Don Carlos Buell was born on the farm of his grandfather, Judge Salmon Buell, in Lowell, Ohio, on March 23, 1818. Named after his uncle, who was a lawyer in Ithaca, New York, Buell was the son of Salmon D. Buell and Eliza Buell. Buell’s father died during a cholera epidemic in 1823, when Buell was five years of age. In 1826, Buell’s mother sent him to live with an uncle who was a prominent farmer and merchant in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. There, Buell attended a local private school before receiving an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1837. Buell graduated from West Point in 1841, ranked thirty-second in his class of fifty-two.
U.S. Army Officer
Buell received a brevet commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army on July 1, 1841. He fought in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War. During the latter conflict, Buell received three brevets. and he was wounded at the Battle of Churubusco (August 20, 1847). After the Mexican-American War, Buell served in the army’s Adjutant General’s office and climbed steadily in rank.
At the outset of the American Civil War, Buell was on the West Coast serving as the adjutant general of the Department of the Pacific. The War Department recalled Buell to Washington, where he helped his friend, George B. McClellan, organize the Army of the Potomac, briefly commanding one of its divisions. Army officials promoted Buell to lieutenant colonel on May 11, 1861, and to brigadier general of volunteers on May 17, 1861.
Department of the Ohio Command
During October 1861, McClellan set about reorganizing the Union forces in the West.
On November 9, 1861, the War Department issued General Orders Number 97, which dissolved the Department of the Cumberland and expanded the Department of the Ohio to include the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, and Kentucky east of the Cumberland River. Officials selected Buell to command the department, with headquarters at Louisville, Kentucky.
When Buell assumed command on November 15, 1861, he found the structure, discipline, and training of troops under his command to be lacking and immediately set about remedying the situation. By December, Buell had organized the forces under his command into five divisions that became the Army of the Ohio.
Buell received orders to organize a campaign to liberate Union loyalists in East Tennessee, which he ignored. Instead, he moved against Tennessee’s capital at Nashville. Buell easily captured Nashville on February 25, 1862, partly because Ulysses S. Grant’s assaults on Fort Henry and Fort Donelson occupied the Confederate forces in the region.
Promotion to Major General in the Volunteer Army
On March 3, 1862, President Lincoln nominated Buell for promotion to major general. The Senate approved Lincoln’s recommendation on March 21 and the War Department announced Buell’s new rank when it issued General Orders, No. 63, (U.S. War Department), on June 10, 1862.
Demotion to District Commander
Shortly after Buell’s promotion, President Lincoln issued War Order Number 3 on March 11, 1862. Drafted at the urging of Major General Henry W. Halleck, commander of the Department of Missouri, Lincoln’s directive aimed to coordinate Union strategy in the West by merging three departments. On March 13, 1862, Halleck issued General Orders, No. 1 (Department of the Mississippi) assuming command of the “Department of the Mississippi, which includes the present Department of Kansas and the Missouri and the Department of the Ohio and country west of a north and south line drawn through Knoxville, Tenn., and east of the western boundaries of the States of Missouri and Arkansas.” On the same day, Halleck assured Buell that “The new arrangement of departments* will not interfere with your command. You will continue in command of the same army and district of country as heretofore, so far as I am concerned.” However, on March 19, Halleck issued General Orders, No. 7 (Department of the Mississippi) announcing that “So much of the recent Department of the Ohio as is included in the present Department of the Mississippi will be designed the District of the Ohio, and will continue to be commanded by Major-General D. C. Buell.” Thus, Buell shifted from a department commander to a district commander.
Battle of Shiloh
On March 16, 1862, Halleck warned Buell of a Confederate buildup of troops at Corinth, Mississippi. Suspecting a Rebel offensive, Halleck ordered Buell to leave Nashville and march his army southwest toward Savannah or Pittsburg, Tennessee to reinforce Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. Buell’s army left Nashville and neared Pittsburg Landing on the evening of April 6, to the sounds of the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862).
Confederate generals Albert Sidney Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard launched a surprise attack against Grant’s army encamped at Pittsburg Landing early in the morning of April 6. The Rebels drove the unprepared Federals back and nearly overran them by the end of the day. Confident of a Rebel victory the next day, Beauregard halted the assault at nightfall and telegraphed Confederate President Jefferson Davis, proclaiming “a complete victory.” During the night, however, Buell’s army arrived on the scene. Bolstered by fresh reinforcements, Grant launched a counterattack the next day, forcing the Rebels to retreat and eventually withdraw their army to Corinth, Mississippi.
Siege of Corinth
After Shiloh, Buell assisted Halleck in the Siege of Corinth (April 29 – May 30, 1862). On July 23, 1862, the Lincoln administration summoned Halleck to Washington, promoting him to general-in-chief of all Union armies. Grant replaced Halleck as commander of most of the Federal forces in the West. Buell’s Army of the Ohio, however, remained independent from Grant’s command, and Buell reported directly to Halleck.
On June 10, 1862, Halleck ordered Buell to advance on the important railroad hub at Chattanooga, Tennessee. Three weeks later, after Buell had advanced only 90 miles, Halleck warned Buell that “The President says your progress is not satisfactory and you should move more rapidly.” Buell’s lethargy proved costly. Before he could launch the planned assault, Confederate General Braxton Bragg used railroads and ships to execute a flanking movement of over 700 miles and beat Buell to Chattanooga. With the intended prize no longer attainable, Buell settled for re-occupying Nashville.
Confederate Heartland Campaign
In late August 1862, Braxton Bragg launched his Heartland Campaign to capture the Border State of Kentucky. On September 17, he seized an important rail station along with 4,000 Union soldiers at the Battle of Munfordville (September 14-17, 1862). Buell now found himself in the alarming position of having Bragg’s army between the Army of the Ohio and the vital Union supply center at Louisville, Kentucky. With his supply lines threatened, Buell made a hasty withdrawal around Bragg’s army back to Louisville.
After Buell returned to Louisville, President Lincoln relieved him of his command on September 30, 1862, replacing him with Major General George Thomas. Thomas, however, refused the command, and Lincoln reinstated Buell the next day. With a renewed sense of urgency, Buell reinforced his army with recruits from Indiana and set off in pursuit of Bragg. Buell sent a small diversionary force toward the Kentucky capital at Frankfort, where Bragg was attending the inauguration of Richard Hawes as the provisional Confederate governor of the commonwealth. Concurrently, Buell sent the bulk of his army southwest toward Harrodsburg in search of Bragg’s main army.
Battle of Perryville
On October 8, 1862, part of Buell’s army engaged most of Bragg’s army at the Battle of Perryville. The battle went well for the Confederates initially. Facing stubborn resistance, the Rebels gradually drove the Federals back nearly one mile. 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 scoring a tactical victory at Perryville.
After the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862), Bragg retreated to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, where he joined forces with Lieutenant General Kirby Smith. The combined Confederate army was now comparable in size to Buell’s army. Nevertheless, Bragg lost his enthusiasm for the campaign. Over the objections of Smith and his subordinates, Bragg called off the offensive and evacuated Kentucky.
Relieved of Command
Buell did not pursue the retreating Confederates, claiming that he lacked essential supplies. On October 24, 1862, President Lincoln relieved Buell from his command because of his inaction. Later, Buell appeared before a commission investigating his leadership during the campaign. The commission met from November 24, 1862, to May 10, 1863, but it never issued a final report. From May 10, 1863, through June 1, 1864, Buell’s official status was “awaiting orders.” Army officials offered Buell new battlefield commands, but he refused to serve under officers that he once outranked. With his military reputation irreparably damaged, Buell mustered out of volunteer service on May 23, 1864, and he resigned from the military on June 1.
In 1864, Buell supported George McClellan’s Democratic Party bid for the Presidency and openly attacked the Union leadership for how it was waging the war. After the war ended, Buell served as president of Green River, Kentucky, Iron Works from 1865 to 1870, and he later engaged in other mining activities. From 1885 to 1889, Buell served as a U. S. Pension Agent at Louisville. Buell was also a member of the first board of trustees of the Kentucky Agricultural and Mechanical College (now the University of Kentucky).
Buell died on November 19, 1898, at his home in Rockport, Kentucky. He is buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri.