April 19, 1791 - August 8, 1880
William O. Butler was a lawyer and Congressman from Kentucky. He was a veteran of the War of 1812 where he served with General Jackson. Commissioned a Major General of Volunteers by President Polk, Butler served under both General Taylor and General Scott. He was appointed commander of all the United States armies in Mexico in February 1848. Butler ran as vice-presidential candidate with Lewis Cass in 1848 but was defeated by Whig candidates Taylor and Fillmore.
Butler was born in Jessamine County, Kentucky, on April 19, 1791. He graduated from Transylvania University, Louisville, Kentucky, in 1812. When war broke out with England, he enlisted as a private. Captured at the battle of The River Basin, Michigan, Butler was interned as a prisoner at Fort Niagara. Following an exchange of prisoners, he returned to Kentucky where, as a captain, he raised a company of volunteers. Butler served under General Jackson at the battles of Pensacola and New Orleans. Brevetted to major for his actions at Pensacola, he served as an aide de camp to Jackson during the last year of the war.
After the war of 1812, Butler returned to Kentucky to pursue a career as a lawyer. He was elected to the Kentucky State House of Representatives in 1818 and 1819. In 1838, he was elected to Congress where he served two terms. In 1844, Butler ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic candidate for governor of Kentucky.
During the war with Mexico, Butler was one of thirteen politically-appointed generals in an effort by President Polk to exert his party’s control over the army (see Patronage). Commissioned a major general of volunteers on June 29, 1846, he arrived in Camargo in August. During the battle of Monterrey a month later, Butler commanded a division of volunteers and nominally served as General Taylor’s second in command. During the assault on the city, his volunteer division suffered a casualty rate of almost twenty percent. Shortly after personally conducting a reconnaissance of a fort inside the city, Butler received a severe leg wound that required him to leave the field. Returning to the United States for medical treatment, Butler visited Polk several times in the spring and summer of 1847. His wound, serious but not life threatening, may have prevented his consideration by Polk to lead the invasion of central Mexico, the highly-coveted command that eventually went to Winfield Scott.
Butler returned to the army after Scott entered Mexico City in September 1847. In November, Scott arrested Brigadier General Pillow and two other political generals for publicly criticizing his conduct of the campaign against Mexico City. The subsequent fallout finally provided Polk with the opportunity to recall Scott and replace him with a Democrat. Polk appointed Butler to overall command of all the armies in Mexico in February 1848. In accordance with the president’s instructions, Butler released the generals from custody and convened a Court of Inquiry. Continuing the occupation policies established by his predecessor, Butler served until the Mexican senate ratified the peace treaty in May. Butler had already begun pulling in U.S. troops from outlying posts, and on June 12 1848, the last U.S. occupation forces left Mexico City. Butler himself departed Veracruz on June 20th and the last of the quartermaster troops departed Mexico on August 1st.
One of the few Democratic leaders to emerge as a hero of the war, Butler received his party’s second spot on the presidential ticket in 1848. Butler and the presidential nominee, Michigan senator Lewis Cass, were defeated by the Whig ticket of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. Butler remained active in Democratic politics, however, and in 1855, in the wake of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, President Franklin Pierce offered to appoint him governor of the Nebraska territory. A slaveholder who opposed the extension of slavery, Butler declined the appointment. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Butler supported the preservation of the Union, and was a member of the peace conference of 1861 in a last-ditch attempt to avoid the impending conflict.
Butler died in Carrolton, Kentucky, on August 8, 1880.