22 August 2006 by Published in: Confederate Cavalry 8 comments

Time for another installment in my periodic series on forgotten cavalrymen.

Born on March 8, 1836, Matthew Calbraith Butler came from a prominent Greenville, SC family. His grandfather and father were U. S. Congressmen, his uncle was a U. S. Senator from South Carolina, and his mother was related to Commodore Matthew C. Perry and to War of 1812 naval hero Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry. His wife was the daughter of South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens, and was related to Sen. John C. Calhoun. He was educated at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), and had no formal military training at all.

Butler became a lawyer, and was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1860. He resigned his elected office with the coming of war in 1861. Butler received a commission as captain in the cavalry detachment of the Hampton Legion, where he first became acquainted with, and eventually became the protege of, Wade Hampton. Butler then received a promotion to colonel of the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry in August 1862; Hampton’s younger brother Frank was the regiment’s lieutenant colonel. He led his regiment in action at Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Stuart’s Second Ride Around McClellan in October 1862. He was fearless. “It used to be said his skin glanced bullets,” wrote one of his troopers, “and that it required a twelve-pounder to carry away [his foot].”

At the June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station, Butler’s regiment of South Carolians, fighting mostly alone, held off an entire division of Union cavalry for much of the day. However, while Butler was conferring with Capt. Will Farley, one of Stuart’s favorite scouts, a well-aimed shot by Union horse artillery killed Farley, Butler’s horse, and carried Butler’s foot clean off. For most men, losing a foot would have ended their military career, but not Butler.

In September 1863, Butler returned to duty, with a fresh promotion to brigadier general. He was sent to South Carolina, where he assumed command of a newly-formed brigade of mounted infantry. In the spring of 1864, that brigade joined Hampton’s division, and it bore the brunt of the brutal fighting at Haw’s Shop on May 28, 1864, and then at Trevilian Station on June 11-12. By then, with Stuart dead, Hampton was in command of the Confederate cavalry by virtue of seniority, and as senior brigadier, Butler took command of Hampton’s division. In that capacity, he was magnificent at Trevilian Station, prompting Hampton to say, “Butler’s defense at Trevilian was never surpassed.”

In recognition of his fine service, he was promoted to major general in September 1864, assuming permanent command of Hampton’s division. When Hampton went to South Carolina in 1865 to try to defend his home state against William T. Sherman’s invaders, he brought Butler’s division with him. Butler performed good service during the Carolinas Campaign, and was with Joseph E. Johnston’s army when it surrendered at Bennett Place in April 1865. “From the fall of Columbia to the surrender of Johnston at Durham, Butler was ever at the front, harassing and impeding Sherman’s advance,” recalled one of his staff officers.

After the war, Butler, now dead broke after losing everything during the war, resumed his law practice and his political career. “I was twenty-nine years old, with one leg gone, a wife and three children to support, with seventy slaves emancipated, a debt of $15,000, and in my pocket, $1.75,” he recalled years later. Butler was elected to the South Carolina legislature again in 1866, and made an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 1870. He served three terms in the United States Senate from 1877 to 1895, serving alongside his old mentor Hampton, although the two old horse soldiers eventually had a falling out.

After losing the Democratic nomination for Senator in 1895, Butler resumed practicing law, although this time in Washington, D. C. In 1898, with the coming of the Spanish-American War, Butler, along with several other former Confederate cavalry generals, donned the blue uniform of the United States Army, accepting a commission as a major general of volunteers at the age of 62. With his disability, Butler never commanded troops in the field, but he served ably in supervising the evacuation of Spanish troops from Cuba after the American victory.

He then returned to his home in Edgefield, SC, and practiced law again until his death in Columbia, SC on April 14, 1909. He was buried in Willow Brook Cemetery in Edgefield. He and his old mentor, Hampton, never repaired their relationship before Hampton’s death at age 84 in 1902.

Butler was a fine soldier, especially considering that he had no formal training. Butler, recalled one eyewitness, “showed no emotion as he scanned the field of battle” armed with only a silver riding crop, calmly taking in the situation and carefully planning his response. One observer noted of him, “so fine was his courage, so unshaken his nerve, that, if he realized the danger, he scorned it and his chiseled face never so handsome as when cold-set for battle, never showed if or not his soul was in tumult.” Butler was the sort of leader who sat his horse quietly while shot and shell stormed around him and other men ran for shelter.

His men loved his common touch. “Often did I see him after the fatiguing events of the day lying upon the ground with no shelter but the vaulted sky above, sharing the hardships with his men, ever hopeful, ever ready to lead his sadly diminished ranks where an effective blow might be struck,” remembered one of his soldiers three decades after the war. By 1865, Butler was known as “Hampton’s Right Bower,” a proud title indeed.

I first became familiar with Butler’s often overlooked service in the Civil War during my study of the Battle of Trevilian Station. The more I learned about Butler’s magnificent defense on both days at Trevilian Station, the more impressed I was. Butler was a fine soldier who deserves more attention and more recognition than he has received.

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Comments

  1. Mike Peters
    Tue 22nd Aug 2006 at 9:58 pm

    Eric:

    Which book do you recommend on General Butler?

    Mike

  2. Tue 22nd Aug 2006 at 10:02 pm

    Mike,

    There is only one that I am aware of.

    Eric

  3. Tue 22nd Aug 2006 at 10:23 pm

    Thank you, Eric, this is great material in a one-pager.

    Butler is one of “mine”, too. I tend to cover these guys in dry snapshots, though, whereas you put up bright video clips.

    I’m guessing this is why you publish where most of us plod.

    Oh, and he’s not forgotten.

    Thanks again!

  4. Tue 22nd Aug 2006 at 10:31 pm

    Brian,

    You’re very welcome. I appreciate the kind words.

    I’ve long been a fan of Butler, and I hope that some of my work has re-focused attention on him, as he’s been addressed at length in three of my books now.

    Eric

  5. l nicholson
    Mon 09th Mar 2009 at 12:02 am

    His name is part of my history. I grew up i his home, which was purchased by my family by General Butler upon his election to the United States Senate. The stories of his valor and his life are part of my family lore. How nice to see that he is being remembered.

  6. beth
    Tue 16th Nov 2010 at 4:14 pm

    I am related to Matthew Butler and am trying to figure out the lineage. Can you tell me if he had siblings and if so what were their names.

  7. Sun 12th Feb 2012 at 11:14 am

    For those of you who are interested in MC Butler… You may enjoy my historical fiction that has Butler as a character. My main character serves in the 2nd SC Cavalry and remains friends with him after the war. Check out my website: http://www.fromtheseashes.com

  8. Robert Anderson
    Tue 02nd Feb 2016 at 4:08 pm

    Several of my ancestors rode with Butler in the 2nd South Carolina Regiment. After Col Butler was wounded , my 1st cousin 4 x removes , Thomas Jefferson Lipscomb was promoted from Major to Lt Col. and took command of this regiment . I would be delighted if you have any storu=ies or information that may mention the Libscomb brothers and cousins of this regiment

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