Richard Butler, an Irish-born officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, is killed on November 4, 1791, while fighting Native Americans in the United States in a battle that is known as St. Clair’s defeat.
Born on April 1, 1743, in St. Bridget’s Parish, Dublin, Butler is the oldest son of Thomas and Eleanor Butler (née Parker). His father is an Irish aristocrat who serves in the British Army. He is the brother of Colonel Thomas Butler and Captain Edward Butler. All three brothers serve in the American Revolution and in the Northwest Indian War against the Northwestern Confederacy of Native American tribes in the Northwest Territories. His two other brothers, William and Percival, serve in the Revolution but do not see later military service.
In 1748 Butler’s father opens a gun shop in Dublin, but that same year the family moves to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he learns to make the Pennsylvania long rifles used in the French and Indian War.
By 1760, the family moves to the frontier at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Thomas and his sons manufacture long rifles and become friends with Daniel Morgan. The Butler gun shop still stands in Carlisle.
By the 1770s, Butler and his brother William are important traders at Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania and in Ohio. Butler Street in Pittsburgh is named for them.
At the outset of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress names Butler a commissioner in 1775 to negotiate with the Indians. He visits representatives of the Delaware, Shawnee, and other tribes to secure their support, or at least neutrality, in the war with Britain.
On July 20, 1776, Butler is commissioned a major in the 8th Pennsylvania Regiment in the Continental Army, serving first as second in command to his friend Daniel Morgan. He is promoted to lieutenant colonel on March 12, 1777 retroactive to September 1776. On June 7, 1777 he is promoted to colonel and placed in command of 9th Pennsylvania Regiment.
During the war Butler sees action at the Battle of Saratoga (1777) and the Battle of Monmouth (1778). His four other brothers also serve, and are noted for their bravery as the “fighting Butlers.” In January 1781 he is transferred to the 5th Pennsylvania Regiment and leads the Continental Army at the Battle of Spencer’s Ordinary.
At the conclusion of the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, General George Washington confers on Butler the honor of receiving Cornwallis’ sword of surrender, an honor which he gives to his second in command, Ebenezer Denny. At the last moment, Baron von Steuben demands that he receive the sword. This almost precipitates a duel between Butler and Von Steuben.
At the victory dinner for his officers, George Washington raises his glass and toasts, “The Butlers and their five sons!”
Following Yorktown, Butler remains in the Continental Army and is transferred to the 3rd Pennsylvania Regiment following a consolidation of the Army on January 1, 1783. On September 30 of the same year, he is breveted as a brigadier general. He remains in active service with the Continental Army until it is finally disbanded on November 3, 1783.
In 1783 Butler and his brothers become original members of the Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati, a military society of officers who had served in the Continental Army.
After the war, the Confederation Congress puts Butler in charge of Indians of the Northwest Territory. He negotiates the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784, in which the Iroquois surrender their lands. He is also called upon during later negotiations, such as the Treaty of Fort McIntosh in 1785.
Butler returns to Pennsylvania, and is a judge in Allegheny County. He also serves in the state legislature. He marries Maria Smith and they have four children, only one of whom lives to have children and continue the line. He also fathers a son, Captain Butler (or Tamanatha) with Shawnee chief Nonhelema. He and his Shawnee son fight in opposing armies in 1791.
In 1791, Butler is commissioned a major general in the levies (i.e. militiamen conscripted into Federal service) under Major General Arthur St. Clair to fight against the Western Confederacy of Native Americans in the Northwest Territories (modern day Ohio). He is killed in action on November 4, 1791 in St. Clair’s Defeat at what is now Fort Recovery, Ohio.
Reportedly Butler is first buried on the battlefield, which site is then lost until it is accidentally found years later. The remains are laid to rest with the remains of the other fallen at Fort Recovery.
Butler County, Ohio, where Fort Hamilton stood, is named for Richard Butler, as are Butler County, Kentucky, and Butler County, Pennsylvania. The city of Butler, Pennsylvania and the General Richard Butler Bridge, located in the city of Butler, are also named for him. A miniature portrait of Butler is painted by “The Painter of The Revolution,” Colonel John Trumbull, in 1790 and is in the collection of Yale University.
Butler is also honored in the name of General Richard Butler KYSAAR, Butler County, Kentucky recognized August 20, 2016. A chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution is named for him as as is the General Richard Butler Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), founded in Butler, Pennsylvania.