Author: Michael Thomas Smith

an assistant professor of history at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana

Benjamin F. Butler (1818–1893)

Benjamin F. Butler was a controversial, self-aggrandizing, and colorful politician who served as a Union general during the American Civil War (1861–1865). A state senator in Massachusetts, Butler was a delegate to the 1860 Democratic National Convention, where he briefly supported Jefferson Davis. Always popular, he was nevertheless dogged by charges of corruption, abuse of power, and, when he accepted a general officer’s commission from Abraham Lincoln in 1861, incompetence. Even his appearance inspired commentary. A Union staff officer penned in his diary how Butler cut “an astounding figure on a horse! Short, fat, shapeless; no neck, squinting, and very bald headed, and, above all, that singular, half defiant look.” During the Civil War, Butler made substantial contributions to the Union war effort, including a policy that allowed the United States government to skirt the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law by claiming that escaped slaves were “contraband of war.” In this way, he was able to put African American refugees to work on fortifications and helped to pave the way for emancipation. He also served as a military administrator for occupied regions in Virginia and Louisiana—where he was particularly hated—before a lackluster performance as commander of the Army of the James during the Petersburg Campaign (1864–1865). After the war, Butler was elected governor of Massachusetts. He died in 1893.