Benjamin Franklin Butler (politician)

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Benjamin Franklin Butler

Benjamin Franklin Butler (November 5, 1818January 11, 1893) was an American lawyer, soldier and politician.

He was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire, and was graduated from what is now Colby College in 1838, was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1840, began practice at Lowell, Massachusetts, and early attained distinction as a lawyer, particularly in criminal cases. Entering politics as a Democrat, he first attracted general attention by his violent campaign in Lowell in advocacy of the passage of a law establishing a ten-hour day for laborers; he was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1853, and of the Massachusetts Senate in 1859, and was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions from 1848 to 1860. In that of 1860 at Charleston he advocated the nomination of Jefferson Davis and opposed Stephen A. Douglas, and in the ensuing campaign he supported John C. Breckinridge.

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Civil War

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Benjamin Franklin Butler

Governor John A. Andrew sent Butler with a force of Massachusetts troops to reopen communication between the Union states and the Federal capital. By his energetic and careful work Butler achieved his purpose without fighting, and he was soon afterwards appointed major general of U.S. Volunteers.

Assigned command of Fort Monroe, Butler declined to return to their owners fugitive slaves who had come within his lines, on the ground that, as laborers for fortifications, and so on, they were contraband of war, thus originating the phrase contraband as applied to African-Americans. In the conduct of tactical operations Butler was almost uniformly unsuccessful, and his first action at Big Bethel, Virginia, was a humiliating defeat for the National arms. He was also head of the Department of Eastern Virginia.

Later in 1861 Butler commanded an expeditionary force, which, in conjunction with the navy, took Forts Hatteras and Clark, in North Carolina. In 1862 he commanded the force that occupied New Orleans. In the administration of that city he showed great firmness and severity. New Orleans was unusually healthy and orderly during the Butler regime. Many of his acts, however, gave great offense, such as the seizure of $800,000 that had been deposited in the office of the Dutch consul. Most notorious was an order on May 15, issued after some provocation, 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 order provoked protests both in the North and the South, and also abroad, particularly in England and France, and it was doubtless the cause of his removal in December, 1862.

On June 1 he had executed one W.B. Mumford, who had torn down a United States flag placed by Admiral Farragut on the United States Mint; for this execution he was denounced (December 1862) by President Davis in General Order 111 as a felon deserving capital punishment, who if captured should be reserved for execution.

In the spring of 1864 Butler was placed at the head of the Army of the James and ordered to attack in the direction of Richmond from the east, destroying rail links and distracting Robert E. Lee, in conjunction with attacks from the north by Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had little use for Butler's military skills, but Butler had strong political connections that kept him in positions beyond his competence. His offensive bogged down east of Richmond in the area called Bermuda Hundred 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 in December. He resigned his commission November 30, 1865.

Post war years

He was a Republican representative in the U.S. Congress from 1867 to 1879, except from 1875 to 1877, i.e. the 40th, 41st, 42nd, 43rd and 45th Congresses. In Congress he was conspicuous as a Radical Republican in Reconstruction legislation, and was one of the managers selected by the House to conduct the impeachment, before the Senate, of President Johnson, opening the case and taking the most prominent part in it. He exercised a marked influence over President Grant and was regarded as his spokesman in the House, and he was one of the foremost advocates of the payment in greenbacks of the government bonds. During his time in the House, he served chairman of the Committee on Revision of the Laws in the 42nd Congress and the Committee on the Judiciary in the 43rd Congress.

He was a defeated independent candidate for governor of Massachusetts in 1878, and also in 1879 when he ran on the Democratic and Greenback tickets, but in 1882 he was elected by the Democrats who got no other state offices. From 1883 to 1884 he was Governor of Massachusetts. As presidential nominee of the Greenback and Anti-Monopolist parties, he polled 175,370 votes in the U.S. presidential election, 1884, when he had bitterly opposed the nomination by the Democratic party of Grover Cleveland, to defeat whom he tried to throw his own votes in Massachusetts and New York to the Republican candidate.

His professional income as a lawyer was estimated at $100,000 per annum shortly before his death at Washington, D.C. He was an able but erratic administrator and soldier, and a brilliant lawyer. As a politician he excited bitter opposition, and was charged, apparently with justice, with corruption and venality in conniving at and sharing the profits of illicit trade with the Confederates carried on by his brother at New Orleans and by his brother-in-law in the department of Virginia and North Carolina, while General Butler was in command.

He died while attending court in Washington, D.C. He is interred in Hildreth Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Further reading

  • James Parton, Butler in New Orleans (New York, 1863).
  • The Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General B. F. Butler: Butlers Book (New York, 1893).

Sources



Preceded by:
John D. Long
Governor of Massachusetts Succeeded by:
George D. Robinson
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