Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life

Univ. of North Carolina Apr. 2022. 392p. ISBN 9781469668048. $36. BIOG
Prize-winning historian Leonard (U.S. history, Colby Coll.; Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally) brings her considerable skill in research and writing to this biography—the fullest and most balanced one yet—of the controversial Civil War–era military and political leader Benjamin Butler, who was among the most admired and the most vilified public figures of his day. As a lawyer, U.S. senator, and general of the Union Army, Butler played pivotal roles in defining and defending principles of equality and respect for the Union during the Civil War, Reconstruction, and after. Leonard writes that during the Civil War, Butler became famous for refusing to return people fleeing enslavement to their enslavers. Among supporters of the Confederacy, he was infamous as “Beast Ben,” for his apparently harsh treatment of occupied New Orleans. But in Leonard’s careful reading of the events in a New Orleans in chaos, Butler brought order, sound public health measures, and relief for workers, enslaved people, and others. Leonard gives Butler mixed reviews as a military man but high marks as a principled and practical one; her biography pays particular attention to Butler’s commitment to emancipation, Black civil rights, and workers’ and women’s rights.
VERDICT Leonard sets the record straight on Butler and provides an object lesson on the ways his personality and principles combined to effect public good.
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