Book Review: Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life


by Elizabeth D. Leonard

Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2022. Pp. xxvi, 366. . Illus., notes, biblio., index. $36.oo. ISBN: 1469668041

A Thought-Provoking Life of "Beast Butler"

In this new work award winning biographer, Elizabeth Leonard turns her attention to the Union’s Benjamin Butler, reassessing his services to the nation as a statesman, a patriot, and a broad-minded and courageous individual who supported equal opportunity for African Americans, fair wages and voting rights for women, and respect for the beleaguered, and believed that “every man has the right to be the equal of every other man if he can”.

Earlier works on Butler usually characterize the controversial military and political leader as a man who was not viewed positively by many, was offensive, heartless, mercurial, arrogant, tyrannical, incompetent, greedy, and egotistical. Many called him” Beast”, “Damnedest Yankee”, “Devil”, “Spoons”, “Stormy Petrel” and claimed he had an awkward physical appearance. But Leonard argues he was an ethical man with a sense of humor, was candid, not hypocritical, and could be self-critical.

Leonard explores Benjamin Butler’s early life, his childhood in poverty, his entry into law and politics in the ante bellum period, his Civil War service from the first days of the struggle, his governance of New Orleans, later command in Virginia, and on through the end of the war, as well as during Reconstruction, his service in Congress and later as Governor of Massachusetts.

Of all the periods in Butler’s life the seven and a half months he commanded the Federal occupation of New Orleans has drawn the most attention by historians. Leonard treats this in a single chapter, which is the most interesting to this reviewer. His approach to governing in New Orleans brought him nothing less than “international notoriety and the undying hatred of Southerners.” As another historian observed, “every move Butler made created controversy.”

But as Leonard points out, Butler’s months in New Orleans unquestionably produced important and highly praised achievements by the occupying Union forces. He helped the poor by feeding many; laboring men, people of color, and women, while dealing effectively with the outbreak of Yellow Fever, taxing the city’s rich and confiscating property to pay for his programs, enforcing stringent sanitary measures on the filthy city by putting thousands of black and white residents to work cleaning the streets and sewers, and repairing levees. She postulates that Butler’s poverty-stricken childhood sparked his desire to fight for people in need throughout his military and political careers.

Leonard notes, that members of Lincoln’s Cabinet, including then-Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, as well as Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson praised Butler’s efforts in New Orleans.

Furthermore, Leonard also recognizes Butler’s outreach to fugitive slaves early in the war, offering protection and even freedom to the “contrabands” well before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and his consistent support for the rights of African Americans during Reconstruction, including opposition to the Ku Klux Klan. She points out that his efforts in this regard were recognized by the Black community; many veterans of the U.S.C.T. attended his funeral, as did many prominent African Americans, including Frederick Douglass, to honor his memory as a comrade and patron of freedom.

Leonard’s work is very deeply researched, and she writes in flowing prose that makes the pages fly by. She insightfully analyzes the myths, emotionality, and politics of public memory of the general, stressing the critical importance of defining the past. There is plenty to learn for the casual reader here, and for the serious scholar, about a man who exhibited a capacity for growth and dedication to bringing social and cultural change.

Leonard’s excellent Benjamin Franklin Butler is highly recommended.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include, , Voices of the Army of the Potomac, The Record of Murders and Outrages, Gettysburg 1963, No Common Ground, Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers, Stephen A. Swails, The Great ‘What Ifs’ of the American Civil War Chained to History, Grant vs. Lee: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War, Spectacle of Grief, Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy, First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Ellsworth, Their Maryland, The Lion of Round Top, Rites of Retaliation, and Animal Histories of the Civil War Era.



Note: A volume in the UNC Press series "Civil War America", Benjamin Franklin Butler is also available in audio- and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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