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  Name:  Benjamin Franklin Butler
  Born:  November 5, 1818
  Died:  January 11, 1893

  Complete HarpWeek Biography:

Butler, Benjamin Franklin (November 5, 1818 – January 11, 1893) 

Benjamin Butler was a Union general who in May 1861 refused to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act, and instead protected runaway slaves entering Union lines as “contraband of war.”  In 1862, he again stirred controversy as the Union commander of occupied New Orleans.  After the Civil War, Butler served as a Republican congressman, Democratic governor of Massachusetts, and presidential nominee of the Greenback–Labor and Antimonopoly Parties in 1884. His peculiar looks, frequent party switching, and controversial policies made him a favored target of political cartoonists.  

Butler was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire, on November 5, 1818, and graduated from Waterville College (now Colby College) in 1838. After admission to the Massachusetts bar in 1840, he began a successful practice in Lowell, gaining a widespread reputation as a talented trial lawyer. Active in the Democratic Party, he served one term as state representative in 1853, one term as state senator in 1858, and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1859. The following year, he supported John Breckinridge, the Southern Democrat, for president and again ran unsuccessfully for governor, this time on the ticket of the Breckinridge faction.  

However, when the Civil War began, Butler was quick to volunteer his services to the Union cause. A brigadier general of the Massachusetts militia, he led forces that secured Baltimore for the Union and, as a major general, captured Forts Hatteras and Clark in North Carolina.  On May 24 1861, General Butler, the Union commander at Fort Monroe in southeast Virginia, refused to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act.  He labeled runaway slaves, whom the Confederacy considered to be property, “contraband of war” (i.e., seized property) if their masters refused to pledge loyalty to the Union.  Congress finally acted on the issue on August 6, 1861, by passing the First Confiscation Act, which prohibited Union military officers from returning runaway or captured slaves who had been used in the Confederate war effort to their masters.   

Butler’s most famous (or infamous) connection with the war was his controversial tenure as commander of the occupation forces in New Orleans in 1862. He seized the posh St. Charles Hotel as his initial headquarters, confiscated $800,000 from the Dutch consulate (which he insisted had been intended for purchase of Confederate war supplies), hanged a man for taking a Union flag down from a flagpole, and inflicted other restrictions, which caused New Orleans residents to label him “Beast,” “Brute,” and “Spoons” (for his alleged tendency to steal silverware). The regulation that raised the most ire was his “Woman Order,” which stipulated that women who insulted Union soldiers would be treated as prostitutes. In December 1862, he was replaced by General Nathaniel Banks.  

In late 1863, Butler was given the command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. In October 1864, he was sent to New York City to prevent or control election riots. Criticized for his inability in the field (Grant accused him of getting “bottled up”—another nickname that stuck), Butler retired from the army and returned to Massachusetts in December 1864.  

After the war, Butler was elected to Congress as a Republican, serving from 1867 to 1875 and from 1877 to 1879. He enthusiastically backed the Radical Reconstruction policies of the Congressional Republicans. A vociferous, unrelenting critic of President Johnson, he authored the tenth article of impeachment aimed at the president’s verbal attacks on Congress. At the suggestion of the ailing Thaddeus Stevens, Butler became the lead House prosecutor at Johnson’s removal trial in the Senate. The Massachusetts Congressman’s poor performance, however, has often been cited as a factor in Johnson’s acquittal.  

Butler was an almost perennial candidate for governor of Massachusetts, running unsuccessfully in 1871, 1873, 1874, 1878, and 1879, before being elected in 1882 by a Democratic–Greenback–Labor coalition. In his final bid for office, he was the presidential nominee of the Greenback–Labor and Anti–Monopoly parties in 1884, polling less than 2% of the popular vote.  Butler died in Washington, D.C., on January 11, 1893. 

Sources consultedDictionary of American Biography; Harper’s Weekly Encyclopedia of United States History; and Mark Boatner, The Civil War Dictionary.


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