Civil War History 49.1 (2003) 78-79
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Southern Hero: Matthew Calbraith Butler, Confederate General, Hampton Red Shirt, and U.S. Senator. By Samuel J. Martin. (Mechanicsburg, Pa: Stackpole Books, 2001. Pp. x, 388. Cloth $29.95.)
Matthew Calbraith Butler was indeed a Southern hero, seemingly predestined for a life of accomplishment and fame in his day. While unknown outside the history of America's Civil War and the following Gilded Age, Butler proved himself to be a cavalry officer of real merit during the war and a most remarkable politician through Reconstruction and beyond.
Butler's ancestry laid the foundation for his place in American history. Born in South Carolina in March 1836, his uncles included Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, victor of the Battle of Lake Erie; Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, who reopened Japan to the world; and Andrew P. Butler, the South Carolina senator involved in the infamous Brooks-Sumner imbroglio of 1856. Butler was the guardian for the young Matthew, and the boy grew up on the senator's plantation four miles north of Edgefield. Matthew took his place amongst the planter elite while also successfully reading law and passing the bar in late 1857. He further solidified his position in South Carolinian society with his marriage in 1858 to Maria Pickens, [End Page 78] daughter to Francis W. Pickens, a wealthy planter and politician who would later become the state's first Confederate governor. In 1859 Butler joined the Edgefield Hussars, and was elected an officer. His background, career, and endeavors marked him as an archetype of the Southern elite.
In the aftermath of the election of 1860, Butler wholeheartedly supported South Carolina's secession from the Union. Later his petition to Wade Hampton for the Edgefield Hussars to join Hampton's Legion was accepted. Butler began the war as a captain of cavalry. Like many others, he was an amateur soldier who learned first hand his profession in the crucible of battle. His personal courage and charismatic style held Butler in good stead as he developed into a veteran officer. He took part in almost every major action in the eastern theater from the Peninsular campaign through to Joseph E. Johnston's surrender in North Carolina. At war's end, he was a major general of cavalry and also an invalid, having lost his right foot at Brandy Station.
Butler took part in the politics of Reconstruction as a moderate redeemer. Like Hampton he decried the use of violence to combat the Republicans, and Butler never joined the Ku Klux Klan. He did however support the state's Red Shirts, another Democratic paramilitary organization pledged to redeeming South Carolina. With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Butler won election to the U.S. Senate, where he would serve out three terms. There he backed civil service reform, the modernization of the U.S. Navy, and treaty obligations made to the Cherokee Nation. While noted for his gentlemanly conduct and his piercingly logical rhetoric, Butler lost many a political fight. In 1894 he fell to the burgeoning Populist movement and his Senate seat went to "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman.
In this biography, Samuel J. Martin has done a fine job of relating the most noteworthy career of Matthew C. Butler. Martin does justice to his subject with thorough research and an engaging writing style. The author also demonstrates his willingness to reveal the more disagreeable aspects of Butler's character, in particular the general's womanizing. Even a wife, a family and a crippling war wound could not prevent Butler from pursuing the ladies. Martin manages to illuminate quite well the life and times of Butler, and by doing so achieves the biographer's main goal.
While Southern Hero is a worthy addition to any Civil War library, it suffers terribly from poor editing. The book is rife with spelling and grammatical errors. Twice there were two errors on the same page. In addition, the maps provided were simply useless and there were several historical mistakes. These concerned events in...