American Civil War: Major General Benjamin Butler

Benjamin Butler
Major General Benjamin Butler. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Born at Deerfield, New Hampshire on November 5, 1818, Benjamin F. Butler was the sixth and youngest child of John and Charlotte Butler. A veteran of the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans, Butler's father died shortly after his son's birth. After briefly attending the Phillips Exeter Academy in 1827, Butler followed his mother to Lowell, Massachusetts the following year where she opened a boarding house. Educated locally, he had issues at school with fighting and getting into trouble. Later sent to Waterville (Colby) College, he attempted to gain admission to West Point in 1836 but failed to secure an appointment. Remaining at Waterville, Butler completed his education in 1838 and became a supporter of the Democratic Party.

Returning to Lowell, Butler pursued a career in law and received admittance to the bar in 1840. Building his practice, he also became actively involved with the local militia. Proving a skilled litigator, Butler's business expanded to Boston and he gained notice for advocating the adoption of a ten-hour day at Lowell's Middlesex Mills. A supporter of the Compromise of 1850, he spoke out against the state's abolitionists. Elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1852, Butler remained in office for much of the decade as well as attained the rank of brigadier general in the militia. In 1859, he ran for governor on a pro-slavery, pro-tariff platform and lost a close race to Republican Nathaniel P. Banks. Attending the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, Butler hoped that a moderate Democrat could be found that would prevent the party from splitting along sectional lines. As the convention moved forward, he ultimately elected to back John C. Breckenridge.

The Civil War Begins

Although he had shown sympathy to the South, Butler stated that he could not countenance the region's actions when states began to secede. As a result, he quickly began seeking a commission in the Union Army. As Massachusetts moved to respond to President Abraham Lincoln's call of volunteers, Butler used his political and banking connections to ensure that he would command the regiments that were sent to Washington, DC. Traveling with the 8th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, he learned on April 19 that Union troops moving through Baltimore had become embroiled in the Pratt Street Riots. Seeking to avoid the city, his men instead moved by rail and ferry to Annapolis, Maryland where they occupied the US Naval Academy. Reinforced by troops from New York, Butler advanced to Annapolis Junction on April 27 and reopened the rail line between Annapolis and Washington.

Asserting control over the area, Butler threatened the state's legislature with arrest if they voted to secede as well as took possession of the Great Seal of Maryland. Lauded by General Winfield Scott for his actions, he was ordered to protect transport links in Maryland against interference and occupy Baltimore. Assuming control of the city on May 13, Butler received a commission as a major general of volunteers three days later. Though criticized for his heavy-handed administration of civil affairs, he was directed to move south to command forces at Fort Monroe later in the month. Situated at the end of the peninsula between the York and James Rivers, the fort served as a key Union base deep in Confederate territory. Moving out from the fort, Butler's men quickly occupied Newport News and Hampton.

Big Bethel

On June 10, more than a month before the First Battle of Bull Run, Butler launched an offensive operation against Colonel John B. Magruder's forces at Big Bethel. In the resulting Battle of Big Bethel, his troops were defeated and forced to withdraw back towards Fort Monroe. Though a minor engagement, the defeat received a great deal of attention in the press as the war had just begun. Continuing to command from Fort Monroe, Butler refused to return freedom seekers to their enslavers claiming that they were contraband of war. This policy quickly received support from Lincoln and other Union commanders were directed to act similarly. In August, Butler embarked part of his force and sailed south with squadron led by Flag Officer Silas Stringham to attack Forts Hatteras and Clark in the Outer Banks. On August 28-29, the two Union officers succeeded in capturing the fort during the Battle of Hatteras Inlets Batteries.

New Orleans

Following this success, Butler received command of the forces that occupied Ship Island off the Mississippi coast in December 1861. From this position, he moved to occupy New Orleans after the city's capture by Flag Officer David G. Farragut in April 1862. Reasserting Union control over New Orleans, Butler's administration of the area received mixed reviews. While his directives helped check the annual yellow fever outbreaks others, such as General Order No. 28, led to outrage across the South. Tired of the city's women abusing and insulting his men, this order, issued on May 15, stated that any woman caught doing so would be treated as a "woman of the town plying her avocation." In addition, Butler censored New Orleans' newspapers and was believed to have used his position to loot homes in the area as well as improperly profit from the trade in confiscated cotton. These actions earned him the nickname "Beast Butler." After foreign consuls complained to Lincoln that he was interfering with their operations, Butler was recalled in December 1862 and replaced with his old foe, Nathaniel Banks.

Army of the James

Despite Butler's weak record as a field commander and controversial tenure in New Orleans, his switch to the Republican Party and support from its Radical wing compelled Lincoln to give him a new assignment. Returning to Fort Monroe, he assumed command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina in November 1863. The following April, Butler's forces assumed the title of Army of the James and he received orders from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to attack west and disrupt the Confederate railroads between Petersburg and Richmond. These operations were intended to support Grant's Overland Campaign against General Robert E. Lee to the north. Moving slowly, Butler's efforts came to a halt near Bermuda Hundred in May when his troops were held by a smaller force led by General P.G.T. Beauregard.

With the arrival of Grant and the Army of the Potomac near Petersburg in June, Butler's men began operating in conjunction with this larger force. Despite Grant's presence, his performance did not improve and the Army of the James continued to have difficulty. Positioned north of the James River, Butler's men had some success at Chaffin's Farm in September, but subsequent actions later in the month and in October failed to gain significant ground. With the situation at Petersburg stalemated, Butler was directed in December to take part of his command to capture Fort Fisher near Wilmington, NC. Supported by a large Union fleet led by Rear Admiral David D. Porter, Butler landed some of his men before judging that the fort was too strong and the weather too poor to mount an assault. Returning north to an irate Grant, Butler was relieved on January 8, 1865, and command of the Army of the James passed to Major General Edward O.C. Ord.

Later Career and Life

Returning to Lowell, Butler hoped to find a position in the Lincoln Administration but was thwarted when the president was assassinated in April. Formally leaving the military on November 30, he elected to resume his political career and won a seat in Congress the following year. In 1868, Butler played a key role in the impeachment and trial of President Andrew Johnson and three years later wrote the initial draft of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. A sponsor of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which called for equal access to public accommodations, he was angered to see the law overturned by the Supreme Court in 1883. After unsuccessful bids for Governor of Massachusetts in 1878 and 1879, Butler finally won the office in 1882.

While governor, Butler appointed the first woman, Clara Barton, to an executive office in May 1883 when he offered her oversight of the Massachusetts Reformatory Prison for Women. In 1884, he earned the presidential nomination from the Greenback and Anti-Monopoly Parties but fared poorly in the general election. Leaving office in January 1884, Butler continued to practice law until his death on January 11, 1893. Passing in Washington, DC, his body was returned to Lowell and buried at Hildreth Cemetery.


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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Benjamin Butler." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Benjamin Butler. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Benjamin Butler." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).