Benjamin Butler was a Massachusetts politician and Union officer who fought for the rights of workers and African-Americans. Following several terms in the state legislature, Butler became an officer for the Union Army. More of an administrator than a combat commander, his tenure during the war was marked with controversy. At the end of the war, he became a Radical Republican and leader in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.
Benjamin Franklin Butler was born the youngest of six children to John and Charlotte Butler, in Deerfield, New Hampshire. John served under General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in 1812 and Benjamin wanted a life in the military. His mother, a devout Baptist, wanted him to be a minister, but the headstrong Benjamin eventually decided on the law after graduating from Colby College, in 1838.
Benjamin Butler was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1840 and quickly gained a reputation as a tenacious lawyer in criminal and bankruptcy law. In 1844, he married Sarah Hildreth, an accomplished actress. The couple would go on to have three children,
In 1852, Benjamin Butler was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives where he vigorously supported the labor movement and unsuccessfully pushed for a 10-hour work day. During this time, Butler entered politics. Though mostly ambivalent toward slavery, he strongly supported states’ rights and was often at odds with his fellow abolitionist legislators. At the 1860 Democratic Convention, Butler opposed party favorite Stephen Douglas in favor of Jefferson Davis for President. He eventually supported then-Vice President John Breckenridge.
In the run-up to the Civil War, Benjamin Butler was appointed a Major General by President Abraham Lincoln. Over the next four years, he would become one of the most colorful personalities of the war, marked by an erratic command, mercurial personality, and controversial actions.
Civil War Experience
In the war’s first few months, Butler found success by evading the Confederate blockade around Washington, D.C. and rerouting supply lines between the District and northern cities. He was transferred to Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, where he became the first Union commander to identify runaway slaves as “contraband of war”, refusing to return them to their masters. He lost his first military encounter at Big Bethel, in a prelude to the First Battle of Bull Run. Afterword he commended a company that took Forts Hatteras and Clark, in North Carolina.
Trouble in New Orleans
In August, 1862, Benjamin Butler was transferred to New Orleans after the city surrendered to Union Admiral David G. Farragut, earlier in April. Soon controversy surrounded his command. He quickly brought order to the unruly city by providing relief to the poor, demanding oaths of allegiance, censoring the newspapers, and confiscating weapons. Attempting to avoid a sanitary disaster, he had the sewage system cleaned up and issued strict orders on garbage removal. To counter the harassment Union soldiers experienced at the hands of many New Orleans women, Butler issued General Order 28, which stated that any woman who insulted or showed disrespect for a soldier of the United States would be treated as a prostitute.
Probably his most controversial act was to order the execution of a man who had torn down the United States flag. He reportedly regretted giving the order and later arranged financial support for the man’s widow. For this and all his other provocative actions, Butler was given the nickname “Beast Butler.” Butler’s New Orleans experience turned him into an ardent abolitionist.
Benjamin Butler was relieved of his duties in New Orleans in December, 1862, allegedly for confiscating a woman’s silverware, which he considered contraband. It’s more likely, he was considered unfit to command by some of his political enemies in Washington who disagreed with his tactics and pugnacious manner.
Later War Years
During the rest of the war, Butler was given command of Virginia and North Carolina where he played a pivotal role in building six regiments of U.S. volunteers including Confederate prisoners of war. He also commanded several regiments of African American troops who saw action in the Battle of New Market Heights and served with distinction. Butler was not as successful in the battles of Petersburg and Fort Fisher and was finally recalled by General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865. His combat failures and a growing reputation as an embezzler of military funds led to his resignation from the military.
Post War Experience
After the war’s end, Benjamin Butler entered the U.S. House of Representatives as a Radical Republican, supporting harsh Reconstruction measures against the South. He later played a lead role in the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. He supported the election of Ulysses S. Grant in the 1868 election and then turned to support a number of social reform measures including women’s suffrage and an eight-hour work day.
Retiring from Congress, Benjamin Butler returned to Massachusetts and after two attempts was elected governor in 1882. He later returned to private life and expanded his business interests to make him a wealthy man. Still working as a lawyer, he was on his way to Washington D. C. to argue a case before the Supreme Court, when he contracted pneumonia and died on January 11, 1892.
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