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ARTICLES Simon Bolivar Buckner: A Skillful and Judicious General

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 Read more about “Louisville and the Civil War: A History & Guide” 

Louisville and the Civil War: A History & Guide.  This book traces the Civil War in Louisville and gives the reader a sense of how the city looked towards the Union and the Confederacy.  This includes discussion of how Louisville turned from a very pro-Union city towards supporting the Confederacy, or at least the Lost Cause.

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Born in Hart County, Kentucky on April 1, 1823, Simon Bolivar Buckner attended the local schools in Kentucky.  He entered the United States Military Academy and graduated eleventh in his class in 1844.  When the Mexican War broke out, Buckner served with General Winfield Scott’s army in Mexico.  During the Mexican War he earned two brevets and suffered a wound at Churubusco.  After the war, he returned to West Point to teach.  While at West Point, Buckner felt that the school’s mandatory presence at Sunday chapel was a violation of his rights, he resigned and returned to the infantry in 1849.  In 1852, he transferred to the commissary branch, but in 1855, he resigned to start a new career in real estate.  Buckner became a wealthy man who did not own slaves, but felt that slavery was a states' rights issue.

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Original Framed Photograph of General Simon Bolivar Buckner wearing his Kentucky State Guard Uniform

In 1858, Buckner formed a Kentucky Citizens' Guard to protect his state from invasion and supported neutrality.  In 1860, he took command of the Kentucky State Guard.  As tensions grew, he refused offers to accept a general’s commission from both the Union army and the Confederacy.  On July 20, 1861, Buckner resigned as commander of the Kentucky State Guard and when Confederate General Leonidas Polk invaded Kentucky on September 4, 1861, breaking the state’s neutrality, Buckner left the state to avoid arrest as a suspected traitor, and joined the Confederate army.  On September 14, 1861, Buckner accepted the commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate army.

After Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of all Confederate forces in the West, moved his headquarters to Bowling Green, Kentucky, Buckner arrived to take command of central Kentucky.  After the fall of Fort Henry on February 6, 1862, General Albert Sidney Johnston sent Buckner and his 4,500 men to help the Confederates at Fort Donelson.  On February 11, Buckner arrived at Cumberland City, where Confederate General John Floyd concentrated his division and Buckner’s division.  On February 13, Buckner prepared his troops for a Federal assault from the gunboats under Flag Officer Andrew Foote and the Union infantry under General Ulysses S. Grant.  At 11 a.m. a heavy Federal assault was made on Buckner’s left, but a well-directed fire from Graves' battery upon the Federal flank repulsed the Yankees.  During the day, the Union artillery and infantry kept up their fire, but the Confederates' well-directed fire from the entrenchments silenced the Federals.  During the preceding night, General Floyd arrived and assumed command of all the troops and during the morning inspected Buckner’s lines.  On February 14, Buckner joined a general council of officers, in which the officers decided to make an immediate attack upon the Federal right, in order to open the Confederate communications with Nashville.  Buckner offered his men to cover the retreat of the Confederate army if the sortie proved successful.  Buckner made the preparations to carry out the movement, but was countermanded by General Floyd, since Pillow, who, after drawing out his troops for the attack, thought the attempt to break out was too late.  On the night of February 14, the generals held another conference and they decided to attack the Federal right at daylight.  The object of the attack was to force their way out through their lines, recover their communications, and retreat to Nashville.  The plan called for General Pillow to attack the Federal extreme right, and for Buckner’s division to make an attack upon the right of the Federal center, and if successful, to take a position in advance of the Confederate works on the Wynn’s Ferry road, to cover the retreat of the whole army, with Buckner acting as the rear guard.

CDV of General Simon B. Buckner in his Kentucky State Guard Uniform

On February 15, Buckner deployed the 3rd Tennessee Infantry in the rifle pits to cover the formation of Buckner’s division.  In the meantime, General Pillow made his attack on the Federal right.  The Federals placed a heavy battery on Wynn’s Ferry Road, with another battery opposite Buckner’s left, with a heavy infantry force.  Buckner placed Graves' battery to the left of the Wynn’s Ferry Road and opened fire on the Union battery “with destructive fire.”  Buckner also ordered his battery to fire on the Federal flank and rearm who were blocking the advance of General Pillow’s division.  At 9 a.m. General Pillow ordered an advance to relieve his forces.  Buckner sent the 14th Mississippi.  The combined attack forced the Union infantry to retire.

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Bust of General Simon Bolivar Buckner

As the Federals retreated along the Wynn’s Ferry Road, Buckner organized an attack farther on his right, up a deep valley, in the rear of the position occupied by the Federal batteries.  Buckner ordered Maney’s, Porter’s, and Graves' battery to open a crossfire on the Federal battery and position, while Colonel John Brown’s 3rd, 18th, and 32nd Tennessee moved up the valley, who engaged the Union infantry.  The Federal line collapsed and the Yankees abandoned a section of their artillery.  Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest charged on the Union right, while Pillow’s division pressed the Federal extreme right.  Graves' battery unleashed a destructive fire on the Union left, while Colonel Roger Hanson charged through an open field upon the superior Federal force, who broke and ran in all directions.  A large portion of the Federal right ran through the woods, to Fort Henry.  The Federals took up a strong position on the road beyond the point where the road crossed the valley.  Buckner ordered the 3rd, 18th, and 32nd Tennessee to attack, while Graves' battery took position on the road within 250 yards of the Federal batteries.  The Confederates attacked and drove the Federals from their position and retreated to the right of Wynn’s Ferry Road, leaving the road open for retreat.  Buckner waited for his artillery and reserved to arrive to help in the pursuit of the retreating Federals or to defend his position he held, so the Confederate army could pass on the Forge road, but General Pillow prevented Buckner’s artillery from leaving the entrenchments, and to his amazement, Pillow ordered Buckner back to his entrenchments on the extreme right.  Buckner started to return to his entrenchments when he rode upon General Floyd.  Buckner told Floyd about Pillow’s order, which surprised him.  Buckner told Floyd that the army could now escape and the road was completely open to retreat.  Floyd ordered Buckner to halt his troops and remain in position, until Floyd spoke with Pillow.

Extremely rare Buckner style Confederate General's uniform

After Floyd spoke with Pillow, he ordered Buckner to fall back to the entrenchments on the extreme right.  The Federals made no attempt to pursue.  General Grant realized that the Confederates attempted a break out and gathered his forces.  Union General C. F. Smith assaulted the extreme right of Buckner’s right.  The Federals advanced, but were repulsed.  Buckner reinforced his position.  After two hours of fighting, the Federals threatened his left and made repeated attempts to charge his right line, but Porter’s and Graves' artillery sent the Yankees back to seek shelter behind their works.

During the fight, the three generals met to discuss their next step.  Buckner told Pillow and Floyd he thought that the position of the Confederate was desperate and that another attempt of a break out was hopeless.  Many of his troops were exhausted and frozen by the ice and cold.  The ammunition was exhausted.  The Federal forces estimated at four times the Confederate force surrounded the fort.  Buckner thought that fighting another day would “be wrong to subject the army to a virtual massacre, when no good could result from the sacrifice, and that the general officers owed it to their men, when further resistance was unavailing, to obtain the best terms of capitulation possible for them.”  General Pillow remarked that no two persons in the Confederacy whom the Yankees would prefer to capture than himself and General Floyd.  Pillow and Floyd decided to escape the fort, while Buckner would surrender the fort and the men.

On February 16, Buckner sent a message to Grant to meet with him for terms of surrender.  Grant demanded unconditional surrender, which outraged General Buckner.  Buckner was General Grant’s friend before the war, Buckner paid Grant’s New York hotel bill when the future General was on his way home, having resigned from the army.  After Buckner surrendered, the federal government sent him to Fort Warren prison located in the Boston harbor.  Grant did not forget his friend, allowing Buckner to use his funds while he was a prisoner.  On August 27, 1862, Buckner was exchanged and promoted to major general.

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Buckner took command of the 3rd Division in General William Hardee’s Corps, and Buckner with the rest of Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of the Mississippi marched into Kentucky.  At noon, on October 8, 1862, General Bragg ordered Hardee’s Corps, which included Buckner’s and General J. Patton Anderson’s divisions to advance to take a position between the two streams on the west side of Perryville, extending across the Mackville road with Bragg’s left toward the Springfield Pike and protected by Semple’s battery, posted on Seminary Hill, near the eastern side of Perryville.  General Anderson covered the extreme left on the Springfield road.  The Federals under General Don Carlos Buell occupied the western or left bank of Doctor’s Fork, extending on both sides of the Mackville road and across the Springfield road.

Horstman & Sons sword very similar to the sword in General Buckner's hands in the photograph above

At 1 P.M. General Ben Cheatham’s division crossed Doctor’s Fork on the Confederate extreme right and engaged the Yankees left.  Hardee ordered Buckner to advance his division and attacked the Union troops where the Mackville road crossed Doctor’s Fork.  The Federal troops took position behind a stone wall, supported by their batteries on their right and swept by another battery in their rear.

After the battle of Perryville, General William Hardee stated in his after action report that he was “indebted for the skillful management of his troops, the judicious use of his battery, and for the opportune services of himself [General Buckner] and the veteran division under his command.”

General Bushrod Johnson led the advance, with General Patrick Cleburne’s support, with the brigade of General St. John Liddell held as a reserve.  The brigades of Colonel John Brown and Jones, of Anderson’s and S.A.M. Wood’s, of Buckner’s division, were ordered to occupy the interval between the right of Buckner and the left of Cheatham, and the two remaining brigades of Anderson’s division, under the command of D.W. Adams and Colonel Sam Powell, covered the extreme left of the Confederate line.  Johnson and Cleburne engaged the Federals near a burnt barn, while Wood, Brown and Jones hit the Union line to the right, on the left of Cheatham.  At the same time, the brigades of Adams and Powell, on the left of Cleburne and Johnson attacked the Union front, while Adams, moving the right, united with Buckner’s left.  The whole force united and advanced, aided by Confederate artillery fire, while partially enfiladed their lines.  The Union troops fell back in disorder from their position nearly a mile to the rear.  Cheatham and Wood captured a Union battery.

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As evening closed, Hardee ordered Liddell’s brigade forward to reinforce Cheatham.  Major General Leonidas Polk first discovered the Federal troops, by riding mistakenly into their lines, and escaped by telling the Federal troops to stop firing on their own men.  Polk ordered his men to fire into the Federal troops, which completed the Federal rout.

After the battle of Perryville, General William Hardee stated in his after action report that he was “indebted for the skillful management of his troops, the judicious use of his battery, and for the opportune services of himself [General Buckner] and the veteran division under his command.”  Unfortunately the Confederates did not stay in Perryville after the battle, during the night, the troops under Bragg pulled out of Perryville and headed back towards Tennessee.  Bragg realized he had engaged only on Federal corps, two more Federal corps headed towards him.

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When Bragg’s troops arrived in Tennessee, Buckner left Bragg’s army and took command of the Department of the Gulf, which lasted from December 1862 to April 1863.  In April 1863, he took command over the Department of East Tennessee.  On July 23, 1863, the Department of East Tennessee was absorbed into the Department of Tennessee, under General Bragg, but Confederate President Jefferson Davis kept Buckner for administrative purposes.  Buckner found himself in an awkward position, answering not only to President Davis, but also to General Bragg.

Buckner reinforced General Bragg’s army just before the battle of Chickamauga.  When Jefferson Davis visited the Confederate army in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Buckner was one of the leading critics against Bragg’s command.  Bragg sent Buckner’s men to Knoxville, Tennessee to serve under General James Longstreet’s command.  Longstreet along with Buckner was forced to abandon their siege on Knoxville, because of Union General Ambrose Burnside’s superior numbers at Knoxville.  Buckner returned to Chickamauga in September of 1863, and commanded the left wing at the battle of Chickamauga, but did not see much action.

After the Battle of Chickamauga, Bragg sent Buckner back to the Department of East Tennessee, where he held a number of special assignments, but in the spring of 1864, Buckner took charge of the Department of East Tennessee.  During his time as commander of the Department of East Tennessee, he spent most of his time in Richmond, where he became known as “Simon the Poet” for his skill in writing poetry.  Later that spring, the Confederate command sent Buckner to serve as chief of staff to General Edmund Kirby Smith.  On September 20, 1864, President Davis promoted Buckner to lieutenant general.

After the war, Buckner could not return to his home state for three years.  He spent most of that time in New Orleans, but in 1867, he returned home to Kentucky and engaged in profitable business enterprises.  He also wrote and kept active in Confederate veterans groups.  On July 23, 1885, Buckner served as a pallbearer for Ulysses S. Grant’s funeral.  In 1887, Buckner served as Kentucky’s governor, which he served until 1891, winning praise as an honest and efficient governor.  In 1896, he ran for vice president under John Palmer’s Gold Democratic ticket.  When he died at his home near Munfordville, Kentucky, on January 8, 1914, he was the last survivor over the rank of brigadier general.

Resources

Stickles, Arndt, Simon Bolivar Buckner: Borderland Knight, (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2001)

Faust, Patricia, ed., Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War, (New York: Harper & Row, 1986)

Sifakis, Stewart, Who Was Who in the Confederacy, Vol. II, (New York & Oxford: Facts on File, Inc., 1988)

The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series, I, Vol. 7, Feb. 12-16, 1862, Siege and Capture of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, No. 62-Report of Brig. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, C. S. Army, commanding division.

The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. XVI/1 [S#22] October 8, 1862, Battle of Perryville, or Chaplin Hills, Ky. No 37-Report of Maj. Gen. William Hardee, C. S. Army, commanding Left Wing.

This specific article is under full copyright.  Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Next Keynote Article: “Brevet Brig. General Orlando Metcalfe Poe”

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