Lt. Edward Butler

Lt. Edward Butler
The Society of the Cincinnati, Washington, DC

With the Butlers of the Pennsylvania Line we have again to do with one of the Pennsylvania families that furnished multiple leaders to Pennsylvania’s military. If anything, the Butlers were more widely-known than the Boyds and the Bradys by reason of establishing one of the military dynasties that, prior to World War I, provided the continuing cadre for America’s armed forces. Of the five brothers who served in the Revolution, three became members of the Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati.

Edward Butler was the youngest of the five brothers, the sons of Thomas and Eleanor (Parker) Butler of Kilkenny, Ireland, who emigrated to America soon after the birth of their eldest son Richard in 1743. Thomas Butler the elder was unusual in that he was a member of the Church of England, of whom few were to be found on the frontier. It is also related of him,

While the five sons…were absent from home in the service of the country, the old father took it into his head to go also. The neighbors remonstrated, but his wife said: “Let him go; I can get along without him, and have something to feed the army in the bargain; and the country wants every man who can shoulder a musket.

Edward was born at Carlisle on 20 March 1762, and thus was but sixteen when on 1 July 1778 he was commissioned Ensign in the Ninth Pennsylvania Regiment, commanded by his brother Colonel Richard Butler.

The Ninth’s first major operation after this time was at Stony Point on 16 July 1779, where it was an important part of Wayne’s “Light Infantry Corps” ; Butler had already been advanced to First Lieutenant on 28 January. The regiment probably wintered at Morristown, 1779-1780, and engaged in scattered actions in Northern New Jersey in the Spring of 1780, and it was one of the regiments marched by Wayne to West Point in record time to cover the Benedict Arnold emergency on 25 September 1780.

The regiment was again at Morristown for the winter of 1780-1781, and mutinied with the rest of the Pennsylvania Line on New Year’s Day; it was one of the Pennsylvania Regiments disbanded when the Line was re-formed. In consequence, Edward Butler was transferred on 15 January to the Fifth Pennsylvania Regiment, one of the paper regiments of the Pennsylvania Line. On 1 January 1783 he was moved to the Third Regiment, remaining until the general discharge of the Pennsylvania Line on 3 November.

Edward Butler was one of the signers of the “Lancaster Roll” of the Society of the Cincinnati on 1 August 1783; he subsequently also signed the great “Pennsylvania Parchment Roll”, and his name appears on the membership list of 1789. It is regrettable that little is known about his activities immediately after the close of the war, but he re-entered the military as a Captain of the Pennsylvania Levies in 1791, and there can be little doubt that it was through the influence of his brothers Richard and Thomas, who did likewise, and of Arthur St. Clair, Commander of the United States Army.

A summary history of the resurrection of the American Army is given elsewhere in this study and will not be repeated here. St. Clair had been made Governor General of the Northwest Territory in 1789 and roles played there by members of the Society of the Cincinnati were crucial ones. When in 1790 the United States decided to move against the hostile Native Americans on the western frontier it was principally Revolutionary veterans who composed the officer corps. In 1790 Josiah Harmar, commanding mostly militia from Kentucky and Pennsylvania, failed to stem the raids. He was cleared by a Court of Inquiry, and Governor Arthur St. Clair took over.

St. Clair’s army, in which the Butler brothers were serving, was badly defeated on 4 November 1791 by the Miami near present-day Greenville, Ohio, close to the Indiana border. Six hundred and thirty Americans were killed, and the total casualties mounted to nearly half the whole army.

Edward Butler was then serving as Captain; his brother Richard was second in command to St. Clair with the rank of Major General, while Thomas was a Major of the Pennsylvania Levies. Both Richard and Thomas were badly wounded during the battle, and at the retreat Captain Edward sought to bring them off to safety. According to the often-repeated history, Richard, knowing that Edward could manage to save only one of them, insisted that it be Thomas; Edward, obeying the orders of the Major General, therefore left his oldest brother on the battlefield, under a tree.

There followed for General St. Clair the inevitable inquiry, which acquitted him of dereliction of duty. He was succeeded in command by Anthony Wayne, the intimate acquaintance of the Butler brothers. Edward was now made Captain in the United States Infantry on 5 March 1792, on 4 September was assigned to the Fourth Sub Legion, and by 28 September Wayne had appointed him Deputy Adjutant and Inspector General pro tem. On 18 July 1793 these appointments were made permanent. Such rapid advancements are never very popular and it is likely that Wayne’s apparent partiality to Edward Butler awakened ill-feeling in some of his fellows. Butler was accused of being incompetent and was defended by Wayne, but on 1 April 1802 was transferred from the Fourth to the Second Infantry.

Still in the service of his country Edward Butler died on 6 May 1803 at Springfield, Tennessee. He had married Isabella, daughter of Captain George Fowler of the British Grenadiers. There were three sons, of whom two died young, and two daughters.