Don Carlos Buell: Hero of Shiloh
Sherman, Sheridan, and Grant—three Civil War generals who are highly acclaimed as heroes in the historical community. Even today, their names are synonymous with heroism, bravery, and exemplary leadership (and rightfully so!). One hero, however, is often forgotten: Major General Don Carlos Buell.
Don Carlos Buell was born March 23, 1818, to Salmon Jr. and Elizabeth (or Eliza) Buell in Marietta, Ohio. According to author Stephen D. Engle in his novel Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All, young Buell, as the first of seven sons to Salmon and Elizabeth, was close to his father, and frequently worked alongside him in their fields (Engle 3). Engle further states that Buell would often hear stories about the War of 1812 from his father, who was a soldier in the conflict (Engle 3). One can speculate that these stories of daring charges and battles won sparked Buell’s interest in the military.
Sadly, Buell's life was steeped in sorrow from a young age. A cholera outbreak in 1823 left three of Buell’s family members dead, including his beloved father and two cousins, one of whom was Buell’s childhood playmates. Unsurprisingly, this loss was debilitating to Buell. In fact, his mother remarried, and young Buell went to live with his uncle, George Pearson Buell, in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, a town overlooking the Ohio River to Tousytown, Kentucky. Unlike Buell’s dad, who was a farmer, George had been quite successful in the pork commerce.
Although Buell had developed a somewhat introverted personality, he demonstrated a fighting characteristic early on in his life at Lawrenceburg. Engle discusses the day when Buell fought the town bully, Joseph Danagh, and beat him in the fist-fight. Perhaps that occurrence helped shaped Buell into the undaunted leader he would one day become (Engle 6).
Like most young people, Buell outgrew his shyness and attended high school at age sixteen. He also worked the John P. Dunn and Company (a dry goods store), as the clerk (Engle 7). This job afforded Buell the opportunity to meet numerous citizens from his town and county, many of whom were influential citizens. In fact, the owner of John P. Dunn and Company was a representative in state legislature. These reputable acquaintances, along with Buell’s prominent uncle, helped secure Buell an appointment to the prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point (Engle 8).
In the summer of 1837, Buell entered West Point. Buell’s time at the academy was marked by struggles to obey and near-dismissals from the academy. In late 1837, Buell was even arrested. Adjustment to military discipline proved especially difficult for Buell. A few reasons Buell was continuously listed on the academy’s delinquency role were: talking in the ranks, missing the appropriate time for dinner, and failing to attend French class. In fact, Buell was just twenty-two demerits shy of being expelled from West Point during his first year. Buell probably did redeem himself to some extent when he removed books from the library after it caught fire (Engle 12-13).
While Buell struggled academically, he still managed to graduate from West Point in June of 1841. Due to Buell’s many demerits, however, he ranked thirty-two out of fifty-two students. Because Buell was not the highest-ranked graduate, he was assigned his position in the army—the infantry (Engle 17).
West Point graduates of the early to mid-1840s were soon able to put their newly-gained military knowledge to use during the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. Buell, in fact, did serve during the Mexican-American War, but he was wounded at the Battle of Churubusco on August 20, 1847. Even so, Buell was promoted to the rank of brevet captain and major (American Battlefield Trust).
After the close of the Mexican-American War, Buell served as an adjutant general. According to the American Battlefield Trust website, “At the outbreak of the Civil War, Buell was serving as a lieutenant colonel and was the adjutant of the Department of the Pacific. He was promoted to brigadier general on May, 17, 1861, before he even left California, and arrived in Washington DC in order to begin training Union soldiers” (American Battlefield Trust).
Part of Buell’s “training Union soldiers” during the eruption of the Civil War was to form the Army of the Republic. However, Buell was soon removed from that command and given a different role. Buell’s new task was leading the Union Army of the Ohio in Kentucky.
Although Buell had first proposed the ideas of attacking Confederate Forts Henry and Donelson in west Tennessee, the idea was shunned by General McClellan and President Abraham Lincoln. Nevertheless, when the idea was later introduced by leadership other than Buell, it was implemented by General Ulysses S. Grant and his troops (American Battlefield Trust).
The attacks of Forts Henry and Donelson allowed Buell and his Army of the Ohio to move into the Tennessee capital of Nashville. Because the Army of the Ohio took Nashville with little opposition from Confederate forces, Buell was promoted to major general on March 22, 1862 (American Battlefield Trust).
For Buell, though, there was little time for celebration upon his latest promotion. Instead, Buell and his troops would soon begin the march from Nashville to a little town called Shiloh, Tennessee, in order to meet Grant’s troops who were waiting there. At Shiloh, Buell’s and Grant’s troops would begin the march to Corinth, Mississippi, an important railroad town for the Confederacy (American Battlefield Trust). At least, that was the plan for the Union.
The Confederates, however, had an entirely different idea. Instead of waiting for the Union to attack Corinth, they would move northward into Tennessee. The Confederates, aware that reinforcements for Grant were coming in the form of the Army of the Ohio, decided to attack (American Battlefield Trust).
On April 6, 1862, the Battle of Shiloh erupted into the most furious fight in the nation up to that point. The Confederate Army of the Mississippi attacked Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, and the fighting was so fierce that mutilated bodies scattered the battlefield. Ironically, the fighting happened near a little church, and the Hebrew word “shiloh” often translates to “place of peace” (HistoryNet.com).
The night of April 6, Confederate troops appeared to be winning the battle. However, as rain fell in torrents, Buell’s Army of the Ohio arrived. The next day—April 7—Buell’s and Grant’s forces united to route the Confederate Army of the Mississippi back to Corinth (American Battlefield Trust). Although the Battle of Shiloh was a Union victory, the conflict shocked the nation, as casualties totaled over 23,000. Still, Buell was hailed as the hero of Shiloh, as his reinforcements arrived to aid Grant’s troops and to ultimately win the battle. This major victory helped secure west Tennessee for the Union and paved the way for a Union advance on the important Confederate railroad city of Corinth.
The next large engagement that Buell’s Army of the Ohio would fight at was the Battle of Perryville. On October 8, 1862, the largest battle in the state of Kentucky occurred between Buell’s Army of the Ohio and Confederate Braxton Bragg’s Army of Kentucky (American Battlefield Trust). Heavy fighting ensued, but, ultimately, the battle was considered a Confederate strategic victory, even though they were forced to withdraw from the battle and Kentucky remained in Union control (American Battlefield Trust).
The Battle of Perryville would be the last fight of Major General Don Carlos Buell’s military career. Many individuals—politicians, military leaders, and citizens— were enraged that Buell failed to follow-up the Confederate retreat, and thus Buell was removed from his command. Although Grant had attempted to have Buell reinstated, Buell declined and returned to civilian life (American Battlefield Trust).
Buell’s civilian life, though entirely differed than his military career, is still interesting to note. Buell moved to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, in 1866 to engage in the oil industry. Buell leased land at Airdrie from Robert Alexander, where a large iron furnace was located. Buell then became president of the “Airdrie Petroleum Co.” (Rothert 233). After the death of Robert Alexander, original owner of Airdrie, Buell was later given the land at Airdrie and a thousand extra acres, simply because Alexander’s benefactors did not want the land (Rothert 234).
While working at Airdrie to uncover oil, Buell discovered large amounts of coal. Thus, Buell changed his plans and decided to work in the coal industry, rather than oil. Early Muhlenberg County historian, Otto Rothert, in his book entitled, A History of Muhlenberg County, states that in 1868 a new company had leased the Green River. This new business, The Green and Barren Rivers Navigation Company, charged more to ship freight. Thus, Buell was unable to afford the inflated shipping rates (Rothert 234).
Buell worked for years with Legislature to fight The Green and Barren Rivers Navigation Company. Rothert states that, “His [Buell’s] long, hard, and time-sacrificing work resulted in the Federal Government purchasing the unexpired lease of the Navigation Company in 1888” (Rothert 234).
Unfortunately, by the time this legal battle for Buell was won, he considered himself too old to resume his mining work at Airdrie. Instead, Buell worked in other capacities. He was a pension agent, an early member of the Kentucky State Historical Society, a commissioner of the State Agricultural College, and a member of the Shiloh National Military Park Commission (Rothert 238-239).
In his personal life, Buell enjoyed carpentry, working with plants, and showed kindness to his animals. Rothert remarks that Buell, “treated every animal on his place with the gentleness that a loving father would a small child” (Rothert 239). Indeed, Buell was often seen riding his horse throughout the countryside alongside his wife, Margaret Hunter Mason Buell, or his adopted daughter, Nannie (Rothert 239).
Additionally, Buell was a writer and some of his writings became published in Civil War commemorative periodicals (Rothert 240). Buell also created a large dishwasher, such as one that could be used in a hotel or other large institution, but it was never patented (Rothert 239). Furthermore, although Buell had many notable friends, Rothert states, “None, however, no matter how distinguished, was received with more open arms than his neighbors and friends of the Green River country” (Rothert 240).
Major General Don Carlos Buell dwelled in Muhlenberg County for a total of thirty-two years. He lived at Airdrie until his death on November 19, 1898. Buell was then laid to rest alongside his wife, Margaret, at the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.
In his eighty years on earth, Buell accomplished much. He went from a near West Point drop-out to a daring Civil War general who was instrumental in the decisive Union victory at Shiloh. During his later years, Buell lived by such principals of integrity, kindness, and a dedication to his community. While it is true that generals such as Sherman, Sheridan, and Grant were brilliant military leaders, Buell’s role in the Civil War is equally important. Although Buell is often overlooked in history books and forgotten by historians, his bravery and character rightfully earned him the title “The Hero of Shiloh,” and he should be remembered as such.
“Battle of Shiloh Pictures.” HistoryNet.com, n.d., https://www.historynet.com/battle-of-
“Don Carlos Buell.” American Battlefield Trust, n.d., https://www.battlefields.org/learn/
Engle, Stephen D. Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All. North Carolina Publication
“Perryville.” American Battlefield Trust, n.d., https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war
“Perryville Overview.” American Battlefield Trust, n.d., https://www.battlefields.org/
Rothert, Otto A. A History of Muhlenberg County. John P. Morton & Company,
About the Author: Kass Cobb is a genealogist, history enthusiast, and college sophomore who plans to double-major in history and military history. Kass first became obsessed with history in eighth grade through a unit on the American Civil War. She began researching her family's heritage and discovered that she is a direct descendant of eight Civil War veterans. Since then, Kass has desired to share the stories of United States veterans. One of the ways she does this is by obtaining grave markers for veterans. When Kass isn't busy planning historical events for her community, placing signs at cemeteries, or researching her family's past, you'll find her antique collecting, reading, singing, and enjoying nature with her many pets.