Ben Butler was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire on November 5, 1818, but his widowed mother brought her children to Lowell when Ben was just ten years old. He graduated from Lowell High and began studying for the ministry at his mother’s urging but he returned to Lowell and began studying law in a local law office. He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1840 and quickly gained a reputation as a tenacious advocate, especially in criminal defense. His successful legal career allowed him to purchase considerable amount of stock in the Middlesex Mills but he often represented mill workers. He became a champion of the ten-hour day movement.
He gravitated towards politics, serving in the state legislature and running for governor before the Civil War and after the Civil War at various times he did serve as governor, as a member of Congress and was even a candidate for president in 1884 representing the Greenback party.
Butler had a mixed record as a general in the Civil War. His most significant contribution was not military action but a legal conclusion.
In May of 1861, just two days after taking command of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, Lowell’s Ben Butler made a decision that changed history. Sometime during the night of the 23-24 of May, three slaves who had been digging gun positions for the Confederate forces besieging Fort Monroe, escaped and showed up at the fort asking for asylum. What to do with slaves who came into custody of the Union Army was a dicey proposition, fraught with legal peril. While it would be absurd for the Union Army to send such slaves back to their Confederate owners, neither could they set them free. To do so would be to inflame the non-abolitionist sentiments in the North and would also likely tip the three border states, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri into the Confederacy.
With no guidance from higher headquarters, Butler drew upon his legal training to make his decision. The long-time Lowell lawyer knew that under the laws of war, if one side came into possession of personal property of the other side that was being used to advance that side’s war activities, it was proper to keep that property as “contraband of war.” Butler therefore decided that slaves that came into the custody of him command would be held as contraband of war. He telegraphed his decision to Washington and his policy was soon adopted throughout the Union Army. This precipitated a flood of escaped slaves streaming into Union lines and began influencing Lincoln’s thinking on the subject of slavery, an evolution that resulted the following year in the Emancipation Proclamation.
History has imposed a mixed legacy on Butler, mainly for his generalship in combat and for his administration as military governor of New Orleans, both during the Civil War. Given the issues of our own time, studying Butler now is more important than ever. He was deeply involved in progressive causes throughout his life, supporting the 10-hour work day and the right of women to vote. While in Congress, he wrote the initial draft of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 that curtailed the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. He co-wrote the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that banned discrimination on the basis of race in public accommodations. That law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court and was not truly revived until the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century. Also while in Congress, Butler served as the lead House prosecutor in the impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate.
I’ve come to believe that much of the negativity about Butler was driven by the same revisionist history of the Civil War that led to the erection of so many monuments dedicated to leaders of the Confederacy, monuments and statues that have over the past few years been removed or at least re-examined as historians examine more closely what actually happened during the Civil War rather than the myths that arose after the war that sought to erase or weaken the reforms that resulted from that war.