Benjamin Franklin Butler was born on November 5, 1818, at Deerfield, in southeastern New Hampshire, approximately seventy miles north of Boston, Massachusetts. He was the youngest of John Butler and Charlotte Ellison Butler’s three children. Butler’s father served as a captain of dragoons during the early part of the War of 1812 before suffering a severe leg injury that ended his army career. Unwilling to allow his injury to curtail his military exploits, the elder Butler raised a crew and became a privateer during the latter stages of the conflict. After the war, Butler’s father continued his privateering in the West Indies. He died there of yellow fever in 1819, leaving his family in poverty.
Following his father’s death, young Butler went with his mother and stepsister to live with an uncle on a small farm at Nottingham, New Hampshire. As a youngster, Butler attended primary school at Nottingham Square, where he learned to read. Later, he earned a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter New Hampshire.
In 1828, Butler moved with his mother to Lowell, Massachusetts, where she operated a boarding house for workers at the textile mills. There, Butler continued his education in public schools. After finishing his studies at Lowell High School, Butler failed in his efforts to receive a much-desired appointment to the United States Military Academy. Instead, he enrolled at Waterville College, where he gradually rebelled against his mother’s desire that he become a clergyman. Butler instead focused his studies on chemistry and graduated in August 1838.
Early Professional Life
After graduation, Butler returned to Lowell, where he secured a clerkship in the office of William Smith as Butler studied law. While living there, in 1839, he served briefly as the headmaster of a local academy in Dracut, a town adjoining Lowell.
In Dracut, Butler met his future wife Sarah Hildreth, daughter of Dr. Israel Hildreth. In 1839, Butler also enlisted as a private in the Massachusetts militia. In 1840, Butler passed his bar examination and began practicing law in Lowell. He soon became successful at his craft and expanded his practice to nearby Boston.
In 1843, Butler traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, to see Sarah Hildreth perform as an actress. He proposed to her. Five years later, on May 16, 1844, the two married at Lowell. The couple remained married for thirty-three years until Sarah’s death in 1877. Their marriage produced four children.
As Butler’s success as an attorney grew, he became active in politics as a member of the Democratic Party. Like many Democrats, he supported the Compromise of 1850 and opposed abolition. In 1852, voters elected Butler to a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He spent most of his term, which began in 1853, fighting discriminatory policies advanced by members of the Know-Nothing Party. He also supported labor reform legislation, including adoption of the ten-hour workday. In 1858, voters elected Butler to serve in the state senate. One year later, Democrats nominated Butler as their candidate for governor of Massachusetts, but incumbent Republican Governor Nathaniel Prentice Banks soundly defeated him.
1860 Presidential Election
In 1860, Democrats selected Butler as a delegate to the party’s national convention at Charleston, South Carolina. Butler initially supported Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas as the party’s presidential nominee on the first seven ballots. When Douglas did not receive enough votes to secure the nomination, Butler swung his support to future Confederate President Jefferson Davis on the next fifty-seven ballots. When the Democratic Party split after failing to nominate a presidential candidate, Butler later supported Kentucky Senator John C. Breckinridge at a second convention held in Baltimore.
By 1860, Butler had risen to the rank of brigadier-general in the Massachusetts Militia, even though he had no military experience. When President Abraham Lincoln issued his call for volunteers following the beginning of the American Civil War, Butler quickly responded. In contrast with his pro-Southern sympathies, Butler allegedly stated in an oft-cited (but perhaps apocryphal) pronouncement, that “I was always a friend of southern rights but an enemy of southern wrongs.” Butler used his political and financial influence to secure an appointment to command the 8th Massachusetts Militia Regiment. On April 25, 1861, Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott placed Butler in command of the Department of Annapolis and ordered him south for the defense of Washington, DC.
Crisis in Baltimore
As Butler’s men traveled south via ships, pro-secession forces in Maryland threatened to cut off rail service between the nation’s capital and the North. Butler responded by landing his troops at Annapolis and declaring that a state of martial law existed in Baltimore. Reinforced by the 7th New York, Butler’s men reopened the rail route through Baltimore and prevented the isolation of Washington. Although Scott had not authorized Butler’s actions, he and a grateful President Lincoln rewarded Butle with a promotion to the rank of major-general, effective May 16, 1861. Scott also placed Butler in command of the Department of Eastern Virginia, headquartered at Fort Monroe, at the mouth of the James River opposite Norfolk, on the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula.
Fort Monroe Doctrine Contraband
Two weeks later, on May 23, 1861, three Virginia slaves, Frank Baker, Sheppard Mallory, and James Townsend, commandeered a rowboat and escaped during the night to the Federally controlled fort. When an agent for the slave-owner later arrived at the fort and demanded their return as mandated by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Butler refused. In his response, on May 27, sometimes referred to as the “Fort Monroe Doctrine,” Butler argued that the Fugitive Slave Act “did not affect a foreign country, which Virginia claimed to be.” Butler declared that, because the Confederacy had used the three slaves to support their war effort, he considered them to be “contraband of war” as provided by international law. In effect, the three men became property of the United States government.
Butler’s predicament and subsequent solution illustrate the ambiguity that existed regarding the status of captured or escaped slaves after the American Civil War began. Like other early American insurrections, many people expected Southern secession to be short-lived. As a result, neither Congress nor the War Department had formed a policy regarding fugitive and captured slaves by the time the three escapees landed at Fort Monroe. On August 16, Congress rectified the situation by enacting the Confiscation Act of 1861 (later known as the First Confiscation Act), which codified Butler’s decision. President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law on the same day.
Confusion in the Field
Shortly after rendering his contraband decision, Butler set out to address the buildup of Confederate outposts at Big and Little Bethel near Fort Monroe. On June 9, 1861, Butler dispatched 4,400 Federal soldiers in two columns on a night march toward the Rebel outposts. On the morning of June 10, when the two columns converged, they mistook each other for the enemy and opened fire, killing several of their own men and alerting the nearby Greycoats of their presence. After regrouping, the Yankees resumed their march. Rebel forces commanded by Colonel John B. Magruder and Colonel D.H. Hill easily repulsed several direct assaults, sending the Federals fleeing back to Fort Monroe by early afternoon. Critics later blamed Butler for not personally leading the operation.
Capture of Fort Hatteras
On August 17, Scott placed General John E. Wool, of the regular army, in charge of Fort Monroe. Scott also reduced Butler’s command to the volunteer regiments outside of the fort. A few days later, Butler led an expeditionary force that launched successful assaults, in alliance with the navy, and captured Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark in North Carolina, on August 28-29, 1861. Butler’s success enabled the United States to use the Hatteras Inlet as a staging area for incursions into the interior of the Carolinas later in the war.
Military Governor of New Orleans
On April 29, 1862, U.S. Navy Flag Officer David G. Farragut captured the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. The War Department appointed Butler as the military governor of New Orleans, and on May 1, he entered the city with 5,000 Federal soldiers.
Butler’s tenure in New Orleans was replete with controversy. When woman residents of the city disrespected Union soldiers on the streets of New Orleans, Butler issued General Order No. 28, on May 15, 1862, which declared that “when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation” (in other words, a prostitute).
On June 7, Butler had Southern sympathizer William Mumford hanged for tearing down a U.S. flag flying over a government building in New Orleans.
On June 10, 1862, Butler aroused the wrath of foreign dignitaries stationed in New Orleans by issuing General Order No. 41, which required that “all foreigners claiming any of the privileges of an American citizen, or protection or favor from the Government of the United States” swear an oath that they would not aid the Confederacy. Later,
Butler censored local newspapers and imprisoned at least one editor.
He also ordered the arrest of clergymen who refused to prey for President Lincoln.
In contrast to his pious concerns for the president’s soul, Butler allegedly took part in smuggling confiscated Southern cotton for his personal gain and pilfered household items of New Orleans residents. Although authorities never charged or convicted him for these acts, local citizens frequently referred to Butler as “Spoons,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the disappearance of personal silverware.
Butler’s infamy went beyond New Orleans or Louisiana. Throughout the Confederacy, Butler was so reviled that many Southerners referred to him as “Beast Butler” or, more succinctly, as “the Beast.” President Jefferson Davis went so far as to issue General Order, No. 111 on December 24, 1862, labeling his former political supporter as “a felon deserving of capital punishment,” and “an outlaw and common enemy of mankind.” Davis stated that Southerners ever captured Butler, the much-despised general should “be immediately executed by hanging.”
Relieved of Command
Despite the popularity of Butler’s policies among Northerners, especially Radical Republicans, President Lincoln had enough after five months of the controversial governor’s rule. On November 9, 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton issued General Order No. 184, placing Major General Nathaniel P. Banks in command of the Department of the Gulf, including Louisiana. Butler acted as though he still governed New Orleans until December 14, 1862, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase informed him that Banks was in charge.
Department of Virginia Commander
After meeting with President Lincoln in Washington and failing to get his recall reversed, Butler returned to Lowell where he continued to lobby for reinstatement. Possibly because of his newly established popularity with radical elements of the Republican Party, Butler broke with the Democratic Party. As support for Butler within the president’s party mounted, Lincoln finally reassigned Butler to command the Department of Virginia and North Carolina in November 1863.
Bermuda Hundred Campaign
By May, Butler was in the field again leading his new command, the Army of the James. During that month, he led a series of mostly unsuccessful attacks near the town of Bermuda Hundred, Virginia. The primary goal of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign was to support Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign against Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Butler’s aim was to sever the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, hindering Lee’s efforts to thwart Grant. Consistently using much smaller forces, Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard not only prevented Butler from cutting the railroad, he bottled up the Army of the James on the Virginia Peninsula for the rest of May, rendering it nearly useless for Grant’s larger operations.
On June 9, 1864, Butler dispatched nearly 4,500 soldiers from the Army of the James against Petersburg from the east. At that time, only about 2,500 local militiamen (most of whom were old men and young boys) commanded by Beauregard guarded Petersburg. Despite being outnumbered, Beauregard repulsed Butler’s force at the Battle of Petersburg I, also known as the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys.
One week later, on June 15, Grant kicked off his Petersburg Campaign by ordering Butler’s army to cross the Appomattox River and to launch a second assault against Petersburg. Butler’s army of 16,000 soldiers outnumbered Beauregard’s defenders, which now totaled about 5,400 men. Beauregard benefitted when Butler’s indecision delayed the operation. Over the course of the next two days, the total number of troops involved swelled to almost 62,000 Yankees and nearly 42,000 Rebels. Once again, the smaller Confederate force prevailed, holding off the Union onslaught at the Second Battle of Petersburg, prompting Grant to call off the assault and to focus on cutting off Richmond’s supply lines instead.
In late September, Grant launched yet another strike at Richmond, this time to serve as a diversion for his simultaneous movement to extend his lines south of Petersburg. Once again, he chose Butler’s Army of the James to lead the Richmond offensive. Preparations for the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights began during the night of September 28-29, 1864. By 5 a.m., September 29, all of Butler’s force was across the Appomattox River and poised to attack. Launching simultaneous attacks against New Market Heights, east of the Confederate capital, and the area near Chaffin’s Farm, southeast of Richmond, Butler’s men sustained heavy casualties but achieved their objective of drawing Rebel defenders away from the Petersburg area, thus enabling Grant to move against the South Side Railroad, southwest of Petersburg.
First Battle of Fort Fisher
In December 1864, Grant ordered Butler to lead two corps of his army in an assault on Fort Fisher, which guarded the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last major Atlantic seaport. Operating in cooperation with Rear Admiral David D. Porter, Butler troops began landing near the fort following a naval bombardment of over 10,000 shells. After establishing a beachhead, Butler decided that the bombardment had not sufficiently damaged the fort enough to capture it, so he called off the operation, incurring Grant’s wrath.
Relieved of Command Again
Lacking confidence in Butler’s leadership, Grant appealed to President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton for authorization to replace Butler. On January 7, 1865 Stanton issued General Order Number 1, which stated in part that “By direction of the President of the United States, Major General Benjamin F. Butler is relieved from the command of the Department of North Carolina and Virginia.” Butler traveled to Washington and used his political influence to gain an audience before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. After the committee did not vindicate him, Butler proceeded home to Massachusetts to await further orders, which never came. On November 30, 1865, Butler resigned his commission in the volunteer army.
Following the war, Butler resumed his political career. In 1866, voters from the Massachusetts 5th Congressional District elected Butler to a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Reelected three times, Butler served in the 40th through the 43rd Congresses from March 4, 1867 through March 4, 1875. During his tenure, Butler supported the Reconstruction policies of Radical Republicans. A harsh critic of President Andrew Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction policies, Butler was an active participant in the President’s impeachment, and he served as a leading prosecutor during Johnson’s trial in the Senate.
In 1870, Butler, along with Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, co-sponsored legislation that guaranteed African Americans equal treatment in public accommodations, public transportation, and prohibited their exclusion from jury service. The proposal languished in Congress for five years before being enacted as the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 1883.
In January 1871, Butler introduced a bill that empowered the President to suspend the right of habeas corpus in cases involving the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups. The House narrowly defeated Butler’s proposal but passed an amended version introduced by Ohio Congressman Samuel Shellabarger in April. President Grant signed the legislation known as the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (also known as the Enforcement Act of 1871, or the Ku Klux Klan Act) on April 20, 1871.
Throughout Butler’s tenure in Congress, he also championed women’s suffrage, workplace reform, paper money, and other populist crusades. Butler lost his bid for reelection in 1874, but he was a successful candidate in 1876, representing the 7th Congressional District in the 45th Congress from March 4, 1877 to March 4, 1879.
Governor of Massachusetts
In 1878 and 1879, Butler made unsuccessful bids for the governorship of Massachusetts. By 1882, however, Butler had undergone another political conversion, and a coalition of members of the Democratic Party and the Greenback Party elected him to the office. Butler served one term as governor of Massachusetts, from January 4, 1882 to January 3, 1883. In November 1882, he lost his bid for reelection.
Unsuccessful Presidential Candidate
In 1884, the Anti-Monopoly Party and the Greenback Party nominated Butler as their presidential candidate. Despite having the endorsement of two parties, Butler received less than two percent of the votes cast (134,294 of 10,049,754) in the November election and finished a distant fourth to Democrat Grover Cleveland.
Return to Private Life
Following his defeat in the presidential election of 1884, Butler left the public arena and returned to his lucrative law practice. He also served as president of the highly profitable United States Cartridge Company, which he founded in 1869.
Butler continued to argue cases in court until the end of his life. He died at Washington, DC on January 11, 1893, from heart failure brought about by a case of pneumonia. Butler was buried in Hildreth Cemetery, Lowell, Massachusetts.