Happy Birthday, General Butler: Remarks for Butler Birthday Commemoration

The following are remarks given by Elizabeth D. Leonard, author of Benjamin Franklin Butler: a Noisy, Fearless Life, at the annual Benjamin Butler birthday commemoration at the cemetery in Dracut, MA, where he and many of his family members are buried.

As you may or may not know, I am the author of a new biography of General Butler: Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life, published by UNC Press this past May. I hope you will consider reading it, the product of years of research, including at Colby (his alma mater, where I taught for almost thirty years), the Library of Congress, and repositories in Massachusetts, Louisiana, and elsewhere. He was a challenging figure to study, but also fascinating and endearing. I’m glad I took up the work, and am proud of the book that it yielded. 

Benjamin Butler was born in relative poverty in Deerfield, New Hampshire, on November 5, 1818 (204 years ago yesterday!). In writing a biography, historians typically take advantage of the built-in “narrative arc” of a life, from birth, development, maturity, decline, to death. But to be honest, when I was first drafting the manuscript for my biography of Butler, I seriously considered starting with his sudden death in Washington, DC, and subsequent funeral right here in Lowell. Why? Because Butler is so little remembered today—and when he is “remembered,” it is usually as a much-maligned caricature (“Beast Butler,” “Spoons Butler”), and I wanted to make it clear to readers right from the start what a hugely important, widely known, and much loved and revered individual (and historical actor) he was in January 1893. In the end, I took the more conventional approach, but I stand by the notion that his massive funeral tells us a great deal more about who he was and what he contributed to our nation’s history than his simple birth in obscurity in Deerfield, or any absurd, minimizing epithet, ever could. 

I would also like to mention, as we commemorate his life here today, two things I have tried hard to demonstrate in the biography are: first, how very impressive the development of Butler’s own thinking and vision was over the course of his lifetime. In some ways, he was utterly consistent. In 1883, a decade before his death, he wrote: “God made me in only one way. I must always be with the underdog in the fight. I can’t help it; I can’t change, and upon the whole I don’t want to.” My research suggests that he was indeed consistent throughout his life on this score; what changed and expanded over time, though, was his understanding of who the nation’s “underdogs” were, a group that came to include laborers and the poor, women, immigrants, enslaved Black Americans, and the freedpeople. For his support for the nation’s underdogs, Butler earned the devotion and respect of many, and the hatred and denigration of many others (Confederates, neo-Confederates, and many of the rich and powerful across the land). And still, he pressed on, determined, clever, irascible, humorous, imperfect, noisy, fearless.  

The second thing I want to mention is that in my research for the biography I made a point of examining sources that had been largely if not entirely ignored in the past (importantly including source materials that offered insights into Black Americans’ perceptions of Butler); and of asking new questions of sources that have been examined by Butler biographers before me. Why, I wanted to know, did certain individuals see and describe and relate to Butler they way they did, both during his lifetime and after? It seemed to me that to understand him better—including to understand why he has dropped so far off the map of popular historical understanding—these two approaches were essential and beneficial. I still feel that way.

Let me close by saying that I, for one, truly wish Benjamin Butler was with us today to help guide us through what I consider to be deeply troubling times! Just as one example, some of you may know that in fall 1864, Ulysses S. Grant selected Butler to command the Union forces deployed to New York City in order to ensure a safe and free election there. Once in NYC, Butler issued his General Orders No. 1, in which he declared his determination to protect the rights of all eligible voters and to “preserve the peace of the United States, to protect public property, to prevent and punish incursions into our borders, and to insure calm and quiet.” Butler’s order, reported the Army and Navy Journal, “was a characteristic and judicious document” which skillfully navigated between “the curt expression of arbitrary will and a profusion of apologetic explanation.” The election passed peacefully, and in the eyes of many New Yorkers, Butler deserved all the credit. “We attribute the preservation of the peace and good order of the city on the day of the election,” declared one civic organization, “primarily if not exclusively and entirely to the presence of General Butler in command of this place” thanks to his “great executive and administrative abilities, energy, and force of character, unyielding firmness, and intensive sagacity, whose presence alone gave assurance of protection to the loyal and peaceable, and of retributive punishment to the disloyal and disorderly.” 

Would that he could protect our elections and their aftermath this coming week, and then help us solve the many other thorny problems we face, so many of which he would recognize from the Reconstruction period and beyond, years in which he worked so courageously to push the nation toward true social, economic, and racial justice.

Happy birthday, General Butler! 

Elizabeth D. Leonard’s previous books include Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky, winner of the Lincoln Prize.