April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
For nearly fifty years, in one way or another, Ben Butler courted the favor of his state and the nation. He way not have been a bona fide Beauty, but there were times when his traditional nickname did not seem quite fair either
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.
It was arranged for Ben to go to the Baptist college at Waterville, Maine, where he could fulfill his mother’s dream of seeing him a preacher. But as a collegian his religiosity ebbed; he took keen interest in philosophy, history, and chemistry, and developed sufficient aptitude for debate to become head of the Literary Society. In Whig New England he proclaimed himself a Jacksonian Democrat, scornful nevertheless of the abolitionists and their incendiary agitation. Politics intrigued him, and his interest in the law was aroused when he attended a murder trial and watched the deft maneuverings of the lawyers before the jury. At the end of his sophomore year he applied for an appointment to the United States Military Academy; his rejection left him with a lasting bias against West Pointers. He graduated from Waterville (later Colby) College in 1838 and that fall returned to Lowell eager to become a lawyer.
He began to read law, in the self-educating legalpolitical pattern of Clay and Webster and Lincoln, in the office of William Smith; in exchange for doing clerical chores he was given access to Blackstone and Kent.
For two years he spent over twelve hours a day on his law books. Whenever he grew too restless in his confinement he would borrow a horse and gallop over country roads reciting snatches of Byron, Moore, or Scott to the evening sky. Since the small fees that he picked up handling Smith’s debt-collection cases were not enough to live on, he taught school for a term in 1839. Like schoolmaster Merrill, he believed in the strap. While teaching, he became friends with Fisher Ames Hildreth, the son of a local doctor and well-known patriotic orator. Hildreth took Ben home for Thanksgiving dinner.
Dr. Hildreth was a widower with five daughters; the eldest, Sarah, acted as his hostess. She was three years older than Ben, more graceful than handsome, yet witty, animated, and self-possessed. She fascinated him, and within days the two were keeping steady company. At first it went no further than that; Sarah, though promised an adequate dowry, had no intention of marrying until Ben’s as yet nonexistent law practice could support them. She would not say yes to him, although she would not say no, either.
In 1840 Butler took his bar examination, using the occasion to differ with a decision the examining judge had made earlier that very day. Nevertheless, he was admitted to the bar the following day, and to cap it, the judge reversed his finding. The road lay open: Butler was ready to turn Blackstone into gold. He set up his own office in Lowell, where he was soon working eighteen hours a day. Factory girls, ignored by other attorneys, came to him with their petty cases and two- or three-dollar fees. From the first, he disrupted the stillcolonial decorum of Massachusetts legal circles; he once spent a week in the Lowell jail after a judge had found him in contempt. Daring, astute, methodical, and unscrupulous, Butler, with his grotesque, rufous exterior, was unforgettable. His manner of speech and easily summoned tears were convincing to juries. The plea of insanity in murder trials was his innovation. He became noted for finding flaws in indictments; he once managed to free a burglar by claiming that a key the man had stolen was not personal property but real estate. When a reporter for the Whig Lowell Courier denounced Butler’s courtroom tactics as “very scaly and disreputable,” Butler stormed into the newspaper office and pulled the reporter’s nose.
Butler inspected the letter of the law with his good eye, its spirit with his bad one. When the Lowell City Council passed an ordinance that all dogs must be muzzled, Butler walked his dog with a muzzle attached to its tail. He knew how to court popular favor by belittling Harvard’s aristocratic pretensions. Once when asked in court to be more respectful because the witness was a Harvard professor, he told the judge, “I am well aware of that. We hung one of them the other day.”
Soon it was being said that the cross-eyed young attorney with the rasping, staccato voice was the man to win hard cases. Special reporters were assigned to cover his sensational courtroom conduct. “He liked audacious surprises,” said one of his enemies. “He was seldom content to try a simple case in a simple way.” Clients flocked to him. To the mill owners he said, “If I am not for you, I shall be against you; and you can take your choice.” Their choice was to hire him, even though he and they remained enemies. By the end of a decade of practice, Butler had become the most spectacular criminal lawyer in New England.
Ben and Sarah were finally married in 1844, and it turned out to be a serene and happy partnership. They had four children, three sons and a daughter (the firstborn, Paul, died before he was five). As Butler prospered, he invested in land, mills, and other ventures. When Lowell’s first woolen mill, the Middlesex Corporation, found itself in straits, he bought the controlling interest. With the mill came Belvidere, a graceful mansion in the Regency style. Situated in the select hill section above the city, Belvidere overlooked the Merrimack River; from its cupola one could gaze north to the hills of New Hampshire. Butler installed central steam heat—then an astonishing novelty—and a “Russian bath” in his bedroom. Though a lawyer of the people, he led the private life of a country squire.
As Lowell grew, its aspect and character changed. The Nuns of Industry were being replaced by the shanty Irish, the pallid and beaten refugees of the Famine. Faced with an abundance of labor, the operators cut wages. The neat boardinghouses disintegrated into slums, whole families inhabiting rooms where single girls had once lived, while other poor Paddies lived in mudwalled shacks along a common known as the Acre.
Partly out of genuine sympathy and partly from a shrewd realization of their political potential, Butler became the champion of the Lowell workers. He denounced wage reductions, comparing Lowell to a beehive from which the Boston proprietors extracted honey without caring “whether the bees were smoked out or not.” He advocated a ten-hour day in the interest of the workers’ health. The Whig legislature was as unmoved as the mill owners, who insisted that the fourteen-hour day was competitive, and that in any case their job was “to give people as cheap calico as can be made.”
In 1844 Butler was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore that nominated James K. Polk. On his return to Lowell he made his first political speech, against Henry Clay, the Whig candidate. His influence as a Hunker Democrat∗ They were called Hunkers because they were said to be “hunkering” after jobs. The Hunkers, drawing their support from mill workers (who wanted no competition from freed Negroes), had little use for the abolitionists. grew. By 1850 he was one of the state leaders instrumental in forming a coalition with the Free-Soil party. Campaigning for the tenhour day, the secret ballot, and the popular election of judges, the coalitionists swept the state and elected Democrat George Boutwell governor. By agreement, the Democratic representatives then voted with the Free-Soilers in the legislature to elect the Radical Republican Charles Sumner to the United States Senate. The coalitionists managed to pass a secret ballot law, but Whig maneuvering delayed action on the ten-hour day.
In 1852, another presidential election year, Butler was a Democratic nominee for state representative. In a special run-off election he won a seat, and arrived on Beacon Hill in January, 1853. With the Whigs back in the majority position, however, he was unable to effect much legislation. A ten-hour-day bill died in committee, but Butler scored an indirect victory when the corporations, faced with the growing weight of public opinion against them, voluntarily reduced the mill day to eleven hours.
The fifties found Butler an emergent Democrat on the national scene, a wealthy lawyer with the largest criminal practice in New England, the head of a corporation owning three mills, the owner of the finest house in Lowell, and a full colonel in the volunteer militia. He was not yet forty years old.
In 1855 the “Know-Nothing” governor, Henry J. Gardner, who had been elected on an antiforeigner, anti-Catholic platform, disbanded Butler’s Irish militia company and removed Butler from his colonelcy. Surprisingly, the cashiered colonel did not fight back. Secretly, however, he campaigned among his militia comrades, and soon Gardner, much to his chagrin, was forced to sign the commission of the newly elected Brigadier General Butler, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, of the state volunteers. Two years later Secretary of War Jefferson Davis appointed “the youngest general in the United States” to the Board of Visitors of the United States Military Academy. Martial in sword and general’s sash—if not in features—Butler appeared annually at West Point with the predictable pride of a civilian in uniform.
Butler was the only Democrat elected to the state senate in 1859. There he reorganized the state judiciary, but most of his time was taken up with local and ephemeral matters, with indirect digs at Harvard, and with measures to please the foreigners who ‘formed the core of his support.
The following year he accepted the Democratic nomination for governor, the first of his seven campaigns for that office. But men who, like Butler, sought to straddle the slavery question had become increasingly repugnant to New England opinion that was more and more solidly abolitionist. Butler received only a third of the 108,000 votes cast.
In the summer of 1860 Butler was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina. At that stalemated assembly he voted with his delegation seven times for Stephen Douglas and then gave his solitary vote fifty-seven times to Jefferson Davis, a friend whom he considered a moderate compromise between the intractable Southerners and the smokebreathing abolitionists.
Massachusetts felt otherwise about the slave-owning Davis, and Butler was hanged in effigy on Lowell’s South Common. His attempts at defending himself at a public meeting were booed and hissed. A rump Democratic convention at Baltimore had finally nominated Douglas, the Southern delegates having walked out to nominate Kentucky’s John C. Breckinridge. When the anti-Douglas Democrats of Massachusetts nominated Butler for governor on a “Breckinridge” ticket, he received only 6,000 of the 169,534 votes cast. It looked as though Butler were on the wrong ship, and a sinking ship, at that. He held intimate talks with Davis and other Southern leaders; long before most Northern politicians, he realized that secession and war were inevitable. Privately he urged Governor John Andrew to prepare the state militia for war, pointing out, among other things, that the volunteers lacked winter overcoats. Coats were ordered, and by curious coincidence, Butler’s were the only mills able to produce the cloth immediately.
Three days after Fort Sumter was fired upon, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, alarmed at Washington’s isolation, begged Governor Andrew to send him 1,500 militiamen for the capital’s defense. Butler realized that if the men were dispatched in a unit, in a brigade instead of three regiments, they would need a brigadier general to command them. Butler wired Cameron, “You have called for a brigade of Massachusetts troops; why not call for a brigadier general and staff?” Butler also knew that the state treasury lacked the money to mobilize and transport the troops; he influenced a number of Boston banks to advance the funds—on condition that he lead the brigade. Andrew had no option but to place the Lowell lawyer in command. President Lincoln was not displeased to see so prominent a Hunker Democrat in a general’s uniform rallying to support the Union, and Butler, in sash and gilt epaulettes, recalled that Presidencies were often won on the battlefield.
Washington lay like a beleaguered island in a Southern sea, and Massachusetts was the first to respond to Lincoln’s appeal for troops. Butler dispatched his 6th Regiment ahead as an advance guard. In Philadelphia, Butler learned that the 6th had been attacked as it crossed through Baltimore en route to Washington. Three militiamen had been killed, and eight wounded. The mob had seized control of the city. No more troops could pass through.
Butler acted with vigor and dispatch. He sent the rest of his brigade to Annapolis by sea; he converted the Naval Academy into his base while readying himself to commandeer the railroad line to the capital. The governor of Maryland called a special session of the legislature, and Butler announced that if the members passed an ordinance of secession he would arrest every last man of them. He sent a squad of soldiers to impound the state’s Great Seal, without which no legislative act would be legal. With Butler’s firm measures and his opening of the railroad to Washington, secessionist sentiment in Maryland abated. In circumventing disloyal Baltimore and in providing Washington with troops, Butler was the first Northern general to make his mark.
Even New England Whigs thought him a hero, and he seemed even more heroic when, on May 13, 1861, he and the Massachusetts 6th seized Baltimore without a casualty. But in so doing Butler had disregarded the operations plan of Winfield Scott, the crusty, ancient General in Chief; Scott demoted Butler to the command of Fortress Monroe, a squat bastion on the Yorktown Peninsula. But to salve the sting, Secretary of War Cameron promoted Butler to major general.
Now Butler had twelve regiments in his command. As an organizer he was efficient and ingenious, and he was determined to make his fortress a model garrison. One of his problems was how to deal with slaves who had escaped to his lines. The property of those in rebellion could be taken as contraband of war; Butler declared that slaves were property, hence “contrabands” and subject to confiscation. Since human contrabands could no longer be held captive, they were free. The General’s adroit legalism became a practical means of destroying slavery long before President Lincoln felt able to issue his formal proclamation. “Contraband of war” became a Northern catch phrase, bringing Butler the hearty applause of the abolitionists.
Butler’s military reputation had reached its highwater mark, for his first operation out of Fortress Monroe turned into the North’s first rout. In a promising beginning, he took the military post of Newport News, but in mid-June he sent two regiments under the command of another Massachusetts political general, Ebenezer Pierce, up the Peninsula against the Confederate stronghold at Big Bethel. Marching in the darkness, the two units fired upon each other; then, neglecting to send out scouts, they wandered within point-blank range of Rebel batteries. Butler’s troops broke and ran. Big Bethel shattered Northern visions of a quickly-put-down rebellion. Butler blamed Pierce. The country blamed Butler.
Later that summer, Butler engineered a minor amphibious success at Pamlico Sound; this, in the dismal aftermath of Bull Run, was magnified into a great Union victory. Lincoln gratefully gave Butler a leave of absence to raise more troops in New England for Flag Officer David Farragut’s amphibious expedition against New Orleans.
The South considered New Orleans, its largest and wealthiest city, to be impregnable. Seventy miles to the south of it lay Forts Jackson and St. Philip, guarding the approaches along the Mississippi. Nevertheless, Farragut and Commander David Porter sailed past the forts by night in April of 1862; New Orleans fell. Butler’s army of occupation arrived without firing a shot.
The General rode through sullen streets and heard jeers that he would never see his home again. He proclaimed martial law, promising “to restore order, maintain public tranquillity and enforce peace and quiet under the laws and constitution of the United States.” When the mayor refused to co-operate as Butler wanted, he took over comolete civil administration.
It was Butler the military governor that produced his legendary infamy. His image as the scoundrel in uniform, the grafter, looter, thief, murderer, dégrader of women, and pilferer of spoons was one the South would never relinquish. But Butler was less a headlong sinner than a victim of bad publicity, albeit self-generated. What he did, typically, was to challenge the gentry, the leaders of the community, by appealing to the artisans and mechanics to make a common cause against the mercantile aristocracy. It was Butler the sans-culotte that the South never forgave.
Butler was still the able administrator. Even his most ardent enemies admitted that the white workers employed by his sanitary commission had cleaned up the city as it had never been cleaned up before. He opened stores, set prices, and established a program of relief for the poor. As for his notorious Woman Order, it was so effective that it never had to be acted upon. Once General Order No. 28 was proclaimed, the tiny Confederate flags vanished from Rebel bosoms; no longer did young ladies dash to the piano to play “The Bonnie Blue Flag” when Yankee officers passed their houses; nor did they do any more spitting.
For poor-relief monies Butler assessed wealthy individuals and corporations, some of whom saw their possessions sold at auction. Relentlessly, skillfully, Butler ferreted out hidden bank assets and recovered funds taken from the United States mint. Southerners who concealed their wealth in European consulates found no lasting protection in foreign flags; Butler did not hesitate to break into the house of a liquor dealer who doubled as the Netherlands consul to seize 800,000 Mexican dollars. He easily persuaded the poor, the Northern-born, and the half-castes to take the oath of allegiance to the Federal government. Officials of the old governing class who refused to take the oath were forced from office. When an obscure gambler named Mumford pulled down the American flag from the roof of the mint and tore it to shreds, Butler, despite protests and threats, hanged him in front of the building. Mumford became a Confederate martyr, as did Mrs. Philip Phillips, who laughed and jeered at a funeral procession for a Yankee lieutenant—and was thrown into military prison on Ship Island.
As military governor, Butler showed a racial attitude more liberal than one might have expected of a Hunker Democrat. He abolished segregated streetcars, put white workers next to colored, and established a “Native Guard” regiment of Negroes as well as two regiments of loyal poor whites. The only segregation he recognized was between Unionists and Secessionists.
In all, Butler did a creditable job of running New Orleans. Yet always, as in Massachusetts, the scent of corruption followed him; there was a sense of chicanery, of underhanded transactions. He maintained that contraband trading with the enemy was necessary in order to obtain supplies; still, the profits in such trade for those around him were enormous. But that Butler himself stole, or made money on official transactions, is not credible. His mills in Massachusetts were bringing in huge profits; his law firm was prospering through his subordinates. He was too well off to have to speculate or peculate. Yet those around him did, and he knew it. Southern heirlooms picked up by Yankee officers for pittances at auctions went north by the carload. Butler’s brother Andrew drove a sharp trade in cattle, sugar, cotton, and other Confederate commodities; he was said to have made between $500,000 and $2,000,000 in such enterprises.
European nations objected violently to Butler’s cavalier treatment of their New Orleans consulates, and complained to Secretary of State William H. Seward. Finally, in December of 1862, Lincoln removed the controversial general for reasons that were obvious to many, although they were never really spelled out. In his farewell address to the citizens of New Orleans, Butler struck a familiar pose: “I saw that this Rebellion was a war of aristocrats against the middling man, of the rich against the poor; a war of the land-owner against the laborer; the few against the many; and I found no conclusion to it, save in the subjugation of the few and the disenthrallment of the many. I therefore felt no hesitation in taking the substance of the wealthy, who had caused the war, to free the innocent poor, who had suffered by the war.”
Butler, the unemployed general, returned North as the hero of the Radicals—indeed, he had moved the full arc from Hunker Democrat to abolitionist Republican. Radicals like Benjamin Wade and Thaddeus Stevens began to see him as a presidential possibility.
It took almost a year for Lincoln to decide what to do with his obstreperous general. Butler was now doubly important politically, both as an old Democrat and as a new Radical. It was necessary, Lincoln saw, to give him some position, if only to keep him out of politics. Late in 1863 Butler was given command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina.
The following April, the army’s newly appointed General in Chief, U. S. Grant, conferred with Butler on Grant’s proposed spring offensive against Richmond. Grant was dubious about Butler’s military ability and bolstered him with Major Generals Quincy A. Gillmore and William F. “Baldy” Smith. Lincoln was considering burying Butler in the obscurity of the Vice Presidency, but when Simon Cameron relayed the offer of second spot on the Republican ticket for 1864, Butler turned it down: “Tell him ... I would not quit the field to be Vice President, even with himself as President, unless he will give me bond with sureties, in the full sum of his four years’ salary, that he will die or resign within three months after his inauguration.” Events were to give the statement a macabre tone: Mr. Lincoln was dead within a few weeks of his inauguration.
In Grant’s battle plan, Butler’s forces were to form the fourth prong of an attack on Richmond, thrusting from Fortress Monroe up the James River to attack from the rear. Butler’s troops occupied Bermuda Hundred, only twelve miles from Richmond, without opposition. Caught off guard, the Confederates had left their capital defended by only a skeleton force. Had he been a daring commander, Butler might have committed his forces at once and taken the city there and then. But, bluffed as to the strength of the defenses, wary before the unknown, and with a civilian’s fear of casualties in a bloody frontal attack, he hesitated. And Smith and Gillmore proceeded with a nonprofessional caution that made failure certain. A makeshift Confederate force drove Butler back to the Bermuda Hundred neck. Butler later blamed his subordinates, and even had Gillmore arrested for “mil- itary incapacity.” To Smith’s plea that the amateur general be got rid of, Grant replied sadly that he could not. Butler was still too strong politically.
Butler had one more chance for military triumph. Wilmington, North Carolina, the last port of entry for supplies to the South, lay within his department. If he could seize Fort Fisher, on the promontory that was the key to Wilmington, the city would fall and the Confederacy would face starvation. Butler concocted a scheme for putting the fort out of action by exploding a ship full of gunpowder directly in front of it.
Grant took a dim view of the idea, but he allowed Butler to go ahead and try it. Butler insisted on leading the military-naval expedition himself. When it came, the explosion was so ineffective that the Fort Fisher garrison thought a blockade runner had burst a boiler. Of the 6,500 troops Butler took to capture the fort, only one third landed on shore. Even so, these were enough to have taken the fort—had not Butler again lost his nerve. Alarmed at news that the fort was receiving reinforcements, he ordered a precipitate retreat. Seven hundred of his men were stranded, and had to be rescued by a disgusted Admiral David Porter, who had directed the naval part of the operation. The crew of Porter’s flagship manufactured a leather medal for Butler: on one side was a pair of running legs and the stars of a major general; on the other, the legend “In commemoration of his heroic conduct before Fort Fisher, Dec. 1864.” On January 8, 1865, Lincoln ordered Butler to “repair to Lowell, Mass.”
Hours after Lincoln’s assassination, Butler joined in caucus with Radical Republican leaders determined to get rid of “Lincoln influences.” Elected to Congress in 1866, Butler became head of the Committee on Reconstruction, and one of the South’s most unforgiving opponents. In the coming years his best efforts were directed at impeaching Andrew Johnson, whose conciliatory attitude he regarded as treasonable. The President’s removal of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, contrary to the Radical-sponsored Tenure of Office Act that required senatorial consent for such actions, gave Butler and his colleagues the pretext they had been waiting for. Johnson, for his defiance of the Radicals, should be impeached—and Ben Butler would spearhead the proceedings.
All Butler’s legal adroitness went into the trial. His grating voice opened the proceedings in a savage fourhour speech to the Senate, sitting as the court of judgment. A Harper’s Weekly reporter observed him as:
a man whose large pudgy body seemed literally bursting out of his extraordinary swallow tail coat, exposing a broad expanse of not too immaculate linen, and whose massive bald head with its little fringe of oily curls was probably familiar to every occupant of the galleries, for Benjamin F. Butler had not hidden his light under a bushel. There was power in the man’s coarse, big-featured face, force and aggressiveness in every line, but his curiously ill-mated eyes with their half-closed lids, his hard mouth and small, drooping moustache, all combined to create an uncomfortable impression of cunning and insincerity, and his whole personality was unattractive.
When the Senate failed by one vote to give the necessary two-thirds majority for conviction, a Washington newspaper put out an extra edition headlined “ SUICIDE OF BEN BUTLER .”
But suicide, physical or political, was far from Butler’s mind. The postwar era gave him a renewed sense of life. His voice became one of the most feared—and applauded—in the capital. He now made Negro rights and fiat money the cornerstones of his philosophy, whether out of conviction or expediency no one knew. He maneuvered one of the first civil-rights bills through Congress, and fought for the suppression of the Ku Klux Klan. After an Ohio-born carpetbagger had been horsewhipped by night riders in Mississippi, Butler brandished the victim’s bloodstained shirt in the House; the phrase “waving the bloody shirt” came to mean appealing to Civil War sentiments for political reasons.
Butler went out of his way to be friendly to the new colored congressmen and to Negroes generally—so much so that he was hailed at a Negro banquet in New Orleans as a general with a “white face, but a black heart.”
Butler and Grant reached something of a détente after Grant reached the White House. The President favorably reappraised Butler’s war record, and Butler became one of the administration’s chief spokesmen. Yet privately, Butler considered Grant an ignoramus.
Butler took a noisy and active part in setting up carpetbag governments in the South and in supporting them with Northern bayonets. But for all his publicly vengeful attitude toward the South, he could be privately and quietly kind. When the destitute widow of Mumford, the man he had hanged in New Orleans, appealed to him, Butler found her a job.
Conservative Republicans of Massachusetts, their Whig instincts still intact, continued,,to have little use for Butler. And when he embraced the ultimate State Street heresy of greenback currency, of paying off war debts in depreciated paper, Boston Brahmins persuaded one of their own—Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast —to run as a hard-money Democrat against him in the next congressional election. Butler, sniping away at the “codfish aristocracy,” beat Dana six to one.
Forcing his Ku Klux Klan bill through Congress in 1872 was one of Butler’s great victories, one that brought him to the height of his national political power. On that crest he attempted to win the nomination for governor, but his entrenched enemies in Massachusetts were able to thwart his ambitions in the Republican conventions of 1872 and 1873. In 1874 they even succeeded in preventing his renomination for Congress, though by waving the bloody shirt he got himself re-elected two years later.
Somehow Butler still found time for his private concerns; he was a much-sought lawyer with a flourishing practice. In a suit over prize money for Confederate ships seized during the war, he won an award of $1,500,000 for Admiral Farragut and his crews—the highest damages sustained up to that time by the Supreme Court. Yet for all his legal eminence, Ben Butler remained the impudent young man who had once tweaked an editor’s nose. When a judge asked him testily if he was trying to show contempt for the court, he replied that he was trying to conceal it.
With law and politics came business ventures. In addition to his mills he now owned a granite quarry and the United States Cartridge Company. He speculated in land, in mines, in a barge company. Conflict of interest never troubled him. If he could use his influence to further his enterprises, so much the better. To “Butlerize” was a word coined by his enemies meaning to make off with everything in sight. Butler’s activities—and his toadlike bald head and bloated face—became the delight of cartoonist Thomas Nast.
True to his New England heritage, Butler loved the sea. He built a summer home near Gloucester, overlooking Ipswich Bay. He relaxed by sailing his yacht America , the famous cup-winner and Confederate blockade-runner. He dressed his crew in snappy uniforms and often participated in the races off Newport, Rhode Island. A spanking nor’wester was an exhilaration: alerted by the Coast Survey when a storm was brewing, he would don his oilskins and put to sea.
In 1878 Butler announced that he was through with both major parties and allowed himself to be nominated by the Greenbackers for the governorship of Massachusetts. But at the same time he was moving back toward the Democratic party of his youth (he even came out for pensions for Confederate veterans); his real goal was to become the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. He arranged for his supporters to pack the convention hall, and he was in fact nominated—to the disgust of the conservative Democrats, who walked out to nominate their own man. The split insured a Republican victory. Conservative Republicans were delighted at Butler’s defeat. Mildmannered President Hayes wrote that it was one of the best events since the war; he considered Butler “unscrupulous, able, rich, untiring, the most dangerous and wicked demagogue we ever had.” Butler was an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate again in 1879, and the following year he refused to run for any office.
Ben’s wife, Sarah, had died of cancer in 1876; in 1881 his son Ben-Israel succumbed to Bright’s disease. Butler was again nominated for governor by the Democrats and Greenbackers, but in that sad year the candidate’s sharp tongue and rasping voice were muted. He scarcely campaigned at all and seemed indifferent to his inevitable defeat.
But by 1882 his spirits were largely recovered, and this time the perennial Democratic gubernatorial nominee had the backing of the likes of Wendell Phillips, Susan B. Anthony, and prison reformer Burnham Wardwell. And, at last, Butler was successful.
In spite of the fair promise of his inaugural address—he said he would reform the criminal code and the state penal institutions, abolish the poll tax, give women the vote, and lower the hours of labor while increasing wages—the new governor was able to do little in the face of a Republican legislature and governor’s council. Harvard again became his whipping boy following his “exposure” of the previous administration’s selling of paupers’ bodies from the Tewksbury almshouse to the Harvard Medical School. “The selling and tanning of human skins,” he declared, “was an established industry in Massachusetts!” Breaking a 250-year tradition, Harvard refused that year to give the governor an honorary doctor’s degree. Butler attended the commencement anyhow; so indignant was the president of the alumni association that he resigned in order to avoid receiving him.
In the election of 1883 Butler charged that the Republicans were importing “repeaters” from outside the state to defeat him, and he ordered his gth Massachusetts Regiment (mostly Irishmen) to guard the polls. He prepared a magnificent display of fireworks on Belvidere’s grounds to celebrate his re-election. There was no celebration. Massachusetts voters had tired of his bombast, and Butler was through in state politics.
As he resumed his legal practice, nebulous thoughts of the White House occurred to him; in 1884 he accepted the presidential nomination of the Greenback and Anti-Monopoly parties, hoping that this splinter movement would enhance his chances at the Democratic National Convention, to which he was a delegate-at-Iarge. But the resurgent white South would have nothing to do with Spoons Butler. He could not even find a spokesman to place his name in nomination. After the Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland as their hard-money candidate, Butler toured the country in a gaily painted private railroad car, telling workers that if Cleveland were elected they would starve. When he spoke in Detroit, hecklers tossed tin spoons on the stage, and elsewhere he was jeered as the “Benedict Arnold of American politics.” He received a mere 175,000 votes out of ten million, which ended his political career with a humiliating anticlimax.
Butler devoted his remaining years to law, which he said was like chess; and when money and popularity no longer mattered, the game itself was still intriguing. He took many unpopular cases—he defended Chicago’s Haymarket Square anarchists, for example—that paid him little or nothing. He grew rheumatic, hard of hearing, and flabby (his daughter Blanche put him on a diet and reduced his weight to 220 pounds).
His enemies and the anti-Butler legends endured, and their target began to grow solicitous of his reputation. In 1892 his thousand-page autobiography was published. Butler’s Book was an enormous undertaking for an old man, yet the Butler swagger, shrewdness, and military partisanship are stamped in its pages like a watermark. The book interestingly described his relations with Lincoln and Grant, and vindictively carried on his feud with the West Point generals whom he accused of sabotaging his military career. The postwar years he crowded into a single chapter.
Ben Butler died in 1893 while in Washington preparing a case for the Supreme Court. Eight veterans (two of them Negroes, on one of whom Butler had pinned the Congressional Medal of Honor) accompanied his body back to Lowell. He lay in his coffin in the drawing room at Belvidere, a rose in his buttonhole, and, thanks to the undertakers, a smile on his face. He was buried on a bitter-cold January day; a service was held at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, to which he belonged but in whose creed—as he had admitted to Sarah—he had ceased to believe.
The funeral cortege, led by a hearse with six blackplumed horses, extended a mile and a half. All the bells of Lowell tolled as the coffin was drawn across the Merrimack bridge to the cemetery, and the crowds were so great that half a dozen onlookers were injured in the crush. In attendance were state politicians and men of prominence from the governor on down, even to the codfish aristocracy—who kept their fingers crossed against the appearance of any future Ben Butler.
Time has shown Ben Butler to be one of the most arresting political figures that Massachusetts has ever produced; certainly the most caricatured and most vilified; possibly the most astute. “God made me only one way,” he once said. “I must always be with the under-dog in the fight. I can’t help it; I can’t change it, and upon the whole I don’t want to.” Butler may have Butlerized, but he also helped the immigrant workers when Know-Nothingism ran high in his state. Whatever his subsequent war record, he rallied the Breckinridge Democrats to the Union at a critical moment. He spoke out for civil rights far in advance of his day. Even his Greenback heresy of managed paper money would become orthodox reality after World War II. Those who thought themselves the better people, both in the North and in the South, despised and distrusted him, and he capitalized on their hate. The workers and the shanty Irish and the Negroes loved him, and not without reason.
Though Belvidere still perches serenely on its hill above the Merrimack, Lowell’s textile mills have been gone since the Depression; the grey industrial city has forgotten Butler. Two miles across the river there is a cemetery within a cemetery, a plot surrounded by a locked fence, the grave of an ex-governor and exgeneral. There is a headstone of polished granite, but there is no flag to go with it.