LOWELL -- It takes more than one word to sum up Benjamin Butler, a prominent Massachusetts politician and major general in the Civil War.
And that one word certainly isn't "beast," according to several historians researching the man.
City employees hung a new description near Butler's portrait in Lowell City Hall following a motion by the City Council and a push by some historians to redefine his legacy, which they say had been twisted by post-Civil War confederate narratives.
"History is a set of facts, but is also a narrative that is created from fact," said Robert DeLossa, chair of Social Studies at Lowell High School. "You can have competing narratives."
Base this narrative around one fact and it will be simple, he said. Base it around many facts and it will be complicated.
Butler has a complicated, sometimes contradictory, legacy and the previous description under Butler's portrait in City Hall didn't do it justice, DeLossa said.
"It left the people who read it with this sense that he was a flawed character and didn't focus on the core progressive values that made him great," DeLossa said.
The new description was drafted collaboratively and presented by DeLossa to the City Council earlier this month.
Butler was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire in 1818 and as a youth moved to Lowell, where his widowed mother ran a boarding house.
According to DeLossa, he was one of the first graduates of Lowell High School. He later attended Colby College.
Over the next five decades, he held a series of high profile positions.
Butler practiced law in Lowell and purchased a majority share in the Middlesex Mill Company. He was appointed as a major general in the Civil War, putting down riots in Baltimore in 1861 and ensuring Washington D.C. was not surrounded by confederate forces.
Butler went on to serve four terms in Congress, became governor of Massachusetts and unsuccessfully run for president in 1884. He switched political affiliation several times throughout his life, running for office on Democrat, Republican and Greenback Party tickets.
"By the end of his life, he had risen from poverty to become one of the most wealthy and prominent Lowellians of his time," concluded the new description DeLossa presented to the City Council.
However, not all remember Butler fondly. The American Battlefield Trust, an organization that preserves battlegrounds, introduces Butler in an online article "as one of the most disliked generals of the war" upsetting people on both sides. A May 2018 article in America's Civil War Magazine described Butler as a "political schemer" and "mediocre general," while ultimately suggesting he "wasn't so bad after all," at least in regards to his military governorship in New Orleans.
It was this governorship, from May 1862 until he was removed that December, that generated a large portion of the criticism of Butler.
Occupation by union troops of New Orleans was, understandably, unpopular among its residents, according to Valeria Palmer, one of Butler's descendants through his wife Sarah Hildreth. In some cases, residents would spit on soldiers, but the opposition hit "rock bottom" when a New Orleans woman emptied a chamber pot onto an admiral passing under her window, Palmer wrote in an essay about Butler and the rights of women.
After this incident, Butler introduced General Order 28, which said any woman who acted out would be treated the same as women who engaged in prostitution.
"They made him out to be 'Beast Butler' and put his image on the base of a chamber pot," Palmer said.
DeLossa said Butler's unpopularity in the city was compounded by "unsubstantiated" allegations he confiscated and kept silver spoons taken from a woman crossing confederate lines, earning the unflattering nickname "Spoons Butler."
"That he was stern militarily is clear. That he was effective is equally clear," a biography published by the Lowell High School Social Studies Department states. "That he profited during the war, especially through the Middlesex Mill Company also is clear. He earned admirers and enemies during the Civil War."
Palmer defended Butler's treatment of woman, both in his professional work and personal relationships. She spoke about his relationship with her great-grandmother, who was Butler's niece and ward, and other women in his life.
"He was obviously a wonderful uncle," she said. "My great-grandmother adored him."
In Palmer's essay, she wrote that Butler arranged the first appearance of a woman before the House Judiciary Committee. In 1871 Victoria Woodhull argued the 14th and 15th amendments gave women the right to vote and Butler was one of only two representatives to support the request, she wrote.
"Ben was on the side of things that didn't happen for another 100 years and I think people are beginning to realize just how forward-thinking he was," Palmer said.
As Massachusetts governor, Butler appointed the first woman to a state executive position as well as the first African- and Irish-American judges in the state, according to DeLossa
In the early days of the Civil War, DeLossa said Butler declared slaves a "contraband" of war, an argument recognized by national and international law that effectively freed slaves from bondage.
"Tens of thousands of slaves cross union lines to freedom. This led to the abolition of slavery becoming a formal goal of the war for the union side," DeLossa said.
Butler, though an industrialist, also advocated for 10-hour workdays. Research by UMass Lowell Professor Robert Forrant indicated Butler participated in the first recorded instance of crowd surfing during a packed Lowell City Council meeting.
"It was mobbed by workers," DeLossa said. "This was around labor issues and they put him up on their hands and they brought him all the way up into the city chambers."
Additionally, Butler wrote an early draft of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, meant to limit actions by the Ku Klux Klan, and co-wrote the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that banned race-based discrimination in public places. The latter was struck down by the Supreme Court eight years later.
The new description of Butler in Lowell City Hall received approval from Stephen Stowell, administrator of the Lowell Historic Board and the city's historic preservation agency.
DeLossa credited the following with the development of the new description: Professor Forrant, historian and Middlesex Northern District Register of Deeds Richard Howe Jr., Lowell Historical Society Board Member Stephanie Donhue, Lowell National Historical Park liaison David Byers, Center for Lowell History Archive Manager Janine Whitcomb, former head of Lowell High School Brian Martin and descendants of Butler.
City Councilor Vesna Nuon proposed the motion to update the description under Butler's portrait last fall, around the time of an event in Lowell celebrating Butler's 200th birthday. The previous description was four paragraphs long, with one focusing on the criticism Butler received for his action in New Orleans and only brief mention of his progressive initiatives.
"It was not fitting for the man who had done so much for Lowell and this country," Nuon said.
Though Nuon said he was impressed by Butler's accomplishments, he was equally struck by his origins.
"The man's grown up with a working class single mom to become a four-term congressman and governor," Nuon said.