Smedley Darlington Butler of West Chester

One of West Chester’s most famous natives, born and raised in the Borough, was Smedley Darlington Butler, descended from local Quakers on both sides and schooled by Quakers. Ironically, his fame is due to his military career.

Short version: he “was a Major General in the U.S. Marine Corps, an outspoken critic of U.S. military adventurism, and at the time of his death the most decorated Marine in U.S. history” (Wikipedia, also source of this photo).

Butler is honored on one of the four panels in West Chester Court House’s former North Wing at 10 North High St.

On a recent trip to Virginia, I was surprised to see Butler mentioned in one of the commemorative markers at the site of the Battle of the Wilderness (May 1864, Ulysses S. Grant vs. Robert E. Lee). You can review the history in Wikipedia.

It turns out that Butler was largely responsible for the establishment of the battlefield park I was standing in. You can think what you want of battles, but I think they should be remembered and the dead commemorated.

According to “The battlefield becomes a park” by Donald C. Pfanz in the extensive Civil War section at

For 20 years the idea of a national military park at Fredericksburg languished. It revived in 1921 when Gen. Smedley Butler brought 4,200 Marines from Quantico to Wilderness battlefield for four days of military exercises. The Marines sketched the outline of a battleship in the valley bordering Wilderness Run (near the present-day intersection of State Routes 3 and 20) and for four days defended the ship against mock attacks. The exercise, which was attended by President Warren G. Harding and Marine Commandant Maj. Gen. John A. Lejeune, attracted national attention and provided new impetus for creating a national military park at Fredericksburg.

That dream finally became a reality in 1927, when Congress passed a bill establishing Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park….

Perhaps inspired by his father’s example as a long-serving U.S. Congressman, Butler was a pro-Prohibition candidate in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 1932 (he was unsuccessful). He went on to even greater accomplishments when, by his account, he foiled a right-wing plan to overthrow the government of the United States in 1933-34. The whole affair remains rather murky and it seems neither the government nor the press at the time took it very seriously or at least wished to seem to do so. For a lengthy and nuanced account, see “Business Plot” in Wikipedia.

The by then musty charge was revived in a half-hour 7/23/07 BBC program The Whitehouse Coup, which you can still hear in full at that site (stick through the first 30 seconds). The program, including Butler’s own voice (at 17:17 “…My main interest in all this is to preserve our democratic institutions” and at 23:12 accusing the House Committee on un-American Activities of hushing up the big business names cited in testimony) is worth listening to, whatever your preconceptions (as Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here is worth reading).

The subject was taken up by Paul Joseph Watson at Prison Planet in a 7/24/12 post provocatively entitled “BBC: Bush’s Grandfather Planned Fascist Coup In America” (Senator Prescott Bush was one of the alleged plotters, along with, for our local interest, possibly Irénée DuPont:

New investigation sheds light on clique of powerbrokers, including Prescott Bush, who sought to overthrow U.S. government and implement Hitlerian policies

In 1933, Marine Corps Maj.-Gen. Smedley Butler was approached by a wealthy and secretive group of industrialists and bankers, including Prescott Bush the current President’s grandfather, who asked him to command a 500,000 strong rogue army of veterans that would help stage a coup to topple then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

According to the BBC, the plotters intended to impose a fascist takeover and “Adopt the policies of Hitler and Mussolini to beat the great depression.”

The conspirators were operating under the umbrella of a front group called the American Liberty League, which included many families that are still household names today, including Heinz, Colgate, Birds Eye and General Motors.

Butler played along with the clique to determine who was involved but later blew the whistle and identified the ringleaders in testimony given to the House Committee on un-American Activities….

Ultimately, Butler turned back to his roots and denounced warfare and what president Eisenhower later termed the “military-industrial complex,” in his resounding 1935 brochure entitled “War is a Racket.”

Butler, known as “Old Gimlet Eye,” must have been a colorful character. And he must have admired another colorful military character, Stonewall Jackson, who died 18 years before Butler was born, because Butler went to the trouble of honoring the part of Jackson’s body that had to be amputated after being shot and shattered at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.

According to Jonah Begone, “What Actually Happened With Smedley D. Butler And Stonewall Jackson’s Arm?“:

General Smedley D. Butler, U.S.M.C. was indeed in the area supervising maneuvers in the 1920’s, and came upon Jackson’s arm. He did indeed have it exhumed and examined, and was convinced of its authenticity. He had it reburied, with a new brass plaque made up for the occasion. The Park Service removed the plaque when it acquired the Ellwood property in 1977, and have it stored away someplace. They had an image of it at Ellwood which I photographed.

Here it is:

The arm in question is buried in the family plot of a former plantation near the Chancellorsville battlefield (for a picturesque narrative: James Sorenson, "Stonewall Jackson’s Arm,” American Heritage, 2005). The rest of Jackson is buried in Lexington VA, in the southern part of the Shenandoah Valley, the town where he and his wife had lived before military imperatives took him far afield.

Butler, who died in 1940, is buried in Oaklands Cemetery (his grave is #2 on the walking tour) just north of West Chester.

So, in this roundabout way, you can think of Smedley Darlington Butler the next time you stay in the very nice Stonewall Jackson Hotel and, right next door, see a Shakespeare performance at his recreated Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton VA–a town with West Chester’s historical and architectural charm (but quieter)–in the Shenandoah Valley, where during the first two years of the war Jackson ably maneuvered to tie up the Union forces and defend the vital rail line leading west from Staunton.

About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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1 Response to Smedley Darlington Butler of West Chester

  1. Pingback: Hoping Mr. Costello is inspired by Gen. Butler | politicswestchesterview

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