Ben Butler really didn’t care that he was a bad general; he was a good politician, and knew that he had to be a general to have the sort of post-war career he wanted.
Born just into New Hampshire, he went to Exeter Academy, then Waterville College (now Colby College) in Maine. After graduating in 1838 he studied law and started practicing in 1840. He rapidly proved a successful criminal attorney, and moved into politics. In 1853 he was in the Massachusetts legislature, and in 1859 the state Senate. He was also a minor figure in national politics: he attended both Democratic National Conventions in 1860, at Charleston he backed Jefferson Davis for President, and in Baltimore he supported John Breckinridge.
Before the war he was for peace, but he switched to a War Democrat. Three days after Fort Sumter surrendered he was a Brigadier General of Massachusetts Volunteers. He was put in charge of Annapolis, a responsible job since eastern Maryland was pro-slavery. He achieved a variety of political coups: he moved troops around strongly pro-Southern Baltimore by sea, reinforcing Washington when it was weak; he then snuck troops into Baltimore and brought it under control. This earned him promotion to Major General of Volunteers within a month.
His new job was commanding Fort Monroe and district. A subordinate was defeated at the small battle of Big Bethel, but there was no chance of losing Fort Monroe. Instead, slaves were escaping from their masters to the protection of the Union troops. Butler made a vital decision: he refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, instead declaring runaways “contraband of war”, thus admitting there was a war and simultaneously making it about slavery rather than states’ rights.
If that was controversial, his next field command was incendiary. He was pulled back to New England in late 1861, but in March 1862 he commanded the ground forces assigned to capture New Orleans. He could win no glory because the Navy captured it unaided, but he kept himself in the newspapers. He hanged a man who ripped down the U.S. flag; he was accused of stealing silver spoons. His most famous action was against women, one of the few battles he won. The women of New Orleans offered more resistance against the Union garrison than their men did against attack, insulting Federal troops by any means possible. Butler simply ordered that any woman who insulted or showed contempt for U.S. personnel be treated as a prostitute.
The South was outraged: their womanhood was insulted, and rewards were offered for his head. The North was delighted: the haughty Southerners had to eat their words. He continued to make money, mostly by kickbacks on smuggled cotton, until December 1862. By then he’d gone too far, and Lincoln removed him from command.
Butler had too much political clout to fire, and Lincoln had to find him another job. He was returned to southern Virginia and the North Carolina border in late 1863, after a year on the shelf. There wasn’t much to do, but Butler took care that his name regularly appeared in the newspapers. Eventually he was promoted to command the Army of the James, still based at Fort Monroe. Grant was impressed at their first meeting, and gave Butler a simple but vital job: strike at Richmond while Grant pinned Lee’s forces further north.
Butler fumbled every part of his orders. He moved slowly, and lost the battles as well. He could have had his pick of Richmond, Petersburg, or the railway in between. Instead, his two Corps were bottled up by Beauregard’s 5,000 men. He had a chance to redeem himself by moving on Petersburg, but he bumbled another surprise attack, and the Petersburg militia held off the veterans. From then on Grant made sure Butler had plenty of adult supervision.
Lincoln had to keep Butler pacified politically as well, else there is no doubt a man with such a track record would have been sacked. There was a quid-pro-quo: Butler backed Lincoln for a second term, and Lincoln kept Butler in a job. But re-election and incompetence ended the compact. Lincoln no longer needed Butler, and Butler failed badly at Fort Fisher. In January 1865 he was removed from command.
He got into Congress (now, with the political wind having shifted as a Radical Republican) in 1867, was appointed to manage Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868, and stayed in the House until 1875. He always had his eye on bigger jobs: in 1871 and ’72 he tried to become Governor of Massachusetts, and returned to the Congress between 1877 and 1879. In 1878 he tried for Governor as an Independent, and in 1879 he was back to being a Democrat, but still couldn’t win the job. Finally, in 1882 he was pushed over the hump by the combined efforts of the Democrats and the Greenback Party. That wasn’t enough for his ambition: in 1884 he ran for President. The Greenback and Anti-Monopolist Party could only provide him 1.8% of the vote, and that was the end of the line for him.
He never won office again, and returned to the law. He died in court.
Content provided by:
Eicher, John H. & David J. Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2001.
Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue - Lives of the Union Commanders.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.