Butler, a white man taking a stand against slavery

Who was Benjamin Franklin Butler, and why would anyone care? I am in the process of exploring ideas for my third novel, and am considering Butler as a historical character. My two previous novels – White Bread and The Inheritance – have featured present-day educators wrestling with social justice issues that link the present with the past, as they learn to become activist educators. Butler’s work during the 1800s serves as an interesting historical case of a white man taking a stand against slavery.

I first encountered Benjamin F. Butler when, while researching my own family, I noticed one my ancestors (Dewitt Harris) naming his first-born son Benjamin Butler Harris. Why saddle one’s son with the middle name Butler, I wondered? I figured this son must be named after someone, so I began scouring the post-civil war records.

Rather quickly, I found Benjamin F. Butler, who had served as the Union General occupying New Orleans for eight months during 1862. The following year, he was named the North’s special agent for the exchange of prisoners of war. In that capacity he negotiated release of Union prisoners being held in various Southern prisons, including Cahaba Prison in Alabama. My ancestor Dewitt Harris was one of the prisoners he freed. So, when the war ended, he named his first-born after Benjamin Butler.

That fact would not have intrigued me for a story had I not found more about Butler. This was not hard to do; a couple of books have been written about him, and he even published his own autobiography.

Butler was born in New Hampshire in 1818, then raised in Lowell, Massachusetts after his father died and his mother needed to figure out how to support herself and her children. In Lowell,  she opened up a boarding house for factory workers in the rapidly-expanding textile industry. Butler grew up hearing about women’s working conditions from the point of view of the women themselves. He attended college in Maine, in a milieu of anti-slavery activism, and although he apparently did not become involved himself, activism against slavery was not a foreign concept for him.

Butler began making headlines as an activist in May of 1861. A day after taking command of the Union’s Ft. Monroe in Virginia, three escaped slaves crossed the James River and asked for asylum at the Fort. Butler ordered that they be fed and sheltered while he figured out how to handle the situation.

The following day, when Major Carey showed up to claim Colonel Mallory’s “property,” Butler replied that he intended to hold the three men. He said: “I mean to take Virginia at her word, as declared in the ordinance of secession passed yesterday. I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be.” He declared the three escaped slaves “contraband of war,” meaning that they would not be returned to what was now a foreign and hostile country. At the time, Butler’s concern was that the South was using slaves to attack Union forts, such as Ft. Monroe. Refusing to return slaves to the South deprived the enemy of a source of labor.

But word spread quickly. More slaves began arriving from across the river, including whole families, who saw that implicitly Butler’s policy was one of emancipation.

Apparently President Lincoln saw it this way as well. Lincoln was not at all eager to take a stand against slavery. He directed Butler to focus on the war, not on emancipation. Butler ignored Lincoln and admitted more and more escaped slaves. As they talked about their lives in slavery, Ft. Monroe’s solders – including Butler – received an education that made them more determined that what they were doing was right.

Later in his assignment as occupying general of New Orleans, Butler took on the pervasive poverty he encountered there, viewing it as having been created by the rich. To that end, he taxed wealthy secessionists to fund jobs for the poor and to improve city services such as public health. While Butler himself did not launch a program of emancipation in New Orleans, his Brigadier General John Phelps did so by organizing fugitive slaves into troops for the Union. Accounts differ regarding the extent to which Butler did or did not support Phelps.

But Butler’s actions in Ft. Monroe, and his work with Phelps in New Orleans helped to push Lincoln toward finally issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

I find Butler interesting because he was an imperfect white man (quite an understatement, actually) who irritated a lot of people and did not seem to have a well worked-out philosophy regarding racism. Yet, when presented with an opportunity to uphold the humanity of people who had been dehumanized through slavery, he did so. He took a stand against slavery, putting  the weight of his power behind his actions. His actions turned out to matter, not just for the escaped slaves he supported, but also for the nation’s dismantling of slavery itself.

An interesting person to give attention to! Stay tuned!

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