Made at the Library: Benjamin Franklin Butler, Reevaluating the Man Behind the Caricatures

Stereograph of MAjor General Benjamin F. Butler with Butler two profile images of Butler circa 1861-1865, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Stereograph of Major General Benjamin F. Butler in uniform, ca. 1861-1865, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

This guest post is by Manuscript Division reference librarian Bruce Kirby and Civil War and Reconstruction specialist Michelle A. Krowl. 

Join us at noon on Monday, December 5, for a conversation with historian Elizabeth D. Leonard, author of the recent biography Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life (University of North Carolina Press, 2022) about the controversial lawyer, Civil War general and Massachusetts politician whose papers are held in the Library of Congress.

Long after his death in 1893, caricatured depictions of Benjamin F. Butler prevailed. These included portraying him as “Beast Butler,” the Yankee general who insulted the honor of white Southern women and purportedly stole silver spoons while in command of New Orleans in 1862, and as a political opportunist who changed parties as often as the wind changed direction in order to advance his own ambitions. But how much does Butler’s historical reputation reflect the reality of his actions and motivations? Leonard discovered an ambitious and complicated man who championed radical causes and equality of opportunity, and whose thinking evolved with the times. Butler’s involvement in many of the most consequential events and issues of his era made him a significant figure in nineteenth-century America, and argues for a more nuanced understanding of his life and legacy.

Elizabeth D. Leonard is the John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History, Emerita, at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Leonard is the author of several books on the Civil War era, including Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War, All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, and Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky, which was co-winner of the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize in 2012.

The discussion, moderated by Manuscript Division historian Michelle A. Krowl and senior reference librarian Bruce Kirby, will examine how researchers discover and access relevant materials within the Library’s holdings and how they draw conclusions and arguments from historical documents. The Manuscript Division is home to the Benjamin F. Butler Papers, consisting of 190,000 items arranged in 267 containers. The division also holds the personal papers of many of Butler’s Civil War-era military and political contemporaries, such as Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, Secretaries of War Simon Cameron and Edwin McMasters Stanton, and General Nathaniel Prentiss Banks.

The event will take place online only on Monday, December 5, 2022, 12:00pm-1:00pm EDT. Register for the program here.

Request ADA accommodations five business days in advance at (202) 707-6362 or [email protected].

Made at the Library is an event series highlighting works inspired by and emerging from research at the Library of Congress. Featuring authors, artists and other creators in conversation with Library experts, this series takes a deep dive into the process of working with Library’s collections.

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