How Don Carlos Buell Learned He was Fired

October 29, 1862 (Wednesday)

During the Civil War, soldiers on both sides loved newspapers. Though, at various times throughout the war, under various commanders, the press found themselves unwelcome in camp, their newspapers were almost always honored guests. From these daily and weekly missives, the soldiers could read about other theaters of war, word from home, the happenings overseas, and the political machinations of the Washington or Richmond elite.

Buell is about to do a little quick-step.

It wasn’t just the soldiers who partook. Newspapers were notorious for revealing the supposed positions and plans of the enemy, making officers on both sides were avid readers, as well. And so when Union General Don Carlos Buell picked up the morning paper to catch up with events, it wasn’t an oddity.

Today, however, the feature article was about him. Well, him and General William Rosecrans, and how one of them no longer had a job.

Buell saw himself as a victorious commander. He had followed the Rebels under Braxton Bragg into Kentucky, saved Louisville and Cincinnati, and drove them back out of the Blue Grass state after “winning” the battle of Perryville. But just as the newspapers often did, Buell was stretching the truth a little.

While it would not be an outright lie to say that Buell pushed Bragg out of Kentucky, there was more to the story. Buell was slow. He was slow in getting to Chattanooga, Tennessee in August, and failed to cut off the Rebels before they took the vital railroad hub. When he failed to do that, he made no moves against the enemy, which was fairly worse then being slow. When it became clear that that Bragg and Kirby Smith were planning a campaign, Buell was slow to react, failing to stop them before they started. When Bragg and Smith began their march north, Buell hung back, assuming they were headed for Nashville.

Wrong again, he was sluggish in his pursuit, failing several times to hold them up with battle. Though he got to Louisville before Bragg did, taking Louisville was never actually Bragg’s intention. Buell won the prize in a race that only he was running.

It was true, that when Bragg tried to set up a Confederate government in the state, Buell’s force stopped him. In fact, Buell’s march from Louisville was conducted in such a way that it completely baffled Bragg. And when the greatly outnumbered Rebels attacked Buell at Perryville, Buell simply didn’t believe it and went on eating his lunch until his own retreating, bloodied men spoiled his desert.

Halleck: C’mon! Who doesn’t like to see their name in the paper?

But what really proved his undoing was that after the battle, he refused to give chase. Though the Confederates were actually the victors at Perryville, Bragg’s numbers were not strong enough to stay in Kentucky. His retreat took him along Wilderness Road, though Cumberland Gap, and Buell simply did not follow. Though Washington was adamant about tracking down the Rebels, Buell, once again, believed that Bragg was heading to Nashville and decided to get there first.

General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, at first, gave reasons why he shouldn’t do that. And then he specifically ordered him not to. When word of Buell’s refusal reached President Lincoln, a new department was created, along with a new leader. Don Carlos Buell was out, and William Rosecrans was in.

It wasn’t, however, that simple. On the 24th, Rosecrans received official word that Buell had been fired and that he was to find the errant General and take his place. Halleck, for whatever reason, told only Rosecrans and his commanding officer, General Grant. He never bothered to tell Buell.

Rosecrans was supposed to leave Corinth, Mississippi on the 25th. Instead, he spent a few days dicking around, trying to wrangle an officer or two for his new staff. Halleck got fairly irate and Rosecrans curtailed his dallying. He reached Cincinnati on the 28th and began his search for Buell on this date. News, however, traveled much faster than a poky Union General.

By the 26th, two days after Halleck informed Rosecrans that Buell was to be fired, news had reached Buell’s troops in the field. Over the next three days, the news filtered through the rest of the army.

And on this chilly morning, as General Don Carlos Buell was in the midst of planning his move to Nashville, he picked up a newspaper and read that he was out of a job. Not too long before, Halleck had been in almost daily contact with Buell. And yet now there was silence.

Louisville, Ky., October 29, 1862—11.30 a. m. H. W. Halleck, General-in-Chief:

“If, as the papers report, my successor has been appointed, it is important that I should know it, and that he should enter on the command immediately, as the troops are already in motion.”


Rosecrans: Check it out, Don! You’ve made Page Six!

Buell had little reason to doubt the news. “Under the circumstances,” he wrote to his second in command, George Thomas, “I am sure I do not grieve about it.”

Halleck never replied to Buell’s dispatch. The following day, Rosecrans finally set up a meeting and the deal was done.

It had not gone as smoothly as Halleck would have liked, but by the end of October, that didn’t matter anymore. Buell was not reassigned. He was ordered to Indianapolis where he demanded a trail to exonerate him of any wrong doing. In the papers and in the minds of many, Buell was a traitor. He was pro-slavery, and many thought that he was too sympathetic to the Southern cause. After five months of testimony, Buell was acquitted, but not reinstated.

In 1864, when Grant took command of the Union forces, he set about restoring certain officers who had been removed from their commands. One of his choices was General Buell, still without a job. The Secretary of War permitted it, and Grant asked Buell if he might like to return to active duty.

Buell declined, “saying that it would be degradation to accept the assignment offered.” Apparently, Buell refused to serve under William Tecumseh Sherman because, at one time, Buell outranked Sherman. In his memoirs, Grant called this “the worst excuse a soldier can make for declining service.”

And so ended the less-than-stellar military career of General Don Carlos Buell.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 16, Part 2, p 653-654; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; Perryville by Kenneth Noe; War in Kentucky by James Lee McDonough; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams; Henry Halleck’s War by Curt Anders; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Encyclopedia of the American Civil War edited by Heidler & Heidler. []
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