History seems to have forgotten Benjamin Franklin Butler (1818-1893), though he was one of the most colorful-and reviled—figures in American politics in his day. A brilliant lawyer from Massachusetts, Butler served in Congress for a number of years, but is best remembered for his Civil War leadership, and the enmity he earned at home and in Washington for his uncompromising views.
Butler was born on November 5, 1818, in Deerfield, New Hampshire. He was the sixth child of a father from whom he inherited his adventurous streak: John Butler captained a company of dragoons during the War of 1812, and later became a privateer-and possibly a pirate—plying the Caribbean seas. When he died of yellow fever on the island of St. Kitts, his ship and its contents were lost, and with it his family's financial resources. His mother eventually became proprietor of a boarding house for textile-mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts. As a boy, Butler was an eager student and avid reader. He was mesmerized by stories of some elderly neighborhood men who had fought in the Revolutionary War, and dreamed of a military career himself.
Charlotte Seelye Butler, however, hoped her son would become a minister. He was sent to Waterbury College (later renamed Colby College) in Maine instead of his first choice, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. But his experience at the strict Baptist-Calvinist college only increased his distaste for the religion, and he was happy to graduate in 1838. He decided to study law, and clerked at a Lowell practice, as was the custom before law schools came into being. For extra money, he taught at a small school for juvenile delinquents, and gained renown for his track record there in rehabilitating the boys. Admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1840, he began practicing in Lowell and quickly gained a reputation as a tenacious courtroom opponent. His business grew along with his formidable reputation, and he soon opened an office in Boston. Butler defended criminals and injured workers alike, and prepared the patent documents for Elias Howe's sewing machine with such thoroughness that the Singer Sewing Machine Company was later forced to pay Howe lifetime royalties.
Skilled Trial Lawyer
Butler married Sarah Hildreth, the daughter of a scholarly physician, on May 16, 1844. Hildreth was an accomplished actress who had appeared on the New York stage. They had one daughter and two sons. In 1845, the 27-year-old Butler was admitted to the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, making him possibly the youngest attorney to argue a case before the High Court. His earliest victory from this part of his career came when the owner of the famous Sutter's Mill, on whose property the California Gold Rush began in 1848, hired him. Butler won the case for the owner, who was given legal title to thousands of acres of land.
Butler was soon drawn into politics. An avowed Democrat in New England, he often found himself in conflict with the conservative Massachusetts establishment, who were usually Whigs or Know-Nothings, two precursors of the Republican Party. In 1853, Butler was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and advanced to a seat in the state Senate in 1859. He courted votes from the Roman Catholic minority in the state, and from the burgeoning labor movement centered around the textile industry in places like Lowell. He tried to introduce a bill mandating a ten-hour day at the mills, but was unsuccessful. In the Boston legislative chambers, Butler's debating skills brought him renown, for he was famous for unleashing biting ripostes upon his political foes.
Press Chronicled His Military Exploits
During the run-up to the 1860 presidential elections, Butler emerged as one of New England's more prominent politicians. He was a confirmed Andrew Jackson Unionist, and at the Democratic national convention that year opposed the party's favored nominee, Stephen Douglas. Butler argued instead for the nomination of Southern Democrat Jefferson Davis, and then gave his support to a New England faction that nominated John Breckinridge, vice president under incumbent James Buchanan. As a member of a national party that was bitterly divided over the slavery issue, Butler remained on the fence about the matter for a time. He provoked some in Massachusetts-an avowedly abolitionist state-by pointing out that the language of the Constitution did indeed protect the Southern states' rights to preserve what was termed "their peculiar institution."
Butler had been elected brigadier-general of militia of Massachusetts, and his regiment left Boston a few days after the first shots of the Civil War were fired in April of 1861. Over the next four years Butler became one of the most colorful personalities of the war, a name as well known at the time as those of generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, or Davis, who became the president of the Confederacy of seceded states. Butler's first great success came with finding a way around the Confederate navy's blockade of Washington. Butler and his forces landed at Annapolis and rebuilt the railroad into the city, thereby restoring a supply line to the Union capital. He was sent to occupy Baltimore for a time, then commanded Fortress Monroe, near Richmond, Virginia.
Refused to Return Escaped Slaves
It was here that Butler, with lawyerly practicality, settled one of the thorniest questions for the Union army: in the midst of war, slaves were escaping from their owners and crossing enemy lines to seek refuge. Most Union generals returned the slaves, who were simply considered property, to their owners. But when three came to Fortress Monroe, Butler fed them and put them to work. When a Confederate major arrived the next day with a truce flag to request their return-they belonged to one of his colonels-Butler refused, citing that the state of Virginia had seceded from the Union, and Butler was not obligated to obey the laws of a foreign country now. He declared the slaves contraband, or illegal goods, which enraged slave owners, since it gave the slaves a new legal status. It also gave the Union army a legal basis for providing them food and shelter. Soon, word spread and Butler's fort was sheltering nearly a thousand escaped slaves.
In the spring of 1862, Butler was named military governor for the city of New Orleans, which had recently been taken by Union ships. The population, under martial law, was unruly and hostile, and the business establishment there had flourished before its subjugation as one of the few ports from which trade with Europe was still possible. In order to avoid an outbreak of the fatal yellow fever that had killed his father, Butler took draconian steps to clean up the city, outlawing litter and pumping out the rudimentary sewer system. Still, New Orleans remained antagonistic, and Butler seemed to enjoy the near-autocratic powers his post allowed him. He did agonize, however, when he ordered the court-martial of a New Orleans man who had hauled down the U.S. flag at the symbolic U.S. Mint building, where the Confederate flag had recently flown. The rebel press hailed the man as a hero, and Butler ignored death threats on his own life and signed the death warrant. Years later, he intervened to help the family keep its house, and found a government job for the man's widow.
The Infamous Order No. 28
Though he was accused of financial misdeeds and drawn into potential scandals that seemed to be the work of his Washington enemies, Butler won praise for maintaining the peace in New Orleans, and his troops were considered impeccable in their demeanor, despite the fact that the spirited women of the city carried out a silent war against them. They held their handkerchiefs to their nose when a Union soldier passed, or lifted a skirt in an exaggerated manner; some made retching noises when Union soldiers were nearby, and finally one spat in a soldier's face. It was the last straw for Butler. He issued his famous Order No. 28: "When any female shall, by word, or gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States," it warned, "she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation." In other words, the woman would be arrested for prostitution and faced a night in jail. It made Butler one of the most hated men in the Rebel South, and even stirred somewhat of an international outcry, but no woman was ever arrested in New Orleans because of it.
Butler's experience in New Orleans made him a confirmed abolitionist. When his requests to Washington for troop reinforcements went unheeded, he raised three of his own regiments from New Orleans's freed black population. Enmity with Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, ended Butler's tenure as New Orleans military governor in December of 1862. He was sent to command captured districts in Virginia and North Carolina, and supervised a prisoner-of-war exchange program near the border. By early 1865, he was back in Massachusetts, and there was talk that he would be made Secretary of State. This ended with Lincoln's assassination in April of 1865.
Wanted to Erase the South
By this point Butler's political allegiances had moved from the Democratic Party to the newcomer Republican organization, but he became a member of that party's Radical faction. These politicians, bitter foes of the South, advocated civil rights for freed slaves, a trial of the Confederate leaders, and indefinite armed supervision of subdued rebel states. Butler himself went even further, arguing that the entire map of the South should be redrawn into administrative districts that would forever eradicate the states themselves. With the war's end, he retreated to some property he acquired on the Massachusetts shoreline near Gloucester. It was called Bay View for its proximity to Ipswich Bay, and he liked to camp there during the summer months with his sons while his wife and daughter stayed nearby. From this spot Butler decided to declare his residency and run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1866. He held the seat for four terms, though he eventually replaced the tent with a grand home.
Early in his congressional career, Butler was drawn into the impeachment proceedings against Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson. Johnson had defied Congress over the issue of Reconstruction; radicals like Butler wanted Congress to control the process of rehabilitating the Southern states, while Johnson claimed presidential authority in the matter. When the House voted to impeach him, it named Butler to serve as the lead speaker for the upcoming trial in the Senate. He delivered a two-hour speech from a brief prepared with his usual lawyerly precision that excoriated the President, but Johnson avoided impeachment by a single vote. Butler's last major Congressional battle, in early 1875, was the passage of a sweeping civil rights bill; instead it passed in severely truncated form, even permitting segregated schools, and was declared unconstitutional eight years later anyway.
Ran for President
Butler espoused the Greenback Party during his post-war career, too, and made it to Congress a final time in 1878 on that party's ticket. The Greenbacks, named for their support of a currency expansion program, allied with labor groups and pushed for a number of progressive causes, including women's suffrage and a graduated income tax. The country's banking and business interests vehemently opposed them. Butler himself was quite wealthy, having made prudent investments in land, a textile mill, railroads, and even a quarry. Still, he remained at odds with the Massachusetts establishment, though he managed to serve as governor for a one-year term after several tries. The job had no real executive power, but he did manage to appoint not only the state's first black judge, but its first Irish Catholic to the bench as well. Butler's last attempt at political office came when he made a bid for the presidency in 1884 after being nominated by the Anti-Monopoly party; he campaigned on a platform of national control of interstate commerce and the eight-hour day, and received 175,370 votes. On his way to Washington to argue a case before the Supreme Court, Butler contracted pneumonia and died in the city on January 11, 1893.
Dictionary of American Biography, American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.
Nolan, Dick, Benjamin Franklin Butler: The Damndest Yankee, Presidio, 1991.