Butler, Benjamin Franklin (1818–1893), a United States politician and army officer. During a career that spanned some 50 years. Butler was an eminently successful lawyer, an erratic military leader, and a highly controversial political figure. At various times, he was a conservative Democrat, a Radical Republican, and a “Greenbacker.” In 1884 he was the Presidential nominee of the Greenback and Anti-Monopoly parties.
Butler was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire. After graduation from Waterville (now Colby) College in 1838, he became a lawyer in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he championed the causes of the local mill workers, many of them newly arrived immigrants. A Democrat, he was elected to the Massachusetts state assembly in 1853 and the state senate in 1858.
After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Butler was called into service as a brigadier general of the Massachusetts militia. He gained prominence early in the war by bringing the first troops to Washington, D.C., thus relieving Confederate pressure on the capital, and also by occupying Baltimore. He was promoted to major general and placed in command of Fort Monroe, Virginia. In this post, he again won attention by declaring that slaves who had escaped to his command were “contraband of war,” a legalism that allowed him to give them their freedom; he took this action more than a year before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Butler became military governor of New Orleans in 1862, after the Navy captured the city. He was an efficient administrator, but his high-handed rule angered the city's populace, who came to refer to him as “Butler the Beast.” He was eventually recalled and given command of the Army of the James but proved to be an inept field commander.
After the war, Butler served in the U.S. Congress, 1867–75 and 1877–79, as a Radical Republican. He was the chief prosecutor in the impeachment trial of President Johnson. He later served as governor of Massachusetts, 1882–84, as a Democrat.