Soldier, governor. Pierce Mason Butler was born on April 11, 1798, at Mount Welling Plantation, the family estate in Edgefield District. He was the sixth son of William Butler and Behethland Moore. Butler attended Moses Waddel’s academy at Willington and graduated from South Carolina College. Through the influence of his local congressman and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Butler gained an army commission as second lieutenant on August 13, 1819. Three years later Butler was promoted to first lieutenant and transferred to the U.S. Seventh Infantry Regiment at Fort Smith, Arkansas Territory. In 1824 he commanded a detachment that built and garrisoned Fort Gibson, Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma). The following year Butler, by now a captain, commanded the survey party that mapped the military road between Fort Gibson and Fort Smith. During this period Butler met Miranda Julia Duval, whom he married on May 22, 1826.
On October 1, 1829, Butler resigned his commission and returned to South Carolina. He established residence near Columbia at Dogwood Plantation, a 154-acre plantation worked by twenty-seven slaves. However, Butler never made cotton planting the main source of his livelihood. In 1830 he secured an executive position with the Columbia branch of the Bank of the State of South Carolina, serving as branch president from 1833 until 1836.
In September 1832 the voters of Richland District elected Butler to the state nullification convention. Butler attended as a dedicated nullifier and served on the “Committee of Twenty-One,” which drafted the Ordinance of Nullification. He strongly opposed having the state legislature set the date when the ordinance should take effect, believing that moderates would delay implementation for an indefinite period. On November 22 he initiated an unsuccessful effort to fix January 1, 1833, as the initial enforcement date. By April 1833 both South Carolina and the federal government had drawn back from their hard-line positions. With the return to quieter times, Butler retired from public affairs to concentrate on his business concerns.
In 1835 the Seminole Indians in Florida began an armed struggle against the United States. Among the forces called out to suppress them was the South Carolina Mounted Volunteers, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Butler. However, he spent most of his tour of duty at Tampa Bay as commandant of a munitions depot. In April 1836 he was granted an honorable discharge due to crippling arthritis.
Returning to Columbia, Butler discovered that various state political leaders were seeking to elect him governor. He emphatically stated that he would not actively seek the office but would accept only as a “point of honor.” On December 19, 1836, the General Assembly elected Butler to the governorship. In his inaugural address, Butler called on South Carolinians to forget divisive issues and pledged to revitalize the state’s militia system.
Two crises confronted Butler during his term as governor. During his first year, the state and nation suffered through the Panic of 1837, which Butler blamed on the banking policies of President Andrew Jackson. In an 1837 message to the legislature, he declared that currency regulation was vital to recovery and voiced his support for rechartering a national bank. In April 1838 the city of Charleston experienced a devastating fire that caused nearly $4 million in damage. Although private sources provided some relief, the amount was insufficient. Butler summoned the legislature into a special session to consider the problem. Legislators responded by passing the Fire Loan Bill, which authorized the state to make up to $2 million in loans to rebuild the city.
After leaving office in December 1838, Butler tried to regain his personal financial solvency. Over the next several years he toured the southwestern states in search of opportunities and made an unsuccessful bid to gain the lucrative federal post of collector of customs in Charleston. In August 1841 President John Tyler appointed Butler federal agent to the Cherokee. He held this position until 1845, when ill health forced his resignation. At the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, Butler was appointed colonel and commander of the Palmetto Regiment. On August 20, 1847, while leading his troops against a Mexican position at Churubusco, Butler received a serious leg wound. Despite the injury, he remained with his command. Several minutes later he was killed instantly when a musket ball penetrated his skull. His body was returned to Columbia and buried in the Trinity Episcopal churchyard. In December 1853 Butler’s remains were interred within the family cemetery at Saluda.
Foreman, Carolyn T. “Pierce Mason Butler.” Chronicles of Oklahoma 30, no. 1 (1952): 6–28.
Jervey, Theodore D. “The Butlers of South Carolina.” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 4 (October 1903): 296–311.
Richards, Miles S. “Pierce Mason Butler: The South Carolina Years, 1830–1841.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 87 (January 1986): 14–29.