Benjamin Franklin Butler was a Civil War hero, governor of Massachusetts, and presidential candidate who, during a long career of public service, advocated for the rights of women, blacks, and the working class. And yet, despite his record as a champion for underprivileged segments of society, Butler, who graduated from what was then Waterville College (now Colby) in 1838, remains mired in historical controversy because of his reputation for being prickly, outspoken, and often intolerable.

A play about his Civil War service, Ben Butler by the playwright Richard Strand, is up through Oct. 21 at Portland Stage Company, and Elizabeth Leonard, the John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History,  is researching a Butler biography for the University of North Carolina Press that will tell the whole story of his life and, she hopes, elevate his reputation at Colby and among historians and observers of American culture and politics.

Benjamin Butler portrait hanging in Colby’s alumni center

Butler, she said, has never received his proper due, and his reputation has suffered from a lack of thorough examination of his life and political and legal career. Leonard, who has written extensively about the Civil War and the experiences of Black people during that time, believes Butler is Colby’s “most important Civil War-era alumnus” and on par with Maine’s most famous Civil War veteran, Joshua Chamberlain. Until she began mining Butler’s story, Leonard didn’t fully grasp the scope of his influence and his work for social change beyond the war.

“He is known at Colby, but most people walk on eggshells around him because he’s kind of a controversial figure,” Leonard said, noting that one of his pejorative nicknames was “The Beast” because of the bluster with which he conducted himself in court and while in command of his troops. “When you dig into his story, you realize he had many of the values that we embrace as an institution.”

The part of Butler’s story that many people know well involves his actions in Virginia, where he achieved the rank of major general in the Union Army following his service as a brigadier general of the Massachusetts militia. Commanding U.S. forces at Fort Monroe in May 1861 just weeks after the war began, Butler was the first Union general to refuse to return slaves to their masters, establishing the principle that slaves were like other forms of enemy “contraband.” This bold action, taken without permission from Washington but which President Lincoln, the secretary of war, and Congress did not oppose, is the focus of the play at Portland Stage.

“Going forward, Butler’s action was of crucial importance in shaping federal military and legal policy regarding emancipation,” Leonard said.

A year later, he took command of New Orleans and ruled the city with stiff authority in the face of White southerners’ violent rebellion against the federal government. Butler ordered the execution of a citizen who tore down a U.S. flag and confiscated property of people sympathetic to the Confederacy. While in New Orleans, Butler established the first regiments of Black U.S. soldiers, pushing Lincoln and the country toward emancipation and Black citizenship.

Much of the rest of Butler’s story is less familiar, and that’s where Leonard is focusing her research so she can burnish his reputation as someone who in today’s world might be seen as a progressive fighting for the rights of minorities, women, and the working class, all of whom had little or no representation in the halls of power in the 1800s.

After the war, Butler served as a representative from Massachusetts in the U.S. Congress for 10 years. He led the opposition to Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policies, as well as the effort to impeach the president. He worked on behalf of Black male suffrage, women’s suffrage, Black Civil Rights, and the suppression of the KKK, Leonard said, noting that he authored the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and coauthored the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

He served as governor of Massachusetts for one year, in 1883, and was the presidential candidate of the Greenback-Labor Party and the Anti-Monopoly Party in 1884 and didn’t win a single electoral vote.

Leonard attributes Butler’s faithful, lifelong support of working-class people to his upbringing. He was born poor in Deerfield, N.H., in 1818 and raised by a widowed mother, who kept a boarding house at a textile mill in Lowell. After he earned his law degree, Butler’s early career included many cases on behalf of factory workers. He was a key player in trying to institute the 10-hour workday for all factory workers in Massachusetts, and when he became governor he launched an investigation into abuses in the state’s insane asylum at Tewksbury.

“All those stories have been buried, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that he relentlessly and amazingly challenged elites in a way they did not like,” Leonard said. “He was a scrapper. He came from a very poor background and he understood people’s struggles, poverty, and pulling yourself up.”

Butler died in 1893 in Washington and is buried in a small cemetery in Lowell.

Daniel Burson, who directs the Butler portrayal at Portland Stage, has come to known Butler as a heroic figure. The play focuses on a narrow segment of his military life, and hints at a complex human being, Burson said.

“I do think there is sort of heroism about standing up for other people, even when there is no advantage to you in doing so. Certainly, sometimes he was doing things out of sheer stubbornness and fighting against the elites of this country who he had a lifelong running disagreement with,” Burson said. “But after the war, he continued to fight for the rights of Black people and women. So yes, you can call him a hero.”

Butler’s difficult relationships extended to his alma mater. Waterville College wasn’t his first choice—he wanted to go to West Point—and there is evidence of testy communications between Butler and the College over the years. But those seem to have dissipated with time, Leonard said. He came back to Waterville to give a commencement address and also gave the College a portrait of himself, which hangs today in the Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni Center.

Leonard suspects most people walk by the painting of Butler without giving him a second thought. She hopes her book presents his portrait in the full light so those same people can understand his character flaws and appreciate his compassionate qualities that would make his voice relevant in the political arena today.