Political Generals of the Union: Ben Butler

This entry is part 9 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

Political Generals of the Union: Ben ButlerBenjamin Butler of Massachusetts was among the worst of generals yet in certain circumstances he made a dramatic impact on the Union war effort. He was politician and shrewd businessman who never ceased to be both even though who wore the uniform of a major general of volunteers.

Butler had served in a variety of militia positions in his state, rising to the rank of brigadier general of the militia. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, a fellow Democrat, appointed him to the Board of Visitors of West Point. Despite this, these positions did not give him any significant military experience.

Butler was a Democrat who was opposed to abolition was defeated for the governorship by Democrat-turned-Republican Nathaniel Bank. He was generally active in Democrat state politics having served one term in the state legislature. He was a lawyer whose success allowed him to buy into the Massachusetts clothing mill industry.

At the start of the war Butler sought and eventually received a commission as brigadier general of the Massachusetts forces that were raised from Lincoln’s initial call for volunteers. As a mill owner he was able to take advantage of the mobilization to secure the contract for the heavy cloth that the militia would need for uniforms. Military contracts became a significant source of profits for mill.

Butler commanded the two regiments that were involved in the riots in Baltimore when they attempted to march through the city from one train station to the other. Secessionists mobs attacked the first regiment and Butler who landed at Annapolis with the second regiment was able to restore order with several not so subtle threats to the governor.  He also threatened Maryland legislators with arrest if they voted in favor of secession, and eventually seized the Great Seal of Maryland.

He was ordered to occupy Baltimore by the General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. However, even though he successful in keeping open the vital rail link from the North to Washington, Scott criticized him. Despite this criticism, Butler received one of the early appointments as a major general of volunteers.

His next assignment was the command of Fort Monroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. He sailed there and took command of the formidable fortification in May 1861. He also sent a force to occupy Newport News which gave the U.S. Navy an excellent anchorage.

The Confederates saw the occupation of Fort Monroe and the immediate area as a significant threat to Richmond. Robert E. Lee, then commander of all Virginia’s forces, sent Brig. Gen. John Magruder to secure a forward post at Big Bethel hoping to lure Butler into premature action. Butler took the bait and his forces suffered an embarrassing at the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10.

Butler did not personally lead the force and was later criticized for that action. His plan was much too complex for untrained and undertrained subordinates and troops to execute. In addition, there was a friendly fire incident. The Union troops advanced without scouting the enemy positions or knowing the strength of their opponent.

Butler was also involved in a significant policy decision when he refused to return three runaway slaves to their master. His reasoning was pure legal brilliance. When the owner appeared at the fort in a Confederate officer’s uniform, Butler refused to return the slaves because the Fugitive Slaw Law did not apply as the South was no longer part of the United States. He declared them contraband of war, a decision that President Lincoln officially approved.

Later in 1861, Butler commanded an expeditionary force that, in conjunction with the United States Navy, took Forts Hatteras and Clark in North Carolina. He directed the first Union expedition to Ship Island, off the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in December 1861. In May 1862, he commanded the force that conducted the capture of New Orleans after its occupation by the Navy after the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip.

In the administration of that city he showed great firmness and political subtlety. He devised a plan for poor relief, demanded oaths of allegiance from anyone who sought any privilege from government, and confiscated weapons. Union officials noted that Butler the politician was successful as an administrator even though he was not a very good commander.

However, many of his acts while in command at New Orleans were controversial. Most notorious was Butler’s General Order No. 28 of May 15, 1862, that if any woman should insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and shall be held liable to be treated as a “woman of the town plying her avocation”, i.e., a prostitute. This was in response to women in the town who were pouring buckets of their own urine on Union soldiers, and who at the time could get away with anything as respectable women.

The uproar was heard all of the way to Washington, London and Paris. He was nicknamed “‘Beast’ Butler” or alternatively “‘Spoons’ Butler,” the latter nickname derived from an incident in which a woman was arrested for smuggling and the silverware she was carrying was confiscated.

There were also suspicions of corruption, although not proven, that he knew about the activities of hos brother Andrew who was also in the army stationed in New Orleans. Upon arriving in the city Butler immediately began attempts to participate in the lucrative inter-belligerent trade.

He used a Federal warship to send $60,000 in sugar to Boston where he expected to sell it for $160,000. His use of the government ship was reported and instead of earning a profit, military authorities permitted him to recover only his $60,000 plus expenses. Thereafter, his brother Andrew officially represented the family in such activities. Everyone in New Orleans believed that Andrew accumulated a profit of $1–$2 million while in Louisiana. Upon inquiry from Treasury Secretary Chase in October 1862, Butler responded that his brother actually cleared less than $200,000.

The Second Confiscation Act gave the Butler brothers a golden opportunity to profit from the seizures of Confederate cotton and other materials. First, Butler conducted a census during which 4,000 respondents refused to take a loyalty oath. He then banished them and had their property seized. It was then sold at very low auction prices where Andrew Butler was often the buyer.

Next the general sent expeditions into the countryside with no military purpose other than to confiscate cotton from residents assumed to be disloyal. Once brought into New Orleans the cotton would be similarly sold in rigged auctions. To maintain correct appearances, auction proceeds were dutifully held for the benefit of “just claimants”, but the Butler consortium still ended-up owning the cotton at bargain prices.

Butler also conducted censorship of the newspaper, jailing one editor for three months and confiscating his press. Butler also ran afoul of the foreign consuls residing in New Orleans. Although his actions were popular in the North, they made the Union government uneasy and President Lincoln authorized his recall and replacement by Nathaniel Banks in December 1862.

Lincoln finally in November 1863 Butler was given command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. In May 1864 the forces under his command were designated as the Army of the James. General Ulysses Grant, now General-in-Chief, assigned Butler the task of attacking Petersburg from the east.

Butler’s offensive bogged down at the Bermuda Hundred, immobilized by the greatly inferior force of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, and he was unable to accomplish any of his assigned objectives. But it was his mismanagement of the expedition against Fort Fisher, North Carolina, that finally led to his recall by General Grant.

Butler’s importance to the reelection of Abraham Lincoln precluded his removal before the November 1864 election. Butler who by now was a Radical Republican was considered as a possible opponent to Lincoln. After the election Grant appealed directly to Lincoln for Butler’s relief, noting “there is a lack of confidence felt in [Butler’s] military ability”. Lincoln agreed and Grant relieved Butler of the command of the Army of the James on January 8, 1865.

Butler was retained by the army until November 1865 with the idea that he might act as military prosecutor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. But that opportunity never came and he returned to Massachusetts where after serving 10 years as a member of the House he was elected as Governor in 1882.

Ben Butler never ceased to be politician even though he was nominally a soldier. He was not very good as a military man but he did have value as an administrator. His decision to name escaped slaves as contraband of war was a major step to the eventual emancipation of slaves.



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