May 13, 1861
Benjamin Butler graduated from Waterville College (now Colby College) in Waterville in 1838. He moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, where he entered that state’s militia a year later. Also a lawyer, Butler was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1840. He mixed his legal career with military service and politics. He was active in the Democratic Party and attended the national convention in 1859, where he first supported Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis for president before backing party nominee John Breckinridge in the 1860 national election.
When the Civil War began, Butler volunteered to serve the Union cause. A brigadier-general of the Massachusetts militia, he asked that state’s governor, John Albion Andrew, a Maine native and graduate of Bowdoin College, for a position in a new regiment. Andrew gave him the command of the 8th Massachusetts Infantry.
Butler led the 8th Massachusetts to Maryland, arriving on April 20, the day after four members of the Massachusetts 6th Infantry Regiment – including two Maine men – had been killed marching through Baltimore.
Tensions were high as Maryland residents and politicians struggled with whether the state should secede from the Union. Butler took his regiment toward Washington from Annapolis on the Boston and Ohio Railroad. He was then ordered to keep that rail line secure.
Butler asked President Abraham Lincoln and General Winfield Scott for permission to take control of Baltimore. At the same time, the city’s mayor, George Brown, and Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks were also writing to Lincoln, asking him to stop sending troops through the city.
Hicks also told Brown to use Maryland’s state militia to disable the railroad bridges into Baltimore. Before that plan could be carried out, Butler on May 13 ordered troops into the city, declared martial law, and had Brown, Baltimore’s city council, and the city’s police commissioner arrested.
"Baltimore was in my military department, and in the absence of special orders to the contrary, I had as much right to go there as anywhere else if I chose, and surely there was no order for me not to go into the city," Butler wrote in his autobiography. ("Butler’s Book," page 227)
Three days later, Lincoln promoted Butler to the rank of Major General in the federal army, and shortly after that, he was assigned to take command of Fort Monroe, in Virginia.
- Butler showed initiative in seizing Baltimore. Did he need orders to take the city?