General Benjamin Butler


Something for the weekend.  General Butler sung by Bobby Horton who wages a one man crusade to bring authentic Civil War music to modern audiences.  Butler was cordially hated by the South due to his tenure as military governor of New Orleans during which time he issued his infamous “Woman Order”:



New Orleans, May 15, 1862.
As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.
By command of Major-General Butler:
Assistant Adjutant-General and Chief of Staff.


Jefferson Davis ordered that if he were ever captured Butler was to be executed as a common enemy of mankind.  This was ironic because at the 1860 Democrat Convention Butler voted 57 times to nominate Davis for President of the United States.  Without a doubt, however, Butler was the most hated Union general in the South.

However, due to Butler’s military incompetence, Union soldiers who had the misfortune to be under his command also had good reason to curse his name.




There are of course several generals in the running for the title of most incompetent Union general:  Ambrose Burnside, Don Carlos Buell, John Pope, Henry Halleck, Nathaniel Banks and the list could go on for some length.  However, for me the most incompetent general clearly is Benjamin Butler.  A political general appointed by Lincoln to rally War Democrats for the war effort, Butler in command was a defeat waiting to happen for any Union force cursed to be under him.  Butler during the Bermuda Hundred campaign in 1864 threw away chance after chance to take Richmond, with a timidity that rose to astonishing levels and an ineptitude at leading his forces that defies belief.  Grant summed up Butler’s generalship well in his Personal Memoirs when he recalled a conversation with his Chief of Engineers:

He said that the general occupied a place between the James and Appomattox rivers which was of great strength, and where with an inferior force he could hold it for an indefinite length of time against a superior; but that he could do nothing offensively. I then asked him why Butler could not move out from his lines and push across the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad to the rear and on the south side of Richmond. He replied that it was impracticable, because the enemy had substantially the same line across the neck of land that General Butler had. He then took out his pencil and drew a sketch of the locality, remarking that the position was like a bottle and that Butler’s line of intrenchments across the neck represented the cork; that the enemy had built an equally strong line immediately in front of him across the neck; and it was therefore as if Butler was in a bottle. He was perfectly safe against an attack; but, as Barnard expressed it, the enemy had corked the bottle and with a small force could hold the cork in its place.

Grant finally obtained approval from Lincoln after the November elections in 1864 to fire Butler after Butler failed to take Fort Fisher, which guarded Wilmington, the last major port of the Confederacy.  Butler defended himself by saying that Fort Fisher was impregnable.  The fort was taken by assault one week after Butler was relieved.

If military malpractice had been a criminal offense, Butler would have been lucky to get off with life imprisonment.  Butler is my choice for most incompetent Union General.  Who do you thinks deserves the title?

Published in: on April 28, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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  1. It has been said that his political and manipulative skills helped to hold New Orleans for the Union and find the minority of people who would collaborate and bear arms, including freed slaves. That does not make up for the lives he cost in battle, though.

    • Butler was in many ways a brilliant man, and a very shrewd lawyer, who rose by his ability and flexible ethics. As a military governor I would rate him fair for the reasons you noted, although he basically made reconciling the whites of the city an impossible task during the War. His complete lack of military talent does demonstrate that there is something about it akin to musical ability, for example, that is innate, and that no amount of brilliance, if God didn’t place it in the individual, can make up for the lack, at least at the higher levels of military command. Grant makes an interesting contrast. No one would apply the term brilliant about Grant except in the military sphere where watching him in action was akin to watching a master violinist play.

      • In the same way that you can have a farm girl (St.Joan), a journalist (Trotsky), a sea captain (Garibaldi) or a clerk (Clive) find himself in command without perhaps ever having fought in war before, and just find that they instinctively knew what to do. And notice that I mentioned two stainless heroes and two villains; it’s not even to do with morality or wanting to win for the right reasons. Incidentally, how conscious was Grant that while he held down the best of Lee’s troops, Sherman was tearing up what was left of the Confederacy from behind?

      • I think insufficient attention Fabio has been paid to this phenomenon by historians. Someone spends his entire life as a squire in seventeenth century England and suddenly he, Oliver Cromwell, commands the victorious army in a civil war. A semi-literate millionaire slave trader in Memphis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, rises from Private to Lieutenant General and becomes the ablest cavalry commander in the biggest war of American history. An ambitious Roman politician, chiefly known for his lechery and political skill, conquers Gaul and defeats Pompey, the master general of the age, in a civil war. One problem with contemporary military forces is that there is less scope for amateurs with a streak of military genius rising to such commands, due to the bureaucratization of the profession of arms.

        In regard to Grant and Sherman they agreed early in 1864 that they would conduct joint offensives. The way the offensives played out, of course, they could not foresee at the beginning. I think Grant doubted the wisdom initially of Sherman’s March to the Sea, but he had enough confidence in Sherman not to intervene to stop it.

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