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.

Early Years

Benjamin Franklin Butler was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire, on November 5, 1818. He was raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, where his mother kept a boardinghouse, and although his hope as a young man was to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, he instead graduated from Waterville College (now Colby College) in Waterville, Maine, in 1838. After founding a successful law practice in Lowell, he entered local Democratic Party politics, championing working-class issues. He also campaigned for Southern Rights Democratic candidate John C. Breckinridge during the U.S. presidential election of 1860 after briefly supporting the failed nomination of the pro-slavery U.S. senator from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis. Butler’s political connections and shameless self-promotion helped him attain a senior position in the Massachusetts state militia, and on the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 he was assigned field command of the first brigade sent into Union service from the Bay State.

Leading troops in the border state of Maryland, Butler threatened to arrest the state’s legislators if they voted to secede and even confiscated the state seal lest they attempt to make such an action official. On April 25, 1861, Union general-in-chief Winfield Scott placed Butler in command of the Department of Annapolis, and on May 13, without Scott’s knowledge, Butler seized Baltimore, an action that ultimately helped to secure Washington, D.C. Scott ordered Butler to Fort Monroe, Virginia, while Lincoln made him a major general of volunteers.

In Virginia, Butler successfully confronted an issue that had been bedeviling the administration and the military alike: slavery. Abolitionists ranging from the Virginian Moncure Daniel Conway to the former slave Frederick Douglass were attempting to persuade Lincoln to make emancipation a war aim, and their arguments were not only moral, some also focused on the practical, military advantages of freeing the South’s enslaved people. “The very stomach of this rebellion is the negro in the form of a slave,” Douglass wrote in 1861. “Arrest that hoe in the hands of the negro, and you smite the rebellion in the very seat of its life.”

Union troops in the field, meanwhile, were unsure what to do with African Americans who escaped slavery by crossing into Union lines. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required that they be returned to their owners, and this is exactly what a Confederate colonel demanded when three of his enslaved laborers fled to Fort Monroe in May 1861. Butler ordered that because Virginia had seceded from the Union, its citizens could no longer claim the protection of U.S. laws. Furthermore, he argued, because these particular enslaved people had been helping to construct fieldworks, they should be considered “contraband of war” and defined as property with military value. Lincoln approved, and in August, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act. It declared free all enslaved people being used directly in the Confederate war effort. When another Union general, John C. Frémont, attempted to go further than that—on August 30, he ordered emancipated all Missouri enslaved owned by active Confederates—he was overruled.

Butler, meanwhile, actively sought glory on the field. When he attempted to take the Confederate capital at Richmond via the James River, however, his forces were roundly defeated at the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10, 1861. The relatively minor engagement provided a glimpse of Butler’s legendary tactical incompetence, and he was relieved of command at Fort Monroe.

New Orleans

After the Union capture of New Orleans, Louisiana, in the spring of 1862 by naval forces under the command of David G. Farragut, Butler was appointed the city’s military governor. His short time in the Crescent City proved to be one of the most controversial periods of Butler’s contentious career. He feuded with foreign consuls and city officials, allegedly looted gold and other valuables from city banks and mansions, profited from the illegal trade in cotton between the lines, and hanged a local gambler, William Mumford, for hauling down the U.S. flag. (Butler later helped Mumford’s widow find employment.) He also instituted poor relief and public works programs, as well as port regulations, that many observers credited for making the city more healthy and orderly. For instance, a yellow fever outbreak that was feared by many never happened.

The most incendiary moment of Butler’s tenure in New Orleans came on May 15, 1862, when he issued General Orders No. 28, his famed “woman order.” Any woman who insulted Union military personnel—for instance, by emptying her chamber pot onto the head of Farragut, as one woman did—”shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation,” or, in other words, a prostitute. In response to this remarkable order, which earned Butler the nickname “the Beast,” Confederate president Jefferson Davis declared him an outlaw. British prime minister Lord Palmerston officially protested to the U.S. minister to the Court of St. James’s and denounced the order in the House of Commons as “infamous.” Even some Northern newspapers and journals criticized Butler, though others accepted the general’s explanation that the furor was overblown and he only intended that unladylike New Orleans women receive the nominal punishment of one night in jail and a small fine. (Other more serious consequences, including a possible invitation to rape, had been widely assumed.) Apparently the “woman order” was never enforced, although by some accounts at least it had the intended effect of intimidating the local population.

Lincoln replaced Butler with Nathaniel Banks late in 1862, and Butler returned to Lowell. In the meantime, U.S. senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts privately informed him that the reason for his removal was not the “woman order” but rather his feud with subordinate John W. Phelps over the latter’s innovative plan to enlist and arm African Americans. The Lincoln administration and Republicans in Congress were concerned that Butler was not sufficiently sympathetic to the recently issued Emancipation Proclamation. Sensing a political opportunity, the general soon after reversed his position, announcing support for emancipation and the arming of African American troops. He even switched parties, a remarkable conversion for an old pro-slavery Democrat and Jefferson Davis supporter.

Back in Virginia

In November 1863, Butler received command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, and the following May was in the field again, this time at the head of the new Army of the James. His assault on Petersburg, intended to cut off supplies to Richmond while the main Union field army under Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant moved overland from Washington, was more ineptly handled that even most of his critics probably expected. After failing to take Petersburg, Butler’s army essentially remained “bottled up” for most of the rest of the war between two bends in the James River at Bermuda Hundred.

Many Radical Republicans nevertheless thought that Butler should challenge President Lincoln for their party’s nomination in 1864. Possibly with this threat in mind, Lincoln allegedly approached Butler, through the former cabinet officer Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, with an offer of the vice presidency on the 1864 ticket. Butler replied:

Please say to Mr. Lincoln that while I appreciate with the fullest sensibilities his act of friendship and the high compliment he pays me, yet I must decline. Tell him that I said laughingly that with the prospects of a campaign before me I would not quit the field to be Vice-President even with himself as President, unless he would give me bond in sureties in the full sum of his four years’ salary that within three months after his inauguration he will die unresigned.

Butler had overplayed his hand, and he was removed from command following Lincoln’s reelection and his timid and unsuccessful performance in command of the Union assault on Fort Fisher in December 1864. He was never reassigned to active duty. Following the war he remained in politics variously as a Republican, Democrat, and third-party candidate, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1867 until 1879 and as governor of Massachusetts from 1883 until 1884. He died on January 11, 1893, in Washington, D.C.

November 5, 1818
Benjamin F. Butler is born in Deerfield, New Hampshire.
Benjamin F. Butler graduates from Waterville College (now Colby College) in Waterville, Maine. He begins a law practice in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts briefly supports Jefferson Davis at the Democratic National Convention before endorsing the split party's nominee John C. Breckinridge.
April 25, 1861
Union general-in-chief Winfield Scott places Benjamin F. Butler in command of the Department of Annapolis.
May 13, 1861
Without the knowledge of Union general-in-chief Winfield Scott, Benjamin F. Butler seizes Baltimore, Maryland.
May 18, 1861
Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Union Department of Virginia, takes command of Fort Monroe. By the end of May, nearly 4,500 officers and men are assigned to the fort.
May 23, 1861
Union general Benjamin F. Butler dispatches troops from Fort Monroe to disrupt voters during the statewide referendum on Virginia's Secession Ordinance. Three slaves from nearby Sewell's Point flee to Union lines.
May 27, 1861
Union general Benjamin F. Butler, the commander at Fort Monroe, announces that he will not return fugitive slaves to bondage. Fort Monroe becomes known as "Freedom's Fortress," and a steady stream of "contraband" offered wages, food, and shelter, begins work for the Union army.
June 10, 1861
Union troops from Fort Monroe under the command of Brigadier General Ebenezer Pierce participate in one of the first land engagements of the Civil War at Big Bethel. They are defeated by Confederates led by colonels Daniel Harvey Hill and John Bankhead Magruder.
August 6, 1861
With the First Confiscation Act, the U.S. Congress sustains Fort Monroe commander Benjamin F. Butler's "contraband of war" decision. It declares that any slave used for military purposes against the United States can be confiscated.
August 17, 1861
Union general John E. Wool, an experienced regular officer, is given command of Fort Monroe. Benjamin F. Butler is assigned to command the volunteer regiments not garrisoned in the fort.
May 15, 1862
Union general Benjamin F. Butler, military governor of New Orleans, issues General Orders No. 28. The famous "woman order" declares that any woman who treats a Union soldier disrespectfully will be treated by the law as if she were a prostitute.
November 10, 1863
Union general Benjamin F. Butler assumes command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina upon arrival at Fort Monroe.
April 2, 1864
Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant orders the creation of the Army of the James from troops in the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, to be placed under the command of Benjamin F. Butler, a largely inept political general.
May 5, 1864
The Union Army of the James lands at City Point and Bermuda Hundred, less than ten miles from Petersburg. The 1st and 22nd regiments of U.S. Colored Troops occupy City Point.
May 6, 1864
After traveling up the James River, the Union Army of the James lands at the Bermuda Hundred Peninsula. Its mission is to approach the Confederate capital at Richmond from the south and east while the Union Army of the Potomac attacks from the north.
May 17, 1864
After a tepid advance toward Confederate positions, Union general Benjamin F. Butler retreats to an entrenched line at the Bermuda Hundred Peninsula after a sharp, but short, battle with Confederate troops under Pierre G. T. Beauregard at Drewry's Bluff.
June 9, 1864
Fletcher H. Archer leads his Virginia Reserves in a successful defense of Petersburg against a Union cavalry attack in what comes to be known as the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys.
June 15—18, 1864
Union general Benjamin F. Butler and his Army of the James attempt to capture Petersburg for the second time in a week, but the Confederates again repel him. After the failed endeavor, the Army of the James settles into entrenchments.
September 29—30, 1864
Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac assault Petersburg from the north, and Grant orders Union general Benjamin F. Butler to attack Richmond from the south with his Army of the James in the hopes that the two armies will split Confederate defenders. Butler's troops fight poorly, however, and Grant's offensive fails.
December 7—30, 1864
Union general Benjamin F. Butler orders two corps from the Army of the James to attack Fort Fisher, which guards the Confederate port of Wilmington, North Carolina. This is the last major port in Confederate possession, and Butler's troops fail to take it.
January 8, 1865
Union general Benjamin F. Butler is removed from command of the Army of the James in favor of his subordinate, Edward O. C. Ord.
March 4, 1867
Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts begins his first of three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
March 3, 1879
Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts ends his final term in the U.S. House of Representatives.
January 4, 1883
Benjamin F. Butler begins his term as governor of Massachusetts.
January 3, 1884
Benjamin F. Butler ends his term as governor of Massachusetts.
January 11, 1893
Benjamin F. Butler dies in Washington, D.C.
  • Butler, Benjamin F. Butler’s Book: A Review of His Legal, Political, and Military Career. Boston: A. M. Thayer, 1892.
  • Robertson, William Glenn. Back Door to Richmond: The Bermuda Hundred Campaign, April–June 1864. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987.
  • Hearn, Chester G. When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.
  • West, Richard S., Jr. Lincoln’s Scapegoat General: A Life of Benjamin F. Butler, 1818–1893. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
APA Citation:
Smith, Michael. Benjamin F. Butler (1818–1893). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/butler-benjamin-f-1818-1893.
MLA Citation:
Smith, Michael. "Benjamin F. Butler (1818–1893)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 23
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