Benjamin Franklin Butler was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire on 5th November, 1818. After graduating from Waterville College in 1838 he became a successful criminal lawyer in Lowell, Massachusetts. As a member of the Democratic Party, Butler served two terms in the state legislature, where he developed a reputation for being sympathetic to the plight of the poor.
Butler was a brigadier general in the Massachusetts militia and during the Fort Sumter crisis rushed his unit to protect Washington. On 13th May, 1861, Butler used his troops to capture Baltimore. Impressed by his loyalty and initiative, Abraham Lincoln promoted Butler to the rank of major general and sent him to command Fort Monroe in Virginia. Soon afterwards, runaway slaves began to appear at the fort seeking protection. The slaveowners demanded that the runaways should be returned. Butler refused, issuing a statement that he considered the slaves to be "contraband of war".
In the autumn of 1861 Butler was given permission to organize six New England regiments. This led to a conflict with John Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts. As a member of the Republican Party, Andrew was concerned about the number of Democratic Party supporters who were being recruited as officers. Abraham Lincoln supported Butler in this as he was anxious to unite the two parties in defence of the Union.
Butler's army was sent to the Mississippi coast and in May, 1862, they captured New Orleans. Butler was accused of treating Rebels very harshly and after ordering the execution of a man who had torn down the United States flag, he was nicknamed the "beast". Alexander Walker, a pro-Confederate journalist who was one of those arrested, complained that the prisoners were: "closely confined in portable houses and furnished with the most wretched and unwholesome condemned soldiers' rations." He added that some were "compelled to wear a ball and chain, which is never removed."
President Jefferson Davis accused Butler of "inciting African slaves to insurrection" in New Orleans by arming them for war. Davis issued a statement ordering that Butler "no longer be considered or treated simply as a public enemy of the Confederate States of America, but as an outlaw and common enemy of mankind, and that, in the event of his capture, the officer in command of the captured force do cause him to be immediately executed by hanging."
In November, 1863, Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War, sent Butler to New York City with 5,000 troops. Stanton feared that during the presidential elections the city might see a return to the Draft Riots that had taken place that summer. The move was successful and the city remained securely under the control of the Union Army.
Abraham Lincoln decided he wanted Butler as his running mate in the 1864 presidential election. It was argued that this would help Lincoln win the votes of the War Democrats. Simon Cameron was sent to talk to Butler about joining the campaign. However, Butler rejected the offer, jokingly saying that he would only accept if Lincoln promised "that within three months after his inauguration he would die".
The American Civil War radicalized Butler. He became a strong opponent of slavery and refused to return fugitive slaves. He was also one of the few military commanders who favoured the recruitment of black regiments. He established a unit of African American soldiers called the First Regiment Louisiana Native Guards. In December, 1864, he united thirty-seven black regiments to form the Twenty-Fifth Corps. He also arranged for these soldiers to be taught to read and write. These actions made him very popular with the Radical Republicans in Congress.
General Ulysses S. Grant had doubts about Butler's abilities as a military commander and was very disappointed with his unsuccessful operations against Richmond and Petersburg. When Butler failed to capture Wilmington, North Carolina, in December, 1864, Grant and Lincoln decided to relieve Butler of his command.
After the war Butler joined the Republican Party and was elected to the 40th Congress. Butler soon associated himself with the group that became known as the Radical Republicans. Butler opposed the policies of President Andrew Johnson and argued in Congress that Southern plantations should be taken from their owners and divided among the former slaves. He also attacked Johnson when he attempted to veto the extension of the Freeman's Bureau, the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts.
In 1867 Butler joined with Benjamin Loan and James Ashley in claiming that Andrew Johnson had been involved in the conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln. Butler asked the question: "Who it was that could profit by assassination (of Lincoln) who could not profit by capture and abduction? He followed this with: "Who it was expected by the conspirators would succeed to Lincoln, if the knife made a vacancy?" He also implied that Johnson had been involved in tampering with the diary of John Wilkes Booth. "Who spoliated that book? Who suppressed that evidence?"
In November, 1867, the Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 that Andrew Johnson be impeached by high crimes and misdemeanors. The majority report written by Thomas Williams contained a series of charges including pardoning traitors, profiting from the illegal disposal of railroads in Tennessee, defying Congress, denying the right to reconstruct the South and attempts to prevent the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.
On 30th March, 1868, Johnson's impeachment trial began. Johnson was the first and only president of the United States to be impeached. The trial, held in the Senate in March, was presided over by Chief Justice Salmon Chase. During the trial Butler was one of Johnson's fiercest critics.
Although a large number of senators believed that Johnson was guilty of the charges, they disliked the idea of Benjamin Wade becoming the next president. Wade, who believed in women's suffrage and trade union rights, was considered by many members of the Republican Party as being an extreme radical. James Garfield warned that Wade was "a man of violent passions, extreme opinions and narrow views who was surrounded by the worst and most violent elements in the Republican Party." Others Republicans such as James Grimes argued that Johnson had less than a year left in office and that they were willing to vote against impeachment if Johnson was willing to provide some guarantees that he would not continue to interfere with Reconstruction.
When the vote was taken all members of the Democratic Party voted against impeachment. So also did those Republicans such as Lyman Trumbull, William Fessenden and James Grimes, who disliked the idea of Benjamin Wade becoming president. The result was 35 to 19, one vote short of the required two-thirds majority for conviction. A further vote on 26th May, also failed to get the necessary majority needed to impeach Johnson. The Radical Republicans were angry that not all the Republican Party voted for a conviction and Butler claimed that Johnson had bribed two of the senators who switched their votes at the last moment.
Butler became very concerned about the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the Deep South. He urged President Ulysses S. Grant to take action and in 1870 he instigated an investigation into the organization and the following year a Grand Jury reported that: "There has existed since 1868, in many counties of the state, an organization known as the Ku Klux Klan, or Invisible Empire of the South, which embraces in its membership a large proportion of the white population of every profession and class. The Klan has a constitution and bylaws, which provides, among other things, that each member shall furnish himself with a pistol, a Ku Klux gown and a signal instrument. The operations of the Klan are executed in the night and are invariably directed against members of the Republican Party. The Klan is inflicting summary vengeance on the colored citizens of these citizens by breaking into their houses at the dead of night, dragging them from their beds, torturing them in the most inhuman manner, and in many instances murdering."
Congress passed the Ku Klux Act and became law on 20th April, 1871. This gave the president the power to intervene in troubled states with the authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in countries where disturbances occurred. Although Ulysses S. Grant used this legislation several times, the Ku Klux Klan was not destroyed.
Butler was reelected to Congress four times and served from March, 1867 to March, 1875 and March, 1877 to March, 1879. Chairman of the Committee on Revision of the Laws, Butler played a leading role in the passing of the Civil Rights Act (1875).
Disillusioned with the Republican Party Butler rejoined the Democratic Party and in 1882 he was elected as Governor of Massachusetts. Two years later he became the presidential candidate of the Greenback-Labor Party and the Anti-Monopoly Party. His program included plans for graduated income tax, the direct election of Senators, the establishment of a Department of Labor, and financial assistance to farmers. However, at the polls he was easily defeated by Grover Cleveland.
Butler's memoirs, Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences, was published in 1892. Benjamin Franklin Butler died in Washington on 11th January, 1893. Butler's grand daughter, Blanche Ames, was a leading activist in the struggle for woman's suffrage.