The Best Political General of the Civil War: Benjamin Butler – Actions that Altered the Course of the War

Who was the best political general of the Civil War?
Benjamin Butler

By Paul Burkholder
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2023, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: The subject of the annual Dick Crews Memorial Debate at the February 2023 Roundtable meeting was: “Who was the best political general of the Civil War?” Four members made presentations on the topic; the article below was one of those four presentations.

Who was the greatest political general of the Civil War? If measured by their contribution to ultimate victory, there’s just one, indisputable answer to that question: Benjamin Butler.

Benjamin Butler

I know, Butler’s been turned into a joke of sorts. But what we mostly know about Butler is what the moonlight and magnolias crowd have told us: He was coarse, stupid, and unskilled, a petty thief with googly eyes; he was BEAST Butler, SPOONS Butler; he allowed himself to get bottled up in Bermuda Hundred, for God’s sake!

No, Butler was not a great battlefield leader, but it wasn’t Butler’s battlefield prowess that sets him apart from the other political generals of the Civil War. What elevates Butler are his actions OFF the battlefield, actions that altered both the course of the war and of American history.

Paul Burkholder

Butler’s first date with history came in April 1861. In the war’s earliest days, with Maryland teetering toward secession, Butler led the 8th Massachusetts into Baltimore on its way to Washington. He quickly took charge of a highly combustible situation, declaring martial law, occupying the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and reopening rail connections to Washington. More creatively, Butler seized the Great Seal of Maryland, thereby stopping any new legislation from becoming law, AND threatened Maryland legislators with arrest if they voted for secession.

Heavy handed? You bet! Extra-legal? Yeah, maybe. Essential and effective? Absolutely! It’s not far-fetched to suggest that Ben Butler saved Maryland for the Union…because that’s exactly what he did.

The U.S. Naval Academy at the time of the Civil War

Butler’s second encounter with history came just a month later in May 1861. While the story’s well-known, its significance is often diminished and Butler’s actions dismissed as little more than a clever lawyer’s trick.

It was much more than that.

Serving as head of the Department of Virginia at Fort Monroe, Butler refused to return three escaped slaves to their Virginia owners. Instead, Butler declared the slaves “contraband of war” and therefore exempt from the Fugitive Slave Act requiring their return. Remarkably, given that this is a full 16 months before Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Butler’s view is embraced by Lincoln and, in August, adopted as policy by the U.S. Army and Navy across all theaters.

Butler’s “trick” triggers two monumental shifts in the war’s calculus. First, it drives tens of thousands of slaves off Southern plantations and, ultimately, into the ranks of the USCT. Second, it ignites a sea change in American politics, leading not just to the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1864, but to the flood of anti-slavery legislation enacted from 1862 to 1865. Does Butler deserve credit for 185,000 USCT troops and 4 million freed Americans? Yeah, he does! Maybe not sole credit or even primary credit, but it’s Butler, acting alone and on his own authority, who gets the ball rolling.

African American troops in the United States Army

Butler’s third brush with history, and the one most responsible for his scoundrel’s reputation, came in the last seven months of 1862. As the newly appointed military governor of New Orleans, Butler arrived in a city with a starving population and no functioning government. The city was knee-deep in garbage and ripe for epidemic. Crime and sedition were rampant.

A cartoon depicting Butler as a pirate terrorizing New Orleans

Butler quickly fed the populace – even using funds from his own pocket, cleaned up the streets, and imposed strict quarantines. Yellow fever deaths dropped from the preceding ten-year average of 1,700 deaths per year to just two in 1862. That’s right, two! Butler broke up the criminal and insurrectionist gangs prowling the city and solidified the army’s hold on the Confederacy’s largest port. He somehow also found time to create the U.S. Army’s first Black regiment, the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, even appointing 30 Black officers to lead it (as opposed to the USCT’s later policy of appointing only White officers to lead Black regiments.) By any measure Butler’s time in New Orleans was a bravura performance. Yet, he’s not remembered, let alone celebrated, for any of it.

Why is that?

Jefferson Davis

Well, while in New Orleans Butler also took every opportunity he could to deliver a defiant middle finger to the Confederacy, its leaders and its people. The most notorious of these middle fingers was his General Order #28 comparing the women of New Orleans to prostitutes. Butler’s belligerence in New Orleans delighted Northerners but enraged Southerners – including, ultimately, the Southern historians who set Butler’s post war reputation in stone. Butler so offended delicate Confederate sensibilities that no less an arbiter of high moral virtue than Jefferson Davis put a hit out on him! Seriously, he really did! Jefferson Davis’s Proclamation of December 23, 1862, identified Butler as “an outlaw and common enemy of mankind” and, in the event of Butler’s capture by Confederate forces, ordered, “the officer in command of the capturing force do cause him to be immediately executed by hanging.”

But, offended sensibilities, commemorative chamber pots, and pilfered spoon stories aside, here’s the bottom line on Ben Butler’s service as a general officer in the United States Army during the Civil War:

1. He saved Maryland for the Union.
2. He sparked the creation of the USCT and the political drive toward emancipation.
3. He cleaned up and restored order in New Orleans, neutralizing the Confederacy’s largest port while saving thousands of lives.

No other political general had anywhere near this kind of impact, militarily, politically, socially or historically.

Who was the best, most important political general of the Civil War? Is there really any question? It was Benjamin Franklin Butler.

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Sources (Click any of the book titles to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)


Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life; Leonard, Elizabeth D.; The University of North Carolina Press, 2022

Benjamin Franklin Butler: The Damnedest Yankee; Nolan, Dick; Presidio, 1991


Wikipedia – Benjamin Butler biography

American Battlefield Trust – Benjamin Butler biography

National Park Service – Benjamin Butler biography

64 Parishes – Benjamin Butler biography

Wikipedia – Contraband (American Civil War)

Civil War Era NC – Jefferson Davis Proclamation

Louisiana Division New Orleans Public Library – Yellow Fever Deaths in New Orleans, 1817-1905

Wikipedia – 1st Louisiana Native Guard (Union)

Wikipedia – Battle of Hatteras Inlet Batteries

Wikipedia – Battle of Chaffin’s Farm

Wikipedia – Bermuda Hundred Campaign