What Did Benjamin Butler Do In The Civil War?

What Did Benjamin Butler Do In The Civil War?

US Civil War
Harper’s Weekly illustration by Thomas Nast in 1874 with helpless baby “Boston”

One of the fun things about the Civil War is its entertaining cast of secondary characters. Benjamin Butler, called The “Beast”, was one of the more colorful Union generals. He was corrupt, incompetent, and highly politically adept.

Butler was a native of Lowell MA. He became known as a tough criminal defense attorney, which led him to run for state legislature as a Democrat. His military career began as a private in the Lowell militia in 1840. Butler eventually rose to become colonel of a regiment of primarily Irish American men. In 1855, his militia was  disbanded but he was elected brigadier general after the militia was reorganized. In 1857 Secretary of War Jefferson Davis appointed him to the Board of Visitors of West Point. He lost a race for governor in 1859 on a pro-slavery, pro-tariff platform. 

He became a delegate to the 1860 Democratic convention. Butler supported Breckinridge for the Democratic nomination in 1860 at the convention Initially but he changed his mind to Davis, the man who appointed him to the Board at West Point, who thought erroneously was a moderate. He ended up supporting Breckinridge in the election, not Douglas, who the Democratic machine favored. 

After the South seceded, he sought a position in the army despite his southern leanings. Butler explained his desires to be in the Union army despite southern leanings by saying, “I was always a friend of southern rights but an enemy of southern wrongs”. Butler petitioned and received command of the 8thMassachusetts Volunteer Militia by the governor, who had wanted another person, with zero training in leading soldiers in battle. His political skill is exemplified by how he was able to get an appointment from his governor,  a political enemy. He spoke directly with Simon Cameron and convinced him that he needed a brigadier general, and that he was the right man. 

The 6th Massachusetts ran into a secessionist riot in Baltimore, forcing Butler to take an alternate route to Washington via Annapolis. Governor Hicks warned Butler that no one there would provide supplies or water. Winfield Scott thought Butler had the wrong strategy but it did work out. Butler brought supplies to his men at Annapolis despite the hostility of the Maryland governor. He restored all of the rail service and threatened to arrest any legislator who voted for secession. Furthermore, Butler then stole the Seal of Maryland, which prevented any new law from being passed. He then brought his men into Maryland by train.

After taking Fort Monroe early in the war, Butler had received a great deal of media attention.

He established a fort at Newport News that blocked an important supply line. Robert E Lee sent a small force to try to dislodge Butler. He sent a clever confederate general to build a defense. This general intentionally placed his men in proximity to Butler, despite being outnumbered, to lure him outside his defenses. The plan worked, as Butler tried to organize a night attack and failed miserably. 

Map of Fort Monroe, 1862

Once again despite criticism by Winfield Scott, Butler was given command of a force to take Cape Hatteras, which he successfully performed soon after First Manassas, a critical victory from the standpoint of morale. He was defeated early in the war by General John B Magruder at the Battle of Big Bethel. 

Battle of Big Bethel by Alfred Waud.

At Fort Monroe, Butler was faced with a significant problem of a large number of escaped slaved looking for assistance to not return to their masters. Butler made a decision that would impact the course of the war and American history. Butler declined to return fugitive slaves to their owners who had come within his lines. He argued that Virginians considered them to be chattel property, and that they could not appeal to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 because of Virginia’s secession. “I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country,” he said, “which Virginia now claims to be.” Furthermore, slaves used as laborers for building fortifications and other military activities could be considered contraband of war. “Lincoln and his Cabinet discussed the issue on May 30 and decided to support Butler’s stance”. It was later made standard Union Army policy to not return fugitive slaves.

President Davis responded severely to that order. On Christmas Eve 1862, President Davis issued a proclamation branding Butler an outlaw, to be hanged immediately upon capture. The same proclamation decreed that white officer of black regiments, and the troops themselves, will be remanded to state governments for trial on charges of servile insurrection.

His next assignment came in May 1862, when he commanded the force that conducted the capture of New Orleans after its occupation by the Navy following the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip.

An authentic Benjamin Butler chamber pot from New Orleans

Butler’s role as military administrator of New Orleans probably illustrates the worst job anyone could have done in a politically sensitive position like that one. Nearly every one of his decisions had a negative reception that, although likely inevitable, does not put him in a good light historically. His nickname “The Beast” derives from this period. His picture at the bottom of chamber pots of the day is just one humorous offshoot. But a lot of his actions weren’t really funny, or fair, or necessary.

In General Order #28, issued May 15, 1862,  he decreed that if any woman should insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier, she shall be regarded and shall be held liable to be treated as a “woman of the town plying her avocation,” i.e., a prostitute. This was in response to various and widespread acts of overt verbal and physical abuse from the women of New Orleans, including cursing at and spitting on Union soldiers and pouring out chamber pots on their heads from upstairs windows when they passed in the street.

Another nickname for him was “Spoons”. Butler seized a 38-piece set of silverware from a New Orleans woman attempting to cross the Union lines. Although the woman’s pass permitted her to carry nothing but clothing on her person (making her carriage of the silverware illegal), the single set of silverware would have normally been considered protected personal valuables. Butler’s insistence on prosecuting the woman as a smuggler and seizing the silverware as wartime contraband under his dictate of confiscating all property of those “aiding the Confederacy” provoked the perception that he used his power to engage in the petty looting of household valuables of New Orleanians.

Rumors of antisemitism were rampant; he was notorious in this regard. Referring to local smugglers, he infamously wrote, in October 1862:

“They are Jews who betrayed their Savior, & also have betrayed us.” 

Another example of poor judgment was the execution of William Mumford for tearing down the US flag over the US Mint. Even for Butler, this was one of his most irrational decisions.

But none of these actions had consequences.

He was finally removed by Lincoln when Butler ordered the seizure of $800,000 that had been deposited in the office of the Dutch consul, imprisoned the French champagne magnate Charles Heidsieck, and took suspended George Coppell of Great Britain for giving aid to the Confederate cause.

Seward sent Reverdy Johnson to New Orleans to investigate. Even when told by President Lincoln to restore a sugar shipment claimed by Europeans, Butler undermined the order. For these actions against foreign consuls, whose support he needed, Lincoln recalled him in December 1862. Nevertheless, the Radical Republicans supported his actions, so he switched party allegiance, and maintained his political position.

In the spring of 1864, the Army of the James was directed to land at Bermuda Hundred on the James River, south of Richmond, and from there attack Petersburg. This would sever the rail links supplying Richmond, and force the Confederates to abandon the city. In spite of Grant’s low opinion of Butler’s military skills, Butler was given command of the operation. Butler’s force landed on 5 May, when Petersburg was almost undefended, but Butler hesitated.

Map of the Bermuda Hundred

While he dithered, the Confederates assembled a substantial force under General P. G. T. Beauregard, perhaps the most underappreciated Confederate general because Jeff Davis not only was prejudiced against blacks but creoles as well. And anyone who told him anything he didn’t want to hear. Beauregard organized the Confederate defense of Bermuda Hundred. The name derives from the fact that in the colonial era, “hundreds” were large developments of many acres, arising from the English term to define an area which would support 100 homesteads.

This area chosen for the attack because Charles City is just 8 miles from Grants lines, at the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers. The name was eventually changed to City Point. In theory, this area might have been used to attack Drewery’s Bluff and get river access to Richmond. City Point was the supply base for the Union forces fighting at Petersburg. Overnight the tiny village became one of the busiest ports in the world as hundreds of ships arrived off its shores bringing food, clothing, ammunition, and other supplies for the Union army. For example, on an average day during the siege the Union army had stored in and around City Point 9,000,000 meals of food and 12,000 tons of hay and oats.

On 13 May, Butler’s advance toward Richmond was repulsed. On 16 May, the Confederates drove Butler’s force back to Bermuda Hundred, “bottling up” the Federals in a loop of the James River. Both sides entrenched; the Federal troops were safe but impotent, and Beauregard sent most of his troops as reinforcements to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Despite this fiasco, Butler remained in command of the Army of the James.

The coup de grace for Butler’s military career came in his failure to capture Fort Fisher in North Carolina in December 1864. Several weeks later it fell in a second assault. Grant had already relieved Butler at that point. 

Admiral Porter reported to Grant that the fort could be taken “by anyone competent”.

Fort Fisher was an important military target because it protected the port at Wilmington, North Carolina, the last remaining port available to beat the Blockade. The fort was located on one of Cape Fear River’s two outlets to the Atlantic Ocean on what was then known as Federal Point. The fort was constructed of mostly soil. With the fall of Fort Fisher, the trading route to Wilmington was cut, which was the last remaining supply line to the blockade runners for Lee’s army.

Butler was relieved from command finally for incompetence.

Butler had landed 1000 men. Grant’s order were to besiege the fort if it couldn’t be taken, but Butler instead withdrew them, disobeying orders. He became replaced by Edward Ord. 

His response to being relieved was political. Butler demanded and received a hearing by the Joint Congressional Commission. He argued that the fort was “impregnable”. A few weeks later, the fort fell, with great embarrassment for him. In 1867 when it was plain that Grant would run for POTUS, Butler tried to dig up dirt on him especially in regard to his drinking.

Butler’s memorial at the Hildreth family cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts

After the war, he served as congressman and finally did become governor of Massachusetts in 1883 after years of failure, reverting to the Democratic Party. When he died he was a very wealthy man, having achieved a fortune mostly illegally during his New Orleans administration. He also made a lot of money while in charge at Norfolk, with much evidence of lucrative trading with the Confederacy. His mills in Lowell also had made him a lot of money producing blankets for the army. He remains one of the greatest scoundrels in American history.

Written by:

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies. 

Moreover, Dr. Klein is a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.

Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian who has read extensively on the Civil War with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions were made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.

Please see Dr. Klein’s Works:

Siege of Vicksburg

The Battle of Shiloh

The Hampton Roads Conference

Sherman’s March To The Sea

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?)

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston

The “Lost Order” Of General Lee

What caused the South to start the Civil War?

Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Greatest Victory


  • Foner, Eric (1988). Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Foote, Shelby (1974). The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 3, Red River to Appomattox. New York: Random House.
  • Longacre, Edward G. Army of Amateurs: General Benjamin F. Butler and the Army of the James, 1863-1865 (1997).
US Civil War

What Did Benjamin Butler Do In The Civil War?