Benjamin Franklin Butler – A Century Ahead

The B.F. Butler Cooperative Bank was founded in Lowell in 1901 by members of the family of Benjamin F. Butler, the notable Civil War general and Massachusetts politician. The bank continued in operation until 2010 when it was acquired by People’s United Bank.

I recently found an old but undated brochure produced by the bank about the accomplishments of General Butler. Here is the content of the brochure. Some of the language used reflects the vocabulary of the time when the brochure was produced:  


Benjamin Franklin Butler


Always the center of controversy and a scapegoat for powerful vested interests, Benjamin Butler confounded, confused, and fascinated this 19th Century contemporaries by shrewdly adapting his zeal for real Democracy to the turbulent developments of the Civil War, Industrial Revolution, Reconstruction Crisis, and the Reform Movement. Now, a century later, his stature increases as we note with amazement how his “radical” ideas and achievements pioneered the commonplace of today.

–Whitman Pearson, Ed.D., Lt. Col, USAR Ret.

Brochure courtesy of Butler Cooperative Bank, 10 Hurd Street, Lowell, Mass. Named in honor of Major General Benjamin F. Butler. 

1818 – Born in Deerfield, NH. Son of Captain John Butler.

1838 – Graduated, Waterville (Colby) College, Maine.

1840 – Admitted to practice before Massachusetts Bar.

1853 – Elected to Massachusetts House of Representatives.

1859 – Elected to Massachusetts Senate.

1861 – Brigadier General, Mass. Volunteer Militia.

1862 – Major General, United States Army.

1867-75 – Member of Congress (Essex District)

1876-78 – Member of Congress (Middlesex District)

1882 – Governor of Massachusetts.

1884 – Presidential Nominee.

1893 – Death and Interment in Hildreth Cemetery, Dracut, Massachusetts.


Through The Eyes of Others

Jefferson Davis (for whom Butler voted 57 times at the Charleston Convention in 1860!) – “Now therefor, I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, and in their name, do pronounce and declare that said Benjamin F. Butler to be a felon, deserving of capital punishment – an outlaw and common enemy of mankind – in the event of his capture – to be immediately executed by hanging.”

John Hay “Butler is the smartest damned rascal I ever knew.”

Richmond Examiner “The beastliest, bloodiest poltroon and pickpocket the world has ever saw.”

Wendell Phillips “There is no man in public life who does as much gratuitous work as General Butler. It is rare indeed that a poor man who has had a grievous wrong to be righted leaves his office without a gift of Butler’s services.”

Susan B. Anthony “Glorious old Ben! He is surely going to pronounce the word that will settle the woman question, just as he did the word “contraband” that so summarily settled the Negro question.”

President (General) Grant “Butler is a man it is fashionable to abuse but he is a man who has done the country great service, and who is worthy of its gratitude.

Boston Globe “Soldier, statesman, lawyer, patriot, the career of General Butler reads like a romance – he will rank among the famous and commanding figures of the 19th century – he was in truth, not merely part of the career of the nation, but in a peculiar sense a real maker of our history.”

New York Herald “He will be remembered as a remarkable American.”


Fighting the Vested Interests: 1878-1893

1880 – Changed from Republican back to Democratic Party.

1882 – As Massachusetts Governor, appointed Clara Barton as Superintendent of Sherborn “Women’s Reformatory.”

Investigated and reformed conditions at Tewksbury Almshouse and other state institutions for the unfortunate.

Appointed first Negro judge, George L. Ruffin.

Appointed first Irish Catholic, M. J. McCafferty, to judicial office.

1883 – Butler Civil Rights Law declared unconstitutional by U.S. Supreme Court.

1884 – Candidate of Greenback and Anti-Monopoly Parties for President: “We want money based not only upon gold, but upon every other source and element of national prosperity, emancipated from the control of all other nations – paper money that would not even be a promise to pay (in specie)” (J.S. Currency – 1965).

In addition his platform included:

  • Direct election of U.S. Senators (17th Amendment – 29 years later – 1913)
  • Federal control of Interstate Commerce. (Interstate Commerce Act – 3 years later – 1887)
  • Graduated Federal Income Tax. (16th Amendment – 29 years later – 1913)
  • Federal Aid to Agriculture. (FDR and New Deal – 50 years later – 1934)

Before the Supreme Court, won decision that Greenbacks were legal tender in payment of private debts.

1893 – Sudden death in Washington after regular business day. Three day lying-in-state at Lowell’s Huntington Hall while 100,000 mourners passed his bier. Military funeral from Butler residence in Belvedere (sic) to Hildreth family cemetery. (In Lowell, but legally part of Dracut.) Epitaph: Benjamin Franklin Butler . . . Jurist, Soldier, Statesman, Patriot . . . His talents were devoted to the service of his country and the advancement of his fellow men. The true touchstone of civil liberty is not that all men are equal but that every man has the right to be the equal of every other man if he can.


The Gathering Storm: 1830-1860

1834 – Pamphlet denouncing Abolitionists for exciting rebellion.

1838 – As Dracut Academy Headmaster promoted parent-teacher organization, and use of visual aids, field trips, and science experiments in Chemistry and Physics.

1841 – Extolled Catholic missions before Protestant congregation.

1844 – Admitted to practice before U.S. Supreme Court.

1846 – Fought for and obtained license for Lowell’s first theater.

1848 – Advised mill workers to gain reforms by ballots not bullets.

1849 – Promoted the Shorter Working Day, Court Reform, and Secret Ballot.

1850 – Named “Champion of the working classes” by Horace Greeley.

1852 – Opposed Mass. Prohibition Act as unfair to poor.

1853 – Colonel of Mass. Volunteer Militia. Formed Irish MVM unit. Sponsored Act to indemnify Ursuline Convent in Charlestown for burning by anti-Catholic mob in 1833.

1857 – Early advocate of Woman Suffrage (19th Amendment, 63 years later, 1920). Appointed to West Point Board of Visitors by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.

1859 – Sponsored Bills to declare drunkenness a disease not a crime, to establish a Superior Court system, and grant equal suffrage to the foreign-born.

1860 – Opposed John Brown’s methods (Harpers Ferry), the Fugitive Slave Law, and Presidential candidate Stephen Douglas and his “Squatter Sovereignty.”

At Democratic Convention in Charleston, S.C., warned the South that the North (and he) would fight.

Returned to Massachusetts convinced that war was inevitable and put his Militia Brigade on war footing.

Urged President Buchanan to arrest and try for treason the Confederate “Commissioners” negotiating in Washington.

Enrolled his daughter, Blanche, at Catholic convent school.


Struggle To Save The Union: 1861-1864

1861 – General Butler’s Mass. Militia Brigade suffered first Northern casualties answering Lincoln’s call and seized Annapolis, “USS Constitution,” and Baltimore while “rescuing” the National Capital.

His “Contraband of War” handling of liberated slaves, by what Lincoln called “Butler’s Fugitive Slave Law,” was the forerunner of the Emancipation Proclamation.

First to use balloons for military reconnaissance, and to use railroad artillery.

1862 – Gave Army support to Farragut’s taking of New Orleans and set up Military Government of areas.

Set up schools for Negroes and organized Negro regiments.

Hanged “traitor” Mumford for desecrating American flag.

Stopped feminine insults to troops by famous self-executing “Woman of the town” order. Cleaned up the city’s disease-ridden sewage situation.

Warned Lincoln of assassination possibilities. Presidential guard established.

Allowed “trading with the enemy” to feed starving New Orleans.

Sent surplus cotton, sugar, etc. to Northern mills in lieu of sand-ballast for returning military supply ships.

Seized Confederate assets, including U.S. mint gold, hidden in consulates.

1863 – Turned down Lincoln’s offer of Vice-Presidential place on ticket. Said he didn’t “deserve the punishment” but would accept if Lincoln would agree to die within three months of election!!

Created first Military Government “Office of Negro Affairs.”

Sent Confederates at Richmond smallpox vaccine for 6000 Federal prisoners of war.

Appointed Clara Barton Superintendent of Department of Nursing, Army of the James.

Initiated “Cut the Rebels in two” idea later executed by Sherman. Had canal dug opposite Vicksburg to help Farragut bypass forts.

1864 – Insisted on equal (black for white) prisoner exchange. Organized Army’s first “Marine Brigade” and combat pay bonus. Purchased Army’s first machine (Gatling) guns at own expense. Interested in possibilities of “water-cannon,” “liquid-fire,” concussion bomb, and giant earth-auger for land mines.

In command of troops supervising New York elections.


Conquered Provinces or Repentant States 1865-1878

1865 – Opposed “soft peace” and became a “Radical Republican.” He regarded South as a collection of “conquered territories” not “sister states.”

Backed Freedmen’s Bureau in promoting integrated schools.

Volunteered to take 100,000 Negro veterans and their equipment to dig “Panama Canal.” Recognized post-war Negro unemployment problem.

1866 – Actually “waved the bloody shirt” (in Congress) of an Ohio carpet bagger tax collector who had been badly mauled in Mississippi.

First Member of Congress to be elected from outside his home district. Established residence in a tent on his Bayview, Cape Ann, property.

1867 – Advocated full military control of South until Negro civil rights assured. Became national champion and voice of veterans.

1868 – Chief prosecutor in impeachment of President Johnson for “high misdemeanor” (actually thwarting will of Congress – Tenure of Office Act)

Opposed Alaska purchase, but made $30,000 fee out of Perkins suit against Russia.

First Congressional appointment of Negro to West Point.

1869 – His “Cede Canada or Fight” slogan promoted “Alabama Claims” for U.S. against Britain.

Argued government side in Ex Parte Milligan.

His bill repealed Tenure of Office Act.

1870 – Proposed taking San Domingo as American protectorate and home for former slaves.

Believed U.S. should support Cuban revolution.

Upheld Constitutionality of Woman Suffrage Bill and supported it.

1871 – Managed financial re-organization of bankrupt District of Columbia.

Forced thru Butler Anti-Ku Klux Klan Bill (H320) which the Grant Administration never enforced.

1872 – Promoted bill incorporating Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

1873 – Butler amendment saved Brady Civil War photograph collection for national archives.

Pushed through his Civil Rights Bill: (90 years ago!): “Full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances, theaters, places of public amusement, and also of common schools and public institutions of learning.” Congress passed it after knocking out “Education Clause.”

1878 – Supported Bland Allison (more currency) silver coinage bill.

Suggested “Dictaphone” idea to phonograph inventor Thomas Edison.