lowell. He quickly gained a reputation as a dogged criminal defense lawyer who seized on every misstep of his opposition to gain victories for his clients, and also became a specialist in bankruptcy law.[6] His trial work was so successful that it received regular press coverage, and Benjamin expanded his practice into Boston.[7]


After an extended courtship, he married Sarah Hildreth, a stage actress and daughter of Dr. Israel Hildreth of Lowell, on May 16, 1844. They had four children: Paul (1845–1850), Blanche (1847-1939), Paul (1852-1918) and Ben-Israel (1855-1881).[8] Butler's business partners included Sarah's brother Fisher, and her brother-in-law, W. P. Webster.[9]

Entry into politics

Butler's success as a lawyer enabled him to purchase shares in Lowell's Middlesex Mill Company when they were cheap.[10] Although he generally represented workers in legal actions, he also sometimes represented mill owners. This adoption of both sides of an issue manifested when he became more politically active. He first attracted general attention by advocating the passage of a law establishing a ten-hour day for laborers,[11] but he also opposed labor strikes over the matter. He instituted the ten-hour day at the Middlesex Mills.[12]

During the debates over the ten-hour day a Whig-supporting Lowell newspaper published a verse suggesting that Butler's father had been hanged for piracy. Butler sued the paper's editor and publisher for that and other allegations that had been printed about himself. The editor was convicted and fined $50, but the publisher was acquitted on a technicality. Butler blamed the Whig judge, Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, for the acquittal, inaugurating a feud between the two that would last for decades and significantly color Butler's reputation in the state.[13]

Butler, as a Democrat, supported the Compromise of 1850 and regularly spoke out against abolition. However, at the state level, he supported the coalition of Democrats and Free Soilers that elected George S. Boutwell governor in 1851. This garnered him enough support to win election to the state legislature in 1852.[12] His support for Franklin Pierce as president, however, cost him the seat the next year. He was elected a delegate to the 1853 state constitutional convention with strong Catholic support, and was elected to the state senate in 1858 (a year dominated by Republican victories in the state).[14] Butler was nominated for governor in 1859 and ran on a pro-slavery, pro-tariff platform; he narrowly lost to incumbent Republican Nathaniel Prentice Banks.[10][15]

In the 1860 Democratic National Convention at Charleston, South Carolina, Butler initially supported John C. Breckinridge, but then shifted his support to Jefferson Davis, believing that only a moderate Southerner could keep the Democratic party from dividing. A conversation he had with Davis prior to the convention convinced him that Davis might be such a man, and he gave him his support before the convention split.[16] Butler ended up supporting Breckinridge over Douglas against state party instructions, ruining his standing with the state party apparatus. He was nominated for governor in the 1860 election by a Breckinridge splinter of the state party, but trailed far behind other candidates.[17]

Civil War

Although he sympathized with the South, Butler stated that "I was always a friend of southern rights but an enemy of southern wrongs", and sought to serve in the Union army.[18] His military career prior to the Civil War began as a private in the Lowell militia in 1840.[19] Butler eventually rose to become colonel of a regiment of primarily Irish American men. In 1855, the nativist Know Nothing Governor Henry J. Gardner disbanded Butler's militia, but Butler was elected brigadier general after the militia was reorganized. In 1857 Secretary of War Jefferson Davis appointed him to the Board of Visitors of West Point.[20] These positions did not give him any significant military experience.[21]

During the American Civil War, Butler served as a major general in the Union Army. His policies regarding slaves as contraband so they could be treated as free men, his administration of occupied New Orleans, 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. Butler was the first Eastern Union General to declare runaway Virginia slaves "contraband of war"; refusing to return them to their masters.[22] He was widely reviled for years after the war by Southern whites, who gave him the nickname "Beast Butler." Although considered a hostile Union Army general while commanding New Orleans, Butler, through his Christian charity, made efforts to care for the poor and needy, giving $1,000 of his personal money to purchase food for those who were starving.[23] As all business activity was shut down, Butler gave railroad and steam loading permits to operators, relieving the city of starvation.[24] Butler received permission from the city to employ the poor to clean up the streets and under the supervision of Col. T.B. Thorpe, a million dollars of land was added to the state from the Mississippi River deposits.[25] At the request of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Butler was relieved of duty on January 8, 1865 having failed to capture Fort Fisher.[26]


After Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November 1860, Butler traveled to Washington, D.C. When a secessionist South Carolina delegation arrived there, he recommended to lame duck President James Buchanan that they be arrested and charged with treason. Buchanan refused the idea. Butler also met with Jefferson Davis, and learned that he was not the Union man that Butler had previous thought he was. Butler then returned to Massachusetts,[27] where he warned Governor John A. Andrew that hostilities were likely, and that the state militia should be readied. He took advantage of this mobilization to secure a contract with the state for his mill to supply heavy cloth to the militia. Military contracts would constitute a significant source of profits for Butler's mill throughout the war.[28]

Petitioning for military leadership appointment

Butler also worked to secure a leadership position should the militia be deployed. He first offered his services to Governor Andrew in March 1861.[28] When the call for militia finally arrived in April, Massachusetts was asked for only three regiments, but Butler managed to parlay this to include a request for a brigadier. He telegraphed Secretary of War Simon Cameron, with whom he was acquainted, suggesting that Cameron issue a request for a brigadier and general staff from Massachusetts, which soon afterward appeared on Governor Andrew's desk. He then used banking contacts to ensure that loans that would be needed to fund the militia operations would be conditioned on his appointment. Despite Andrew's desire to assign the brigadier position to Ebenezer Peirce, the bank insisted on Butler, and he was sent south to ensure the security of transportation routes to Washington.[29][30] The nation's capital was threatened with isolation from non-slave states because it was unclear whether Maryland, a slave state, would also secede.[31]

1861: Baltimore and Virginia operations

Engraving depicting the Baltimore riot of 1861

The two regiments Massachusetts sent to Maryland were the 6th and 8th Volunteer Militia. The 6th departed first, and was caught up in a secessionist riot in Baltimore, Maryland on April 19. Butler traveled with the 8th, which left Philadelphia the next day amid news that railroad connections around Baltimore were being severed.[32] Butler and the 8th traveled by rail and ferry to Maryland's capital, Annapolis, where Governor Thomas H. Hicks attempted to dissuade them from landing.[33] Butler landed his troops (which needed food and water), occupying the Naval Academy. When Governor Hicks informed Butler that no one would sell provisions to his force, Butler pointed out that armed men did not necessarily have pay for needed provisions, and that he would use all measures necessary to ensure order.[34] After being joined by the 7th New York Militia, Butler directed his men to restore rail service between Annapolis and Washington via Annapolis Junction,[35] which was accomplished by April 27. He also threatened Maryland legislators with arrest if they voted in favor of secession, and eventually seized the Great Seal of Maryland. Butler's prompt actions in securing Annapolis were received with approval by the US Army's top general, Winfield Scott, and he was given formal orders to maintain the security of the transit links in Maryland.[36] In early May, Scott ordered Butler to lead the operations that occupied Baltimore. On May 13 he entered Baltimore on a train with 1,000 men and artillery against no opposition.[37] This was done in contravention to Butler's orders from Scott, which had been to organize four columns to approach the city by land and sea. General Scott criticized Butler for his strategy (despite its success), as well as his heavy-handed assumption of control of much of the civil government, and recalled him to Washington.[38] Butler shortly after received one of the early appointments as major general of the volunteer forces.[31] His exploits in Maryland also brought nationwide press attention, including significant negative press in the South, which concocted stories about him that were conflations of biographical details involving not just Butler, but also a namesake from New York and others.[39]

Fort Monroe, Virginia

When two Massachusetts regiments had been sent overland to Maryland, two more were dispatched by sea under Butler's command to secure Fort Monroe at the mouth of the James River.[31] After being dressed down by Scott for overstepping his authority, Butler was next assigned command of Fort Monroe and of the Department of Virginia.[40] On May 27, Major General Butler sent a force 8 miles (13 km) north to occupy the lightly defended adjacent town of Newport News, Virginia at Newport News Point, an excellent anchorage for the Union Navy. This force established and significantly fortified Camp Butler and a battery at Newport News Point that could cover the entrance to the James River ship canal and the mouth of the Nansemond River. By May 29, Butler's force, which included the 1st Vermont Infantry, Colonel John A. Bendix's 7th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment (a regiment of German speakers), the 4th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Scott's Life Guards, and a detachment of U.S. Regulars to man artillery, completed the mission.[41] On June 8, the camp, which was commanded by Colonel Phelps of the 1st Vermont Infantry, was reinforced by the 9th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Hawkin's Zouaves).[42] Butler also further occupied and expanded Camp Hamilton, started by Colonel Dimick in the equally lightly defended, adjacent town of Hampton, Virginia, just beyond the confines of the fort and within the range of its guns.[43]

Contemporary drawing of military movements in the Battle of Big Bethel, by Alfred Waud

The Union occupation of Fort Monroe was considered a potential threat on Richmond by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and he began organizing the defense of the Virginia Peninsula in response.[44] Confederate General John B. Magruder, seeking to buy time while awaiting men and supplies, established well-defended forward outposts near Big and Little Bethel, only 8 miles (13 km) from Butler's camp at Newport News as a lure to draw his opponent into a premature action.[45] Butler took the bait, and suffered an embarrassing defeat in the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10. Butler devised a plan for a night march and operation against the positions, but chose not to lead the force in person, for which he was later criticized.[46] The plan proved too complex for his untrained and undertrained subordinates and troops to carry out, especially at night, and was further marred by the failure of staff to communicate all passwords and precautions. A friendly fire incident during the night gave away the Union position and they were further harmed by advancing without knowledge of the layout or strength of the Confederate positions.[47] The commander in the field, Massachusetts militia general Ebenezer Peirce, received the most criticism for the failed operation.[48] With the withdrawal of many of his men for use elsewhere, Butler was unable to maintain the camp at Hampton although his forces did retain the camp at Newport News.[49]

Map of Fort Monroe, 1862

While in command at Fort Monroe, Butler declined to return to their owners fugitive slaves who had come within his lines. He argued that Virginians considered them to be chattel property, and that they could not appeal to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 since they claimed independence. Furthermore, slaves used as laborers for building fortifications and other military activities could be considered contraband of war.[50] The U.S. Congress later mandated that other Union commanders refuse to return slaves to their former masters, using similar arguments. Butler promptly received official approval for his decision from President Lincoln.

New Orleans

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.[51] In May 1862, he commanded the force that conducted the capture of New Orleans after its occupation by the Navy after the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip. In the administration of that city he showed great firmness and political subtlety. He devised a plan for relief of the poor, demanded oaths of allegiance from anyone who sought any privilege from government, and confiscated weapons.[18]


However, Butler's subtlety seemed to fail him as the military governor of New Orleans when it came to dealing with its Jewish population, about which the general, referring to local smugglers, infamously wrote, in October 1862: "They are Jews who betrayed their Savior, & also have betrayed us." Indeed, Butler was considered "notorious for his anti-Semitism."[52]

Successful public health management of yellow fever outbreak

In an ordinary year, it was not unusual for as much as 10% of the city's population to die of yellow fever. In preparation, Butler imposed strict quarantines and introduced a rigid program of garbage disposal. As a result, in 1862, only two cases were reported.[53]

Occupation of Southern towns and cities: difficulties

File:General Benjamin Butler Brady-Handy.jpg
Portrait of Butler in his Union Army uniform, Brady-Handy 1862–1865

Many of his acts, however, were highly unpopular. Most notorious was Butler's General Order No. 28 of May 15, 1862, 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 was in response to various and widespread acts of overt verbal and physical abuse from the women of New Orleans, including cursing at and spitting on Union soldiers and pouring out chamber pots on their heads from upstairs windows when they passed in the street (with Admiral David Farragut being perhaps the most notable victim of a chamberpot attack).

There was no overt sexual connotation in Butler's order, but its effect was to revoke the protected status held by women under the social mores of the time, which mandated that any "respectable" woman (i.e., a non-prostitute) be treated with the extra degree of respect due a lady, regardless of their own provocations.[18] Under General Order 28, however, if a woman showed any form of insult or contempt towards a Union soldier (even so much as turning her back when he approached or refusing to answer his questions), the usual social standards no longer applied, and she could be retaliated against (either verbally or physically) as if she were a common prostitute. The order produced the desired effect, as few women proved willing to risk retaliation simply to protest the Union presence;[18] but it was seen as extremely draconian by everyone except the Union soldiers in New Orleans, and provoked general outrage in both the North and the South, as well as abroad, particularly in England and France.

He was nicknamed "Beast Butler" or alternatively "Spoons Butler," the latter nickname deriving primarily from an incident in which Butler seized a 38-piece set of silverware from a New Orleans woman attempting to cross the Union lines.[54] Although the woman's pass permitted her to carry nothing but clothing on her person (making her carriage of the silverware illegal), the single set of silverware would have normally been considered protected personal valuables, and Butler's insistence on prosecuting the woman as a smuggler and seizing the silverware as wartime contraband under his dictate of confiscating all property of those "aiding the Confederacy" provoked angry jeers from white residents of New Orleans and the much-repeated perception that he used his power to engage in the petty looting of the household valuables of treasonous New Orleanians.[18]

Questions about financial dealings

These negative perceptions were compounded by Butler's own questionable financial dealings, as well as the activities of his brother Andrew, who acted as Butler's financial proxy and was given "almost free rein" to engage in exploitative business deals and other "questionable activities" in New Orleans.[18] Upon arriving in the city, Butler immediately began attempts to participate in the lucrative inter-belligerent trade. He used a Federal warship to send $60,000 in sugar to Boston where he expected to sell it for $160,000. However, his use of the government ship was reported to the military authorities, and Butler was chastised. Instead of earning a profit, military authorities permitted him to recover only his $60,000 plus expenses. Thereafter, his brother Andrew officially represented the family in such activities. Everyone in New Orleans believed that Andrew accumulated a profit of $1–$2 million while in Louisiana. Upon inquiry from Treasury Secretary Chase in October 1862, the General responded that his brother actually cleared less than $200,000.[55] Nonetheless, when General Butler was replaced in New Orleans by Major General Nathaniel Banks, Andrew Butler unsuccessfully tried to bribe General Banks with $100,000 if Banks would permit Andrew's "commercial program" to be carried out "as previous to [Banks's] arrival."[56]

In November 1863, Butler was given command of the district that included Norfolk, Virginia where he remained the district commander until January 1865. Historian Ludwell Johnson concluded that during that period: "... there can be no doubt that a very extensive trade with the Confederacy was carried on in [Butler's Norfolk] Department. . . . This trade was extremely profitable for Northern merchants . . . and was a significant help to the Confederacy. . . . It was conducted with Butler's help and a considerable part of it was in the hands of his relatives and supporters." [57]

Shortly after arriving in Norfolk, Butler became surrounded by such men. Foremost among them was Brigadier General George Shepley, who had been military governor of Louisiana. Butler invited Shepley to join him and "take care of Norfolk." After his arrival, Shepley was empowered to issue military permits allowing goods to be transported through the lines. He designated subordinate George Johnston to manage the task. In fall 1864, Johnston was charged with corruption. However, instead of being prosecuted, he was allowed to resign after saying he could show "that General Butler was a partner in all [the controversial] transactions," along with the general's brother-in-law Fisher Hildreth. Shortly thereafter, Johnston managed a thriving between-the-lines trade depot in eastern North Carolina. There is no doubt that Butler was aware of Shepley's trading activities. His own chief of staff complained about them and spoke of businessmen who "owned" Shepley. Butler took no action.[58]

Much of Butler-managed Norfolk trade was via the Dismal Swamp Canal to six northeastern counties in North Carolina separated from the rest of the state by Albemarle Sound and the Chowan River. Although cotton was not a major crop, area farmers purchased bales from the Confederate government and took them through the lines where they would be traded for "family supplies." Generally, the Southerners returned with salt, sugar, cash, and miscellaneous supplies. They used the salt to preserve butchered pork, which they sold to the Confederate commissary. After Atlantic-blockaded ports such as Charleston and Wilmington were captured, this route supplied about ten thousand pounds of bacon, sugar, coffee, and codfish daily to Lee's army. Ironically, Grant was trying to cut off Lee's supplies from the Confederacy when Lee's provender was almost entirely furnished from Yankee sources through Butler controlled Norfolk.[59]

Grant also wrote, "Whilst the army was holding Lee in Richmond and Petersburg, I found . . . [Lee] . . . was receiving supplies, either through the inefficiency or permission of [an] officer selected by General Butler . . . from Norfolk through the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal."[60]

Butler's replacement, Major General George H. Gordon, first served several months as a subordinate when he observed: "The control of the entire [Norfolk] region . . . was exercised by Butler. He made the laws and administered them, dealt out justice and inflicted punishment, levied fines and collected taxes. An enormous fund said...was created, of which Butler disposed of as he pleased. Under the permissive power of martial law he managed every movement of every person in his department."[61]

Upon assuming command, Gordon was appalled at the evidence swiftly discovered disclosing how trade at Norfolk aided the Confederacy. Reports were circulating that $100,000 of goods daily left Norfolk for Rebel armies. Grant instructed Gordon to investigate the prior trading practices at Norfolk. The result was a sixty-page indictment of Butler and his cohorts. It concluded that Butler associates, such as Hildreth and Shepley, were responsible for supplies from Butler's district pouring "directly into the departments of the Rebel Commissary and Quartermaster." Some Butler associates sold permits for a fee[62]

After Lincoln's assassination, most of his political adversaries nearly silenced their criticism of the martyred president. Similarly, Gordon's report received little publicity owing to the end of the war and discoveries that reflected unfavorably on Lincoln's policies.[63]

Cotton seizures

Shortly after the Confiscation Act of 1862 became effective in September General Butler increasingly relied upon it as a means of grabbing cotton. Since the Act permitted confiscation of property owned by anyone "aiding the Confederacy," Butler reversed his earlier policy of encouraging trade by refusing to confiscate cotton brought into New Orleans for sale. First he conducted a census in which 4,000 respondents failing to pledge loyalty to the Union were banished and their property seized. It was sold at ridiculously low auction prices where Andrew was often the prime buyer. Next the general sent expeditions into the countryside with no military purpose other than to confiscate cotton from residents assumed to be disloyal. Once brought into New Orleans the cotton would be similarly sold in rigged auctions. To maintain correct appearances, auction proceeds were dutifully held for the benefit of "just claimants", but the Butler consortium still ended-up owning the cotton at bargain prices. Always inventive of new terminology to achieve his ends, Butler sequestered (i.e. made vulnerable to confiscation) such "properties" in all of Louisiana beyond parishes surrounding New Orleans.[64]

At his death, Butler's net worth was about $7 million. One historian is quoted as saying, "The source of his fortune is a mystery, but much of it came from New Orleans..."[65]

Censorship of city papers during occupation of New Orleans

Butler censored New Orleans newspapers. When editor of the Commercial Bulletin William Seymour asked Butler what would happen if the newspaper ignored his censorship, an angry Butler reportedly stated, "I am the military governor of this state — the supreme power — you cannot disregard my order, Sir. By God, he that sins against me, sins against the Holy Ghost." When Seymour published a favorable obituary of his father, who had been killed serving in the Confederate army in Virginia, Butler confiscated the newspaper and imprisoned Seymour for three months.[18] He also 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.[66]

Execution of William Mumford

On June 7 Butler executed William B. Mumford, who had torn down a United States flag placed by Admiral Farragut on the United States Mint in New Orleans. Most, including Mumford and his family, expected Butler to pardon him; the general refused, but promised to care for his family if necessary. (After the war Butler fulfilled his promise, paying off a mortgage on Mumford's widow's house and helping her find government employment.)[18] For the execution and General Order No. 28 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.

Actions against foreign consuls

Butler also took aim at foreign consuls in New Orleans. He ordered the seizure of $800,000 that had been deposited in the office of the Dutch consul, imprisoned the French champagne magnate Charles Heidsieck, and took particular aim at 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.[67]

Handling of people escaping slavery

With the Federal occupation, runaway slaves and slaves from abandoned plantations arrived in large numbers in New Orleans. These unattached persons had to be fed and housed. A Union officer complained of "a big problem" with the new arrivals. John D. Winters wrote that "Soldiers resented the fact that the pampered Negro was given better tents, equal rations, and was allowed to tear down more fences for sleeping boards than were the soldiers. General Phelps [an abolitionist] had organized a few squads of Negroes and drilled them daily. ... Not knowing what to do with so many Negroes, Butler at first returned the runaway slaves to their masters. But still the contrabands came. Some of them were employed as cooks, nurses, washwomen, and laborers. ... [Finally] Butler ordered ... the exclusion of all unemployed Negroes and whites from his lines."[68]

Political allegiances within the Northern Union administration

Although Butler's governance of New Orleans was popular in the North (where it was seen as a successful stand against recalcitrant secessionists), some of his actions, notably those against the foreign consuls, concerned President Lincoln, who authorized his recall in December 1862.[69] Butler was replaced by Nathaniel P. Banks.[70] The necessity of taking sometimes radical actions, and the support he received in Radical Republican circles drove Butler to change political allegiance. He also sought revenge against the more moderate Secretary of State Seward, who he believed to be responsible for his eventual recall.[71]

Army of the James

Butler's popularity with the radicals meant that Lincoln could not readily deny him a new posting. Lincoln considered sending him to position in the Mississippi River area in early 1863, and categorically refused to send him back to New Orleans.[72] He finally gave Butler command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina in November 1863. In January 1864 Butler played a pivotal role in the creation of six regiments of U.S. Volunteers recruited from among Confederate prisoners of war ("Galvanized Yankees") for duty on the western frontier.[73] In May, the forces under his command were designated the Army of the James.

United States Colored Troops

General Butler also commanded a number of United States Colored Troops regiments which he deployed in combat during the Battle of Chaffin's Farm (sometimes also called the Battle of New Market Heights). The troops performed extremely well, and in the case of the 38th United States Colored Troops regiment, who had overcome overwhelming fire, heavy casualties and thick physical obstacles to overwhelm a more powerful force, he awarded a number of men the Medal of Honor. He also ordered a special medal designed and struck and awarded to 200 African-American soldiers who had served with distinction in the engagement. This was later called the Butler Medal.

Petersburg assault

Ulysses S. Grant, who did not think highly of Butler's military skills, ordered him 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 Grant would make from the north. 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 Butler's recall

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.[74] As a prominent Radical Republican, Butler was also under consideration as a possible opponent of Lincoln in that year's election,[75] and Lincoln had asked Butler to serve as his Vice President in early 1864.[74] 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,[74] Grant appealed directly to Lincoln for permission to terminate Butler, noting "there is a lack of confidence felt in [Butler's] military ability".[76] 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.[74]

Grant informed Butler of his recall on January 8, 1865, and named Major General Edward O. C. Ord to replace him as commander of the Army of the James.[74] Rather than report to Lowell, Butler went to Washington, where he used his considerable political connections to get a hearing before the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War in mid-January. At his hearing Butler focused his defense on his actions at Fort Fisher. He 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, a follow-up expedition led by Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry captured the fort on January 15, and news of this victory arrived during the committee hearing; Butler's military career was over.[74] He was formally retained until November 1865 with the idea that he might act as military prosecutor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.[77]

Postbellum political career

At the urging of his wife, Butler actively sought another political position in the Lincoln administration, but this came to an end with Lincoln's assassination in April 1865.[78] Butler instead turned his eyes to Congress, and was elected in 1866 on a platform of civil rights and opposition to President Andrew Johnson's weak Reconstruction policies. He supported a variety of populist or social reform positions, including women's suffrage, an eight-hour workday for federal employees, and the issuance of greenback currency.[79] He served four terms (1867–75) before losing reelection, and was then once again elected in 1876 for a single term.

In 1868 Butler was selected to be one of the managers of the impeachment of President Johnson before the Senate.[80][81] Although Thaddeus Stevens was the principal guiding force behind the impeachment effort, he was aging and ill at the time, and Butler stepped in to become the main organizing force in the prosecution. The case was focused primarily on Johnson's removal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in violation of the Tenure of Office Act, and was weak because the constitutionality of the law had not been decided. The trial was a somewhat uncomfortable affair, in part because the weather was hot and humid, and the chamber was packed. The prosecution's case was a humdrum recitation of facts already widely known, and it was attacked by the defense's William Evarts, who drowned the proceedings by repeatedly objecting to Butler's questions, often necessitating a vote by the Senate on whether or not to allow the question. Johnson's defense focused on the point that his removal of Stanton fell within the bounds of the Tenure of Office Act. Despite some missteps by the defense, and Butler's vigorous cross-examination of defense witnesses, the impeachment failed by a single vote. In the interval between the trial and the Senate vote, Butler searched without success for substantive evidence that Johnson operatives were working to bribe undecided Senators.[82] After acquittal on the first article voted on,[83] Senate Republicans voted to adjourn for ten days, seeking time to possibly change the outcome on the remaining articles. During this time, Butler established a House committee to investigate the possibility that four of the seven Republican Senators who voted for acquittal had been improperly influenced in their votes. He uncovered some evidence that promises of patronage had been made and that money may have changed hands but was unable to decisively link these actions to any specific Senator.[84]

Butler wrote the initial version of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act). After his bill was defeated, Representative Samuel Shellabarger of Ohio drafted another bill, only slightly less sweeping than Butler's that successfully passed both houses and became law upon Grant's signature on April 20.[85][81] Along with Republican Senator Charles Sumner, Butler proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, a seminal and far-reaching law banning racial discrimination in public accommodations.[86] The Supreme Court of the United States declared the law unconstitutional in the Civil Rights Cases (1883). Racial minorities in the United States would have to wait nearly a century before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would reenact and expand the provisions of the law Butler backed.

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 US House Committee on Revision of the Laws in the 42nd Congress and the Judiciary Committee in the 43rd Congress.

Butler was a wealthy industrialist who founded the United States Cartridge Company of Lowell, Massachusetts.[87] In 1872, Butler was one of 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 Massachusetts 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.[citation needed]

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

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. His daughter Blanche married Adelbert Ames, a Mississippi governor and senator who had served as a general in the United States Army during the Civil War. Butler's descendants include the famous scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr., suffragist and artist Blanche Ames Ames, Butler Ames, and George Plimpton.


The inscription on Butler's monument reads, "the true touchstone of civil liberty is not that all men are equal but that every man has the right to be the equal of every other man - if he can."

Butler is credited with beginning the tradition of the "lone walk", the ceremonial exit from the office of Governor of Massachusetts, after finishing his term in 1884.[88]

After the war, there was a very lucrative business in selling "Beast Butler" chamber pots. In the South, even to this day, he is a much hated figure.

Since 2004, a "Benjamin F. Butler Society" has met at the Hildreth family cemetery in early November to celebrate the birthday of General Butler, and to replace the American flag that flies over the cemetery with a new one. This is the only time of year the family plots, behind two locked gates and fenced off from the public cemetery, are open to the public.[89]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 West (1965), pp. 8–9
  2. LAW REPORTS.; The Will of Col. A. J. Butler. Surrogate's Court--May 31..., New York Times, 1 June 1864
  3. West (1965), pp. 9–10
  4. West (1965), pp. 10–13
  5. West (1965), pp. 13–16
  6. West (1965), pp. 17–23
  7. West (1965), p. 27
  8. Hearn (2000), p. 13
  9. West (1965), pp. 25, 27
  10. 10.0 10.1 Hearn (2000), p. 19
  11. Hearn (2000), p. 14
  12. 12.0 12.1 Quarstein (2011), p. 29
  13. West (1965), pp. 32–35
  14. Hearn (2000), p. 18
  15. Dupree (2008), p. 11
  16. Hearn (2000), p. 20
  17. Hearn (2000), p. 21
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 18.5 18.6 18.7 Jones, Terry L. (2012-05-18). "The Beast in the Big Easy". The New York Times. Retrieved May 19, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. West (1965), p. 20
  20. West (1965), pp. 41–42
  21. Wells (2011), p. 40
  22. Finkleman (2006), Encyclopedia of African American History, p. 277
  23. Bland (1879), Life of Benjamin F. Butler, p. 87
  24. Bland (1879), Life of Benjamin F. Butler, pp. 87–88
  25. Bland (1879), Life of Benjamin F. Butler, p. 89
  26. Catton (1969), Grant Takes Command, pp. 402–403
  27. Hearn (2000), p. 23
  28. 28.0 28.1 Hearn (2000), p. 24
  29. Hearn (2000), p. 25
  30. Quarstein (2011), p. 31
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 Wells (2011), p. 34
  32. West (1965), pp. 51–53
  33. West (1965), p. 54
  34. West (1965), p. 57
  35. West (1965), pp. 58–60
  36. West (1965), p. 61
  37. West (1965), pp. 65–70
  38. West (1965), pp. 65, 70–73
  39. West (1965), p. 76
  40. West (1965), pp. 72–74
  41. Lossing, Benson John and William Barritt.Pictorial history of the civil war in the United States of America, Volume 1. Philadelphia, George W. Childs, 1866. OCLC 1007582. Retrieved May 1, 2011. pp. 501–502
  42. Quarstein and Mroczkowsi (2000), pp. 38–40
  43. Lossing (1866), p. 502
  44. Quarstein (2011), p. 38
  45. Quarstein (2011), p. 62
  46. Quarstein and Mroczkowski (2000), p. 48
  47. Lossing (1866), p. 505
  48. Poland, Jr., Charles P. The Glories Of War: Small Battles and Early Heroes Of 1861. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006. ISBN 1-4184-5973-9. pp. 232–233
  49. Quarstein and Mroczkowski (2000), p. 49
  50. Quarstein (2011), p. 53
  51. Mississippi History Now: Union Soldiers on Ship Island During the Civil War
  52. Sarna; Shapell, Jonathan D; Benjamin (March 2015). Lincoln and the Jews: A History (First ed.). New York, NY: St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books. p. 143. ISBN 9781250059536. Retrieved 10 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  53. Robert S. Holtzman, "Ben Butler in the Civil War," The New England Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Sep. 1957), pp. 330–345
  54. William Dana Orcutt, "Ben Butler and the 'Stolen Spoons,' North American Review, CCVII, 66 (January, 1918).
  55. Hearn (1997), pp. 194, 195
  56. Ludwell Johnson "Red River Campaign" (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1993) p. 52
  57. Ludwell Johnson "Contraband Trade During the Last Year of the Civil War" Mississippi Valley Historical Review Vol. 91 No. 4 (March 1963) p. 646
  58. Ludwell Johnson "Contraband Trade During the Last Year of the Civil War" pp. 643 - 645
  59. Philip Leigh Trading With the Enemy' (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2014) p. 99'
  60. The Record of Benjamin Butler From Original Sources(Boston: Pamphlet, 1883) p. 13
  61. Frederick A. Wallace Civil War Hero George H. Gordon(Charleston, SC: History Press, 2011) p. 98
  62. Frederick A. Wallace Civil War Hero George H. Gordon(Charleston, SC: History Press, 2011) p.101; Robert Futrell "Federal Trade With the Confederate States" PhD dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1950 p. 441
  63. Philip Leigh Trading With the Enemy' (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2014) p. 100
  64. Hearn (1997), pp. 185–187
  65. Hearn (1997), p. 240
  66. Winters (1963), p. 131
  67. Winters (1963), pp. 128–129
  68. Winters (1963), p. 143
  69. Trefousse (1969), p. 242
  70. Trefousse (1969), p. 281
  71. Trefousse (1969), pp. 281–282
  72. Trefousse (1969), pp. 242–244
  73. Brown (1985), pp. 65–67
  74. 74.0 74.1 74.2 74.3 74.4 74.5 Foote, pp. 739–740
  75. Trefousse (1969), pp. 294–295
  76. West (1965), p. 291
  77. West (1965), pp. 312–313
  78. West (1965), p. 320
  79. West (1965), p. 321–325
  80. Stewart, p. 159
  81. 81.0 81.1 Schlup-Ryan (2003), Historical Dictionary of the Gilded Age, p. 73
  82. Stewart, pp. 181–218
  83. Stewart, pp. 273–278
  84. Stewart, pp. 280–294
  85. Trelease, Allen (1971). White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. pp. 387ff. ISBN 0-8071-1953-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  86. Rucker-Alexander (2010), Encyclopedia of African American History, p. 669–700
  87. "U.S. Cartridge Company" (PDF). Lowell Land Trust. Retrieved 2013-02-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  88. "A Tour of the Grounds of the Massachusetts State House". Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Retrieved June 8, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  89. Lowell MA event Nov 1st - Find A Grave Forums


  • Brown, Dee (1985) [1963]. The Galvanized Yankees. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-6075-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Butler, Benjamin F. The Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General B. F. Butler: Butlers Book. New York: A. M. Thayer & Co., 1892.
  • Catton, Bruce. The Centennial History of the Civil War. vol. 1, The Coming Fury. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961. ISBN 0-641-68525-4.
  • Dupree, Stephen (2008). Planting the Union Flag in Texas: The Campaigns of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks in the West. College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press. ISBN 9781585446414. OCLC 153772989.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 3, Red River to Appomattox. New York: Random House, 1974. ISBN 0-394-74913-8.
  • Hearn, Chester (2000) [1997]. When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 9780807126233. OCLC 45756792.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lossing, Benson John and William Barritt. Pictorial history of the civil war in the United States of America, Volume 1. Philadelphia, George W. Childs, 1866. OCLC 1007582. Retrieved May 1, 2011.
  • Parton, James. Butler in New Orleans. New York: Mason Brothers, 1863.
  • Poland, Jr, Charles P (2006). The Glories Of War: Small Battles and Early Heroes Of 1861. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse. ISBN 1-4184-5973-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Quarstein, John V; Mroczkowski, Dennis P (2000). Fort Monroe: the Key to the South. Charleston, SC: Tempus Publications. ISBN 978-0-7385-0114-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Quarstein, John V (2011). Big Bethel: The First Battle. Charleston, SC: History Press. ISBN 9781609493547. OCLC 710903915.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Stewart, David (2009). Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781416547495.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Trefousse, Hans L (1957). Ben Butler: The South Called Him Beast!. New York: Twayne. OCLC 371213.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Trefousse, Hans L (1969). The Radical Republicans: Lincoln's Vanguard for Racial Justice. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. OCLC 170051.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Wells, Bruce (2011). The Bermuda Hundred Campaign: The Creole and the Beast. Charleston, SC: History Press. ISBN 9781609493141. OCLC 755712553.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • West, Richard Sedgewick (1965). Lincoln's Scapegoat General: A Life of Benjamin F. Butler, 1818–1893. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. OCLC 241783.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Winters, John D (1963). The Civil War in Louisiana. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-0834-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  • Holzman, Robert S. Stormy Ben Butler. Macmillan, 1954.
  • Nash, Jr., Howard P. Stormy Petrel: The Life and Times of General Benjamin F. Butler, 1818–1893. Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1969.
  • Nolan, Dick. Benjamin Franklin Butler: The Damnedest Yankee. Novato, California: Presidio Press.
  • Summers, Mark Wahlgren. Rum, Romanism & Rebellion: The Making of a President, 1884. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0-8078-2524-2.
  • Warner, Ezra J (1964). Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-0822-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Werlich, Robert. "Beast" Butler: The Incredible Career of Major General Benjamin Butler. Quaker Press, 1962.

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
Commander of the Army of the James
April 28, 1864 – January 8, 1865
Succeeded by
Edward Ord
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
John B. Alley
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 5th congressional district

March 4, 1867 – March 4, 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 4, 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 4, 1879
Succeeded by
William A. Russell
Political offices
Preceded by
John D. Long
Governor of Massachusetts
January 4, 1883 – January 3, 1884
Succeeded by
George D. Robinson
Party political offices
Preceded by
James Baird Weaver
Greenback Party presidential candidate
1884 (lost)
Succeeded by
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