Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life (Civil War America)

By Elizabeth D. Leonard (2022)

Reviewed by Joe Orfant

We have been waiting for an opportunity to speak of this gentleman in a favorable manner, for some time.

-William Schouler, 1842

History is written by the winners or so goes the hackneyed adage. Lowell’s own Ben Butler knew the importance of the judgment of history better than most. Throughout his life and multi-faceted career, he earned many enemies among his political rivals and even more admirers. Yet for one group He was an irresistible target. “The Redeemers” a loose confederation of apologists for the “Lost Cause,” intent on recasting the defeated Southern rebellion as a righteous cause rather than the reality of a treasonous uprising to protect and indeed expand the repugnant enslaving and selling of other humans. The Redeemers and their allies sought to burnish the reputations of their defeated military as “chivalrous” patriots. They schemed to defame Union leaders and for them, Ben Butler was a particular target for the lowest of calumny.

Late in life Butler sought to correct the record in his epic, thousand-page long autobiography, “Butler’s Book.” Elizabeth Leonard, the John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History at Colby College, brings an academic rigor to the same task with a deeply researched and dense study that provides a fresh and admiring portrait of a figure of national stature and immense accomplishment. Butler was shaped by Lowell as much as he would help shape the city. She considers Butler’s local rise but a deeper look would illuminate the man more.

God made me in only one way. I must always be with the underdog in the fight. I can’t help it; I can’t change, and upon the whole I don’t want to.

-Benjamin Butler 1883.

Leonard’s biography is deeply researched and dense with his own words and those of his critics and admirers. Because she’s writing for the 21st Century reader, her writing has a point of view filtered appropriately through the current focus on women’s rights and racial equity and justice. Butler not only holds up but shines among his peers. She casts an overdue light on his advocacy for women’s rights. Leonard cites an example of Butler’s enlightenment in an early will that included strong provisions to protect his daughters’ inheritances, but she could have reached back earlier to the 1844 “Marriage Contract” he recorded in the Middlesex Count Registry of Deeds. Butler was smitten with Harriet but respected her wish to continue her theatrical career until he had “earned his spurs.” Their proto prenuptial agreement established a trust for his wife Harriet’s funds and any future inheritance which could only be expended by her wishes and included a provision for her restitution in case of divorce. This was an extraordinary document for a time when married women held no property rights but also typical of Butler’s ingenuity and creativity with the law.

Butler held women as equals and in his formative years he was deeply influenced by his mother Charlotte, “…whom I love, honor and revere beyond any other person on earth.” as Leonard amply demonstrates, but another formidable influence was his paternal grandmother. As Butler elucidates in his memoir, “She also told me, as a boy of the injustice of the men toward the women…I reverenced her.”

[Fellow bar member:] Butler, why do you take such cases, when you know you are sure to be beaten? It’s a custom I have, I said.

“Butler’s Book”

The bulk of Leonard’s biography appropriately focuses on Butler’s ascent to the national stage during his controversial and grossly misrepresented service in the Civil War and his advocacy for the rights of African Americans during the Reconstruction era. She reasonably surveys his Lowell years but Lowell readers would not be faulted for wanting more. More would not be just for hometown chauvinism but to better explore and understand the man himself. So prodigious was Butler’s understanding of the workings of the law that he was entered into the local bar association in 1840 after only two of the customary three years of apprenticeship. He took on any and all cases and shocked and scandalized his critics by winning usually on seemingly obscure points of law but more often on errors and oversights in the filings of his opponents. His critics were galled by his successes perhaps because it revealed their own sloppiness and poor understanding of the law. As Butler wrote without modesty in his memoir:

I tried my cases critically, catching at every point in the faults of my opponents, and of course was immediately called “sharp” by the attorneys conducting criminal causes, who frequently begged me to overlook their blunders which might save my clients. But upon these matters I was inexorable; I held that a good point of law in his favor was as much the property of my client as was a good point of fact, and that I had more right to waive on than to give the other.

One early case from 1842 demonstrates well Butler’s unconventional and to some, scandalous advocacy for his clients, innocents and rogues alike. An accused counterfeiter, Elbridge G. Record and his brother were indicted for defrauding one Sara Wilkins. But when Ms. Wilkins testified that she had a husband living, Butler moved for an acquittal on account of the flaw in the indictment. The indictment should have identified her husband as the victim! The acquittal was granted. The prosecutor made an effort to delay the release of the man but Butler opened the door of the prisoner’s box saying, “”Go along, and go as quickly as you can!” The Marshall Shed hotfooted after Record. Butler’s performance elicited sarcastic but grudging praise from the Courier editor William Schouler who would go on to become an acerbic Butler critic. Schouler wrote, “I appreciate greatness wherever I see it manifested and Mr. Butler certainly showed himself to be a great man. Perhaps his greatness is not of the highest order; neither was Bonaparte’s but who will dispute the claim of the latter to be called great? The opening of the prison doors by Mr. Butler without permission might perhaps be called a somewhat outrageous proceeding…”

This audacious example demonstrates the fundamental contradiction of Butler that enervated his supporters and enraged his detractors. He would use the form of the law to save a seemingly guilty petty counterfeiter and exploit an aspect of law that he opposed, the diminution of women, to win his case. To others this appeared cynical and hypocritical. For Butler it was simply good lawyering. Lowell and the courts had never seen the likes but over the course of the next decade they would see much more and the roster of Butler critics, enviers and enemies would grow in proportion to his admirers. 

By 1850 Butler was ready for a larger stage and the following decade was the initiation of his advocacy as a reformer. Leonard provides ample coverage of Butler’s failed campaign for the ten hour day which that he personally embodied for the corporations. A notice was circulated by one corporation that stated “Whoever employed by this corporation, votes the Ben Butler ticket, will be dismissed.” It was all but impossible to separate Butler from his causes.

This was also a decade of his efforts to democratize state government, the struggle for the secret ballot and his effort to end the hated “ticket” or “line” system that could ruin the lives of discharged mill operatives and his advocacy for the much beaten down Irish minority who made up a third of the city’s population. Indicative of his success, 1850 was also the year that Butler acquired the Lowell home that would be associated with him for the next forty years. He acquired the former home of the Samuel Lawrence the youngest of the “celebrated” Lawrence brothers. How it must have vexed his enemies that the upstart Butler now owned the most elegant and grandest house in the city built for one of his “betters.” The criticisms grew in step with Butler’s success as Leonard demonstrates with the vicious, vituperative attacks by John Warland, the Courier editor who succeeded Schouler.

In one scurrilous and personal attack on Butler, not considered by Leonard, Warland wrote this doggerel in 1851 at the height of the Ten-Hour Day campaign as a proposed epithet for a hanged Butler:

Here lies Ben Butler at last, as you see,

His miserable carcass just brought to stand –

His father was hung as a pirate at sea-

And the son as a pirate at land.

… commenting further:

It sometime becomes necessary to “put the knife” to these political Jews and circumcise them at once.

Warland’s uninspired doggerel and poor grammar aside, the abhorrent violence, gratuitous and incongruous anti-Semitism of this attack is incomprehensible to modern readers and must have had a rattling effect on the usually implacable Butler. It was an attack not only on Butler’s politics but his family and ancestry. Leonard’s work is not a psychological study of Butler, his words and public persona open no windows to his psyche but this attack on his family must have struck hard. John Butler was a privateer, sailing under the marque of Simon de Bolivar. He was not hanged but died of Yellow Fever on the island of St. Kitt’s. Butler wrote that it was his father’s death Butler wrote that inspired him to resolve the recurring plague of Yellow Fever in New Orleans.

Butler’s unconventional actions could easily be distorted and turned against him. In 1874, the Lowell Courier reprinted from the Boston Traveller, a tale of Butler’s alleged robbery of a “New Orleans Gentleman” of $25,000. The alleged “victim” was readily corrected by his fellow traveler who explained that he also was “robbed” by Butler. Both men had signed to pledge $25,000 to the Confederate cause. Butler uncovered the subscription, but rather than seize the funds, her permitted the men to donate the sum to the poor of the city. During his time as military governor of New Orleans, and afterward, Butler was accused of financial improprieties but Leonard suggests it was the questionable business affairs of Ben’s seemingly neer-do-well brother, Andrew Jackson Butler, his commissary at New Orleans that fueled the rumors. Butler’s loyalty to family and close friends could seemingly blind him to their transgressions.

Leonard’s work shines brightest and does more to recover Butler’s rightful legacy with her exploration of his transformation from a Breckenridge Democrat intent of preserving the Union to the most dedicated and persistent advocate for the rights and protection of African Americans in the Reconstruction period. The General, whose military skills were mocked, was the leader in the care and well-being of veterans in the after years. He fought for economic policies that protected workers and small farmers.

As Leonard explains far better in her preface:

…what I offer here is a depiction of Butler as I read him: a brilliant, complicated funny, annoying, loving, beloved, frequently brash individual who was unquestionably ambitious and could be opportunistic, but who also exhibited a rather stunning capacity for ideological growth and development and genuine dedication to bringing about the kind of social and cultural transformation so many Americans still seek today.

Butler’s persona and legacy, his bluntness and honesty denied him his place among the “great white men” of his generation. A long overdue reconsideration however provides a more nuanced and fully human portrait of an admirable if flawed man of enormous achievement and a more realistic and relatable model for the rest of us flawed mortals. We should, especially in Lowell, reimagine how his legacy should be preserved for future generations.

Copies of this book are available at lala books in downtown Lowell and online at