Who Was Ben Butler?
Benjamin Franklin Butler (Nov. 5, 1818 – Jan. 11, 1893) was truthfully more of a
civilian and politician than a military man. Born in New Hampshire and raised in Massachusetts, he was a successful lawyer who left a somewhat controversial Civil War legacy. Butler was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1840 and served terms in both the House of Representatives and Senate of the Commonwealth during the 1850s. Despite having had no formal military training, he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General of the Massachusetts Militia in 1855. In 1859, Butler had voted for Jefferson Davis to be the next President of the United States. He was a Democrat but also believed in the supremacy of the Constitution of the United States. He therefore was eager to lend his services to the aide of Washington, D.C. and the Union cause.
By April of 1861, tensions were extremely high: Fort Sumter had been captured by rebel forces, eight southern states had seceded from the Union, and it was feared that Maryland, a slave state surrounding the capital city, would secede as well. In May, General Butler and his troops from Massachusetts were some of the first to come to the defense of Washington, D.C. Butler had stationed his troops in Baltimore to help prevent any further riots from occurring (a violent clash between civilians with Confederate flags who attacked Federal troops on April 19th had resulted in the deaths of nine civilians and four soldiers). On May 14th, Butler, now in charge of the Department of Annapolis, issued a proclamation stating, “no flag, banner, ensign, or device of the so-called Confederate States, or any of them, will be permitted to be raised or shown in this department.”
President Lincoln promoted Butler to the rank of Major General and gave him command of Fortress Monroe, Virginia. By May 24th, Butler made his first major decision of the war. He decided to hold, as contraband of war, three slaves who had escaped to the fort in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He argued that if slaves were property used as tools in armed efforts against the United States by the southerners, then Union forces had the authority to capture said property. In Butler’s mind, if the states in rebellion chose not to obey the laws of the United States, why should they, or any other foreign country, be guaranteed protection under those same laws? His decision to consider slaves contraband added the fate of slavery into the wartime conversation.
After the Fortress Monroe Decision, Butler got his first taste of battle (and defeat) at the Battle of Big Bethel. However, Butler did secure a military victory later by moving into New Orleans and occupying the city after it had surrendered to Admiral David Farragut. On May 15th, 1862, Butler issued General Orders No. 28, which declared that “any female, by word, gesture, or movement, who insults or shows contempt for any officer of the U.S. shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.” This order earned him the nickname “Beast Butler”, and his portrait appeared on the bottom of New Orleans chamber pots. This order, and other controversial treatment of foreign envoys, made awkward political predicaments for President Lincoln. Butler was removed from his position in December of 1862 and by late 1863 was given command of the Army of the James (otherwise known as the Department of Virginia and North Carolina).
Failure followed Butler through his final command. After losing a major engagement at
Fort Fisher, North Carolina, and ordering his 1,000 troops to retreat from their position without official authorization, Butler was relieved of command, and formally resigned from the Union Army in November 1865.
Butler’s post-war years were spent in politics, advocating for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson and attempting to pass sweeping Reconstruction and civil rights reforms. He served in the United States Congress (1867-1875, 1877-1879), was Governor of Massachusetts between 1883 and 1884, ran unsuccessfully as a presidential candidate in 1884, and eventually died at age 74.
Butler’s legacy is mixed. He was indeed a somewhat abrasive man and socially offensive. He also had no military victories for the Union to his name. But he did help slaves escape their southern masters, paving the way for employment and freedom under the flag of the United States. He also attempted to keep law and order in New Orleans (whether he went too far is up for debate still). In his defense, most criticism of Butler comes out of the Southern narrative of the war, which isn’t always a true account of events. Butler was once recorded as having said, “I was always a friend of southern rights but an enemy of southern wrongs.” In fact, he was a patriot and true Unionist and should be remembered more for his good deed at Fort Monroe than his wartime failures.
By: Will Sullivan