A Man Called Beast
Southerners vilified Union general Benjamin Butler for his wartime actions. Did he deserve it?
By Elizabeth D. Leonard
A look at the Civil War artwork of Thomas Nast
The Touch of Tragedy
Custis Lee and the burden of family history
By Colin Edward Woodward
Editorial: Rethinking the Beast
Salvo: Facts, Figures & Items of Interest
Voices: Battle Fatigue
Preservation: Another Gettysburg Victory
Faces of War: An Empty Sleeve after Fredericksburg
Figures: Beasts of Burden
Cost of War: Colonel Abram Duryee's Silver Tray
In Focus: Richmond after the Fall
Fighting Words: "To Jump the Broomstick," by Tracy L. Barnett
Crossroads: Eli Long and the Raid on Cleveland, Tennessee, by Andrew S. Bledsoe
Books & Authors:
The Top Five Civil War Biographies
By Matthew Christopher Hulbert
Voices from the Army of Northern Virginia, Part 6
By Gary W. Gallagher
Parting Shot: A Vinegar Valentine
A new biography of Benjamin Butler stressing his commitment to freedpeople and laborers is welcome. A balanced one would have been more helpful. In countering derogatory stereotypes of Butler, Elizabeth Leonard ignores numerous issues that deserve fuller accounting.
For instance, Leonard praises Butler for supporting the model for Reconstruction employed in Union-controlled Louisiana during the war. But, condemned by Frederick Douglass, it assigned freedpeople to plantations. As wards of the state, they could not leave without permission or bargain for better contracts.
Leonard praises Butler as one of the House managers in Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, but does not address David O. Stewart’s and others’ claim that his actions and arguments actually helped to undermine the case against Johnson. She downplays charges of corruption while making no mention that Butler was a model for one of the scoundrels in Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s THE GILDED AGE. One of the numerous schemes that the two had in mind was Butler’s role in the notorious McGarrahan claim for mineral-rich land in California. Is there evidence that Butler, as a congressmen, played no part in this disreputable affair? Has the scheme been misrepresented?
THE GILDED AGE was written before Butler’s famous “Salary Grab.” Leonard admits that Butler’s timing was bad and that he probably should have proposed increasing salaries for the president, Supreme Court Justices and members of Congress before rather than after the fall 1872 elections. Nonetheless, she defends the bill as necessary for these officials to hire more staff to do their jobs better. Why, then, did Butler give back-pay for incumbents, like himself and Grant? Charles Sumner was so appalled that, although he needed money, he refused to take the back pay.
Leonard lavishly commends Butler for getting Sumner’s Supplementary Civil Rights Bill through a lame duck Congress in 1875 after Sumner died. Getting the bill passed did take some legislative skill. But she fails to mention that the bill Butler passed lacked Sumner’s prohibition on segregated schools. She also ignores how Butler’s attempt to attach railroad subsidies for the Texas-Pacific Railroad almost kept the bill from passing. Instead, she asserts that, even while Sumner was alive, “Black Americans” considered Butler “their foremost advocate in the federal government” (186).To be sure, many freedmen were grateful to Butler. But the gratitude they expressed to Butler paled in response to that displayed at Sumner’s funeral.
Leonard gives needed attention to how Butler and Grant patched up their disagreement after Grant condemned Butler’s skills as a general. But she makes no mention that Butler got Grant’s blessing in part because he sided with Grant in his ugly dispute with Sumner over annexation of what is now the Dominican Republic. With eyes on Sumner’s senate seat, Butler became one of Grant’s strongest allies in the plan with hopes that freedpeople in the South would emigrate there. The most detailed account of the annexation scheme claims that Butler was motivated by hopes of gaining “substantial financial advantage.” Is there evidence to reject that accusation?
The biography mentions that Butler welcomed “Canadians into the US body politic.” But why not point out that, as the US was trying to negotiate with Great Britain over the ALABAMA Claims, Butler wanted to go to war to take Canada? And what about Butler’s other imperialist designs? For instance, in 1873 he tried to get Secretary of State Fish to support his plan for an Anglo-American company to purchase some northern states of Mexico to organize an independent government that would eventually join the US.
Scholarship about the War for Separation and its aftermath has come a long way since JFK in PROFILES IN COURAGE called Butler “beast” and the “butcher of New Orleans,” while defaming Butler’s son-in-law Adelbert Ames. An account of Butler that helps us better understand his role in the complicated issues of his times needs to do more than counter old stereotypes.