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 slaves. “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 slaves 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 slaves 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 slaves 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 slaves 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.
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.