Andrew Jackson once said, “I was born for the storm, and a calm does not suit me.” The same could have been said by one of Jackson’s admirers, Benjamin Butler. He was accused throughout his career of rank opportunism, incompetence, graft, and skulduggery. He was also seen as a champion of blacks, women, and most of all the working class. He changed the course of the Civil War by accepting escaped slaves, while also overseeing a number of embarrassing defeats. His was a riotous life in war and politics that spanned the fading of the Jacksonian era and the dawn of the Progressive one. No wonder he has more biographies than your average general in blue or gray. Love or hate Butler, he was never boring.
The latest outing is Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life by Elizabeth D. Leonard. Her concentration is on Butler’s views and political actions in favor of blacks, women, and the working class of all races and gender. In this regard, the book is best at cataloguing Butler’s transforming views on race, from neutrality on the slavery issue to one of the last radical holdouts. This led him to leave first the Democrats, then the Republicans. I appreciate that Leonard did not shy away from describing how Republicans abandoned black voters, including Ulysses S. Grant. There is also nuance in how Butler proceeded on the slavery issue during the war and Leonard highlights that. If this had been a short book on that subject or a journal article I would give it high marks. Alas, this is not the case.
The Butler of Leonard’s pen is a simple man. True, he can be arrogant, selfish, and inconsistent; Butler was hardly a champion of Chinese immigrants, for instance. Yet the book is laudatory. Discussions of Butler’s less savory aspects are either not discussed in much detail or brushed aside. These include corruption, overstepping legality, and the outrageous lies Butler spun throughout his career.
The weakest point is the discussion of Butler’s military career. Leonard is best here describing his administration of New Orleans and his views on race, although of the former some of the less laudatory aspects are not given enough due. It is in discussing campaigns and battles that Leonard fails. To be fair she makes clear that the minutia of military campaigns are not what she is concentrating upon, yet even in the broad-strokes she comes up short. The Bermuda Hundred campaign was a turning point for Butler. Before that he was admired in the North for his hard war policies. That admiration disappeared after he lost at Drewry’s Bluff. Leonard though does not even mention the battle. For her confusing narrative of the campaign she did not consult Glenn Robertson and Herbert Schiller, who wrote the definitive works on Bermuda Hundred. Butler’s role in the battle of Petersburg, where he bungled on June 16-17, is not even mentioned. On military matters the book is poorly researched, often vague, and lacking.
Butler’s opponents are often treated in the worst possible light. Butler’s enemies are often described as white, wealthy, racist, and conservative. Were they all that way? Some worried that Butler in power would overstep. That was no idle fear. The execution of William Mumford was troubling from a constitutional and legal standpoint. More concerning, during the war and then before the Supreme Court, Butler argued for expansive military powers in a time of crisis. Butler lost the case and the court decided civilian courts should be relied upon when possible. Leonard loves to comment on how Butler was ahead of the game on women’s rights, but what about his being ahead of the game on the Patriot Act? Even more uncomfortable is how could such a man of the people lose reelection as governor of Massachusetts and then be laughed off in his 1884 presidential run? Is it all just the actions of white, wealthy, conservatives? That question is also not adequately answered.
Consider also that in describing Ebenezer Hoar, Leonard has to point out his opposition to Johnson’s impeachment and black rights and calls his attempt to block Butler’s election to Congress as “hijinks.” Hoar, though, settled the Alabama claims and was a founder of the Free Soil Party, an anti-slavery man over ten years before Butler changed his mind. Also his “hijinks” were a rational means of defeating a political rival and worked quite well. I am not saying Hoar was a great man, but he is not a two-bit villain.
The last issue is the prose. The sentences sometimes verge on run-on territory. Leonard also quotes excessively from other historians for their views, a practice that breaks up the book’s narrative flow.
Ben Butler was controversial his whole life. This tale, though, is one of Butler as a somewhat flawed hero in a Manichean struggle. As such, the book is divorced from the fire and fury that was Benjamin Butler.
Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life
By Elizabeth D. Leonard
University of North Carolina Press, 2022, $36 hardback
Reviewed by Sean Michael Chick