Ben Butler had the homely man’s suspicion of genetic advantage, and the poor man’s irreverence about class privilege. Nothing in his appearance inspired admiration. Short, paunchy, no heroic proportions or handsome strong features: his bald pate and droopy, crossed eyes made him a satirist’s delight.
And satirize him they did. Butler, U.S. Grant recalled, was “a man fashionable to abuse.” The South hated him bitterly, and nicknamed him “Beast” after his occupation of New Orleans. But Yankees hated him as well, especially elites. “Nature has set her seal upon him,” wrote one newspaper: “his homeliness is a faithful exponent of the ugliness of his heart.”[1. Richard Sedgewick West, Lincoln’s scapegoat general: a life of Benjamin F. Butler, 1818-1893 p. 34] Henry Adams detested him, prominent editors compared him to “boss” Tweed; Thomas Nast attacked Butler with vicious glee:
Butler constantly picked away at the meaning of appearance, and how it depended on the social, not the innate. Born with few advantages, “he has wrung success from men and circumstances,” one editor wrote; “that were reluctant to concede it to him.” [1. Sedgewick p. 84] And like many men who rise from severe disadvantage on their own hard work, he loved to tweak the noses of the powerful. He tweaked them by puncturing the “naturalness” of social positon.
His father died when he was a year old. His mother ran a boardinghouse in Lowell, Massachusetts, an entire city set up as a utopian experiment in large scale factory production. By the time Ben went to college, on a combination of scholarships and hard work, the experiment had collapsed: Lowell had a large, poverty stricken immigrant working class passing long, grinding hours in the dangerous mills.
These workers would become his constituency when he passed the bar. Prospering as a clever, resourceful defense attorney, Butler entered politics as a strong, some would say demagogic, advocate of the ten hour day. This won him a political appointment as a General in the Massachusetts militia. As a Democrat, Butler favored white workingmen and was mild at best on abolition. But when the Civil War broke out he rushed to offer his services, keen to grab the political capital military glory offered.
Lincoln needed a prominent “War Democrat” on his side for political cover, and he admired Butler’s industry and administrative efficiency. Early in the war Major General Butler played a key role in seizing Annapolis and Baltimore (he kept “Old Ironsides,” the U.S.S. Constitution, out of Confederate hands). Later in the war he directed the occupation of New Orleans, then commanded the Army of the James in Virginia.
In New Orleans he earned the nickname “Beast,” for his famous “woman order.” The city was truculent and resentful of Yankee invaders: women “calling themselves ladies” regularly disrespected his troops in the streets. Butler’s general order no. 28 declared
hereafter when any female shall, by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.
The order outraged the South, and even foreign governments found it shocking, or pretended to. Butler’s order gets to the heart of what people hated about him: social position is negotiable: there is nothing natural or inviolate or essential about class or rank or gender “privilege.” (Thereafter southern papers charged him with stealing confiscated silverware: the nickname “spoons” would dog him for the rest of his life.)
Butler’s wife had been a very successful professional actress when they married, a feminist and a free thinker. Perhaps this also gave him a sense that social roles were performative, and that appearance was not reality: appearances required an audience and props and the willing suspension of disbelief. Butler’s order stripped off the veneer of class and gender privilege and advanced the idea that social roles depended on and answered to society, not nature.[1. Fellow academics: wouldn’t it be nicely ironic if Judith Butler was a descendant of Benjamin Butler? I hope it’s true]
Butler also played a crucial role in ending slavery. Like all Union Generals Butler had a problem with escaped slaves. They crossed his picket lines for asylum and offered their services. Technically, they were still property. But returning them to their owners was out of the question. Butler declared them “contraband of war,” confiscated property like horses or cattle. They now belonged to the Union, but the Union states had all banned slavery. Like the “woman order,” it changed socials status with a strike of the pen. It was an ambiguous and shifty path to emancipation: it was one of the measure that eventually forced Lincoln into the emancipation proclamation.
When Butler wrote to Secretary of War Stanton about the problem of “contrabands,” he betrayed the confusion many white people felt about the issues of slavery and race:
The question now pressing me is the state of negro property here and the condition of the negroes as men. It has a gravity as regards both white and black appalling as the mind follows out the logical necessities of different lines of action. Ethnological in its proportions and demands for investigation, it requires active administrative operations immediately upon the individual in his daily life, his social, political, and religious status as a human being, while some of the larger deductions of political economy are to be at once worked out by any given course of conduct.[1. Benjamin Franklin Butler and Jessie Ames Marshall, Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Volume 1 (Norwood, MA 1917) p. 516]
Clearly aware of deep racial antagonisms, he both calls for “ethnological” investigations and “active administrative operations,” or what we might call “government action.” He insists that the problem of the former slave—the “condition of the negroes as men”—be seen in terms of “his social, political and religious status as a human being.” In his mind, the meaning of “negro” remained negotiable; not a subject fixed by nature and immutable but a subject amenable to social and political action.
Initially weak on racial equality, his feelings changed entirely during the war. In his autobiography he denounced men who argued against African American soldiers, and the “folly, injustice, and stupidity of this class of prejudice.” Of “negro” soldiers, he wrote, “after I left New Orleans General Banks enlisted many more of them, but was weak enough to take away from them the great object of their ambition, under the spur of which they were ready to fight to the death, namely, equality with the white soldiers.” Butler recalled that “in spite of his [Banks’] unwisdom, they did equal service and laid down their lives at Port Hudson in equal numbers comparatively with their white brothers in arms.”
“Butler was an equal opportunity commander,” writes Edward Longacre: in the Army of the James not only did he happily employ Irish and other immigrants: “in contrast to other army leaders, Butler assigned his black troops major responsibilities—spearheading assaults, holding front-line positions and defending the army’s most vulnerable sectors. He provided them with the best available rations and materials.” “The colored man fills an equal place in the ranks while he lives,” Butler argued, “and an equal grave when he falls.”[1. Edward Longacre, Army of Amateurs: General Benjamin F,. Butler and the Army of the James (Mechanichsburg, PA 1997) p. 51; West, Lincoln’s Scapegoat General p. 222. As a General, Butler managed a number of crucial military services, especially early on when he secured Annapolis and Baltimore. As a military governor, he was efficient, energetic, stern, and highly effective. Professional soldiers distrusted his lack of formal training and hesitated to back his plans: his preference for trickery and surprise was out of step with McClellan’s tactical chess and Grant’s grinding assaults.]
That respect shows in the faces of these men, soldiers in Butler’s Army of the James:
Butler, who created soldiers from slaves by fiat, who created prostitutes by fiat, regarded “fiat” paper money as his crowning achievement. “In my congressional career,” Butler concluded, “my proudest boast is that through my advocacy and efforts, the legal tender greenback was made the constitutional money of the United States.”
The North printed “greenbacks” to finance the War. Lincoln’s administration used the paper bills to pay contractors, suppliers and soldiers. Critics hated them as lacking any real value. They saw greenbacks and freed slaves, serving in uniform, as alike “inflated” and worthless. A Democratic campaign song of 1864 declared
I calculate of niggers we soon shall have our fill,
With Abe’s proclamation and the nigger army bill.
Who would not be a soldier for the Union to fight?
For, Abe’s made the nigger the equal of the white.
This song also claimed that the soldier “must be loyal, and his officers obey, Though he lives on mouldy biscuit, and fights without his pay…Though he waits six months for Green-Backs, worth forty-five per cent.” The song treats greenbacks, elevated to a position of equality with gold they can’t sustain, as part of the same mentality that elevates African Americans to a “counterfeit” equality. It concluded “when old Jeff Davis is captured, paid up you may be: If you do not mind the money, don’t you set the nigger free.”[1. William Kiernan, I am fighting for the nigger (NY: n.d.) In American Memory, Library of Congress]
Butler saw greenbacks as backed by the sacrifice and courage of the Union. The greenback, he said, “has fought our battles and saved our country;” it “represents a just equivalent for the blood of our soldiers, the lives of our sons, the widowhood of our daughters, and the orphanage of their children.” African Americans had proven themselves in war and peace: their value derived from a legal recognition and from their actions, not nature.
Butler helped lead the impeachment of Andrew Johnson during Reconstruction, and spearheaded both the investigation into the KKK and the Civil Rights Bill. He eventually served as governor of Massachusetts. At the end of his life, he ran for President on the Greenback Labor Party platform. By then, he had become a figure of constant public scorn: it was the apogee of gold standard enthusiasm and the heyday of racial segregation. In this cartoon, (click to enlarge), Butler musters his “army:” paupers, Irish caricatures, violent workers, black men, feminists–a virtual litany of the kinds of people the respectable gold bugs shunned.
A man “fashionable to abuse,” Grant called him. By the end of his life, racial equality and an expansionary money policy, aimed at distributing wealth downward, towards the working class, had fallen out of fashion. A vision of social role and equality as negotiable had similarly fallen from polite esteem, replaced by social darwinism. Butler’s appearance, and his connection to now unfashionable causes, made him an easy target. But he remained defiant: he begins Butler’s Book, his autobiography, with a frank argument in favor of racial mixing.
Butler was no saint: ruthlessly ambitious, out for personal advantage, he was more than willing to bend the niceties of law and procedure. But he also shows us a different kind of American, one open to reconsidering his prejudices and recognizing the power of the social, not nature, in shaping reality. He treated black Americans with scrupulous fairness and insisted on their equality. Butler rejected outward appearance as the foundation of meaning and value, and looked instead to how the social world determines meaning.