As a senator, Butler supported civil service reform, a strong navy, and the elevation of the agriculture department to cabinet-level status. He also secured nearly $5 million in federal funds for South Carolina harbor and river improvements and public buildings. In 1890 Butler instigated a national debate with his introduction of a bill to provide federal aid to blacks who would emigrate to Africa. Responding to South Carolina’s agrarian movement, Butler shifted his position from that of a conservative Democrat to one favoring such Populist measures as the free coinage of silver and a federal income tax.
Soldier, U.S. senator. Born at Eagle’s Crag near Greenville on March 8, 1836, Butler was the son of Dr. William Butler and Jane Tweedy Perry. He attended Greenville Male Academy and moved with his family to Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, where his father served as Cherokee Indian agent from 1849 until his death in 1850. In the autumn of 1851, Calbraith, as he was called, arrived in Edgefield District to live with his uncle Andrew P. Butler. Educated at the Edgefield Male Academy, he entered South Carolina College in October 1854 but withdrew in 1856 after participating in the student “guard house riot.” Returning to Edgefield, Butler studied law and was admitted to the bar in December 1857. On February 25, 1858, Butler married Maria Simkins Pickens. The couple had eight children. In 1860 Butler was elected from Edgefield to the S.C. House of Representatives.
On June 14, 1861, the Edgefield Hussars, with Butler as captain, were mustered into Confederate service as part of the Hampton Legion. Butler’s field commander, Wade Hampton III, deemed him the finest cavalry officer he ever saw. His actions at First Manassas led to his promotion to major on July 21, 1861. In August 1862 Butler became colonel of the Second South Carolina Cavalry. At the Battle of Brandy Station (June 9, 1863) he lost his right foot to an artillery shell, but his contributions in that battle led to his promotion to brigadier general on September 1, 1863. While still on crutches, Butler returned to active duty in early 1864. His conspicuous service in the Virginia theater led to his elevation to major general on December 7, 1864. Butler and his division were ordered to South Carolina on January 19, 1865, in a vain attempt to thwart Sherman’s march. Butler surrendered in April 1865 and was soon paroled.
Returning to Edgefield, Butler received a presidential pardon on October 27, 1865, and resumed his legal practice and political activities. Reelected to the General Assembly in 1865, Butler advocated a measure granting civil rights to former slaves and voted against passage of the controversial “Black Codes,” to be used by white South Carolinians to regulate former slaves’ labor and movements. In 1870 he ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for lieutenant governor on the fusionist Union Reform Party ticket, and he was a member of the 1871 and 1874 taxpayers conventions. He was a central figure in the Hamburg Massacre of July 1876, although not a participant in its violence. Concluding that reform was impossible in cooperation with state Republicans and that appeals for black support were futile, Butler became a champion of the “straight-out” Democratic movement of 1876, and with Martin W. Gary he orchestrated the “Edgefield Plan” of campaign, which was to restore Democratic rule to South Carolina through fraud, intimidation, and violence. After Butler was elected to the U.S. Senate in December 1876, his victory was unsuccessfully contested by the Republican candidate David T. Corbin. Butler took his seat on November 30, 1877. Reelected in 1882 and 1888, he remained in the Senate until March 3, 1895, and served as chairman of the Committee on Civil Service and Retrenchment (Forty-sixth Con- gress) and the Committee on Interstate Commerce (Fifty-third Congress). As a senator, Butler supported civil service reform, a strong navy, and the elevation of the agriculture department to cabinet-level status. He also secured nearly $5 million in federal funds for South Carolina harbor and river improvements and public buildings. In 1890 Butler instigated a national debate with his introduction of a bill to provide federal aid to blacks who would emigrate to Africa. Responding to South Carolina’s agrarian movement, Butler shifted his position from that of a conservative Democrat to one favoring such Populist measures as the free coinage of silver and a federal income tax.
Defeated for reelection in 1894 by Benjamin R. Tillman, Butler remained in Washington, forming the law firm of Shelley, Butler and Martin. On May 28, 1898, President William McKinley appointed Butler major general of volunteers in the Spanish-American War. As a member of the Cuban Peace Commission, Butler oversaw the evacuation of Spanish troops from the island, and he was honorably discharged on April 15, 1899. Resuming his legal practice, he maintained business interests in New York and Philadelphia and became president of the Hidalgo Placer Mining and Milling Company of Mexico in January 1904.
On January 14, 1905, Butler married Nancy Bostic Whitman of Washington, D.C. (Maria Butler had died in 1900.) Handsome, courtly, and possessed of a fiery temperament and a keen eye for the ladies, Butler was characterized by one of his sons as a complete military man and a stern but loving father. An Episcopalian for most of his life, he was received into the Catholic Church on his seventy-third birthday. He died on April 14, 1909, in Columbia and was buried in Edgefield’s Willowbrook Cemetery.
Brooks, Ulysses R. Butler and His Cavalry in the War of Secession, 1861–1865. Columbia, S.C.: State Company, 1909.
Cooper, William J., Jr. The Conservative Regime: South Carolina, 1877–1890. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968.
Martin, Samuel J. Southern Hero: Matthew Calbraith Butler, Confederate General, Hampton Red Shirt, and U.S. Senator. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 2001.