Benjamin F. Butler was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire, but moved to Lowell, Massachusetts when his father died. His mother ran a boardinghouse in Lowell. In 1838, he graduated from Waterville College (now Colby College) in Maine and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar two years later. In 1842, he married actress Sarah Hildreth. Butler became a staunch Democrat and labor advocate, and he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1853 and the Massachusetts Senate in 1859. In the 1860 presidential election, he supported John C. Breckenridge, the "southern" Democratic candidate. His military experience was very limited. He was appointed major in the Massachusetts militia in 1839 and by 1855 had been promoted to brigadier general. However, he had no real military training or experience, and his militia duty was mainly political in nature.
April 1861 found Butler in command of the 8th Massachusetts Infantry, and he was appointed major general of volunteers on May 16 of that year. He was assigned to command Fort Monroe at Hampton Roads, Virginia, and his reputation as a controversial figure was born. He established the first contraband policy, by flaunting the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and refusing to return enslaved persons to their owners when they escaped behind Union lines. Butler suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10, but redeemed himself by leading a successful expedition to Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina in August 1861. Butler's force closed the inlet to blockade running by capturing the Confederate forts Clark and Hatteras.
Late in 1861, Butler was sent to the Gulf Coast and put in command of the Department of the Gulf. In May 1862, he was in command of occupied New Orleans, Louisiana. Though he was a good administrator and kept the city safe and orderly, controversy followed him. He was hated by the city's residents and charged with numerous forms of corruption. The controversy was so great that he was removed from command on December 17, 1862. In 1863, he commanded the Department of Virginia and North Carolina (later renamed the Army of the James). In the summer of 1864, Butler's troops participated in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign and the First Battle of Petersburg.
In December 1864, Butler took command of an expeditionary force that was set to attack Fort Fisher near Wilmington, North Carolina. The expedition was ill-fated from the start and would finally ruin Butler's career. The expedition was hampered from the beginning by poor planning, poor coordination between the army and navy, and bad weather. Also, Butler's idea of packing an old hull full of explosives, running it ashore in front of the fort, and detonating it to knock the fort down was an utter failure. Though the navy was partially to blame for the Union's lack of success during the First Battle of Fort Fisher, Butler was an easy political target and took the majority of the blame for the botched operation. He was removed from command and resigned his commission on November 30, 1865.
Butler changed political affiliation after the war, becoming a Radical Republican. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1867 to 1875 and again from 1877 to 1879. He proved to be a progressive and reform-minded legislator, writing the Civil Rights Act of 1871 and helping to propose the Civil Rights Act of 1875. He was an advocate of "greenbacks" and government bonds. He eventually renewed his affiliation with the Democratic Party, and, as governor of Massachusetts in 1883-84, he appointed the first Irish-American judge, the first African-American judge, and the first female executive officer in the state's history. In 1884, he was the presidential nominee of the Greenback Party, opposing the Democrats' nomination of Grover Cleveland. He continued to practice law for the rest of his life and was generally considered a brilliant attorney. Butler died on January 11, 1893 in Washington, D.C. and was buried in Lowell.