150th Anniversary of the U.S. Civil War

General Benjamin Franklin Butler


General Benjamin Butler

General Benjamin F. Butler

From Harper's Weekly, June 1, 1861, upon his promotion to commander of Fortress Monroe

Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler is one of the more controversial characters to take part in the Civil War. He is best remembered for his command of Fortress Monroe and later as overseer of the captured city of New Orleans. He was known for his unilateral decision making, which often times got him into trouble but other times paid off in unexpected ways.

Life Before the Civil War

Born in Deerfield, New Hampshire, in 1818, Butler went to Exeter Academy in Lowell, Massachusetts, then studied chemistry at Waterville College in Maine, where he first showed his penchant for doing things his own way by rebelling against the religious teachings of the college. Following his undergraduate work he studied law independently under a New Hampshire lawyer. He was admitted to the bar in 1840 and began his law career by setting up a practice back in Lowell. In 1839, Butler proposed marriage to Sarah Hildreth in Cincinnati, where the Shakespearean actress was starring in a play. They were married on May 16, 1844 and had four children together. In 1853, Butler received a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and in 1859 he was elected to the state Senate.

In politics, Butler was a Democrat. He believed in the constitutionality of slavery and the rights of slaveholders in those states that allowed it. Like Lincoln, he had no intention of interfering with the rights of current slaveholders in the antebellum period. But he also believed in the preservation of the Union and that Congress should control the admission of new states as free or slave. He was a delegate to the National Democratic Convention of 1860 where the issues of slavery and secession were hotly discussed. While Butler initially supported Senator Stephen A. Douglas as the Democratic presidential candidate, he (alone) eventually voted for none other than the future Confederate president Jefferson Davis 57 times. For this he says he was "criticized and abused for more than thirty years, in every form of words that characterizes calumny."[1] It was at the 1860 convention where the divided Democrats put forth two presidential candidates, a step that in essence allowed Abraham Lincoln to win the election and spur secession.

Civil War Service

Butler answered the call for Civil War volunteers and received a political appointment as brigadier general on April 17, 1861. Butler's first foray into battle was to lead his troops to secure Baltimore, for which he was made commander of the Department of Annapolis on April 26, 1861. On May 16, 1861, he was promoted to major general and put in command of the Department of Eastern Virginia, headquartered at Fortress Monroe.

Fortress Monroe

Fortress Monroe

From Harpers Weekly, January, 1862

Contraband at Fortress Monroe

After Virginia seceded from the Union on May 23, 1861, Fortress Monroe, located on the tip of a peninsula in Chesapeake Bay, became a Union island in the middle of Confederate territory. Across the water-filled ditch surrounding Fortress Monroe, the Confederacy was building its own fortifications and batteries, largely with slave labor. On the night of May 23, three slaves belonging to Colonel Charles Mallory crossed the ditch and gave themselves up to Fortress Monroe's picketguard. During questioning by General Butler, the three disclosed Confederate war preparations in which they were involved and the extent to which the Confederates were using slaves to accomplish those preparations. Butler also discovered that many slaves were being sent south to assist with other war-related labor.

The question Butler now faced was whether the three slaves should be returned to their owner or if they should be retained at Fortress Monroe. With no precedence upon which to work, but after carefully reviewing the facts, he decided to keep them. Butler viewed the slaves as assets that the Confederates were using to promote their war efforts, and like any such item he felt it his duty to confiscate them - they were contraband. His decision would be a ground breaking moment in the war. His reasoning is outlined in a letter Butler wrote to General Winfield Scott on May 24 & 25, 1861:

I immediately gave personal attention to the matter and found satisfactory evidence that these men were about to be taken to ----- for the purpose of aiding the secession forces there.

Satisfied of these facts from cautious examination of each of the negroes apart from the others, I determined for the present and until better advised, as these men were very serviceable and I had great need of labor in my Quartermasters's Department, to avail myself of their services.[2]

"Contraband of war"

"Contraband of War"

These men worked as teamsters under Butler during his 1864 command of Bermuda Hundred near Richmond, Virginia.

From Photographic History of the Civil War, volume 9

He had this to write about a visit from Major Cary, Colonel Mallory's representative, who came to Butler asking what he intended to do with the slaves:

Major Cary demanded to know, with regard to the negroes, what course I intended to pursue. I answered him substantially as I have written above, when he desired to know if I did not feel myself bound by my constitutional obligations to deliver up fugitives under the Fugitive Slave Act. To this I replied that the Fugitive Slave Act  did not affect a foreign country, which Virginia claimed to be, and that she must reckon it one of the infelicities of her position that in so far at least, she was taken at her word...[2]

One can only imagine the satisfaction that Butler must have felt upon making this statement to Major Cary. Following Butler's decisions, slaves, both male and female and of all ages, began to pour in to Fortress Monroe. From this point on, slaves fleeing into Union territory would be known as "Contraband of War."

New Orleans

New Orleans

New Orleans

From Harper's Weekly, May 10, 1862

In 1862, Butler was appointed commander of the newly created Department of the Gulf and sent to New Orleans where he was named military governor upon taking possession of the fallen city on May 1. In a proclamation written by Butler as he took command he stressed that any person or group willing to take an oath of allegiance to the United States would enjoy the full benefits and rights afforded to an American citizen, but anyone else would be labelled a rebel and treated as such. Butler's May 8 letter to the Secretary of War offers a glimpse of his future strategy when it came to maintaining order in New Orleans: "There is, however, here a violent, strong, and unruly mob that can only be kept under by fear. ... It will become necessary for me to use the utmost severity in breaking up the various rebel recruiting associations here ... I propose to make some brilliant examples." [3] In the next seven months, Butler's attempts to carry out these plans would earn him the nickname, "the Beast."

That the women of New Orleans would be the subject of one of his first examples Butler probably never expected, but their behavior prompted one of his earliest punishments against the city's unruly rebels. While walking the streets of New Orleans, Union officers and soldiers were frequently insulted and even spit upon by women. Butler eventually had enough of it and issued General Order No. 28, forever after known as the "Woman Order:"

As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans, in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall, by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation. [4]

Harper's Weekly cartoon Harper's Weekly cartoon

New Orleans ladies before and after General Butler's order

from Harper's Weekly, July 12, 1862

The day after issuing this order, Butler received a letter from New Orleans Mayor John T. Monroe, criticizing the order and charging that it would give Union officers and soldiers freedom to "place any construction they please upon the conduct of our wives and daughters, and upon such construction to offer them atrocious insults." [5] Upon being hauled into Butler's office and told that the order was not intended for the "virtuous women" of whom he spoke, Mayor Monroe decided to withdraw his letter. When asked how he would enforce the "Woman Order" if the situation demanded it, Butler predicted that it would never be necessary; he was that confident that the order would be obeyed. Indeed, he was correct, and thereafter Union soldiers had no troubles with New Orleans ladies.

Butler's next example took on a much more serious tone than the berating of a bunch of uppity women. William B. Mumford was a Confederate sympathizer who participated in the seizure, defilement, and destruction of a United States flag flying over the New Orleans Mint in May of 1862. For this act of "treason," Butler had him court-martialed and sentenced him to hang on June 7, 1862. Mumford's supporters claimed that, while the incident did happen, it was before New Orleans fell into Union hands and therefore did not occur while martial law was in force in the city. Louisiana Governor Thomas Moore declared Mumford a martyr, as did countless Southern newspapers covering the incident.

Foreign citizens and consulates stationed in New Orleans did not escape Butler's control - unless of course they were willing to declare their allegiance to the United States. Butler's General Order No. 41 of June 10, 1862 required that "all foreigners claiming any of the privileges of an American citizen, or protection or favor from the Government of the United States" [6] take an oath stating that they would not aid the enemy. The British Consul threatened to resign. The Spanish, French, Belgian, Greek, Italian, and Swiss consuls banded together to protest the order, stating that since their formal position was one of neutrality, they could not take an oath claiming allegiance to the United States. For this, Butler received negative attention from President Lincoln, who ordered that no future oaths be accepted and that those already in hand be cancelled.

St. Charles Hotel, New Orleans

St. Charles Hotel, New Orleans

Butler seized the hotel, which was used as headquarters for the Department of the Gulf.

From Photographic History of the Civil War, vol.7

Eventually, Butler's antics, which by this time included the alleged pilfering of southerner's silver, irritated too many of the wrong people. On November 9, 1862, the Secretary of War, by the direction of President Lincoln, issued General Order No. 184 placing Major General N.P. Banks in command of the Department of the Gulf, including Texas. Butler knew of Banks's command of Texas, but continued under the belief that Banks would report to him. The ball was finally dropped with a letter from Salmon P. Chase on December 14, 1862, informing him of the true nature of Banks's command. Banks arrived in New Orleans on that same day and after presenting Butler with General Order No. 184, assumed command of the Gulf.

The decision to replace Butler was not unanimous within the Union ranks. For his work in the Gulf, he received much support and praise from Union people, commanders, soldiers, and civilians, some of whom lamented that he should have been allowed to continue the work that he started. Salmon P. Chase was particularly vigorous in his support of Butler, working tirelessly to have him reinstated in New Orleans. Others strongly disagreed. On December 23, 1862, Jefferson Davis, the very man for whom Butler cast 57 votes at the 1960 Democratic Convention, proclaimed him an outlaw and ordered that upon capture he should immediately be hanged.

In Butler's Christmas Eve farewell address to the citizens of New Orleans he maintained his belief that he did all that he could to improve conditions in the city. It is in this address that we see his turn-about in his attitude toward slavery:

Months of experience and of observation have forced the conviction that the existence of slavery is incompatible with the safety either of yourselves or of the Union. As the system has gradually grown to its present huge dimensions, it were best if it could be gradually removed; but it is better, far better, that it should be taken out at once, than that it should longer vitiate the social, political, and family relations of your country. [7]

Life After New Orleans

Benjamin Butler

General Benjamin F. Butler in command at Richmond

From Photographic History of the Civil War, volume 10

After a brief stint in Washington, D.C., Butler returned home to Lowell in February, 1863. In November, Butler was given the command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, later called The Army of the James. General Grant, lacking confidence in Butler's military capabilities, requested that he be removed from command in a January 4, 1865 letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton He was replaced by General Ord on January 7. Again Butler went to Washington then back to Lowell, where he stayed for most of the remainder of the war. Butler retired from the army on October 28, 1865.

Butler enjoyed a fairly successful political career after the War, switching political parties as his needs demanded. The previously staunch Democrat ran as a Republican and was appointed to the Fortieth and to the three succeeding Congresses, serving there from March 4, 1867 to March 3, 1875. He unsuccessfully ran for reelection to the Forty-fifth Congress in 1874, but was reappointed to the Forty-fifth and served until March 3, 1879. Butler ran unsuccessfully for Massachusetts Governor three times, once as a Republican, once as an independent, and once as a Democrat. He was finally elected Governor in 1882 on a combined Greenback/Democratic ticket. In 1884 he made an unsuccessful bid for President of the United States, running on a Greenback/Anti-Monopolist ticket.

Butler died on January 11, 1893 while attending court in Washington, D.C.; he is buried in Hildreth Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Resources in the Archives & Rare Books Library

Private and Personal Correspondence of General Benjamin Butler

Private and Official Correspondence of General Benjamin F. Butler

Rare Books E467.1 .B87B8 (1917)

Butler's Civil War service is best documented in this five volume set of letters written to and from both General Butler and his wife during the entire duration of the war. Also included are letters written about Butler. Butler's service at Fortress Monroe and New Orleans is contained in volumes one and two.

Character and Results of the War

Character and Results of the War. How to prosecute and how to end it.

Rare Books E468 .L8 no.7 (1863)

This is the text of a speech given by General Butler on April 2, 1863, at a public reception given to him by the City of New York. Also included are introductions by General Wool, Senator Morgan, and the Mayor of New York, as well as letters between Butler and the City.

General Butler in New Orleans

General Butler in New Orleans by James Parton

Rare Books E510 .P3 1864

James Parton wrote to General Butler on January 19, 1863 asking for permission to write a history of his administration of New Orleans. Butler heartily agreed and offered to assist Parton in any way he could. The book is quite complete, but as it was written by a fan of Butler's with information provided by Butler himself, it is a biased toward Butler.

Resources at Other UC Libraries

Bland, Thomas Augustus, Life of Benjamin F. Bulter. Boston : Lee and Shepard; New York : C. T. Dillingham, 1879.

LANGSAM E467.1.B87 B6  

Butler, Benjamin F. Autobiography and personal reminiscences of Major-General Benjamin F. Butler. Boston : A. M. Thayer, 1892.

LANGSAM E467.1.B87 B79  

Butler, Benjamin F. Opening argument of Mr. Butler of Massachusetts, one of the managers on the impeachment of the President. Washington : G.P.O., 1868.

Resource Online

Butler, Benjamin F. Speech of Maj.-Gen. Benj. F. Butler,upon the campaign before Richmond, 1864. Delivered at Lowell, Mass., January 29, 1865.  Boston : Wright & Potter, printer, 1865.

Resource Online

Hearn, Chester G. When the devil came down to Dixie : Ben Butler in New Orleans. Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, c1997.

LANGSAM E467.1.B87 H43 1997 

Longacre, Edward G. Army of amateurs : General Benjamin F. Butler and the Army of the James, 1863-1865. Mechanicsburg, Pa. : Stackpole Books, c1997.

Resource Online

McLaughlin, J. Fairfax. The American Cyclops, the hero of New Orleans, and spoiler of silver spoons. Baltimore : Kelly & Piet, 1868.

Resource Online

Pomeroy, Marcus Mills. The life and public services of Benjamin F. Butler: major-general in the army and leader of the Republican Party. New York : 1868.

Resource Online

Trefousse, Hans Louis. Ben Butler, the South called him Beast! New York : Twayne Publishers, 1957.

SW Depository E467.1.B87 T7 

United States. Army. Dept. of the Gulf. General orders from Headquarters, Department of the Gulf: from May 1st, 1862, to the present time / issued by Major-General B.F. Butler. New Orleans : E. R. Wagener, Printer and Stationer, 1862.

Resource Online

West, Richard S. Lincoln's scapegoat general; a life of Benjamin F. Butler, 1818-1893. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1965.

LANGSAM E467.1.B87 W43  


1 Butler, Autobiography, p. 140

2 Private and Official Correspondence, volume 1, letter from General Butler to General Scott, May 24 & 25, 1861

3. Private and Official Correspondence, volume 1, letter from General Butler to The Secretary of War, May 8, 1862

4. Private and Official Correspondence, volume 1, General Orders No. 28, May 18, 1862

5. Private and Official Correspondence, volume 1, letter from Mayor John T. Monroe to General Butler, May 19, 1862

6. Private and Official Correspondence, volume 1, General Orders No. 41, June 10, 1862

7. Private and Official Correspondence, volume 2, Farewell Address by General Butler, December, 1862

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