Benjamin Butler — Facts and APUSH Notes

November 5, 1818–January 11, 1893

APUSH Definition — Benjamin Butler (1818–1893) was an officer in the United States Army during the Civil War. He was also a United States Congressman and Governor of Massachusetts.

General Benjamin F Butler, Portrait

A prominent Union officer, Major General Benjamin F. Butler also served as a United States Congressman and as Governor of Massachusetts after the American Civil War. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Who was Civil War officer Benjamin Butler?

When the Civil War began, Benjamin Butler used his considerable political influence to secure an appointment to command the 8th Massachusetts Militia Regiment in the Union Volunteer Army. 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, D.C. After Butler’s men prevented Southerners from isolating the nation’s capital, a grateful President Abraham Lincoln rewarded Butler with a promotion to the rank of major general. A few weeks later, Butler declared that captured slaves would be considered “contraband of war” and property of the United States government. On August 16, Congress upheld Butler’s dictum by enacting the Confiscation Act of 1861. A week later, Butler led an expeditionary force that captured Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark in North Carolina, enabling the United States to use the Hatteras Inlet as a staging area for incursions into the interior of the Carolinas later in the war.

After naval forces captured New Orleans on April 29, 1862, the War Department appointed Butler as the military governor of New Orleans. Butler’s tenure in New Orleans was replete with controversy. On May 15, 1862, Butler issued an order stating that female residents of the city who showed contempt for Union soldiers would be treated as prostitutes. A few weeks later he had a Southern sympathizer hanged for tearing down a U.S. flag flying over a government building in New Orleans. Butler censored local newspapers and imprisoned at least one editor. 

He also ordered the arrest of clergymen who refused to pray for President Lincoln. Finally, Butler allegedly took part in smuggling confiscated Southern cotton for his personal gain and pilfered household items of New Orleans residents. Butler was so reviled that many Southerners referred to him as “the Beast.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis labeled Butler as “a felon deserving of capital punishment.” After five months of Butler’s controversial actions, President Lincoln relieved him of command. Afterward, Butler served in Virginia commanding the Army of the James where he took part in the Bermuda Hundred and Petersburg campaigns. Following a failed assault on Fort Fisher in North Carolina, Ulysses S. Grant had Butler relieved of command once again. Butler spent the rest of the war in Massachusetts awaiting orders which never came.

Benjamin F Butler, Fugitive Slaves, Fortress Monroe
Benjamin Butler and the fugitive slaves at Fortress Monroe. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Benjamin Franklin Butler Facts for APUSH

Birth and Early Life

  • Full Name: His full name was Benjamin Franklin Butler.
  • Parents: His parents were John and Charlotte (Ellison) Butler.
  • Date of Birth: He was born on November 5, 1818.
  • Birthplace: He was born in Deerfield, in southeastern New Hampshire, about 70 miles north of Boston.

Family Tree

  • Spouse: He was married to Sarah Hildreth in 1844.

Death

  • Death: He died on January 11, 1893.
  • Place of Death: He died in Washington, DC.
  • Burial: He is buried at Hildreth Cemetery, Lowell, Massachusetts.

Education

He attended Waterville College and graduated in 1838.

Career

He worked as a lawyer, politician, and military officer.

Career Summary

He was a Major General (USVA), Army of the James commander, Governor of Massachusetts, and U.S. Congressman.

Nickname

He was known as “Spoons” and “Beast Butler.”

Benjamin Butler — Summary of His Life and Accomplishments APUSH

  • Benjamin F. Butler was the youngest of John Butler and Charlotte Ellison Butler’s three children.
  • Benjamin F. Butler’s father was a captain of dragoons during the early part of the War of 1812 and as a privateer during the latter stages of the conflict.
  • Benjamin F. Butler’s father died there of yellow fever in 1819, leaving his family in poverty.
  • Benjamin F. Butler graduated from Waterville College in August 1838.
  • In 1839, Benjamin F. Butler enlisted as a private in the Massachusetts militia.
  • In 1840 Butler passed his bar examination and began practicing law in Lowell, Massachusetts.
  • Benjamin F. Butler married Sarah Hildreth on May 16, 1844. The couple remained married for thirty-three years, until her death in 1877. Their marriage produced four children.
  • In 1852 voters elected Benjamin F. Butler to a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
  • In 1858 voters elected Benjamin F. Butler to serve in the Massachusetts state senate.
  • In 1859, Democrats nominated Benjamin F. Butler as their candidate for governor of Massachusetts, but he was soundly defeated by incumbent Republican Governor Nathaniel Prentice Banks.
  • At the Democratic Party’s first national convention in 1860, Benjamin F. Butler initially supported the presidential nomination of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, but later switched his support to future Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
  • At the Democratic Party’s second national convention in 1860, Benjamin F. Butler supported the presidential nomination of Kentucky Senator John C. Breckinridge.
  • By 1860, Benjamin F. Butler had risen to the rank of brigadier-general in the Massachusetts Militia, despite the fact that he had no military experience.
  • After the Civil War began, Benjamin F. 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 Benjamin F. Butler in command of the Department of Annapolis.
  • In April 1861, Benjamin F. Butler declared martial law in Baltimore, Maryland and reopened rail connections with the north.
  • Benjamin F. Butler was promoted to the rank of major-general, effective May 16, 1861, and placed in command of the Department of Eastern Virginia, headquartered at Fort Monroe.
  • On May 27, 1861, Benjamin F. Butler issued his “Fort Monroe Doctrine,” proclaiming runaway or captured slaves to be “contraband of war” making them property of the United States government.
  • Benjamin F. Butler’s “Fort Monroe Doctrine,” was codified by Congress on August 16, 1861, in legislation known as the Confiscation Act of 1861 (or the First Confiscation Act).
  • On June 9-10, 1861, Benjamin F. Butler’s troops were defeated at the Battle of Big Bethel in what some historians consider to be the first major battle of the Civil War fought on Virginia soil.
  • On August 28-29, 1861, forces commanded by Benjamin F. Butler captured Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark in North Carolina.
  • In May 1862, Benjamin F. Butler was appointed as military governor of New Orleans.
  • On May 15, 1862, Benjamin F. Butler issued General Order No. 28, which declared that female residents of New Orleans who disrespected Union soldiers were to be treated as prostitutes.
  • On June 7, Benjamin F. Butler had Southern sympathizer, William Munford, hanged for tearing down a U.S. flag flying over a government building in New Orleans.
  • On June 10, 1862 Benjamin F. Butler aroused the wrath of foreign dignitaries stationed in New Orleans by issuing General Order No. 41, which required them to swear an oath that they would not aid the Confederacy.
  • While serving as military governor of New Orleans, Benjamin F. Butler censored local newspapers and imprisoned at least one editor.
  • While serving as military governor of New Orleans, Benjamin F. Butler ordered the arrest of clergymen who refused to pray for President Lincoln.
  • While serving as military governor of New Orleans, Benjamin F. Butler allegedly participated in smuggling confiscated Southern cotton for his personal gain, and pilfering household items of New Orleans residents. He was never charged or convicted of these acts.
  • New Orleans’s citizens contemptuously referred to Benjamin F. Butler as “Spoons,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to Butler’s alleged participation in the theft of silverware from the New Orleans homes.
  • Throughout the Confederacy, Benjamin F. Butler was so hated that many Southerners generally referred to him as “Beast Butler,” or more succinctly as “the Beast.”
  • On December 24, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued General Order 111, labeling Benjamin F. Butler as “a felon deserving of capital punishment,” as well as “an outlaw and common enemy of mankind.” Davis went on to state that in the event of Butler’s capture, the much reviled general should “be immediately executed by hanging.”
  • 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, thus relieving Benjamin F. Butler of his appointment as military governor of New Orleans.
  • Benjamin F. Butler broke with the Democratic Party and switched his allegiance to the Republican Party in 1862.
  • In November, 1863, President Lincoln reassigned Benjamin F. Butler to command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina.
  • During the month of May 1863, Benjamin F. Butler led a series of largely unsuccessful attacks near the town of Bermuda Hundred, Virginia.
  • On June 9, 1864, Confederate troops repulsed Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James at the Battle of Petersburg I, (also known as the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys).
  • Confederate forces defeated Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James at the Second Battle of Petersburg (June 15 – 18, 1864).
  • Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James was victorious at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights (September 28-29, 1864).
  • In December 1864 Benjamin F. Butler led an assault on Fort Fisher, which guarded the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last major Atlantic seaport.
  • On January 7, 1865 Secretary of War Edwin 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.”
  • On November 30, 1865, Benjamin F. Butler resigned his commission in the volunteer army.
  • In 1866, voters from the Massachusetts 5th Congressional district elected Benjamin F. Butler to a seat in the U.S. 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 in Congress, Benjamin F. Butler supported the Reconstruction policies of Radical Republicans.
  • A harsh critic of President Andrew Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction policies, Benjamin F. 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, Benjamin F. Butler, co-sponsored legislation that was enacted five years later as the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
  • In January 1871, Benjamin F. Butler introduced a bill that served as the precursor of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (also known as the Enforcement Act of 1871, or the Ku Klux Klan Act) on April 20, 1871.
  • Benjamin F. Butler lost his bid for reelection in 1874, but was a successful candidate in 1876, representing the 7th district in the 45th Congress from March 4, 1877 to March 4, 1879.
  • In 1878 and 1879 Butler made unsuccessful bids to be elected to the governorship of Massachusetts.
  • By 1882, a coalition of members of the Democratic Party and the Greenback Party elected Benjamin F. Butler to the office of governor of Massachusetts.
  • Benjamin F. Butler served one term as governor of Massachusetts, from January 4, 1882 to January 3, 1883.
  • Benjamin F. Butler was defeated in his bid for reelection in as governor of Massachusetts in November 1882.
  • In 1884 the Anti-Monopoly Party and the Greenback Party nominated Benjamin F. 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 1884 presidential election and finished a distant fourth to Democrat Grover Cleveland.
  • Benjamin F. Butler died on January 11, 1893, from heart failure brought about by a case of pneumonia.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Benjamin Butler — Facts and APUSH Notes
  • Date November 5, 1818–January 11, 1893
  • Author
  • Keywords Benjamin Franklin Butler
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date December 2, 2023
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 11, 2023

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