Benjamin A. Butler is a fascinating character in US history for a number of reasons. In 1818, he was fortunate to be born during revolution and change in the country. He grew up in Massachusetts and was most likely well off since he was able to attend college at Waterville, Maine. In 1838, he graduated with a law degree and pursued a criminal defense career in Lowell, Massachusetts. Perhaps he chose criminal defense as a way to serve the poor of whom he sympathized with and rallied around.
Benjamin A. Butler was also a military man with a long history of service under his belt. He served as Brigadier General in the Massachusetts Militia, which was kind of like today’s National Guard, and with the Union Army during the Civil War. His participation in the Civil War not only brought him full tilt to the front lines of the poor but also face to face with slaves. Butler used his talents in law and military organization as a strategy that helped slaves, supported the Union and helped the poor through charitable opportunities which arose as consequence of the war.
The US Civil War played out with soldiers and guns on one side and by politicians on the other. Butler didn’t allow this to sway his decisions but determined the best course of action by evaluating the situations he came across at the time. The first sign of this was when he confronted a slave problem in Virginia. The problem was what to do with slaves who had escaped in the South or had been abandoned. Congress had recently enacted the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated that escaped slaves be returned to their masters and were not considered “free”. Butler was a man of law and questioned this situation of runaway slaves in times of war. These escaped slaves had become “impressed” into the construction of batteries. He also could not fathom the idea of abandoning the slaves while invading towns and pushing masters to leave their plantations, so he took the slaves as contraband. As Sydney Nathans describes in his book, To Free A Family: The Journey of Mary Walker, anti-slavery organizations celebrated Butlers ideas of devising a way to help by using his knowledge of the law. According to the law, slaves were property and in time of war confiscated property was considered contraband. The idea of contraband satisfied two problems Butler saw important to focus on. First, he confiscated slaves so they could not aid the southern war effort by being impressed. Secondly, by helping the slaves it gave him political support back home in Massachusetts, primarily an abolitionist state.
In 1862 when Butler and his forces invaded New Orleans he saw wealthy aristocrats taking advantage of the poor. Being a man who sympathized with the poor and a history of successful organization of his troops, set upon empowering people to turn their hardships around. He even dipped into his own pockets to get the ball rolling. Many of the people he helped were Southerners unable to provide for themselves due to male head of households being whisked off to join the war. Butler gathered contraband slaves and put them to work helping with tasks. Some of this must have inspired his support of black troop units back home to serve in the Union forces.
Benjamin A. Butler’s legacy continued for years after the Civil War. He continued to serve in politics and continued to use his love for law to help represent those who were forgotten by society. He was able to see corruption with Andrew Jackson’s administration. He was able to see that politicking and reconstruction after the Civil War sought to keep tempers flaring in the south by keeping free blacks suppressed with terrorism and intimidation. He continued work with the passing of the Ku Klux Klan Act and Civil Rights Act. He seemed to be the right man for the job at the time. His background, education and love for fairness and law led him to opportunities that he embraced with the best of intentions and heart. His successes and failures teach that decisions are made with everyone involved and the outcomes will affect everyone as well. If one group or side is not taken into considerations the outcome can be far more detrimental. His ideas set up social programs and systems that aided society during war and its aftermath. He showed how organization can aid in military strength for support of any operation. Lastly, he showed how law can work to benefit those who are oppressed by the social elite and powerful.