Life Of Benjamin Butler, by T.A. Bland
If I ever get famous enough for someone to write a biography of me, I want it to be someone who is as partisan to my interests and as sympathetic to my perspective as this author is to his subject. If one knows anything about the Civil War, it is generally that Benjamin Butler was a bully in New Orleans and an incompetent general when it came to combat and yet was viewed as politically important enough to nevertheless receive commissions up to the end of the war. Yet at the same time, even if a reader is by no means a partisan of Butler, as I am not, it is possible to do justice to someone by giving him credit for his problem solving skills, such as the way he was vital in opening the way for northern troops to reinforce Washington D.C. at the beginning of the Civil War, and the way he swept away the arguments of rebel slaveowners who wanted their runaway slaves returned by calling such runaways contraband of war, thus circumventing the Fugitive Slave Law. That sort of creativity and problem-solving deserves more credit than Butler often receives, and if he was not a great combat general, he was certainly the sort of person I would want on my side.
This book is less than 200 pages long and is divided into twenty chapters. The author begins with a look at Butler’s illustrious ancestry as well his his birthplace and boyhood (1). After that the author discusses his populist efforts as an early labor advocate (2) in Massachusetts and his political record before the war (3). This leads to a very favorable look at Butler’s record as a soldier in the militia before the war (4) as well as a praise of Butler’s capture of Baltimore for the union (5). The author then looks at Butler’s career after being put in command of Fortress Monroe (6). A substantial portion of this book is devoted to the period of about a year where Butler was involved in the conquest and administration of New Orleans, including the capture (7), his career in New Orleans (8), his acts in favor of the poor (9), his clever response to secessionist women (10), the hanging of W.B. Mumford (11), his diplomatic dealings with others (12), his efforts at restoring confidence and prosperity throughout Louisiana (13), the matter of the oath of allegiance (14), and how Butler dealt intelligently with the freedom of blacks (15). After that the author discusses the rest of Butler’s military career before Richmond and Wilmington (16), his postwar reform interests (17), his interest in financial and banking reforms (18), his status as a friend to the working class (19), and a conclusion that discusses his political career.
This author, though, goes far above and beyond the requirements of being a fair-minded biography. This author gives a glowing account of Butler’s political mindset as a populist Democrat, saying that whoever wasn’t a Democrat was a snob, a classic example of leftist false dilemmas. The author takes a heavy interest in Butler’s political career and in talking him up as a leader with both state and national potential in the postwar world in opposition to establishment Republicans and Democrats. As someone whose views towards Butler are less sanguine by a good measure than the author’s, there is a lot here that I discount because of the author’s flaming partisanship towards his subject. That said, even after one discounts the partisan effect, it is worthwhile to read a book that points out the positive side of a figure that one is not likely to think highly of because it does provide a perspective that is different than one would bring to it. And I have to say that while Butler is certainly not the best Union general of the war, he certainly had skills that were worth cultilvating and using and Lincoln was a savvy enough man to do so, and that is worth respecting in retrospect as well.