The following is a guest blog post by Elizabeth D. Leonard, author of Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life.
Benjamin Franklin Butler was one of the most important and controversial military and political leaders of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Remembered most often for his uncompromising administration of the Federal occupation of New Orleans during the war, Butler reemerges in this lively narrative as a man whose journey took him from childhood destitution to wealth and profound influence in state and national halls of power. Prize-winning biographer Elizabeth D. Leonard chronicles Butler’s successful career in the law defending the rights of the Lowell Mill girls and other workers, his achievements as one of Abraham Lincoln’s premier civilian generals, and his role in developing wartime policy in support of slavery’s fugitives as the nation advanced toward emancipation. Leonard also highlights Butler’s personal and political evolution, revealing how his limited understanding of racism and the horrors of slavery transformed over time, leading him into a postwar role as one of the nation’s foremost advocates for Black freedom and civil rights, and one of its notable opponents of white supremacy and neo-Confederate resurgence.
Butler himself claimed he was “always with the underdog in the fight.” Leonard’s nuanced portrait will help readers assess such claims, peeling away generations of previous assumptions and characterizations to provide a definitive life of a consequential man.
Happy Book Birthday to Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life, officially on sale today.
In 2013, when Colby College decided to restore to public view—in its new alumni center—the large portrait General Benjamin F. Butler had presented to the institution in 1889, I agreed to write the legend to hang nearby. In it, I explained why, even at his alma mater Butler’s memory had remained tangled with epithets like “Beast,” a nickname derived from his stern treatment of the local secessionists and their foreign allies during his army’s 1862 occupation of New Orleans; “Spoons,” for his often-alleged personal theft of valuable Confederate-owned material goods while in the Crescent City; “Bottled Up Butler,” encapsulating the various military blunders and mishaps for which he was (rightly or wrongly) assigned responsibility during the war; and so forth.
I went on to explain, however, why Colby students should in fact be proud of the college’s most significant Civil War alumnus who, in my view, deserved at least as much veneration as the much celebrated antislavery and freedom-of-the-press martyr, Elijah P. Lovejoy, class of 1826. For one thing, I argued, the historical importance of Butler’s contraband policy, forged at Fort Monroe, Virginia, in late May 1861, should not be underestimated. Indeed, Butler’s decision to shelter the runaway bondsmen Sheppard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend from the White southerners who claimed them as human property proved absolutely instrumental in shaping the North’s war aims, the federal government’s developing policies on slavery and Emancipation, and, ultimately, the nation’s future.
Moreover, long before May 1861, Butler had already achieved a number of impressive accomplishments that deserved consideration. Born poor and raised by his widowed mother, Butler had become a highly successful lawyer who typically sided with the poor and downtrodden, who won numerous cases that benefited individual women factory operatives in his town of Lowell, Massachusetts, and who provided key leadership in the process that over time led to the ten-hour workday. Then, when the war came, and weeks before he was assigned to Fort Monroe, Butler—as an officer in the Massachusetts state militia—managed to deploy the first federal troops to Washington, D.C., to defend against Confederate invasion. Soon afterwards, he acted decisively to preserve border-state Maryland’s loyalty to the Union. Indeed, the lead article in Harper’s Weekly in early June 1861 clearly indicates how many northerners then believed that if anyone could save the Union, it would be Butler. Later, in New Orleans, Butler established the first regiments of black U.S. soldiers, pushing the federal government towards its 1863 creation of the United States Colored Troops, whose 180,000 black enlistees were essential to Union victory. And as commander of the Army of the James, which had more USCT regiments than any other Civil War army, Butler’s devotion to and support for his troops and their corresponding love and reverence for him, was profound. Decades after the war Butler still received affectionate letters from former USCT veterans, and when he died in 1893, Frederick Douglass was just one of many prominent Blacks who publicly mourned his passing, sending a massive floral display for the funeral.
From Appomattox to the time of his death, Butler strove valiantly to bring into reality the implications of the federal victory for racial justice in America. As a five-term U.S. representative in Congress, governor of Massachusetts, and simply as an engaged citizen, Butler consistently positioned himself as one of the most determined and outspoken advocates of Black Americans’ advancement toward full citizenship—including but hardly limited to suffrage—taking point on crucial milestones such as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. At the same time, he remained a determined and vocal proponent of the rights of women and the working-class people and of greenback currency.
In sum, I think it is well past time that we retire the derisive epithets that have pursued Benjamin Butler into the present. So let’s stop calling him “Beast,” unless we mean it in the way the Urban Dictionary defines the word, as “a person that is extremely talented at whatever they do and always display great determination, dedication, and resilience to always win or want to win.”
Elizabeth D. Leonard’s previous books include Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky, winner of the Lincoln Prize.