American Civil War: Major General Don Carlos Buell

Major General Don Carlos Buell
Major General Don Carlos Buell. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Born in Lowell, Ohio on March 23, 1818, Don Carlos Buell was the son of a successful farmer. Three years after his father's death in 1823, his family sent him to live with an uncle in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Educated at a local school where he showed an aptitude for mathematics, the young Buell also worked on his uncle's farm. Finishing his schooling, he succeeded in obtaining an appointment to the US Military Academy in 1837. A middling student at West Point, Buell struggled with excessive demerits and came close to being expelled on several occasions. Graduating in 1841, he placed thirty-second out of fifty-two in his class. Assigned to the 3rd US Infantry as a second lieutenant, Buell received orders which saw him travel south for service in the Seminole Wars. While in Florida, he displayed skill for administrative duties and enforcing discipline among his men.

Mexican-American War

With the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Buell joined Major General Zachary Taylor's army in northern Mexico. Marching south, he took part in the Battle of Monterrey that September. Showing bravery under fire, Buell received a brevet promotion to captain. Moved to Major General Winfield Scott's army the following year, Buell took part in the Siege of Veracruz and Battle of Cerro Gordo. As the army neared Mexico City, he played a role at the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco. Badly wounded at the latter, Buell was brevetted to major for his actions. With the end of the conflict in 1848, he moved to the Adjutant General's office. Promoted to captain in 1851, Buell remained in staff assignments through the 1850s. Posted to the West Coast as assistant adjutant general for the Department of the Pacific, he was in this role when secession crisis began following the election of 1860.

The Civil War Begins

When the Civil War commenced in April 1861, Buell began preparations to return east. Known for his administrative skills, he received a commission as a brigadier general of volunteers on May 17, 1861. Reaching Washington, DC in September, Buell reported to Major General George B. McClellan and assumed command of a division in the newly-formed Army of the Potomac. This assignment proved brief as McClellan directed him to travel to Kentucky in November to relieve Brigadier General William T. Sherman as commander of the Department of the Ohio. Assuming command, Buell took the field with the Army of the Ohio. Seeking to capture Nashville, Tennessee, he recommended advancing along the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. This plan was initially vetoed by McClellan, though it was later used by forces led by Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant in February 1862. Moving up the rivers, Grant captured Forts Henry and Donelson and drew Confederate forces away from Nashville.


Taking advantage, Buell's Army of the Ohio advanced and captured Nashville against little opposition. In recognition of this achievement, he received a promotion to major general on March 22. Despite this, his responsibility shrank as his department was merged into Major General Henry W. Halleck's new Department of the Mississippi. Continuing to operate in central Tennessee, Buell was directed to unite with Grant's Army of West Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing. As his command moved towards this objective, Grant came under attack at the Battle of Shiloh by Confederate forces led by Generals Albert S. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard. Driven back to a tight defensive perimeter along the Tennessee River, Grant was reinforced by Buell during the night. The next morning, Grant used troops from both armies to mount a massive counterattack which routed the enemy. In the wake of the fighting, Buell came to believe that only his arrival had saved Grant from certain defeat. This belief was reinforced by stories in the Northern press.

Corinth and Chattanooga

Following Shiloh, Halleck united his forces for an advance on the rail center of Corinth, Mississippi. During the course of the campaign, Buell's loyalties were called into question due to his strict policy of non-interference with the Southern population and his bringing charges against subordinates who looted. His position was further weakened by the fact that he was an enslaver who held people in bondage who had been "inherited" from his wife's family. After taking part in Halleck's efforts against Corinth, Buell returned to Tennessee and began a slow advance towards Chattanooga via the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. This was hampered by the efforts of Confederate cavalry led by Brigadier Generals Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan. Forced to halt due to these raids, Buell abandoned his campaign in September when General Braxton Bragg commenced an invasion of Kentucky.


Quickly marching north, Buell sought to prevent Confederate forces from taking Louisville. Reaching the city ahead of Bragg, he began efforts to expel the enemy from the state. Outnumbering Bragg, Buell compelled the Confederate commander to fall back towards Perryville. Approaching the town on October 7, Buell was thrown from his horse. Unable to ride, he established his headquarters three miles from the front and began making plans to attack Bragg on October 9. The next day, the Battle of Perryville commenced when Union and Confederate forces began fighting over a water source. Fighting escalated through the day as one of Buell's corps faced the bulk of Bragg's army. Due to an acoustic shadow, Buell remained unaware of the fighting for much of the day and did not bring his larger numbers to bear. Fighting to a stalemate, Bragg decided to retreat back to Tennessee. Largely inactive after the battle, Buell slowly followed Bragg before electing to return to Nashville rather than follow directives from his superiors to occupy eastern Tennessee.

Relief and Later Career

Angered over Buell's lack of action following Perryville, President Abraham Lincoln had him relieved on October 24 and replaced with Major General William S. Rosecrans. The following month, he faced a military commission which examined his behavior in the wake of the battle. Stating that he had not actively pursued the enemy because of a lack of supplies, he waited for six months for the commission to render a verdict. This was not forthcoming and Buell spent time in Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Upon assuming the post of Union general-in-chief in March 1864, Grant recommended that Buell be given a new command as he believed him to be a loyal soldier. Much to his ire, Buell refused the offered assignments as he was unwilling to serve under officers who had once been his subordinates.

Resigning his commission on May 23, 1864, Buell left the US Army and returned to private life. A supporter of McClellan's presidential campaign that fall, he settled in Kentucky after the war ended. Entering the mining industry, Buell became president of the Green River Iron Company and later served as a government pension agent. Buell died on November 19, 1898, at Rockport, Kentucky and was later buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Don Carlos Buell." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Don Carlos Buell. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Don Carlos Buell." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).