Butler The Beast?


The grassy slopes in front of Boston’s State House boast no monument to Ben Butler, former governor and Civil War general, though another native son and conspicuously unsuccessful general, “Fighting Joe” Hooker, bestrides his horse in front of the east wing. Butler was not given equal statuary space because, it was felt, he was too well remembered in the flesh—and as a thorn in the flesh—to warrant a reminder in bronze.

Massachusetts memories are long: when James M. Curley stormed his way to the governor’s chair in 1934, fifty-two years after Butler, and proceeded to turn the State House and the state upside down, exasperated Republicans proclaimed him “the worst Massachusetts governor since Ben Butler.”

The comparison was as apt as it was bitter. Like Curley, Butler was a tribune of the people, assailing and enraging the Beacon Hill plutocracy. Both traded on their Irish ancestry (which in Butler’s case had to be invented), and both seemed to leave behind an odor of corruption. Like Curley, Butler had an acute intelligence unfettered by any awkward ethical sense. Both made political hay by championing the underdog. On Governors Butler and Curley, Harvard refused to bestow its customary degree. Legends clustered around each: for Ben Butler the most persistent—it is still believed in the South—is that when he was recalled as military governor of New Orleans during the Civil War he took with him a coffin filled with stolen silver spoons.

Nothing Curley ever did, however, made him as lastingly notorious as New Orleans General Order No. 28 made Butler. It said, “when any female shall, by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and held liable as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”

Butler was military governor of a conquered city, and the provocation had in fact been gross. Northern soldiers were repeatedly insulted by New Orleans women; some of the city’s belles had taken to spitting on their uniforms, or even in their faces. But Butler’s “Woman Order,” while it put a stop to such incidents, made him the most hated of Yankee generals.

The Confederacy’s General P. G. T. Beauregard coined the phrase “Butler the Beast,” and it stuck. Jefferson Davis, once Butler’s friend, proclaimed him “an outlaw and common enemy of mankind,” to be hanged on capture. Long after the war, Mississippi riverboats supplied their cabin passengers with chamber pots on the inside bottoms of which was painted the face of “Spoons Butler.”

Benjamin Franklin Butler was a sixthgeneration New Englander, born in 1818 in Deerfield Parade, New Hampshire. The youngest of three children by his father’s second wife, Ben was a sickly child. He had reddish hair and a pasty face marred by a crossed left eye with a drooping lid, which would give him the unkind sobriquet Old Cock-Eye. He was only five months old when his father died; his mother worked days as a hired woman. She was a devout Baptist, who knew her boy was intelligent and hoped he might become a preacher. For all his gnomish ugliness, Ben had a quick mind and a memory like a magnet. Before he entered school he had read Robinson Crusoe with his mother’s help and could recite whole chapters from the Bible.

When Ben was nine a neighbor persuaded the head of Phillips Exeter Academy to give the boy a scholarship, but Ben’s brief stay there was an unhappy, awkward time. He was not, a fellow student remembered, “particularly civil when his grain was crossed.” After one term he left for Lowell, Massachusetts, the mill town where his mother now worked as a housekeeper in one of the factory workers’ dormitories. Lowell was his home for the next sixty-five years.

Lowell was a model textile settlement, with central factories, company stores, and a company burial lot, as well as employees’ dormitories. The city was named after Francis Cabot Lowell, who on a sojourn in England had managed to filch the secrets of British power-loom construction. Although Lowell was their creation, the corporation owners never lived there, but filaments of gold ran from the mills to Boston pockets.

Compared with the “dark Satanic mills” of England’s industrial cities, the large-windowed brick factories of Lowell were pleasant places. Most of the mill hands were New England country girls who earned from six to eight dollars a week, sufficient to sustain a single girl and to allow her to do her share in reducing the mortgage on the family farm (see “The Working Ladies of Lowell” in the February, 1961, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Whittier, who lived for a time in Lowell, called these buxom lasses “the flowers gathered from a thousand hillsides and green valleys of New England, fair unveiled Nuns of Industry.”

Ben and his older brother, Andrew Jackson Butler, passed their adolescence in the vestal atmosphere of their mother’s boardinghouse, attending the Lowell public school, whose master, Joshua Merrill, carried a leather strap to administer the Yankee blend of “licking and learning.” Despite his crossed eye, Ben grew solid and tough, handy with his fists and impudent to authority. “Benj. F. Butler was a boy who might be led, but could never be driven,” wrote his high school principal. In those early years Ben developed two enduring hatreds: of England, the country against which his grandfather had fought at Bunker Hill; and of the absentee plutocrats of Beacon Hill, the inheritors of British decorum who owned the mills of Lowell and the other spindle cities.