Benjamin Butler was born on November 5, 1818 in Deerfield, New Hampshire. His father, John Butler, had served under General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. John died when Benjamin was young, and his mother operated a boarding house in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Benjamin graduated from Waterville College (now Colby College) in Maine in 1838 and was admitted to the bar in Massachusetts in 1840. He practiced in Lowell, and became known for his criminal cases. In 1842 Benjamin married Sarah Hildreth Benjamin, and they had a daughter, Blanche. During this time he joined the Massachusetts militia, starting with the rank of third lieutenant. By 1855 he had advanced to the rank of brigadier general in the militia.
Butler went into politics as a Democrat, gaining fame by ardently campaigning for a ten hour work day for laborers. He was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1853 and the Massachusetts Senate in 1858, and served as a delegate in the Democratic National Conventions of 1848 and 1860. In the 1860 convention he supported Jefferson Davis as candidate for president, then backed John Breckenridge when he was chosen as the party’s candidte. Butler unsuccessfully ran for Massachusetts governor on the Breckenridge ticket in 1859.
When war broke out Butler made sure Massachusetts regiments would be quickly available to support the Union cause, including lining up private financing for the troops until state funds were available. He also made sure that he would be their commander.
The railroad route from the north to Washington was closed at Baltimore by Southern sympathizers, so Butler brought his 8th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment by ship into Annapolis on April 20th. He secured both Annapolis and the branch rail line that connected to Washington, and on May 13th led his troops northward on his own initiative to a quick and bloodless occupation of Baltmore and the reopening of the main rail line.
The coup enraged army commander General Winfield Scott, whose failure to occupy Baltimore seemed ineffective, if not disloyal, but it was a tremendous relief to the rest of the Lincoln administration, who could now bring in loyal troops to defend Washington. Butler was rewarded by being appointed the third Major General of United States Volunteers, dating from May 16, 1861, ranking only below John A. Dix and Nathaniel P. Banks, who were named on the same order but listed ahead of Butler.
Butler was given command of Fort Monroe, a Federal outpost at the end of the Virginia Peninsula. Big Bethel, the first action of any consequence in the war, occured in his department on June 10th and was a Union debacle. Butler also caused considerable controversy by refusing to return to their owners escaped slaves that had reached his lines. He justified his actions, which violated the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, with the reasoning that the slaves had been laborers on Rebel fortifications and as such were legitimate contraband of war, the first use of the term “contrabands.”
Late in 1861 Butler was given command of an expeditionary force which captured Forts Clark and Hatteras in North Carolina. In December of 1861 he commanded the army contingent of the force which captured Ship Island, off the delta of the Mississippi River, and in May of 1862 commanded the land forces which participated in the capture of New Orleans.
On May 1st, 1862 Butler became military governor of New Orleans, the most populous city in the south and the first major area of the Confederacy recaptured by the Federal government. He quickly gained a reputation as able but severe, a man whose administion was orderly but hated by the local citizens.
Two weeks later he issued the “Woman Order,” which stated that any woman who insulted any officer or soldier of the United States – and there had been many provocations – would be treated as a prostitute plying her trade. He confiscated $800,000 from the Dutch Consulate, claiming it was intended for the purchase of Confederate military supplies. He armed former slaves, leading Confederate President Jefferson Davis to accuse him of “Inciting African slaves to insurrection.”
Pro-Confederate citizens were arrested for a variety of offenses and were, according to one, “closely confined in portable houses and furnished with the most wretched and unwholesome condemned soldiers’ rations.” William B. Mumford, who had torn down a U.S. flag flying over the United States Mint, was hanged.
These acts earned him the nickname “Beast” Butler, as well as “Spoons,” for allegedly stealing the silver in southern homes he visited. Jefferson Davis pronounced him a felon who should “no longer be considered or treated simply as a public enemy of the Confederate States of America, but as an outlaw and common enemy of mankind, and that, in the event of his capture, the officer in command of the captured force do cause him to be immediately executed by hanging.”
There was also good evidence that Butler was cooperating with with his brother and sharing in the profits of illegal trading with New Orleans businessmen. In December of 1862 Lincoln bowed to mounting pressure and replaced Butler with Major General Nathaniel Banks.
In November of 1863 Butler was given command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. When the Union armies began their coordinated spring offensive in May of 1864, Butler was responsible for the Army of the James, which was to attack the Petersburg- Richmond rail line from the east.
Within two weeks Butler became bogged down against an inferior Confederate force under Confederate General P.G.T. Beuregard and was bottled up in static trench lines that stretched from the James to the Appomattox Rivers near Bermuda Hundred.
In December Butler commanded his last amphibious expedition. Part of his bogged-down Army of the James was tasked with capturing Fort Fisher, which guarded Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last port on the Atlantic. The expedition was to have been commanded by one of Butler’s subordinates, but as Butler was a senior volunteer major general in the army and commanded the deprtment, Grant could not deny Butler’s insistence that he be placed in charge.
The first assault on Fort Fisher failed. Butler called off the expedition on Decmber 27th and returned to Fort Monroe in spite of orders from Grant to besiege the fort if direct assault failed.
Butler had skirted and even disobeyed orders in the past. His military career had survived because Lincoln wanted powerful Democratic politicians in the army to show it wasn’t just a Repubican war. But with Lincoln recently reelected Butler was no longer needed. He was relieved on January 8, 1865.
After the war Butler ran as a Republican for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1867, servng until 1875 and again from 1877 until 1879. He had not just changed parties, but had become a Radical Repubican, writing the Civil Rights Act of 1871 and co-proposing the Civil Rights Act of 1875. He was one of the managers selected to conduct the impeachment trial of President Johnson, and was considered President Grant’s spokesman in the House.
In 1870, Blanche Butler married Senator and former General Adelbert Ames, one of Butler’s wartime subordinates. They went on to have six chidren.
In 1878 Butler unsuccesfully ran for Governor of Masachusetts as an independent, and ran unsuccessfully again in 1879 as a Democrat. He finally won in 1882, serving from 1883 until 1884. During that time he appointed the first Irish-American and the first African-American judges in Massachusetts as well as the first woman to an executive post in the state’s history, Clara Barton, as head of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women.
In 1884 Butler was the U.S. presidential candidtate for the Greenback and Anti-Monopoly parties, gathering about 175,000 votes and being soundly defeated by Grover Cleveland.
Butler published his memoirs, Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences, in 1892.
He died on January 11, 1893 while in court in Washington. He is buried in Hildreth Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts.