Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Grant-Buckner Friendship

February 16, 1862 was a gloomy day for the Confederate soldiers at Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River near the Tennessee town of Dover. The weather was of course cold, but the gloom was not completely the result of foul weather. The command structure of this little army had very nearly collapsed entirely. The ranking generals, Brigadier General John B. Floyd (late Secretary of War in the Buchanan administration) and Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow abandoned the place in the night. They feared a swift trip to the gallows for treason if they were captured by Ulysses Grant's army.
To make matters more distressing, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a colonel of cavalry at the time, had also left the place, slipping across icy swamps to safety. Forrest was no coward but he saw the futility of the position. Forrest declared he was going take his command out of the trap before it was surrendered or “bust hell wide open” in the attempt. [1]

The command of Donelson finally rested on Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner. “For my part, I will stay with the men, and share their fate.” [2]

S.B. Buckner

Buckner was born April 1, 1823 near Munfordville, Kentucky and received sufficient education in the schools of the area to place him on good footing when he applied for and received an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point. While there he would become acquainted with many cadets that would later become notable or notorious during the War Between the States. Among these were Thomas Jackson, George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, and George Pickett. Also among the cadets at the same time was one Sam Grant. Buckner's own class of 1844 also graduated the renowned Winfield Hancock and Alfred Pleasanton. Buckner graduated eleventh in the class of twenty-five. [3] He served in the war with Mexico and was brevetted to captain for distinguished gallantry. And so did Sam Grant, who was also brevetted to the rank of captain during the war, for the same reason. Their friendship had dated back many years prior to the Civil War, including a time Buckner had covered a penniless Grants hotel bill in New York City while both were there. It was not a loan exactly, no money was
exchanged, but Grant did repay Buckner from money sent to him by his father Jesse Grant. Their friendship was therewith cemented. [4]

Now on this cold February day in 1862 the pair were facing each other. This time over the barrels of guns pointing in opposite directions. It must have been a strange feeling for Buckner knowing his old friend was across the way in command of troops who would make no such distinction. Grant was aware Buckner was in Fort Donelson, but he was not likely to know that Buckner was now in command of the fort. Not until he received the letter under flag of truce seeking terms over Buckner's name.

U.S. Grant

Grants response of “immediate and unconditional surrender” was followed by Buckners bitter reply; he would “accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms you propose.” In no way was Grant obligated to offer anything beyond this, and Buckner as a soldier would have known that. Perhaps his surly reply was based on the next line of Grants message: “I propose to move immediately upon your works.” It is quite possible Buckner may have expected a more cordial response to his request for terms given the old relationship the men shared, but it is doubtful he was expecting anything beyond what was acceptable military practice of the day. For his response he would be labeled by the press as being “petty”.

The two commanders would meet in an atmosphere that Grant termed as “very friendly”. Talking of the “old days” was not a matter of discussion, burial of the dead was uppermost in their minds, procuring rations for the prisoners and the number of them Grant was about to deal with took precedence. The next morning Buckner would be on his way north on a steamer, a prisoner of war, and Grant would be planning his next move. In the end the Confederates would receive what was due them as to terms which closely resemble what Grant offered Lee at Appomattox. Commissioned officers were allowed to keep their sidearms and personal property, the ranks were allowed their blankets, clothing, and personal property they could carry on their backs, plus they were issued two days rations. That is usually where the story of Fort Donelson ends, but before the two generals parted, Grant offered his “purse” to Buckner, which he politely declined. The old friendship was there still, but a bit strained. How would it have looked if the press had gotten a hold of this incident at the time? Surely Grants loyalty would have been called into question at a minimum, and Shiloh was a scant six weeks away. An episode such as this coupled with the first day of Shiloh may well have wrecked Grants career that was only now beginning to blossom. Fortunately for all concerned, even to this generation, Grant made his offer discreetly and no one was the wiser.

The press condemned Buckner roundly for the defeat soon after the surrender. That would ease somewhat when they learned of the actions of Pillow and Floyd.
After the war, Buckner would become a newspaper editor in New Orleans and then Louisville. While editor of the Louisville Courier in 1868 he was somewhat “baited” into making disparaging remarks about the then candidate candidate for the President of the United States, General Ulysses Grant. A New York paper had quoted him as saying Grant “was no general”, to which Editor Buckner replied: “he [Buckner] begged the indulgence of doing his own thinking, even though the Radicals may deem it advisable to deny so great a privilege to General Grant, and seek to limit the play of his intellect to horses and cigars.” [5] Therefore he would not use his position as editor to disparage anyone and his thoughts on Grants generalship had no bearing on the platform, the candidate, or if he merited his candidacy. He would keep his own counsel on the matter. The Courier was a leading Democrat newspaper in Kentucky, and Grant was a Republican. It would have been very easy to inflict damage on Grants campaign if he chose to. Buckner would support the Democratic ticket of Horatio Seymour and Frank Blair Jr. but at least he did not and would not attack Grant.
After Grant served two terms a president he entered private life and in 1884 his last business venture failed. Grant had invested nearly all of his savings in a banking firm in 1881 and the head of the firm swindled the money along with the investments of other Grant relatives including Ulysses Jr., a partner in the firm. There are no records that show Buckner sent any financial aid to the bereft former president, but a bishop in the Methodist Church South, E.E. Hoss, claims that Buckner sent Grant a check for $5000 dollars at the time. Buckner does not seem to deny or confirm the story himself. [6]
Shortly before Grant died at Mount McGregor, New York in July, 1885 Buckner with his new wife Delia, visited the dieing man. Esophageal cancer had rendered speaking painful for Grant painful, so his side of the conversation was carried out by writing on a note pad. The pair talked of Mexico and their time at West Point, and Buckner told his old friend that the soldiers, indeed most of the citizens of the old Confederacy were appreciative of him “not only for the magnanimity at the close of the war, but also for his just and friendly conduct afterward to prevent the government authorities from violating the terms of military convention which he had made then and which the South had accepted.”
Grant was visibly pleased, and on his pad he wrote the reply:
I have witnessed since my sickness just what I have wished to see since the war: harmony and good feeling between the sections...”
The visit soon ended. Julia Grant and Delia Buckner collected the slips of paper Grant had written on, and Mrs. Grant allowed Mrs. Buckner to keep most of them. At first Buckner was loathe to release any part of the conversation to the press, but afterward he would relinquish some of it, that which pertained to the war, and kept the rest to himself. He said that beyond what he shared with the press “there was nothing whatever in the interview that is of interest to anybody except General Grant and myself.” [7]
The Buckner's returned to Kentucky, only to return to New York in a couple of weeks. General Grant Died July 23, 1885 and General Simon Bolivar Buckner would serve as one of his pallbearers.
In the end the friendship between Grant and Buckner was strained by the war, but it endured. The two would never face each other squarely on the battlefield after the fall of Fort Donelson or for that matter even meet again until the summer of Grants death, although Buckner had been in Washington “50 times while Grant was president” he felt no urge to call on him. “It was a sense of modesty and a desire to avoid notoriety and 
misinterpretation that kept him from seeing Grant in his exalted position.” Delia Buckner believed. [8]
Such a pity.
The Picket

    1) The Partizan Rangers of the Confederate States Army, Johnson, Adam R., 1904 page 67
    2) The Orphan Brigade, Davis, William C., 1980. page 70
    3) Simon Bolivar Buckner: Borderland Knight, Stickles, Arndt M., 1940, page 13
    4) Ibid, page 37
    5) Ibid, page 296
    6) Ibid, page 324
    7) Ibid, pages 325-329
    8) Ibid,page 324
Photos from Wikimedia Commons

No comments:

Post a Comment