Benjamin F. Butler
Robert Slawson, MD, FACR
Originally published in the 2017 Special Edition of the Surgeon’s Call
Benjamin Butler, a lawyer, politician, and general, was one of the most controversial men of the American Civil War. He worked as a lawyer in Massachusetts for about 15 years before the war, acquiring friends as well as enemies. During the war he was the highest ranking general of volunteers and had influence in and out of the Army. He may have been the best loved as well as the most hated man in the Civil War. One of the friends he acquired was Clara Barton.
Benjamin Franklin Butler was born November 5, 1818, in Deerfield, NH.1-3 Soon after his birth, his father died. His mother moved the family to Lowell, MA. Butler had an excellent memory and memorized many books as a child. His mother wanted him to be a minister, but upon graduation from Colby College in 1838, Butler apprenticed himself to a lawyer. He saw law as a more suitable career. He passed the Massachusetts Bar Exam in 1840 and was admitted before the United States Supreme Court in 1845. He very quickly developed a successful practice, primarily as a defense attorney for working-class people. In doing so, he developed an adversarial relationship with the majority of mill owners and the wealthy of Massachusetts. He also had a contentious relationship with the local press that would continue throughout his life.
Butler soon developed an interest in politics and was active in local and state politics. In 1843 he joined the Massachusetts Militia, and by 1855 had become a Brigadier General of Militia. His primary military role was in peacekeeping and riot control.
When the first regiments of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry were organized without a designated Brigadier, Butler contacted U.S. Senator Henry Wilson asking that he convince Secretary of War Simon Cameron to name him Brigadier. Meanwhile, Butler pressed his own case with Governor Andrew. He was commissioned Brigadier General of Volunteers and accompanied the Massachusetts regiments to Washington, DC. The Pratt Street Riot in Baltimore had occurred just before he arrived, and therefore the railroads to Washington were closed. Butler took control of the Baltimore to Annapolis ferry and went to Annapolis, MD, where he placed the city under martial law and tried to reinstitute rail traffic to Washington. Because of continued unrest in Baltimore, and the delay of the central authorities, he returned to Baltimore and also placed that city under martial law—a controversial move.
Butler was promoted to Major General of Volunteers, thus becoming the highest-ranking officer of volunteers. General Butler was then transferred to Fortress Monroe, VA. Stationed at Fortress Monroe, Butler refused to return runaway slaves to Confederate owners. Instead, he labeled them as “contraband,” property useful to the enemy in the perpetration of war.4 The action endeared him to the abolitionists of the North.
Butler was then paired with Flag Officer David Farragut for the planned invasion of New Orleans. The action was primarily naval, but it was Butler who was then named the military governor of New Orleans and the captured parts of Louisiana. The city was in dire straits. New Orleans was not only filthy and unhealthy, but it was starving. There were large numbers of unemployed, and the Confederates were blocking the importation of food supplies. The Union Army was not welcomed. The citizenry did not consider themselves conquered and the women were very disrespectful to the Union soldiers, cursing and spitting at them.
Butler’s first actions were to clean up the city, taking precautions against possible epidemics of cholera and typhoid. He hired the unemployed to clean the city, paying them with funds extracted from Confederate supporters still living in the city. No epidemics occurred that year. Food supplies were still short, and Butler worked hard to obtain supplies from both the surrounding areas and by sea.
Perhaps Butler’s most infamous action was the “women’s order.” To curtail the actions of the ladies who refused to desist mocking Union soldiers when asked, he issued Order No. 281-3,5 stating that any woman of New Orleans who persisted in disrespectful actions was to be treated “as a woman of the town plying her avocation.” This order was received throughout the Confederacy with horror—as both insulting and dangerous to the women. He was called “Beast” Butler. However brutal, the order worked. The ladies of New Orleans changed their behavior and there were no reported attacks on any of the women of the city.5
Butler saw that to keep funds out of Union hands, many people had utilized foreign consular offices, so he found a way to confiscate these funds. This resulted in many diplomatic complaints, and the federal government appointed an investigator. Unfortunately for Butler this man was Reverdy Johnson from Maryland, a strong opponent of Butler, and a slave owner. Commissioner Johnson proceeded to reverse nearly all of the confiscations made by Butler, including some $400,000 returned to the French Consul that made its way to Havana and paid for clothing for Confederate soldiers.
There were numerous complaints of wrongdoing by Butler, but nothing was ever proven. His brother Andrew Butler was actively involved in trading with both the North and the South, Butler’s approval. Again, no evidence of illegal actions ever surfaced. Most of the charges appear to have been instigated by Confederates and sympathizers. Still, Butler’s reputation never publicly recovered. While in New Orleans, Butler had become an abolitionist and he reactivated the Native Guard (African American) troops that had existed in Louisiana under the Confederacy. He became a strong proponent of the enlistment of African Americans in the Union Army.
In December 1862, Butler was replaced by Nathaniel Banks and was recalled from New Orleans. Although he gave his resignation, President Lincoln refused to accept it and sent him home to Massachusetts. Butler was never told precisely who orchestrated his recall.1 President Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and Secretary of State Seward all refused to say. He did, however, retain his commission and in November 1863, he was given command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. This would ultimately become the Army of the James.
Administratively, Butler did well with limited resources. He actively recruited African American troops and they became a major part of his Army. General Grant felt that the generals under Butler would not respect him because of his lack of military training, and actively worked to have him removed. When the combined armies moved against Richmond, inadequate action by the Army of the James was cited. Butler was blamed, although there is also evidence that the field commanders under him did not do as ordered. In any event, in January 1865 he was relieved of command. Again, He would retain his commission until 1866 with the suggestion that, if Jefferson Davis was prosecuted, Butler would be chief prosecutor.
Butler returned to his civilian law practice and to politics, now as a Radical Republican. In 1866 he served in the U. S. House of Representatives and would remain in Congress from 1867 until 1875. He was an avid opponent of President Andrew Johnson, who was a former slave owner from Tennessee. His first speech in Congress was against Johnson and he worked hard to obtain his impeachment. When impeachment proceedings finally began, Butler was on the House Prosecuting Committee and was selected to lead the prosecution. Conviction failed by one vote.
As Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Butler introduced House Bill 320 called the “Ku Klux Bill” to curtail activities of the Ku Klux Klan. The bill was subsequently passed and signed into law in 1871. He also introduced a bill for Civil Rights Act for the Negro which, after extended debate, finally passed in 1875, although it would be repealed in 1883.
After leaving the House of Representatives, Butler returned to Massachusetts and ran for Governor several times without success. He was finally elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1882, but served only one term. His principal activity was his law practice in both Massachusetts and Washington, DC, which was very successful. However, he never achieved his dream of becoming President of the United States. Butler died in 1893.
On a personal basis, Butler met the love of his life in 1838, Sarah Hildreth, a professional actress and the sister of a friend.3 He finally convinced her to marry him in 1844. They subsequently had four children. Sarah died of cancer of the throat in 1876.
The interaction between Butler and Clara Barton began in the summer of 1864.7,8 Barton wanted to follow the troops into Virginia but had difficulty obtaining permission to do so. She contacted her friend, Senator Henry Wilson, who gave her a letter of introduction to Butler, who was then the Commander of the Army of the James. Although she later claimed that Butler named her Superintendent of Nurses for the Army of the James, Butler stated that he offered her a job at a Corps Hospital at Point of Rocks, VA. In any event, Barton worked at Point of Rocks for about three months.
Barton’s brother, Stephen, had moved to North Carolina before the war, where he was working as a merchant. He lived within the area controlled by the Union and continued his trading, apparently with both sides. He was eventually arrested by Union troops for trading with the enemy. Barton appealed his arrest to General Butler, who convened a military court martial, after which Stephen was released and returned north, where he soon died.7,8 Whether this was strictly legal remains a question, but the area was under military government at the time.
In 1865 Clara Barton was removed from the Patent Office payroll, leaving her with no income. She was very short of money while working to identify the graves at Andersonville Prison, and running the Missing Soldiers Office. Butler offered to use his influence to get the search for missing soldiers made part of the War Department, but at this point his influence was minimal and nothing came of his offer.
Barton and Butler’s acquaintance continued long after the Civil war. In 1882, while Governor of Massachusetts, Butler wanted to revise the state prison system and asked Clara Barton to serve as Superintendent of the Women’s Reformatory Prison in Sherborne, MA .7,8 She did not want this role, so she refused. Butler repeated his offer several times, finally reminding her that she owed him several favors, so she finally agreed. She served about eight months, but was never very happy with the position.
Benjamin Butler’s life is a story of action. He moved from a simple background to one of prominence and affluence in Massachusetts. Although seldom elected to office, he was a power in state politics and had a national reputation. Early in the war, he became the senior volunteer officer in the Army. He proved to be an able administrator in several Departments of the Army, and his military prowess seemed no worse than most other generals. Butler performed his duty as he saw it, and should be remembered for his many positive actions.
- Butler BeF: Butler’s Book: A Review of His Legal, Political, and Military Career. Boston, MA, A, M, Thayer & Co. Book Publishers, 1892
- Nash Jr. HP: Stormy Petrel:The Life and Times of General Benjamin F. Butler 1818-1893. Cranbury, NJ, Associated University Presses, Inc., 1969
- West Jr RS: Lincoln’s Scapegoat General: A Life of Benjamin F. Butler 1818-1893. Boston, MA, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965
- Smith M: Benjamin F. Butler (1818-1893), Encyclopedia Virginia, 2016
- Jones T: The Beast in the Big Easy, New York Times. New York, NY, 2012
- Huston JA: The Sinews of War: Army Logistics 1775 – 1953. Washington, DC, Office of the Chief of Military History, United State Army, 1966
- Pryor EB: Clara Barton, Professional Angel. Philadelphia, PA, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987
- Ross I: Angel of the Battlefield: The Life of Clara Barton. New York, NY, Harper Brothers Publishers, 1956
About the Author
Dr. Robert Slawson is a 1962 graduate of the University of Iowa School of Medicine. He spent eight years as a medical officer in the United States Army, and had training in Radiology and Radiation Oncology, ultimately serving as Director of Radiation Oncology at Walter Reed General Hospital. In 1971 he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD, and remained there until his retirement in 1998, although he still has a faculty position and works there part-time. He is currently a Master Docent at the NMCWM in Frederick, MD. Dr. Slawson also is actively involved in researching new topics on Civil War medicine and life in the nineteenth century. He has presented and published on several topics both for the Museum and for articles in other publications. He has had a book published on African American physicians in the Civil War: Prologue to Change” African American Physicians in the Civil War Era. Dr. Slawson is a member of the NMCWM and the Society of Civil War Surgeons.