Rosecrans Replaces Buell

October 24, 1862 – Federal Major General Don Carlos Buell received orders to turn his command over to Major General William S. Rosecrans for his failure to stop the Confederates’ escape from Kentucky.

Federal Major Generals Don Carlos Buell and William S. Rosecrans | Image Credit:

As the Confederates escaped from Kentucky into eastern Tennessee, Federal officials at Washington implored Buell, commanding the Army of the Ohio in Kentucky, to pursue and destroy them. However, Buell had repeatedly resisted going into that harsh region, instead proposing to go to Nashville to defend against a possible Confederate thrust there.

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck clearly informed Buell that the “capture of East Tennessee should be the main object of your campaign,” and if the Confederates could operate in that unforgiving region, so could the Federals. In response, Buell essentially admitted his inferiority in a long dissertation explaining why his army could not survive there.

Buell wrote, “The spirit of the rebellion enforces a subordination and patient submission to privation and want which public sentiment renders absolutely impossible among our troops.” Buell also asserted that because Confederate General Braxton Bragg was authorized to enforce the death penalty, “the discipline of the rebel army is superior to ours.”

Meanwhile, administration officials received reports from Governors Richard Yates of Illinois, David Tod of Ohio, and Oliver P. Morton of Indiana criticizing Buell’s handling of the Kentucky campaign. The governors were especially bitter toward Buell because his army had been recruited mostly from their states, and an election was approaching. This added more pressure to the situation, and Halleck telegraphed Buell on the 22nd:

“It is the wish of the Government that your army proceed to and occupy East Tennessee with all possible dispatch. It leaves to you the selection of the roads upon which to move to that object… Neither the Government nor the country can endure these repeated delays. Both require a prompt and immediate movement toward the accomplishment of the great object in view–the holding of East Tennessee.”

During that time, Bragg and his demoralized Confederates reached Knoxville unmolested. After two days of minimal Federal activity, Buell received orders from Halleck:

“General: The President directs that on the presentation of this order you will turn over your command to Maj. Gen. W.S. Rosecrans, and repair to Indianapolis, Ind., reporting from that place to the Adjutant General of the Army for further orders.”

Under General Order No. 168, the Department of the Ohio became the new Department of the Cumberland to emphasize its goal. Jurisdiction included Kentucky, Tennessee (east of the Tennessee River), and Federal-occupied parts of northern Alabama and Georgia. Halleck wrote to Rosecrans:

“You will receive herewith the order of the President placing you in command of the Department of the Cumberland and of the army of operations now under Major-General Buell. You will immediately repair to General Buell’s headquarters and relieve him from the command.”

Rosecrans had been chosen to command due to his recent victories at Iuka and Corinth in northern Mississippi under Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Rosecrans had complained to Halleck about Grant, alleging “a spirit of mischief among the mousing politicians on Grant’s staff,” and calling Grant “sour and reticent.” When Rosecrans asked to be “relieved from duty here,” Halleck and President Abraham Lincoln saw an opportunity to put him in Buell’s place.

Halleck sent Rosecrans instructions on the 24th:

“The great objects to be kept in view in your operations in the field are: First, to drive the enemy from Kentucky and Middle Tennessee; second, to take and hold East Tennessee, cutting the line of railroad at Chattanooga, Cleveland, or Athens, so as to destroy the connection of the valley of Virginia with Georgia and the other Southern States. It is hoped that by prompt and rapid movements a considerable part of this may be accomplished before the roads become impassable from the winter rains… I need not urge upon you the necessity of giving active employment to your forces. Neither the country nor the Government will much longer put up with the inactivity of some of our armies and generals.”

Halleck explained that Rosecrans would receive support from three main sources:

  • Major General Jacob D. Cox’s 20,000 Federals in western Virginia’s Kanawha Valley would divert Confederate attention
  • Grant’s 49,000 Federals would prevent the Confederates in Mississippi from reinforcing Bragg in Tennessee
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s Department of the Ohio would send 20,000 men as needed from headquarters at Cincinnati

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was not impressed with Lincoln’s decision to give Rosecrans army command. He told the president, “Well, you have made your choice of idiots. Now you can await the news of a terrible disaster.”

By this time, Buell had not yet received Halleck’s order to relinquish his command. As Rosecrans spent the next few days arranging the transfer, rumors of the change spread throughout Buell’s army. Buell finally received notice from a newspaper article on the 29th, while he and his troops headed toward Nashville. He wrote Halleck, “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.”

Buell, who had been under mounting scrutiny from the administration, was not very upset or surprised about losing his job. He confided to Major General George H. Thomas, his second-in-command, “Under the circumstances, I am sure I do not grieve about it.”

Halleck did not respond to Buell. Instead, Rosecrans arrived at Nashville the next day, where he met with Buell and effected the command transfer. Two years later, Grant offered Buell a command in Major General William T. Sherman’s army, but Buell said “it would be degradation to accept the assignment offered” because he had once outranked Sherman. Grant later called this “the worst excuse a soldier can make for declining service.” This ended Buell’s military career.


References; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8236; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 741-44, 762, 768, 773-74; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 102; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 223-24; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 44; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 279, 281-82; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 521; Rowell, John W., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 196; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 196; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 80-82; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 414-15

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