Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler, USA

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Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler, USA

Also Known As: ""Beast Butler""
Birthplace: Deerfield, Rockingham Co., New Hampshire
Death: January 11, 1893 (74)
Washington, DC, United States
Place of Burial: Lowell, MA, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Captain John Butler and Charlotte Butler
Husband of Sarah Jones Butler
Father of Blanche Ames; Paul Butler and Benjamin Israel Butler
Brother of Jesse Ellison Butler and Colonel Andrew Jackson Butler (USA)
Half brother of Polly True Butler; Sally Butler and Betsey Merill Stevens

Occupation: General, Lawyer
Managed by: Gene Daniell
Last Updated:

About Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler, USA

'Benjamin Franklin Butler

Biographies Butler Family of Massachusetts

Source: Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of the State of Massachusetts, Cutler and Adams (1910).

Transcribed by SueAnn McKnight.


(VII) General Benjamin Franklin Butler, son of Captain John Butler, was born November 5, 1818, at Deerfield, New Hampshire: died January 11, 1893. He was rather a puny child, and quiet, gentle, and eager to learn, at the age of four was taught his letters by his mother. In the summer he was sent away to a school in Nottingham Square, quite two miles from his home. He attended that school for six weeks and learned to read with little difficulty. He remained at home during the autumn, and in the following winter his mother and uncle provided a home for him in Deerfield with "Aunt Polly" Dame, and he went to school there. In the winter of his sixth year he walked from home every morning to Nottingham Square to school, and proved a bright pupil. In the course of time he was virtually adopted by his grandmother, and attended a private school and academy at Deerfield until eight years of age, under James Hersey, afterward postmaster of Manchester, New Hampshire. He was then sent to Phillips Exeter Academy to be fitted for college. A clergyman, who had befriended his widowed mother, built a house for her to occupy in Lowell, and in 1828, at the close of the winter term, Butler went to his mother's house and studied Latin at home during the spring and summer following, having the kindly assistance of Seth Ames, then a lawyer, afterward a justice of the supreme court. Later in the year it became necessary for him to earn some money, and his mother procured him a place at Meecham & Mathewson's, the Franklin bookstore, the only establishment of its kind in the town. He remained in this clerkship until December 18. 1830, when the Lowell high school was established through the exertions of Rev. Theodore Edson, rector of St. Anne's Church. He finished his fitting for college, to which he went unwillingly. He wished to go to West Point Military Academy and, when his appointment seemed assured, his mother's clergyman, a good Baptist, advised her to send the boy to the Baptist College at Waterville, Maine, in the labor department, where he could do something toward his own support. He was religiously brought up and inclined, giving his good mother the hope that he would study for the ministry. His college career was a disappointment to him, having set his heart on the more virile and practical course at West Point. He became interested in chemistry and physics, outside of his prescribed work, and loved experimental research, and became laboratory assistant to Professor Holmes. He taught school during the long winter vacations at college. At the time of his graduation, Butler was so reduced by a severe cough that he weighed only ninety-seven pounds, and he seemed in danger of consumption. But a sea voyage restored him to health which even during the privation and exposure of the rebellion never deserted him until his last illness. On his return to Powell he began the study of law in the office of William Smith, in the early autumn of 1838, and not many months later before he was admitted to the bar secured much valuable experience in the Lowell police court. In the autumn of 1839 he accepted the position of teacher in a Dracut school, but declined a reappointment, and devoted all his attention to studying law and practicing in the police court. At the September term of the court of common pleas in 1840, he was admitted by Justice Charles Henry Warren.

He became interested in politics when quite young, he learned by heart the Constitution of the United States, and studied the foundamental principles that divided the parties, as well as the public questions then agitating the public mind. The characteristic pugnacity and disregard of his future interests were shown in his first struggle. He took advantage of a coalition made by the Democrats and the new Free Soil party in 185 1, made to defeat the Whigs, and secured candidates from Lowell pledged to the ten-hour movement, he was a Democrat. It was impossible to carry through this radical reform in the legislature, but great strides were made in the right direction, and after unsuccessful efforts in several legislatures a compromise bill was enacted, fixing the hours of labor at eleven and a quarter. In 1852 he was elected to the general court, and again he espoused a very unpopular cause, the reim bursement of the Order of St. Ursula for the destruction in 1834 of their convent in Charles- town by an anti-Catholic mob. In the constitutional convention of 1852 he was a delegate from Lowell, and served as chairman of the committee to which was assigned the revision of Chapter Six of the old constitution. The defeat of this constitution at the polls by the Roman Catholics brought the triumph of the Know-nothing party in 1855 and the downfall of the Whigs in Massachusetts. He attended every Democratic national convention from 1848 to i860 inclusive: and was frequently a candidate for congress, but his party in Lowell was in a hopeless minority. In 1858 he was elected to the state senate from Lowell, the only Democrat on the ticket. He drew the act reforming the judiciary of the state and the superior court established in place of the old court of common pleas. Most of the provisions of that act are still the law of the state. In 1860 he accepted the nomination for governor of Massachusetts from the Breckinridge wing of the Democratic party, and received only about six thousand votes while as the Democratic candidate for governor in 1850 he had had more than 35,000. He was a member of the national committee of that wing of his party. But when the war broke out, he stood by the Republican governor of Massachusetts and the Republican president, and became the most conspicuous volunteer general of the be ginning of the war, on account of his former political affiliations making his example of in calculable value to other Democrats who were brought to enlist and fight for the Union, and on account of his promptness in getting his troops to Baltimore and his success in action.

He came of a race of fighters. In 1839 he enlisted in the Lowell City Guard and served three years as a private. Step by step he was promoted until he became colonel of the regiment in which he first enlisted. During the Know-nothing furore, Governor Gardner reorganized the militia of the state for the express purpose of disbanding companies of Roman Catholic soldiers, and as a consequence Colonel Butler lost his command, it being assigned to another district in which he did not live. Not long afterward, however, he was elected brigadier-general by the field officers of the brigade, and received his commission from the same Know-nothing governor. He encamped with his brigade in 1857, 1858, 1859 and 1860. In i860 Governor Banks called together the whole volunteer militia, six thousand men, at Concord, so that when he went into service he had seen together for discipline, instruction and military movement, a larger body of troops than even General Scott, the commander-in-chief himself. With foresight and persistent effort, General Butler caused the Massachusetts volunteer militia to be made ready so that they were the first organized armed force marched into Washington for its defence. As early as January 19, 1861, the Sixth Regiment under Colonel Edward F. Jones, of Lowell, was prepared and tendered its services to the government. When the call came it found General Butler trying an import ant case in Boston. He stopped short, asked the judge for adjournment, and in fact. Butler tells lies that the case has never been finished, lie helped devise the means to raise money to transport the troops. The Sixth Regiment, strengthened with two companies from others, started for Washington on April 17. General Under stayed behind to get his two other regiments in order, and to wait for the Eighth Regiment, which he took to the front April 18. He was in Philadelphia when his Sixth Regiment was attacked in Baltimore with six men killed and thirty wounded. The Sixth finally reached the capital, and President Lincoln, as he shook the colonel's hand, said: "Thank God you have come: for if you had not, Washington would have been in the hands of the rebels before morning." With his command General Butler proceeded to Annapolis and took possession of it against the protest of the mayor and of the governor of the state, of which it was one of the capitals. Thus he held open a way for the transportation of troops to Washington and insured its safety. He occupied and held the Relay House, and so prevented an assault upon Washington from Harper's Ferry, which the rebels had captured and were occupying for that purpose. From thence he made a descent upon Baltimore and established it as a Union city, which it always remained. These movements effectually prevented the secession of Maryland, and held her loyal through the war.

He was placed in command of the Department of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, with headquarters at Fortress Mon roe. He had immediately to solve one of the most perplexing questions of the war. Under the civil law, the negro slaves that took refuge in the Union lines were chattels, and should be returned to their owners, but it would be out of the question for northern troops to act as slave-catchers. Butler cut the Gordian knot, to the relief of the whole country, by declaring the slaves contraband of war - a legal subterfuge, under which during the rest of the war the slaves were set free, and which paved the way for the Emancipation Proclamation. No single act or thought early in the war helped the Union cause more Within forty-five days after the fall of Fort Sumter, without orders from anybody, he seized and strongly fortified the important strategic point of Newport News, at the mouth of the James river, which was held during the war, thus keeping open a water way for the transportation of troops and supplies to the intrenchments around Richmond, by which the Army of the Potomac under McClellan escaped from Harrison's Landing. In co-operation with the navy he captured Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark (thus making the holding of the sounds of Virginia and North and South Carolina possible) August 20. 1 86 1, the first victory of any account that came to the Union army, taking 715 prisoners, and giving new courage after the defeat at Bull Run. He went home on leave of absence, but soon became aroused to the need of a better system of recruiting soldiers. He saw the political necessity of the situation, and offered his services to President Lincoln to recruit six regiments of loyal Democrats in New England. That effort was successful, uniting the North, and destroying the suspicion that the war was a Republican party affair and to be supported by partisans of Lincoln. He raised this division of six thousand men for the United States without the payment of bounties or impressment. With them he sailed to Ship Island, in an expedition aimed at New Orleans, and, aided with an equal number of troops added to his command, co operating with the fleet of the immortal Farragut to his entire satisfaction, they opened the Mississippi, captured New Orleans, subdued Louisiana, and held all of it that was ever held afterwards permanently as a part of the United States. He enforced there a proper respect for the nation's flag, its laws and power. By proper sanitary regulations he rescued New Orleans, the commercial port of the Gulf of Mexico, from its most potent danger, the yellow fever, from the ravages of which in no year had it ever escaped, a foe which the rebels relied upon to destroy Sutler's army, as it surely would have done if left uncombated. He enlisted there the first colored troops ever legally mustered into the army of the United States, thus inaugurating the policy of arming the colored race before Congress or the President had adopted it, and by so doing pointing the way to recruiting the armies of the United States by the enlistment of colored men to the number of 150,000, and establishing the negro soldier as a component and permanent part of the military resources of the country. He was superseded by General Banks in command of New Orleans. He was appointed again to the command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, November 2, 1863, and subsequently commissioner for the exchange of prisoners.

In the spring of 1864, General Butler "devised, organized and perfected the strategy for a campaign against Richmond by having an impregnable intrenched camp containing thirty square miles of territory within its boundaries, which could be held by ten thousand men against the whole Rebel forces forever," to quote his own words, "within eight miles of the Rebel capital, like a hand upon its throat never to be unclenched, as it never was." From that intrenched camp at Bermuda Hundred, July 15, he captured Petersburg, but lost it, as he says, "through the sloth of incompetency of a corps commander who had a technical military education." With the Army of the James, September 29, he captured Fort Harrison and a line of intrenched works, a strong part of the defences of Richmond, which were held by colored troops until Rich mond was evacuated. He planned, carried out and constructed the great strategic work, the Dutch Gap Canal, and which remains to this day a most valuable public work in the navigation of the James River, worth more as a commercial avenue in time of peace than all it cost as a military undertaking. He was sent to New York at the time of the presidential election, and took effectual means to prevent disorder and threatened illegal voting and rioting. He was offered the portfolio of secretary of war, but declined it, as he had also declined to be nominated as vice-president on Lincoln's ticket.

In January, 1865, when General Butler was relieved from the command, he accounted for and returned over five hundred thousand dollars which he had collected in various ways, such as taxes on traders-tolls on cotton sent north. With the money thus shrewdly gained for the Union cause, he paid largely the cost of the Dutch Gap Canal; built a hospital at Point of Rocks and barracks at Fortress Monroe, etc. He used the revenues at New Orleans with great shrewdness, and was complimented by his superiors for the condition of his accounts, and by the business men of that city for his regulation of the medium of exchange and the banking business, preventing hardship to the people, and yet saving the banks from disaster. He cleaned Norfolk, Virginia, just as he had cleaned New Orleans and made it habitable. He put deserters and petty criminals to work on the streets, taking for three months a thousand loads of filth a week out of the city. He was as proud of keeping the yellow fever out of Norfolk as out of New Orleans. Grant himself wrote to Lincoln: "As an administrative officer General Butler has no superior. In taking charge of a department where there are no great battles to be fought, but a dissatisfied element to control, no one could manage it better than he." That describes the popular opinion as well, after his work in Norfolk and New Orleans.

In 1866 he was elected to congress from the Essex district as a Republican, although his residence was in Lowell. He was placed on the committee on appropriations. He took an active part in the debates of the house. He took up the cudgels for the legal tender or "greenback" currency issued as a war measure, and the controversy over this money lasted many years. A party known as the Green back Party existed for several years and General Butler became a prominent figure in it. In 1868 Butler was re-elected, and again in 1870 and 1872, but in 1874 he was defeated. In 1867 he became one of the most prominent figures in the impeachment of the president, as the attorney for the board of managers on the part of the house in the trial before the senate, making the opening argument. In 1871 he became a candidate in the Republican convention for the nomination for governor, and was defeated by William B. Washburn. The following year he ran again against Governor Washburn. He was an independent candidate for governor in 1878, and as such reduced the Republican majority largely. He also had the nomination of the Democratic party, but a section of that party supported another candidate, and he again was defeated. In 1879 he was again the Democratic, and so-called "Greenback" candidate, and was again defeated. In 1880 he supported the nomination of General Hancock for president. In 1882 he again became the Democratic candidate for governor, and after a hot canvass won by fourteen thousand plurality. His administration was hampered by the fact that his council was almost unanimously Republican, as well as the legislature. He had one sensational investigation, that of the Tewksbury almshouse, something in the line of what has come in fashion generally in later days of muck-raking and graft-probing. The Republican party nominated George D. Robinson, and the Re publican governor reclaimed the state by a slender majority of nine thousand. In 1884 General Butler was elected by the Democratic state convention one of the delegates-at -large to the national convention at Chicago, and served on the platform committee. General Butler had always stood for the doctrine of a protective tariff for American industries. "I could not agree." he said, "that the Democratic party, which I supposed would be in the ascendant, could stand upon anything but the Jackson doctrine of a 'judicious tariff,' a tariff to raise sufficient revenue for the wants of the country, and to give American industry incidental protection against foreign labor. I was overruled, and some mongrel resolution was adopted which meant anything or nothing, as one chose to construe it.' He declined to sup port any candidate on that platform, and effected a fusion between the Democrat and Greenback parties in Michigan, but failed in other states to carry out his plan, which would have defeated Cleveland's election. He became a candidate for president, and labored earnestly in the hope that the Democratic vote in New York would be split and the Republican candidate elected. He says: "Election day came and there were votes enough thrown for me several times over to have prevented Mr. Cleveland's election, but in many of the poll ing places they were counted not for me but for Cleveland," and so the electoral vote of the state of New York was counted for him by a few hundred votes only. In 1888 Mr. Butler made two speeches in favor of General Harrison; after that he took no active part in politics.

He married, May 16, 1844, at St. Anne's Church. Lowell, Sarah Hildreth, daughter of Dr. Israel Hildreth, of Dracut, a town adjoining Lowell. Mrs. Butler had a distinguished career on the stage before her marriage. After her marriage she devoted herself wholly to her husband and family, and was with him during the whole of his civil war service, except during active campaigning. She died April 8, 1876. Children: 1. Paul, born June, 1846, died April, 1850. 2. Blanche, born 1847: married, 1871, Adelbert Ames. 3. Paul, born 1852; graduate of Harvard College in 1875. 4. Ben Israel, mentioned below.

"Beast Butler"

Benjamin Franklin Butler (November 5, 1818–January 11, 1893) was an American lawyer and politician who represented Massachusetts in the United States House of Representatives and later served as governor of Massachusetts.

During the American Civil War, his administration of occupied New Orleans, his policies regarding slaves as contraband, his ineffectual leadership in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and the fiasco of Fort Fisher rank him as one of the most controversial political generals of the war. He was widely reviled for years after the war by Southern whites, who gave him the nickname "Beast Butler."

"in the spring of 1862 he headed the land forces accompanying Farragut's expedition aginst new Orleans. He entered the city on May 1st, 1862, and for eight months ruled it with a high hand. His sensational Order No. 28 provoked a storm of indignation not only in the Confederacy but thoughout Europe: 'When any female shall, by word or gesture or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of th United States, she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation'... 'Beast Butler' was removed on December 16th, 1862, and place in command of the Army of the James. After the war he was a member of Congress... and governor of Massachusetts..." Myers 1972 p. 1480

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Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler, USA's Timeline

November 5, 1818
Deerfield, Rockingham Co., New Hampshire
Age 19
Waterville, Maine
March 2, 1847
Lowell, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States
June 6, 1855
January 11, 1893
Age 74
Washington, DC, United States
6 Ashburton Place, Rooms 145&6, Boston
Lowell, MA, United States