Simon Bolivar Buckner (April 1, 1823 – January 8, 1914)

Updated: September 06, 2013

A prominent Confederate commander during the American Civil War, General Simon Buckner also served one term as governor of Kentucky after the conflict.

Simon Bolivar. Buckner, Sr. was born on April 1, 1823, at Glen Lily, his family's estate near Munfordville, Kentucky. He was the third child and second son of Aylett Hartswell and Elizabeth Ann (Morehead) Buckner. Buckner was named in honor of Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan military and political leader who campaigned for Latin American independence from the Spanish Empire.

During his childhood, Buckner became close friends with Thomas J. Wood, who was also born in Munfordville in 1823. Both men attended the United States Military Academy. Buckner graduated in 1844, placing eleventh in his class of twenty-five cadets. Among his classmates were future Union generals Alfred Pleasonton and Winfield Scott Hancock. Wood graduated one year later and went on to become a Union army general who fought against Buckner at the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862) and at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863).

Following his graduation from the Academy on July 1, 1844, Buckner was brevetted as a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Infantry Regiment and was assigned to garrison duty at Sackett's Harbor on Lake Ontario. On August 28, 1845, he returned to West Point to serve as an assistant professor of geography, history, and ethics.

Buckner resigned his teaching position shortly after the beginning of the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846–February 2, 1848) to join the 6th U.S. Infantry Regiment with the full rank of second lieutenant on May 9, 1846. During the Mexican-American War, he fought at the Battles of Churubusco (where he was wounded), Contreras, and Molino del Rey. Buckner was brevetted to first lieutenant on August. 20, 1847, for Gallant Conduct at Churubusco. He was brevetted to captain on September 8, 1847, for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct at Molino del Rey. Toward the end of the war, he participated in the Battle of Chapultepec, the Battle of Belen Gate, and the assault and capture of Mexico City.

After the Mexican-American War, Buckner returned to West Point on August 26, 1848 to teach infantry tactics. On January 18, 1850, he resigned his teaching position in protest over the academy's compulsory chapel attendance policy. Buckner was reassigned to recruiting duties at Fort Columbus, New York.

A few months after his resignation, Buckner married Mary Jane Kingsbury, the daughter of Major Julius B. Kingsbury, on May 2, 1850, in Old Lyme, Connecticut. The couple met while Buckner was serving with Major Kingsbury at Sackett's Harbor in the 1840s. The marriage, which lasted until Mrs. Buckner succumbed to tuberculosis in 1874, produced two children, one of whom (their daughter, Lily) survived to adulthood.

Soon after his wedding, Buckner was reassigned to frontier duty for two years at Fort Snelling, Minnesota and then to Fort Atkinson in present-day Kansas. During that period, he was promoted to first lieutenant on December 31, 1851. Less than one year later, Buckner was reassigned to commissary duty in New York, New York and promoted to captain on November 3, 1852.

While Buckner was living in New York, he was called upon by his old friend Ulysses S. Grant, who was in financial straits. As Buckner later recalled, Grant "had been staying at the old Astor House and his money was all gone and he had been unable to get anything to do and had no means to reach home." Buckner went on, "I went back to the hotel with him and introduced him to the proprietor of the hotel whom I knew, and I said Captain Grant was a man of honor, and though in hard luck he would see that his bills were paid; I vouched of him and Grant wrote to his people in Ohio and received money shortly thereafter, enough to take him home."

On March 26, 1855, Buckner resigned from the army to move to Chicago to work with his father-in-law, who had built a vast real estate empire in Illinois. A little over one year later, Major Kingsbury died on June 26, 1856, leaving Buckner to manage his business. While living in Chicago, Buckner joined the Illinois State Militia as a major. On April 3, 1857, Governor William Henry Bissell appointed Buckner to the post of adjutant general of Illinois. Buckner held the post for only a short time, before returning to Kentucky and settling his family in Louisville in late 1857.

Still interested in military affairs, Bucker served for two years as captain of a militia group in Louisville, known as the Citizens' Guard. In 1860, Buckner's group was incorporated into the Kentucky State Guard's Second Regiment, and Governor Beriah Magoffin appointed Buckner as inspector general of Kentucky.

As the secession crisis threatened to split the nation, sentiments in Kentucky were divided between the pro-Union legislature and the pro-Southern governor. When the Civil War erupted in April 1861, Governor Magoffin refused to raise troops to support the Union cause, and the legislature passed a Declaration of Neutrality on May 16, 1861, aimed at keeping Kentucky out of the conflict. In August 1861, Buckner twice declined offers for a commission as a brigadier-general in the Union Army, first from General-in-Chief Winfield Scott and second from Secretary of War Simon Cameron, following a directive of President Abraham Lincoln.

During the summer of 1861, Unionists publically began recruiting efforts in Kentucky, providing Confederate General Leonidas Polk with an excuse to disregard the legislature's declaration of neutrality. On September 3, 1861, General Gideon Pillow, under Polk's orders, occupied the Mississippi River town of Columbus, Kentucky. Two days later, Union General Ulysses S. Grant responded by seizing the town of Paducah, Kentucky, roughly fifty miles away on the Ohio River. Provoked by Grant's action, Buckner accepted a commission as brigadier-general in the Confederate Army on September 14, 1861. Many of Buckner's fellow militiamen joined him in his objective of driving the Yankees from their state.

After siding with the Confederacy, on September 18, 1861, Buckner was placed in charge of the Central Geographical Division of Kentucky, Department #2, under the overall command of General Albert Sidney Johnston, leader of all Rebel forces in the West. Buckner traveled to Bowling Green, Kentucky and established the center of Johnston's thin line of defense that stretched from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. On October 28, 1861, Buckner was elevated to command of the 2nd Division, Central Army of Kentucky, Department #2, under the direction of General William J. Hardee.

After Union General Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River on February 6, 1862, he turned his attention to nearby Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. Johnston promptly dispatched Buckner to Fort Donelson to join Generals Gideon J. Pillow, John B. Floyd, Bushrod Johnson, and Nathan Bedford Forrest in defense of the facility. Buckner's division defended the right flank of the Confederate line of entrenchments that surrounded the fort and the small town of Dover. Floyd, being the senior officer, commanded the seventeen thousand-man garrison. Upon realizing that Grant's twenty-five thousand soldiers were attempting to surround the fort, the Confederate generals decided to attempt a breakout.

On the morning of February 15, Confederate troops surged out of the fort, attacking the Union right flank. Initially, the Yankees were driven back, but they were not routed. By early afternoon, reinforcements from the Union center arrived and stabilized the situation. Although a breakout was still possible, Pillow ordered his men back to their trenches to re-supply. Taking advantage of the delay, Grant ordered a counterattack on the left, forcing the Rebels back into a defensive position. By nightfall, the Federals had reclaimed much of the ground that they had lost in the morning.

During the night, the Confederate commanders determined that their situation was now hopeless. Fearing harsh reprisals for political acts committed before the war, Floyd and Pillow chose to evade capture and fled during the night, turning command over to Buckner. Infuriated by their decision, Forrest proclaimed, "I did not come here to surrender my command." He then led his battalion out of the fort and escaped unmolested.

The Federals awoke the next morning, surprised to see white flags of truce flying over Fort Donelson. Buckner requested an armistice and asked Grant for his terms of surrender. Grant replied that, "No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." Buckner had reason to believe that Grant would be more generous because of their personal relationship in the Union Army before the war. Nevertheless, he was forced to capitulate to Grant's terms.

Buckner responded to Grant:

SIR:—The distribution of the forces under my command, incident to an unexpected change of commanders, and the overwhelming force under your command, compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.

Much has been made of Buckner's assessment of Grant's terms, but Buckner later recalled their encounter as being quite cordial. As Buckner remembered the events related to the surrender:

He [Grant] came up to me there and after our greeting he said, 'I thought Pillow was in command.' 'He was,' I said. 'Where is he now?' 'Gone,' said I. 'Why did he leave?' 'Well, he thought you would rather have hold of him than any other man in the Southern Confederacy.' 'Oh no,' Grant replied quickly. 'If I had got him I'd let him go again; he will do us more good commanding you fellows.' This made us both laugh, for we remembered Pillow in the Mexican war. The Mexican war was our romance. We were just out of school and campaigning in a strange country, young fellows and it all made a profound impression on us. We remembered every phase of it and delighted to talk about it every time we met. The moment I saw him I said, 'General, as they say in Mexico, This house is yours.'

After I became his prisoner Grant tendered me the use of his purse. I did not accept it, of course, but it showed his generosity and his appreciation of my aid to him years before, which was really very little. I never gave a check to him, this is a forgery. I was in no position to help him at all. I see it stated that my check was for $1,000 and one time $10,000, but it was all a story. You have to be on guard against the uncertainty of tradition.

After Buckner surrendered, he was imprisoned for five months at Fort Warren, located in Boston Harbor. On August 15, 1862, Buckner was exchanged for Union Brigadier-General George A. McCall who was captured at Frayser's Farm, Virginia. The day after his release, Buckner was promoted to major general and ordered to join Braxton Bragg's Army of Mississippi at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Shortly after Buckner joined the Army of Mississippi, Bragg launched an invasion of Kentucky known as the Confederate Heartland Campaign. Early in the campaign, Buckner occupied his hometown of Munfordville on September 17, 1862, when Colonel John T. Wilder surrendered the Union garrison stationed there upon realizing that he was surrounded and outnumbered by a superior Confederate source. By October 4, the campaign appeared to be so promising that Buckner accompanied Bragg to Frankfort, where they participated in the inauguration of Richard Hawes as the provisional Confederate governor of Kentucky.

While Bragg was toasting Hawes in Frankfort, twenty-two thousand Union soldiers from Major General Don Carlos Buell's Army of Ohio were approaching the town of Perryville, roughly forty-five miles south of Frankfort. On October 7, 1862, Major General Alexander M. McCook's Corps, engaged sixteen thousand of Bragg's men commanded by Major General Leonidas Polk. During the night, more soldiers from each side arrived in the area, and their commanders began establishing battle lines. Buell intended to launch a major assault against the Rebels the next day, but delays in the arrival of his men caused him to postpone the attack until October 9.

On the Confederate side, Bragg believed that Polk's army outnumbered the Yankees and ordered Polk to attack the next day. Bragg rushed to Perryville on October 8 and was infuriated to learn that Polk had not carried out his order to attack. Bragg personally took command of the army and launched an assault by 10:00 a.m. The battle went well for the Confederates initially. Facing stubborn resistance, the Rebels gradually drove the Federals back. During the battle, Buckner's division fought well, scoring a significant breakthrough in the Union center. As the day progressed, however, more of Buell's army arrived on the scene. Running short of supplies and ammunition and faced with the prospect of squaring off with the bulk of Buell's army on the following day, Bragg withdrew during the night, despite suffering fewer casualties and achieving a tactical victory at Perryville. In their after-action reports, Hardee, Polk, and Bragg all praised Buckner's efforts at the Battle of Perryville.

Following the Battle of Perryville, on December 14, 1862, Buckner was placed in charge of the District of the Gulf and was ordered to fortify the defenses around Mobile, Alabama. On May 12, 1863, he was transferred to Knoxville, Tennessee to assume command of the Department of East Tennessee. In July 1863, Braxton Bragg's command was reorganized, and Buckner's department was merged into the Department of Tennessee and reconfigured to form the Third Corps of the Army of Tennessee.

Back under Braxton Bragg's command, Buckner participated in the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19-20, 1863). Buckner's Corps, which consisted of Bushrod Johnston's division, Alexander P. Stewart's division, and William Preston's division, fought on the Confederate left both days. On the second day, after Bragg reorganized his army into a Left Wing and Right Wing, Buckner served under General James Longstreet. Buckner's Corps played a major role in the Rebel breakthrough at Brotherton Cabin and the routing of the Union Army of the Cumberland.

When Longstreet and other Confederate general officers, including Buckner, publicly, criticized Bragg for his refusal to pursue the retreating Federals after the Battle of Chickamauga, Bragg reduced Buckner to a divisional commander. Buckner went on leave, and his division accompanied Longstreet during his ill-fated Knoxville Campaign in November.

Buckner returned to duty in late November 1863, as a divisional commander in the Department of East Tennessee. By April 1864, after Bragg's fortunes had waned, Buckner was briefly back in charge of the Department of East Tennessee. For the remainder of the war, he held numerous commands for relatively brief periods of time in the West. Among these were commander of the District of West Louisiana, Trans-Mississippi Department (August 4, 1864-April 19, 1865); commander of the 1st Corps, Trans-Mississippi Department (September 1864-May 26, 1865); commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department (April 19-22, 1865); and commander of the District of Arkansas and West Louisiana, Trans-Mississippi Department (April 22-May 26, 1865). On September 20, 1864, Buckner was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general. The war ended for Buckner when he surrendered the Department of the Trans-Mississippi on May 26, 1865, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Thus, Buckner was the first and last general to surrender a Confederate army during the Civil War.

After the war ended, the terms of Buckner's parole prohibited him from returning to his home state of Kentucky for three years. During that period, he took up residence in New Orleans and obtained a staff position on the Daily Crescent newspaper. He also prospered in several business ventures, including the founding of a successful fire insurance company.

In 1868, Buckner returned to Kentucky and became editor of the Louisville Courier. Other astute business dealings made him a wealthy man. Buckner also became active in politics, serving as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1868.

Six years after returning to Kentucky, Buckner's wife, Mary, died after a long struggle with tuberculosis. In 1877, Buckner and his daughter, Lily, returned to his family estate, Glen Lily, in Munfordville. Eight years later, the sixty-two-years-old Buckner married twenty-eight-year-old Delia Claiborne of Richmond, Virginia. Their marriage produced a son, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., born on July 18, 1886. Buckner, Jr., graduated from the United States Military Academy and rose to the rank of lieutenant general. On June 18, 1945, he was killed during the Battle of Okinawa, making him the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to be killed by enemy fire during World War II.

In July 1885, Buckner visited his old friend Ulysses S. Grant, who was dying of esophageal cancer at Mount McGregor, New York. The two men discussed their time at West Point and in Mexico. Buckner pleased the dying man by relaying his belief that former Confederates appreciated Grant's "magnanimity at the close of the war." A few weeks later, Buckner served as a pallbearer at Grant's funeral in New York.

In 1887, Kentucky Democrats nominated Buckner for the office of governor. Buckner defeated Republican challenger William O. Bradley and took the oath of office on August 30, 1887, serving until September 2, 1891. During his tenure as Kentucky's thirtieth governor, Buckner also served as a delegate to the state's 1890 constitutional convention, which drafted Kentucky's current constitution.

At the end of his term as governor, Buckner was an unsuccessful nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1895. His support of the gold standard made him an unpopular candidate with state legislators who advocated for free silver. In 1896, the Democratic Party split over the issue of bimetallism. Members of the National Democratic Party (Gold Democrats), nominated Buckner as the vice-presidential running mate of their presidential candidate John Palmer. The Palmer-Buckner ticket received just over one percent of the vote in the November election. Although never again a candidate for public office, Buckner remained active in politics.

Buckner spent his remaining days at Glen Lily attending to his many business interests. In 1904, he successfully lobbied President Theodore Roosevelt to secure an appointment for his son to the U. S. Military Academy. Buckner became the last surviving Confederate officer to hold the rank of lieutenant general in 1908, with the passing of Generals Stephen D. Lee and Alexander P. Stewart.

In 1912, Buckner's health began to fail. He died at his home in Munfordville on January 8, 1914 at the age of ninety-one years. At the time of his death, Buckner was the only surviving Confederate officer above the rank of brigadier-general, and he was the oldest living graduate of West Point. Buckner was buried at Frankfort Cemetery, in Frankfort, Kentucky.

 

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