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Butler, Benjamin F.

Butler, Benjamin F. (1818–1893), Civil War general and politician.A prominent Democratic lawyer in Lowell, Massachusetts, militia Brigadier General Butler was given command of the state's troops in 1861 in order to rally Democrats to the Union cause. After relieving Washington by way of Annapolis, he secured Baltimore, was promoted to major general in command at Fortress Monroe, and won popularity by declaring fugitive slaves used by the enemy against the United States contraband of war. He lost the Battle of Big Bethel, only to recoup his fortunes by participating in the navy's seizure of Fort Hatteras.

In April 1862, Butler accompanied Flag Officer David Farragut in the seizure of New Orleans, a city where he proved his agility as an administrator. Although he maintained order and prevented an outbreak of yellow fever, Southerners called him “Beast” because he hanged a Confederate who had torn down the American flag and issued General Order No. 28 threatening to treat females who insulted his soldiers as “women of the town plying their avocation.” Rumors of corruption and controversies with foreign consuls caused him to be recalled in December. In 1863, he was given command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, which he exercised in his usual controversial manner.

In 1864, leading the Army of the James against Richmond from the coast, Butler found himself “bottled up” at Bermuda Hundred and suffered a defeat at Drury's Bluff. After failing to take Fort Fisher (Wilmington, North Carolina) in December, he was finally recalled.

After the war, Butler proved an arch‐radical congressman during Reconstruction and a firm supporter of President Ulysses S. Grant. He was a sharp critic of West Point. Elected Democratic governor of Massachusetts in 1882, he ran as an unsuccessful third‐party candidate for the presidency in 1884. His military career furnishes a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of political generals, while his championship of black troops deserves to be remembered.


Hans L. Trefousse , Ben Butler: The South Called Him Beast, 1957.
Richard S. West, Jr. , Lincoln's Scapegoat General: A Life of Benjamin F. Butler 1818–1893, 1965.

Hans L. Trefousse

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