General Benjamin Butler. Image Source: Library of Congress.
General Benjamin Butler (1818–1893) rose to the rank of Major General in the United States Army during the Civil War (1861—1865). Butler is most well-known for his ruthless tenure as Military Governor of New Orleans in 1862.
When the Civil War started, Benjamin Butler used his political influence to secure an appointment to command the 8th Massachusetts Militia Regiment in the United States 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 to help defend Washington, D.C.
General Butler and the Confiscation Act of 1861
After Butler’s men helped prevent Southerners from isolating the nation’s capital, a grateful President Abraham Lincoln promoted Butler 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.
The Beast in New Orleans
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 filled 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.
General Butler Relieved 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.
General Benjamin Butler in the Civil War — 1861
- After the Civil War started, Benjamin Butler used his political and financial connections to secure command of the 8th Massachusetts Militia Regiment.
- On April 25, 1861, Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott placed Butler in command of the Department of Annapolis.
- In April 1861, Butler declared martial law in Baltimore, Maryland, and reopened railroads to the North.
- 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, General Butler issued his “Fort Monroe Doctrine,” proclaiming runaway or captured slaves to be “contraband of war” making them the property of the United States government.
- General 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, General 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 Butler captured Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark in North Carolina.
General Benjamin Butler in the Civil War — 1862
- In May 1862, General Butler was appointed Military Governor of New Orleans.
- On May 15, 1862, 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, General Butler had Southern sympathizer, William Munford, hanged for tearing down a U.S. flag that was flying over a government building in New Orleans.
- On June 10, 1862, Butler angered foreign dignitaries stationed in New Orleans by issuing General Order No. 41, which required them to swear an oath that said they would not aid the Confederacy.
- While serving as Military Governor of New Orleans, General Butler censored local newspapers and imprisoned at least one editor. He also ordered the arrest of clergymen who refused to pray for President Lincoln.
- During his time in New Orleans, 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, but New Orleans’s citizens referred to him as “Spoons,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to his alleged participation in the theft of silverware from their homes.
- General Butler was so hated that many Southerners nicknamed him “Beast Butler” and “the Beast.”
- On December 24, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued General Order 111, labeling General 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, he 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. General Butler was removed as Governor of New Orleans.
- In 1862, Butler broke with the Democratic Party and switched his allegiance to the Republican Party.
General Benjamin Butler in the Civil War — 1863
- In November 1863, President Lincoln assigned General Benjamin Butler to command the Department of Virginia and North Carolina.
- In May 1863, General Butler led a series of largely unsuccessful attacks near the town of Bermuda Hundred, Virginia.
General Benjamin Butler in the Civil War — 1864
- On June 9, 1864, Confederate troops repulsed Butler’s Army of the James at the First Battle of Petersburg — also known as the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys.
- Confederate forces defeated General Butler’s Army of the James again at the Second Battle of Petersburg (June 15–18, 1864).
- General Butler rebounded to win the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights (September 28–29, 1864).
- In December 1864, Butler led an assault on Fort Fisher, which guarded the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last major Atlantic seaport.
General Benjamin Butler in the Civil War — 1865
- 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 from his commission in the U.S. Volunteer Army.