The Curious General Butler


He had a face only a mother could love and, quite frankly, many women detested. Benjamin Butler was a Union general whose Civil War career was filled with peaks and valleys. He was the commanding general whose troops entered New Orleans, and he was also in charge of the Army of the James, which had a less than a spectacular record under his command. He doesn’t rank as one of the great officers of the North, but all the same Butler’s contributions during the American Civil War were interesting.


A Political General

War is an opportunity for politically ambitious folks. A few years in uniform can win quite a few votes, and the elections of the post-Civil War era attests to that. Benjamin Butler was aggressive in seeking an appointment as an officer in the federal army, using his contacts to get a general’s rank. He was ultimately commissioned a major general of volunteers and provided important service in securing Baltimore and the rail service between Annapolis and Washington D. C.

Contraband of War

Benjamin Butler made a significant contribution to the American Civil War at Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he took command of the Department of Virginia in May, 1861. Three slaves ran away from their owner and sought refuge at the Fort. When the slave owner demanded the return of his property, Butler refused to do that. His reasoning was that the slaves were being used to conduct war against the American government. In effect, he was labeling these three as contraband of war. His action led to the First Confiscation Act passed by Congress. It was now official policy that slaves would be considered property United States government should they cross into territory controlled by federal troops.

The significance of what Butler did becomes more apparent as the story of the war progresses. Contraband of war can be sold or repatriated to its former owners. The action at Fort Monroe started the process that led to the Emancipation Proclamation and then to the 13th Amendment. It became increasingly more apparent that abolition of slavery was going to be one of the reasons for conducting the war. Butler can claim responsibility for setting things in motion. His action Fort Monroe gained him a lot of popularity in the North. The general would soon be moving on to make history elsewhere.

New Orleans

The Federal fleet commanded by Flag Officer David G. Farragut got past Confederate defenses at the Forts Saint Philip and Jackson on April 24, 1862, making the capture of New Orleans a fait accompli. Butler entered the city on May 1, 1862, with a sizable Federal force behind him. Capturing New Orleans was major feather in his cap, but keeping the city was going to be different story.

Butler continued the martial law which was in effect when the Confederates controlled the city. He went a little bit further, however, in letting people know that there was a new man in town. The ladies of New Orleans had been not just vocal in their disregard for federal soldiers. Indeed, the contents of chamber pots were tossed on the heads of federal troops, and even Farragut himself was the victim of the smelly pot debris. Butler didn’t tolerate this and didn’t care that it was coming from women. His General Order Number 28, written in response to the insults hurled at his troops, let it be known that any lady who abused one of his soldiers or officers was to be considered a prostitute. Southern belles might think his soldiers were a pack of dogs; Butler thought the ladies were a group of whores. The harassment stopped quickly after the order was issued.

He kept New Orleans from being retaken by adroitly playing one side off against the other. His attachment to the less fortunate made it easier for the federal government to maintain its presence in New Orleans. Butler became the advocate for the poor and the working class of the city. He had a free food program that fed thousands and reopened the port. His actions may have angered the southern aristocracy, but the working poor respected the general. The order against women is what gets the most attention about his administration in New Orleans. What is not always noted, however, is what he did regarding yellow fever. New Orleans used to be devastated by yellow fever on an annual basis. Butler initiated a quarantine and cleaned up the city with public works projects that cleared out canals and stagnant pools of water. It resulted in only two yellow fever fatalities during the late summer and early fall of 1862.

Future Assignments

Butler suffered from a problem faced by many managers: his boss didn’t like him. Ulysses S Grant did not have much use for political generals. To be fair to the Union commander, Grant’s experience with Nathaniel P Banks, another political general, was horrible. Grant no doubt looked on Butler as an amateur trying to play soldier. Butler lived up to that bit of slander.

The general was in command of the Army of the James during the Overland Campaign. His forces were positioned at Bermuda Hundred, a fishing village south of Richmond. Butler’s orders were to break the railroad supply lines to Richmond. Sensing that his subordinate had little military experience, Grant sent two highly competent generals to assist. Butler was able to completely mismanage a campaign with the result that the Army of the James was bottled up and surrounded by Confederate forces approximately half its size (in a historical twist of irony, the Confederate Army was commanded by P. G. T. Beauregard, a former resident of New Orleans). This humiliation ought to have been sufficient to end a career, but General Butler performed one more military embarrassment.

It was the attack on Fort Fisher which guarded Wilmington, North Carolina. Wilmington was the only major seaport left open to the Confederacy and Grant wanted it captured. He assigned Butler the task of doing this. The Massachusetts political soldier once again proved that he was not cut out for command.

Exasperated, Grant telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln on December 28, 1864:

The Wilmington expedition has proven a gross and culpable failure…. Who is to blame will, I hope, be known (Grant, 1990).

It is a safe bet to believe Grant held Butler responsible for the fiasco. Butler demanded a congressional inquiry where he defended what he had done, and he insisted Fort Fisher was almost impossible to capture. Unfortunately for him, word arrived during the hearings that Fort Fisher and Wilmington had both been captured. Ben Butler’s military career was over. He returned to politics and would eventually be governor of Massachusetts.


Ben Butler in Hindsight

We need to remember in those situations where Benjamin Butler could use his skills as a politician, he did a decent job. Thousands of lives were saved by his public sanitation efforts and the Port of New Orleans was again open for business. He kept this vital city from being recaptured by Confederates by siding with the lower classes in their efforts to have a decent life. He was very politically astute, a quality many battlefield generals lacked.

Butler also recognized the value of African-Americans and their potential contribution to the war effort. His actions at Fort Monroe did force the issue of slavery abolition, but this was the direction where Abraham Lincoln was heading. Butler did not hesitate to create regiments of African-American soldiers, which he allowed to be led by black officers. He helped start the ball rolling until tens of thousands of African-Americans were serving in the Union Army.

At a time when racism was accepted in polite society, Butler demonstrated African Americans were not a sub-species. He forced the hand of the American government regarding runaway slaves, and his actions cleared the way to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. It would be eighty-six years after Benjamin Butler started using African-American troops that Executive Order 9981, issued on July 26, 1948, would formally end racial segregation in the American armed forces. There is no question that the general was ahead of the times when it came to civil rights in the military.


Grant, U. S. (1990). Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Selected Letters 1839-1865. New York, N.Y.: Literary Classics of the United States.


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