Six Degrees of Simon Bolivar Buckner

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2015-2016, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the November 2015 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

A popular movie trivia game is Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The object of the game is to connect a particular movie actor with Kevin Bacon step by step via movie co-stars from a movie in which that particular actor appeared to a movie in which Kevin Bacon appeared. One of the fascinations of this game is that Kevin Bacon, an actor who is not particularly prominent, can be connected to even very prominent actors. Something similar can be done with Civil War officers, who had many shared experiences prior to and during the war. In keeping with the use of a less prominent individual, one Confederate officer who has some interesting and not well-known connections with some prominent Union officers is Simon Bolivar Buckner. Buckner had a role in Ulysses Grant’s Civil War nickname, and prior to the war Buckner did a gracious favor for Grant. During the war Buckner gave advice in his hometown to a young Union officer who had no military training; later in the war this young Union officer made a wise military decision for his own troops that more prominent Union officers had not yet made. Buckner’s closest childhood friend was the man who was responsible for the Confederate victory at Chickamauga. Buckner also has a connection to William McKinley, although this connection is electoral, not military. In a military connection that extends beyond the Civil War, Simon Bolivar Buckner commanded troops on Okinawa in World War II, and he was mortally wounded near the end of that battle.

Simon Bolivar Buckner

Simon Bolivar Buckner, who was named after the South American military leader, was born on April Fools’ Day in 1823 on his family’s estate near Munfordville, Kentucky, a town that would play a role in two of Buckner’s Civil War connections. Buckner attended the United States Military Academy, where his roommate was a cadet whose name, prior to entering West Point, had been Hiram Ulysses, but whose name became Ulysses Simpson by the time he was Buckner’s roommate. After Buckner graduated number 11 in the West Point class of 1844, seven spots ahead of Winfield Scott Hancock, he served in various capacities in the U.S. Army and then in the Mexican-American War in a number of battles. After the war Buckner was a member of the army of occupation in Mexico City, and he was the person who lowered the American flag for the last time when that army departed from Mexico. In 1850 Buckner married Mary Jane Kingsbury, and eight years later their only child, daughter Lily, was born.

When the Civil War began, Buckner and his family were living in his native Kentucky, and Buckner was assigned by the governor of Kentucky to use the state militia to defend Kentucky’s neutrality. When this neutrality could no longer be maintained, Buckner accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate army. One of his first assignments in that role was at Fort Donelson where he was one of four brigadier generals along with Gideon Pillow, Bushrod Johnson, and overall commander John B. Floyd. Opposing the Confederate forces at Fort Donelson was a Union force under the command of Buckner’s West Point roommate, Ulysses Grant. After the quartet of Confederate brigadier generals decided that the fort could not be held, overall commander Floyd informed his comrades in rank that he did not want to be the person to surrender the fort, because he feared that he would be tried for treason if he was captured. Floyd turned over command to Pillow, but Pillow declined command because he likewise feared an indictment for treason. Command of Fort Donelson then passed to Buckner, who agreed to hold the fort long enough to allow Floyd and Pillow to slip away. Another Confederate officer who escaped prior to the surrender of Fort Donelson was Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Buckner’s decision to be the person who surrendered Fort Donelson may have arisen because he expected favorable terms from his adversary. Not only had Buckner been Grant’s roommate at West Point, but in 1854 Buckner took it upon himself to cover one of Grant’s debts when Grant had fallen on hard times financially. At that time Grant was returning home and was unable to pay a hotel bill, but Buckner told the hotel proprietor that he would guarantee payment of the bill. In spite of this pre-war favor, when Buckner sent a message to Grant offering to surrender Fort Donelson and asking about the terms, Grant sent his famous reply, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” Buckner’s reply to his pre-war friend indicated his displeasure. “The distribution of the forces under my command…compel me…to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.” The surrender of Fort Donelson gave Buckner the undesirable distinction of being the first Confederate commander to surrender a Confederate army. Nevertheless, the “ungenerous and unchivalrous terms” that Grant proposed in his message to Buckner coupled with the initials of the name that Grant adopted at West Point led to Grant’s Civil War nickname of Unconditional Surrender Grant. As a final connection between the former West Point roommates, after the Civil War Simon Bolivar Buckner was one of the pallbearers at the funeral of Ulysses Grant.

John Wilder

Six months after Buckner surrendered Fort Donelson, he was exchanged for a Union general named George McCall. McCall had been wounded and captured at the Battle of Glendale during the Seven Days Battles. After their exchange Buckner served for the remainder of the Civil War, while McCall, due to poor health, resigned seven months later. (Long-time fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers will recognize this exchange as the kind of one-sided trade that former Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien typically was on the wrong side of.) Buckner’s assignment after his return to service for the Confederacy was in Braxton Bragg’s army during the 1862 invasion of Kentucky. The first engagement of that invasion occurred at Buckner’s hometown of Munfordville. The small Union garrison in the town was outnumbered five to one, but the Union commander, Colonel John Wilder, refused to surrender. Although Wilder realized that his position was difficult, he was not convinced that he was badly outnumbered. In an unusual arrangement, Wilder entered enemy lines under a flag of truce to see for himself how large the enemy force was. It was Buckner who met with Wilder when the young Union officer arrived. As Buckner was showing Wilder the Confederate positions around Munfordville, Wilder admitted to Buckner that he was not a military man, and he asked Buckner for advice. The flattered Buckner convinced Wilder that his situation was hopeless and that he should surrender, which Wilder did. Wilder was eventually exchanged and came to command a brigade that fought at Chickamauga. Prior to that battle, Wilder, whose pre-war career was in hydraulic machinery, took a vote of the men in his unit about purchasing Spencer repeating rifles, which they unanimously agreed to do at their own expense, although the government later covered the cost of the rifles. Wilder’s brigade became one of the first Union units to be equipped with repeating rifles. At Chickamauga Wilder’s brigade was able to use its superior firepower to hold off a much larger Confederate force at a bridge over West Chickamauga Creek. (As an aside, John Wilder was married to Martha Stewart, but not the Martha Stewart.)

Thomas Wood

John Wilder was not the only Union officer at Chickamauga who had a connection to Simon Bolivar Buckner. Another Union officer who had a connection to Buckner was instrumental in the outcome of the Battle of Chickamauga. This was division commander Thomas J. Wood, who graduated from West Point the year after Buckner in a class that included Fitz-John Porter and Barnard Bee (the man who gave Stonewall Jackson his nickname), and also included someone with the interesting name of Abram Lincoln. On the morning of the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga, Thomas Wood received an order from army commander William Rosecrans to move his division to the left to close a purported gap in the Union line. However, there was no gap, but when Wood moved his division it created a gap, and Wood knew it. But earlier that morning Wood had received a severe dressing down from Rosecrans for failing to promptly comply with an order, and Wood was not about to question this order. A half hour after Wood carried out Rosecrans’ order, a massive Confederate attack fortuitously hit the gap in the Union line and precipitated the Union defeat at Chickamauga. Thomas Wood, the man who moved his division to create the gap, had been Simon Bolivar Buckner’s close friend during their youth in Munfordville. At Chickamauga Thomas Wood’s childhood friend commanded a corps in the Confederate army that won victory largely because of the gap that Wood created.

After the Civil War Buckner returned to Kentucky and became interested in politics. Eventually he was elected governor of Kentucky as a Democrat, and his tenure was noted for his large number of vetoes of special interest bills. Buckner later participated in the 1896 presidential election as a candidate of a party that split from the Democratic Party over the issue of the gold standard. This party nominated former Union general John Palmer for president and former Confederate general Simon Bolivar Buckner for vice president. At the time of the election Palmer was 79 years old and Buckner 73 years old, which made this the oldest combined age for a presidential ticket in U.S. history. The winner of the 1896 presidential election was Union Civil War veteran William McKinley. The geriatric ticket that included Simon Bolivar Buckner received just under 1% of the popular vote and no electoral votes.

John Palmer (left) and Simon Bolivar Buckner (right)
Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr.

In addition to his post-war political activities, Buckner did something else of importance after the Civil War. In 1885 at the age of 62 Buckner married Della Claiborne, who was 28. Buckner’s first wife had died 11 years earlier, and a year after Buckner and his second wife were married they welcomed a son, who was named Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. Buckner Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a military career, and in World War II Buckner Jr. was in overall command of U.S. ground forces at the Battle of Okinawa. Near the end of the battle Buckner Jr. was struck by fragments from an artillery shell and soon died from his wounds. Buckner Jr. was the highest ranking U.S. officer in World War II to die from enemy fire, and he was laid to rest in Kentucky near his father.

Who can say how much of an effect Simon Bolivar Buckner had on the Civil War officers who had a connection with him? Would Ulysses Grant’s military career have gone differently had he not roomed with Buckner or had Buckner not covered Grant’s hotel bill? Would John Wilder have made his wartime decision regarding repeating rifles had he never met Buckner? Would Thomas Wood have acted differently at Chickamauga had his youth not included Buckner as a friend? Would the presidential election of 1896 been any different without Buckner’s participation in it? Answers to these questions can only be obtained by speculating, but one thing is certain. Without Simon Bolivar Buckner Sr., the United States would have had a different person in command of its ground forces on Okinawa in World War II. The extent of Buckner’s effect on the Civil War officers with whom he had connections can perhaps be found in a classic movie. Although this movie was made in 1946, it is probably somehow connected to Kevin Bacon, but it is left to movie buffs to deduce that connection. In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey feels that he is on the verge of insanity as he observes what the world would be like without him, the angel Clarence tries to hammer home his point that George’s life is consequential by telling George, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole.”