Illustration of Benjamin F. Butler

Benjamin Franklin Butler (1818–1893) played a crucial but controversial role in the early Civil War. He was a lawyer and politician from Massachusetts. Despite having no military experience, he secured a rank as brigadier general of Massachusetts volunteers and was sent south the secure the railroads to Washington, DC. In Baltimore, Maryland, Butler suppressed a secessionist riot. He ran afoul of Gen. Winfield Scott for, without orders, sending two regiments to reinforce Fort Monroe in the Chesapeake Bay. Scott assigned him to Fort Monroe, which he aggressively defended, most notably blundering into the first major Union defeat at the Battle of Big Bethel. While at Fort Monroe, he accepted slaves who fled from nearby plantations and impounded them as “contraband of war”, setting the precedent for Union armies to shelter escaped slaves under wartime authority.

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