A prominent Confederate commander during the American Civil War, General Simon B. 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’s parents named him 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 he later became 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 the army brevetted Buckner as a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Infantry Regiment and assigned him to garrison duty at Sackett’s Harbor on Lake Ontario. On August 28, 1845, Buckner 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 received a brevet promotion to first lieutenant on August. 20, 1847, for Gallant Conduct at Churubusco. The army also brevetted him to captain on September 8, 1847, for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct at Molino del Rey. Toward the end of the war, he took part 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, Buckner resigned his teaching position in protest over the academy’s compulsory chapel attendance policy. The army reassigned him 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, the army reassigned Buckner to frontier duty for two years at Fort Snelling, Minnesota and then to Fort Atkinson in present-day Kansas. During that period, the army promoted him to first lieutenant on December 31, 1851. Less than one year later, the army reassigned Buckner to commissary duty in New York, New York, and promoted to captain on November 3, 1852.
Friendship with U.S. Grant
While Buckner was living in New York, his friend, Ulysses S. Grant, called upon him for financial help. 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, the Kentucky State Guard’s Second Regiment absorbed Buckner’s group, and Governor Beriah Magoffin appointed Buckner as inspector general of Kentucky.
As the secession crisis threatened to split the nation, Kentucky’s government split 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 publicly 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 aim of driving the Yankees from their state.
Service in Kentucky
After siding with the South, on September 18, 1861, Confederate officials placed Buckner 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 defensive line that stretched from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. On October 28, 1861, Johnston elevated Buckner to command of the 2nd Division, Central Army of Kentucky, Department #2, under the direction of General William J. Hardee.
Surrender of Fort Donelson
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 17,000-man garrison. Upon realizing that Grant’s 25,000 soldiers were attempting to surround the fort, the Confederate generals attempted a breakout.
On the morning of February 15, Confederate troops surged out of the fort, attacking the Union right flank. Initially, the Rebels drove the Federals back, but they did not rout them. 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 hopeless. Fearing harsh reprisals for political acts committed before the war, Floyd and Pillow 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 hoped that Grant would be more generous because of their friendship. Nevertheless, he could only 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.
Grant’s treatment of Buckner may seem harsh, 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.
Imprisonment and Exchange
After Buckner surrendered, he spent five months in prison at Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor. On August 15, 1862, federal officials exchanged Buckner for Union Brigadier General George A. McCall, who Confederates had taken prisoner at Frayser’s Farm, Virginia. The day after his release, the Confederacy promoted Buckner to major general and ordered him to join Braxton Bragg’s Army of Mississippi at Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Confederate Heartland Campaign
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. By October 4, the campaign appeared to be so promising that Buckner accompanied Bragg to Frankfort, where they took part in the inauguration of Richard Hawes as the provisional Confederate governor of Kentucky.
While Bragg was toasting Hawes in Frankfort, 22,000 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 16,000 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 his army arrived late, causing 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 discovered that Polk had not carried out his order to attack. Infuriated, Bragg took command of the army and launched an assault by 10:00 a.m.
The fighting 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 earning a tactical victory at Perryville. In their after-action reports, Hardee, Polk, and Bragg all praised Buckner’s efforts at the Battle of Perryville.
District of the Gulf Commander
Following the Battle of Perryville, on December 14, 1862, the Confederacy placed Buckner in charge of the District of the Gulf and ordered him to fortify the defenses around Mobile, Alabama. On May 12, 1863, army officials transferred Buckner to Knoxville, Tennessee to assume command of the Department of East Tennessee. In July 1863, the Confederacy reorganized Bragg’s command Braxton Bragg’s command and merged Buckner’s department into the Department of Tennessee. Buckner’s troops formed the 3rd Corps of the Army of Tennessee.
Battle of Chickamauga
Back under Braxton Bragg’s command, Buckner took part in the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19-20, 1863). Buckner’s Corps, which comprised Bushrod Johnson’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.
Lieutenant General in the West
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 rest of the war, he held several 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, the Confederacy promoted Buckner 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. Buckner’s capitulation made him the first and last general to surrender a Confederate army during the Civil War.
Life in New Orleans
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 secured a staff position on the Daily Crescent newspaper. He also prospered in several business ventures, including the founding of a successful fire insurance company.
Return to Kentucky
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 perished during the Battle of Okinawa, making him the highest-ranking U.S. military officer killed by enemy fire during World War II.
Honoring U.S. Grant
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.
Governor of Kentucky
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 for state legislators who advocated for free silver. In 1896, the Democratic Party split over 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 ninety-one-years-of-age. 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.