General William O. Butler

Historical Marker #823 in Jessamine County commemorates the birthplace of General William O. Butler, a War of 1812 veteran.

William O. Butler was born in Jessamine County in 1791, into a notable military family. Butler’s father, along with four of his uncles, distinguished themselves in service during the Revolutionary War. Butler’s father, Percival Butler, was born in Pennsylvania but moved to Kentucky in 1784. Percival sent his son William to Transylvania University, where he studied law. Upon graduation, William eagerly joined up to fight in the War of 1812.

Butler enlisted in the 5th Regiment, Kentucky Volunteers, but was quickly named ensign to the 17th Regiment, United States Infantry. Along with many other Kentuckians, Butler served in the Army of the Northwest under the command of General William Henry Harrison. In August of 1812, General William Hull had surrendered Fort Detroit to the British. Retaking Fort Detroit became the goal of the Army of the Northwest.
In January 1813, troops under the command of General James Winchester, second in command of the Army of the Northwest, advanced and took Frenchtown, a conflict sometimes known as the Battle of the River Raisin. Butler was part of this attack. U.S. troops held Frenchtown for four days, until the British, and their Native American allies, launched a counterattack. At this battle, U.S. forces were overwhelmed and the British retook Frenchtown. William O. Butler was one of the few men who survived and he was taken back to Canada.

Butler was paroled in 1813 and he immediately worked to rejoin the military. He was eventually sent into the southern theater of the conflict, fought at the Battle of New Orleans, and became an aide to General Andrew Jackson. Although Butler retired from the military in 1816, he remained a lifelong admirer of Andrew Jackson and subsequently entered politics as a member of the Democratic Party.

Butler’s lived for the next thirty years in relative quiet. Butler resumed his study of law and took up a legal practice in Kentucky. He served in the state legislature and was later elected to Congress, where he served from 1839-1843. Democrats convinced Butler to run for Governor in 1844. Whigs had dominated the state since their formation in the 1830s (a Democrat had not been elected governor since 1832 when John Breathitt defeated James Morehead). As expected, Butler lost the election to the Whig candidate William Owsley. Yet Democrats were quite pleased at how close the election turned out to be.

William O. Butler was commissioned as a Major General in June of 1846 after the outbreak of the U.S.-Mexican War. Butler was one of seven men who served as Major Generals during the conflict and he was only outranked by Winfield Scott, J.P. Henderson, and Zachary Taylor. Throughout the U.S.-Mexican War, President James K. Polk tried to reward loyal Democrats with high-ranking positions in the military. Butler’s career as a Democrat was well-known and he was perceived by many of those serving as a political appointee.
In spite of the political nature of his appointment, Butler proved to be an effective leader. He served under General Zachary Taylor and earned distinction at the Battle of Monterey. He later was left in charge of U.S. forces in Mexico City and helped to oversee the evacuation. Upon his return to the United States, the Kentucky legislature and the U.S. Congress awarded him presentation swords for his gallantry.

Shortly after the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War, the Whig party nominated General Zachary Taylor for the presidency. While the Democrats chose Lewis Cass as their candidate, they decided to make Butler their candidate for the position of vice-president. Democrats hoped that Butler’s popularity and recent military experience would offset Zachary Taylor’s popularity. This hope was dashed when Taylor and Millard Fillmore won the election of 1848.

Butler retired from public life in 1848. Although he was considered a potential candidate for the Democratic Party in 1852, he was deemed to be too old and so the party nominated Franklin Pierce. Butler never again sought public office, even though he would live until 1880. He died in Carrollton, Kentucky, at the age of 89.

The marker reads:
Gen. Wm. O. Butler, born here in 1791, died Carrollton, Ky. 1880. In War of 1812: the River Raisin, Pensacola, and New Orleans. Gen. Andrew Jackson's staff 1816-17. Cited for heroism in Mexican War 1846-48. U.S. Congressman 1839-43. Although defeated for Gov. 1844, Vice Pres. 1848, U.S. Senate 1851, he was one of the most prominent, best-liked Democrats in state.