enjamin Butler was a Union general, congressman, governor of Massachusetts, and
presidential nominee of the Greenback-Labor and Antimonopoly parties in 1884.
His peculiar looks, frequent party-switching, and controversial policies made
him a favored target of political cartoonists.
Butler was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire, and graduated from Waterville
College (now Colby College) in 1838. After admission to the Massachusetts bar in
1840, he began a successful practice in Lowell, gaining a widespread reputation
as a talented trial lawyer. Active in the Democratic party, he served one term
as state representative in 1853, one term as state senator in 1858, and ran
unsuccessfully for governor in 1859. The following year, he supported John
Breckinridge, the Southern Democrat, for president and again ran unsuccessfully
for governor, this time on the ticket of the Breckinridge faction.
When the Civil War began, though, Butler was quick to volunteer his services to
the Union cause. A brigadier-general of the Massachusetts militia, he led forces
that secured Baltimore for the Union and, as a major-general, captured Forts
Hatteras and Clark in North Carolina. He coined the term "contraband"
to designate escaped slaves who crossed Union lines.
Butler's most famous (or infamous) connection with the war was his controversial
tenure as commander of the occupation forces in New Orleans in 1862. He seized
the posh St. Charles Hotel as his initial headquarters, confiscated $800,000
from the Dutch consulate (which he insisted had been intended for purchase of
Confederate war supplies), hanged a man for taking a Union flag down from a
flagpole, and inflicted other strictures that caused New Orleans residents to
label him "Beast," "Brute," and "Spoons" (for his
alleged tendency to steal silverware). The regulation that raised the most ire
was his "Woman Order" which stipulated that women who insulted Union
soldiers would be treated as prostitutes. In December he was replaced by General
In late 1863 Butler was given the command of the Department of Virginia and
North Carolina. In October 1864 he was sent to New York City to prevent or
control election riots. Criticized for his inability in the field (Grant accused
him of getting "bottled up"-another nickname that stuck), Butler
retired from the army and returned to Massachusetts in December 1864.
After the war, Butler returned to Congress as a Republican, serving from 1867 to
1875 and from 1877 to 1879. He enthusiastically backed the Radical
Reconstruction policies of the Congressional Republicans. A vociferous,
unrelenting critic of President Johnson, he authored the tenth article of
impeachment aimed at the President's verbal attacks on Congress. At the
suggestion of the ailing Thaddeus Stevens, Butler became the lead House
prosecutor at Johnson's removal trial in the Senate. The Massachusetts
Congressman's poor performance, however, has often been cited as a factor in
Butler was an almost perennial candidate for governor of Massachusetts, running
unsuccessfully in 1871, 1873, 1874, 1878, and 1879, before being elected in 1882
by a Democratic-Greenback-Labor coalition. In his final bid for office, he was
the presidential nominee of the Greenback-Labor and Anti-Monopoly parties in
1884, polling less than 2% of the popular vote. Butler died in Washington, D.C.