Major General Don Carlos Buell (USV)

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Aug 27, 2016
Hangzhou, China (Wisconsin, USA)
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Major General Don Carlos Buell (USV)

Don Carlos Buell was born in Lowell, Ohio, on 23 March 1818. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1841 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Infantry. Two years later, he faced a court-martial for striking a soldier with the flat of his sword but was acquitted. The incident earned him a reputation for being a harsh disciplinarian.

During the Mexican-American War, he served under both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. He was brevetted three times for bravery and was wounded at Churubusco. Following the war, he served in the U.S. Army Adjutant General’s office and as an adjutant in California, reaching the rank of captain in 1851.

At the start of the Civil War, Buell was an early organizer of the Army of the Potomac and briefly commanded one of its divisions. He was promoted to brigadier general dating from 17 May 1861. In November, he succeeded Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman in command at Louisville, Kentucky. He was criticized for not brigading his regiments by state.

Buell’s command was designated the Department of the Ohio and his troops the Army of the Ohio (later the Army of the Cumberland). Buell’s superiors wanted him to operate in eastern Tennessee, an area with Union sympathies and considered important to the political efforts in the war. Instead, Buell disregarded his orders and moved against Nashville and captured it on 25 February 1862 against little opposition. The Confederates had abandoned Nashville, and moved south, as Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had captured Fort Henry on 6 February and Fort Donelson on 16 February. On 21 March, Buell was promoted to major general but lost his independent status when his command was incorporated within the new Department of the Mississippi under the command of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck.

At the Battle of Shiloh, Buell reinforced Grant with three of the five divisions of the Army of the Ohio, about 20,000 men, helping him defeat the Confederates on 7 April. Buell believed that his arrival was the primary reason that Grant avoided a major defeat, but Halleck needed to continually prod Buell to get his army to Pittsburg Landing. It had taken Buell nearly a month to travel 90 miles to arrive at just the right time to help turn the tide at the Battle of Shiloh. Buell claimed himself the victor and denigrated Grant’s contribution, though most historians consider that Grant had already saved himself by the end of the first day’s fighting.

Following Shiloh, Halleck arrived in person to take command of Grant and Buell’s armies. The combined force of 100,000 men sluggishly pursued P.G.T. Beauregard’s Army of Tennessee into northern Tennessee. Finally, on 25 May, Halleck captured abandoned Corinth, Mississippi. Halleck then split the two armies and sent Buell to capture Chattanooga. Halleck was summoned back to Washington to be commander-in-chief of all Union armies, returning Grant and Buell to independent action. Buell’s advance on Chattanooga nearly rivaled the earlier march on Corinth for sluggishness. When Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry ransacked his supply lines, Buell all but terminated the effort to take Chattanooga.

Some Unionists suspected Buell was a Confederate sympathizer because he was one of the few slaveholding U.S. Army officers, inheriting the slaves from his wife’s family. Suspicions continued as Buell enforced a strict policy of non-interference with Southern civilians during his operations in Tennessee and Alabama. A serious incident occurred on 2 May 1862, when the town of Athens, Alabama, was pillaged by Union soldiers. Buell was infuriated and brought charges against his subordinate on the scene, John B. Turchin. President Abraham Lincoln succumbed to pressure from Tennessee politicians and ordered Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas to replace Buell on 30 September 1862. However, Thomas refused and Lincoln left Buell in command. Turchin was court-martialed but not cashiered from service as Buell wanted and was in fact promoted to brigadier general.

In the fall of 1862, Confederate General Braxton Bragg invaded Kentucky and Buell was forced to pursue him to defend Louisville, Kentucky, and the Ohio River. A single corps of Buell’s army was attacked by Bragg at the Battle of Perryville on 8 October 1862, while Buell, a couple of miles behind the action, was not aware that a battle was taking place until late in the day and thus did not effectively engage the full strength of his army to defeat the smaller enemy force. Although Perryville was tactically indecisive, it halted the Confederate invasion of Kentucky and forced their withdrawal back into Tennessee. When he failed to pursue Bragg’s withdrawal, Buell was relieved of command on 24 October, replaced by Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans.

Buell spent the next year and a half in Indianapolis, in military limbo, hoping a military commission would exonerate him. Exoneration never came and he left military service on 23 May 1864. Although, he had been offered a command at the express recommendation of Grant, Buell declined it, saying that it would be degradation to serve under either Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman or Maj. Gen. Edward Canby because he outranked both. Grant called this “the worst excuse a soldier can make for declining service.”

Following the war Buell lived in Indiana and then Kentucky employed in the iron and coal industry as president of the Green River Iron Company. From 1885 to 1889, he was a government pension agent. He died in Rockport Kentucky on 19 November 1898.

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