Review of “Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life”

Review of Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life, by Elizabeth D. Leonard

Review by Richard Howe

Scrolling through a list of books about Lowell’s Civil War General Benjamin Butler discloses a number of unflattering titles including The South Called Him Beast, When the Devil Came Down to Dixie, Army of Amateurs, and Lincoln’s Scapegoat General. In her new biography, Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life, Colby College historian Elizabeth D. Leonard restores much-needed balance to Butler’s place in history.

Leonard effectively makes the case that Butler’s reputation was a casualty of the same pro-Southern, Jim Crow era historians who popularized the pseudohistorical “Lost Cause” myth of the American Civil War and who enabled the erection of countless Confederate monuments which only recently and properly have been removed from public display.

Many of us are familiar with Butler’s innovative and heroic decision while in command of Fortress Monroe in 1861 to refuse to return enslaved individuals who made it to the fort on the grounds that they were “contraband of war liable to forfeiture.” Just a month into the war with President Abraham Lincoln walking a tightrope on the issue of slavery to keep the border states of Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri from seceding, Butler crafted an elegant policy that used the secessionists’ own logic against them. Southerner’s claimed they were now a separate county at war with the United States and that the enslaved people were their property. Citing the universal law of warfare, Butler noted that the property of a foreign combatant that was captured by the force the property was being used against could be confiscated as “contraband of war.” Butler allowed the formerly enslaved people and their families to remain in the fort where he paid them to work for the United States Army. Many followed. President Lincoln eventually adopted the practice as U.S. government policy. Some recent historians even maintain that Butler’s decision was the first step towards the Emancipation Proclamation.

While Leonard concisely repeats this episode, she does a masterful job of showing how Butler’s commitment to the cause of the enslaved and to political equality for Black people grew during the war. This was particularly evident in 1862 when Butler became the military governor of New Orleans. Under his leadership, the 1st Louisiana Native Guard came into existence. It was the first unit of Black soldiers in the United States Army and included a number of Black officers in its ranks. It was only after Butler left New Orleans that his successor purged this and other Black regiments in that theater of Black officers.

Butler’s commitment to racial justice and equal rights continued and grew stronger after the war when he became a member of Congress where he was a prime mover in the Civil Rights legislation of that era and a steadfast supporter of Reconstruction.

Besides probing Butler’s stance on Civil Rights, Leonard does an excellent job of showing the human side of Ben Butler by extensive use of various archival sources, especially letters of Butler and members of his family. She also provides a clear and much-needed explanation of Massachusetts state politics in the pre-Civil War era.

Residency in Lowell automatically conscripts one into the fight to uphold the reputation of Ben Butler. Although Leonard does not live in the city, she has a similar link to Butler through her employment at Colby College which was Butler’s alma mater. Founded in 1813 as the Maine Literary and Theological Institution and renamed Waterville College by the time Ben Butler graduated in 1839, the school was on the verge of insolvency during the Civil War when most college-age students were in the army, but the school was rescued financially by philanthropist Gardner Colby. In 1867, the school was renamed Colby University and later, Colby College, in honor of its fiscal savior.

Leonard’s affection for Butler is woven through the book but does not affect her critical analysis of his life except perhaps when it comes to his military service. While most everyone outside the orbit of pro-Southern revisionists would agree that Butler was a superb administrator while in uniform, finding anyone to proclaim his supremacy as a combat commander is a tougher task. Leonard is appropriately unsparing in documenting his lack of success, however, she attributes it to his unwillingness to sacrifice the lives of the troops under his command. Tragically, though, that is exactly what a general must do to prevail in a war. When Ulysses Grant took command of the United States Army, casualties soared, but that was because he was relentless in his efforts to destroy the enemy army. In doing so, he brought the war to a speedier conclusion than would have occurred under a more cautious commander. However, a longer fight might have cost even more lives but it almost certainly would have reached a murkier result for the institution of slavery. Of course, singling Butler out for military ineptitude is unfair to him since most generals showed a similar lack of skill, something that is unsurprising given the complexities of warfare in the 1860s and the absence of the general staff system of planning that became the norm in the 20th century.

This is a superb book, especially for anyone interested in Ben Butler and his times. While Lowell and Colby College are both in New England, they are a considerable distance apart. Hopefully that won’t be an impediment to having Professor Leonard come to Lowell to talk about her wonderful book about one of the city’s most famous and consequential residents.

3 Responses to Review of “Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life”

  1. D. Daniel says:

    This isn’t a book–or a topic–that would normally come to my attention, but your review does what a good book review ought to do, and now I will seek out and read “A Noisy, Fearless Life.”

  2. Steve O'Connor says:

    Sounds like a very interesting book about a very interesting man. Too bad we lost his home in Lowell to fire. Hope the bust of Butler is still on display at the Lowell Auditorium. I recall reading as well that Butler fought for the ten hour workday and for women’s suffrage. Went to see his grave a few years ago in the Hildreth Cemetery, but the cemetery was locked. Thanks for the tip on the book, and yes, it would be great to hear Professor Leonard in Lowell.