The Fighting Butlers of Carlisle

By Jean Rawlings Meaney

"The blood of the Butlers is hot and bold but it is always true to the truth."

In 1748 Thomas Butler, a gunsmith, with his wife Eleanor and three small sons left his newly established gun shop in Dublin, Ireland, for Pennsylvania. They settled in Lancaster, had 2 daughters, later moving to the frontier town of Carlisle where they had two more sons and a daughter. Thomas, assisted by his two eldest sons, manufactured Pennsylvania long rifles for the French and Indian War. His gun shop still stands in Carlisle. The five sons of Thomas and Eleanor Butler became known during the Revolutionary War as "The Fighting Butlers" for their great bravery in battle. A historical marker honoring the Butlers is in downtown Carlisle.

Carlisle was a hotbed of the American Revolution. Very early in 1776 the young Butler patriots (Richard, William, Thomas, Percival "Pierce") enlisted in Washington's Army. (Edward, who was too young, enlisted later.) The elder Thomas supported the cause by becoming Public Armourer, supervising other gunsmiths for the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Brave Eleanor remained at home saying, "This country needs every man who can shoulder a musket." All four brothers wintered in Valley Forge with Washington's troops in 1777-78. The eldest Richard, who first served with Gen. Dan Morgan, rapidly moved up to the rank of General and was second in command to Washington at Yorktown when Cornwallis surrendered. William, the second son and family favorite, became a Colonel, famous for his bravery. Thomas, a Major by the end of the war, fought in every battle in the Middle States and was commended for his bravery on the field by Washington at the Battle of the Brandywine. Lafayette once wrote about the Butler brothers, "When I wanted a thing well done, I ordered a Butler to do it." Celebrating the victory at Yorktown, Washington toasted the whole Butler family to his officers. "The Butlers and their five sons!"

After the War, the Butlers continued to distinguish themselves in American history. Leaving the Army, Pierce migrated to Kentucky where he became its first Adjutant General and remained in that position for 24 years, the longest term ever served. Three of his sons fought with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. William died in Pittsburgh in 1789, his health never having recovered from his war years. Gen. Richard Butler and his two brothers Thomas and Edward joined an army which had been formed by Congress to fight the Indians on the frontier. In Ohio 1791 they fought bravely in the battle known as St. Clair's Defeat, the worst military disaster ever fought with Indians. Richard, second in command to St. Clair, was shot twice, tomahawked and scalped. Thomas was shot in both legs, his thigh broken; he would not have survived had not the dying Richard insisted that Edward save Thomas by retreating with the remnant of the army. Richard remains to this day the most senior U. S. officer killed in combat. The results of this terrible battle convinced Congress to form a permanent army.

Thomas and Edward continued to serve their country in the U.S. Army. Under Gen. Anthony Wayne in 1794, they finally conquered the confederation of Ohio Indian tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Col. Thomas commanded Ft. Fayette in Pittsburgh during the Whiskey Rebellion and intimidated the insurgents with his fierce reputation, more than the meager number of his men. The two brothers then served in Tennessee. There in 1803 Edward died leaving four small children. His two young sons were reared by his close friends, Rachel and Andrew Jackson. Thomas, second in command in the U. S. Army, died two years later in New Orleans of Yellow Fever, after having been court-martialed for refusing to cut his long braid of hair, the badge of his Revolutionary War service. His three teenage children became wards of the Jackson's who married them to their nieces and nephews. One of Edward's daughters also married a Jackson nephew.

Fighting Butler descendants continued to fight. Sons of each served in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War; when the War between the States occurred, fighting Butlers served on the sides of both North and South.

For more information on "The Fighting Butlers":
See Jean Meaney's family tree at RootsWebThomas Butler, Gunsmith, Descendants
E-mail Jean R. MeaneyE-mail Jean R. Meaney

Many Thanks!

Many thanks to Jean Meaney for taking the time (on short notice) to do this fine write up on the "Fighting Butlers" of Carlisle, PA. A sincere thanks also goes to Edward T. Floyd for proofreading, corrections and suggestions.
-- Shane G. Butler