For UML Professor, Butler Did It

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By SUSAN McMAHON, Sun Staff

LOWELL Benjamin Butler was probably the most controversial, and colorful, Civil War general of his time.

Much hated when he governed New Orleans, putting into place policies that helped the poor at the expense of the rich, Butler developed a city firmly under his own control.

And a researcher at UMass Lowell suggests that his style of governing the southern city may have originated during his political days in Lowell.

Michael Pierson, a history professor at UMass Lowell, was recently named the Scholar in the City, which includes a $2,500 stipend that will allow him to conduct research both in the archives of Lowell history and at the Library of Congress.

He proposed studying the connection between Butler's early days as a lawyer and politician in Lowell and his governing style when he oversaw New Orleans during the Civil War.

"He attacks the rich. He plays class politics," Pierson said. "He's taking on the mill management, but in this case, the mill management is the industrial leaders and sugar plantation owners."

Butler's style of politics while in Lowell was one of class strife and immigration politics. He fought for a 10-hour day and argued for worker rights in the face of mill management.

Many of the workers were first-year immigrants, mainly Catholic. Butler used that to his advantage, arguing for religious freedoms and advocating for the rights of all Americans.

"We would now call it class politics, but he wasn't afraid to say, 'I'm sticking up for the working-class people,'" Pierson said.

Butler was tapped to be a general when the Civil War broke out, despite his lack of any military experience. Militarily, his campaign was a failure. He lost the vast majority of his battles.

But when he was given the job of administering first Baltimore, and then New Orleans, he was very successful. Pierson argues it's because of the lessons he learned in Lowell.

When he came to New Orleans and saw the vast working-class population, many of whom supported the Union during the Civil War, he used it to his advantage.

"Butler comes in, he recognizes it, and he plays it for all it's worth," Pierson said.

The lecture on Pierson's findings will be held Sept. 14, with organizers anticipating a large response because of the topic matter. The topic, along with Pierson's detailed outline of what research materials were available to him, were the main reasons he was awarded the Scholar in the City designation.

The goal of the program is to encourage more research on Lowell history, said Mehmed Ali, coordinator of the Mogan Cultural Center.

"We're trying to create new research in the city," he said. "There's only so much research we can do here in-house, so why not open it up to other people to utilize the resources here in the city?"

Pierson's interest in the Civil War general came from a combination of his interest in working-class politics with a lifelong knowledge of who Benjamin Butler was.

"If you know anything about Civil War history, you know about Ben Butler," he said.