Material on Benjamin F. Butler at LHS
Benjamin Franklin Butler (November 5, 1818 – January 11, 1893). One of the great success stories – and colorful figures – to come out of Lowell, Ben Butler was born in New Hampshire, where his mother, Charlotte, was widowed soon after her son was born. She moved the family to Lowell, where she ran one of the boarding houses for millworkers. Ben, growing up in this environment, gained a keen appreciation for the hardships of laborers, women, immigrants, and, generally, those struggling economically. He was one of the first students in Lowell High School (in the early 1830s) and states in his autobiography, Butler’s Book (1892), that Lowell High School gave him everything he needed to be successful afterward.
Although his mother wanted him to go into the ministry, Butler took, instead, to law and politics. He studied at Waterville College (now Colby) in Maine, then was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1840, setting up shop in Lowell. He was a very successful lawyer: he was successful enough to buy a majority share in the Middlesex Mill Company, and engaged in various commercial interests that made him a very wealthy man by the time he died. In 1844 he joined one of Lowell’s most prominent families with his marriage to Sarah Hildreth.
Butler was deeply involved in supporting a number of progressive causes throughout his life, clearly influenced by his early life in a Lowell boarding house: he successfully supported the 10-hour work day. As a Congressman from Massachusetts (1867–1875; 1877–1879), he supported women’s suffrage and wrote the initial draft of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, curtailing the actions of groups like the KuKluxKlan. 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 in 1883 by a conservative Supreme Court. However, it was an important precursor to the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century. Butler was a House manager of the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. As governor of Massachusetts (1882–1884) he appointed the first African- and Irish-American judges in the Commonwealth and the first woman to a state executive position. He ran for president in 1884 as a Greenback. Butler’s political rivals included members of several parties, inasmuch as he switched parties as his views evolved or as he saw political opportunity in other parties. This has colored subsequent historical representations of his legacy.
Butler’s greatest and most controversial actions came as a general in the Civil War. He was instrumental in putting down riots in Baltimore in 1861 and ensuring that Washington DC would not be encircled by rebel forces. He was one of the first Major Generals appointed during the war. At Fort Monroe, Virginia, he formulated a strategy for freeing slaves who crossed Union lines by calling them Contraband of War. His formulation succeeded; tens of thousands of slaves crossed Union lines to freedom. His actions led to the end of slavery becoming an official goal of the war for the Union side. However, Butler also was considered heavy handed, although effective, in the military governorship of occupied New Orleans. This, along with allegations of financial impropriety involving his brother Andrew while in Louisiana, his emancipation of slaves, and his early decisive crushing of Maryland’s potential entry into the Confederacy, all created a Confederate campaign of vilification that lasts to the present day, with epithets like “Butler the Beast” and “Spoons Butler” (with an unsubstantiated allegation that he confiscated and kept silver spoons taken from a woman crossing to Confederate lines). That he was stern militarily is clear. That he was effective is equally clear. That he profited during the war, especially through the Middlesex Mill Company also is clear. He earned admirers and enemies during the Civil War.
On the whole, Butler is one of the most complex and successful individuals to be shaped by Lowell and to make Lowell an epicenter of forward progress throughout the latter part of the 19th century. He was active locally and at the national level. He influenced the outcome of the Civil War and the emancipation of African Americans. He championed African American and women’s civil rights. He championed immigrants and established of an Irish-American presence in the state’s judiciary. To appreciate his life is to appreciate the energy, ambition — and complexity — of the phenomenon of 19th-century Lowell. His grave is in the private Hildreth family cemetery in Centralville. It is opened to the public once a year on the anniversary of his birth.
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