A highly capable organizer and administrator, Don Carlos Buell lost his field command for failing to follow up the retreating Confederates after the battle of Perryville. But his friendship for the deposed McClellan may have contributed to his removal. The Ohio-born, Indiana-raised West Pointer (1841) had been posted to the infantry and seen service in the Seminole and Mexican wars. In the latter he was wounded at Churubusco and received two brevets. The outbreak of the Civil War found him on the West coast as the adjutant general of the Department of the Pacific.
Arriving in Washington in September 1861, he helped organize the Army of the Potomac under McClellan and briefly commanded a division. Transferred to Ohio, he was placed in command of the army for operations into East Tennessee. This represented a special desire of the president to liberate the mountain loyalists. But Buell had other ideas and, with the misgivings of both Lincoln and McClellan, moved against Nashville instead. His advance came simultaneously with Grant’s against Forts Henry and Donelson.
After taking the Tennessee capital (with little opposition) he moved to the support of Grant at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee. He arrived on the scene of the battle of Shiloh, with his leading divisions, late on the first day. Witnessing the fugitives from Grant’s army cowering under the river bank, he believed that it was only his army that saved Grant from defeat. This point has long been debated. It must be remembered that the worst place from which to judge how a battle is going is the straggler-filled rear of an army. He took a notable part in the fighting of the second day. By this time his department had been absorbed into Halleck’s-his army however maintained its name-and he commanded one of the three armies in the extremely slow advance on Corinth.
He later led four divisions along the Memphis and Charleston Railroad towards Chattanooga while repairing the line. With his supply line destroyed by Rebel cavalry, his movement came to a halt. With Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky, he was forced to fall back north to protect the line of the Ohio River. Dissatisfied with his progress, the authorities ordered him to turn over command to George H. Thomas on September 30, 1862, but the next day this order was revoked.
On October 8 he fought the indecisive battle of Perryville, which halted a Confederate invasion that was already faltering. He failed, however, to follow up the retreating enemy and for this was relieved on October 24, 1862.
For the next half year a military commission reviewed the facts but made no recommendation. Buell returned to Indianapolis, claiming that he had not advanced because of a lack of supplies. There he awaited orders that never came.
He was mustered out of the volunteers on May 23, 1864. A few days later, on June 1,1864, he resigned his regular commission as well. His friendship with the ousted McClellan was of no benefit to him. After the war he was in the Kentucky iron and coal industry.
- Brevet Captain and Assistant Adjutant General (since January 25, 1848)
- Brevet Major and Assistant Adjutant General (February 25, 1861)
- Lieutenant Colonel and Assistant Adjutant General (May 11, 1861)
- Brigadier General, USV (May 17, 1861)
- Commanding division, Army of the Potomac (October 3 – November 9, 1861)
- Commanding Department of the Ohio (November 15, 1861 – March 11, 1862)
- Commanding Army of the Ohio (November 15, 1861 – October 24, 1862)
- Major General, USV (March 21, 1862)
- Colonel and Assistant Adjutant General (July 17, 1862)