Buckner and M'Clellan. [from the New York sun, September 18, 1896 ] how the former clearly outwitted the latter. Negotiations about Kentucky-General Buckner's Southern sympathies, which carried him into the Confederate army.
General Buckner from his youth has been a potent personality. He was a notable figure throughout the civil war, and was numbered among the higher circle of Confederate leaders, although his State did not secede, and he was early driven from her borders by the advance of the Union armies. At seasons he bore a conspicuous part for his cause in shaping military events. At the outbreak of the war, Buckner, then about thirty-eight years old, at the very zenith of his powers, was undoubtedly the most influential Southern rights man in his native State of Kentucky, by reason of his military education and experience, his wealth and high social connections. He had graduated front West Point in 1844, number eleven in a class of twenty-five cadets. Besides Generals Hancock, Pleasanton and Frost, his classmates, Buckner had, as associates in the academy, in the classes above and below him, many lads who afterwards distinguished themselves on both sides—U. S. Grant, McClellan, Kirby Smith, Jackson, Pickett, Wilcox, Franklin, Porter, Baldy Smith, Steele, Rufus Ingalls, and others of lesser note. Grant and Buckner were together three years at West Point, Grant having graduated in the class of 1843. Buckner took part in the Mexican war as Second Lieutenant in the 6th regular infantry, and by his bravery and soldierly qualities made an ineffaceable impression upon his brother officers. He was wounded at the battle of Cherubusco. In 1852 he was made a captain and commissary of subsistence, a position much sought after by line officers. But army life in time of peace did not suit the ardent temperament of Buckner, and he resigned from the service on the 26th of March, 1855. For two or three years thereafter he was engaged in important business enterprises at Chicago. During this period, not having lost his interest in the military profession, he connected himself with the Illinois State Militia service, and by appointment became  Adjutant-General of the State. But about two years prior to the war Buckner returned to Kentucky, and settled upon his estate near Louisville. Here he resumed his military diversions by entering upon the organization of the Kentucky State Militia, a congenial employment in which he was eminently successful, thereby making himself very popular with an influential class of his fellow-citizens. In 1861 he had become Inspector-General of the State, and commanded the Home Guards, a military organization composed mainly of the young bloods of the blue grass region whose sympathies were almost wholly with the South. These antecedents, the critical situation of affairs which created a field for his kind of talents, his surroundings, with the additional attraction of a striking presence and a magnetic address, made Buckner, at the beginning of 1861, a very important personage in Kentucky. His interests were largely at the North, but he was opposed to coercive measures, and believed firmly in the doctrine of State rights. His course throughout was consistent and honest. To use a threadbare phrase, he had the courage of his convictions. His attitude was well understood by the partisans of both sides, and as the clouds of civil war thickened, the eyes of the Kentucky secessionists who intended to fight were turned toward Buckner as their natural chief. And their chief he became; thousands of Kentuckians followed him out of the Union who would doubtless have remained at home but for his example. The great majority of Kentuckians wished to remain at peace in the Union, but the powerful influence of Buckner, Breckenridge, Marshall and others came near taking the State out. He was assiduously courted by the Southern leaders. That Buckner's standing was high, is attested by the great esteem in which he was held by all his old military associates of Northern proclivities, who became familiar with him at West Point, and subsequently in the old army. So favorably was he regarded as a professional soldier, that strong efforts were made to bring him over. The temptations held out to him were great enough to shake any man of less strength than he. McClellan, Burnside, even the Government itself, made advances to forestall Buckner's evident intention to precipitate himself into the Confederacy. Among the unprinted archives in the War Department, is a telegram sent early in 1861 by Burnside to Buckner, adjuring him to take no steps until he could be seen personally. ‘I have just come from the President,’ telegraphed Burnside, indicating that Mr. Lincoln was willing to do  something to hold such a man to the Union cause. What that something was, is not certainly known, but it is said to have been a commission as general in the rapidly gathering armies of the North, although there was then no lack of material for general officers. Mc-Clellan appears to have thought that he was a man of capacity and promise in such a crisis, and did all in his power to prevent Buckner going astray. But he could not be swerved from his purpose. Apropos of these interesting efforts to secure the adhesion of this brilliant man to the Union cause, is an episode that occurred while Kentucky was posing in the anomalous attitude of armed neutrality between the two sections during the spring and summer of 1861, a position assumed largely through Buckner's influence and advice. This condition of neutrality, if observed by the North, was held to be very advantageous to the South, for it was a well established fact that Unionist influence predominated in Kentucky and controlled the Legislature, which made it a physical impossibility to vote the State out of the Union. The next best thing for the Confederacy, of course, was to prevent its being utilized by the Federals. But doubtless the great desideratum with Buckner and the other Kentucky leaders was the safety of Kentucky herself, and immunity from the devastation of war. George B. McClellan, one of Buckner's West Point chums, had been made by President Lincoln a major-general in the regular army, and placed in command of the Department of the Ohio, which was soon enlarged to include Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and other territory. His headquarters were at Cincinnati, where he had previously resided as superintendent of the Ohio and Mississippi railway. Mc-Clellan was a very attentive observer of the progress of events on the south side of the Ohio, and appeared to regret a state of neutrality which prevented him from occupying salient points on the opposite side for the defence of Cincinnati. In a letter to the War Department on May 10, 1861, McClellan writes that, ‘the Governor of Kentucky (Magoffin), is a traitor, and Buckner is under his influence, so that it is necessary to watch them.’ Again: ‘I confess that I think all our calculations should be based on the supposition that Kentucky will secede; everything points in that direction.’ However, McClellan soon changed his views on this point, for we find him writing on May 17th in this strain: ‘The Union men of Kentucky express a firm determination to fight it out. Yesterday, Garrett Davis told me, “we will remain in the Union by voting if we  can, by fighting if we must, and if we cannot hold our own, we will call on the general Government for aid.” ’ Further on he said: ‘I have strong hopes Kentucky will remain in the Union, and the most favorable feature of the whole matter is, that the Union men are now ready to abandon the position of armed neutrality, and enter heart and soul into the contest on our side.’ Buckner had not yet joined the Confederacy, but meanwhile held close relations with Governor Magoffin, whose military representative and adviser he was throughout this trying summer. In fact, as I have said, Buckner was the chief figure, and was very busy in those days with his coadjutors in maintaining the efficacious neutrality arrangement—worth more than an army of Kentuckians to the Confederacy—and perhaps fomenting opposition to the government. In furtherance of his purposes, whatever they were, he sought an interview with McClellan through Samuel Gill, a brother West Point graduate. As there could be no reasonable objection to the proposal, McClellan received Buckner and his friend. In an official letter to the War Department, dated June 11th, he states that the meeting took place at his house in Cincinnati on June 8th, and this is what he says of it: ‘We sat up all night, talking about matters of common interest. Buckner gave me his word that should any Tennessee troops cross the frontier of Kentucky, he would use all the force at his disposal to drive them out, and, failing in that, would call on me for assistance. He went to Tennessee after leaving here, to present that view to Governor Harris.’ It is to be noticed that in this letter McClellan makes no allusion to any pledges to Buckner in return for this assurance. Only a few days after this meeting, however, McClellan had news that at least two Tennessee regiments had orders or were already moving to occupy Island No.1, just below Cairo, and on June 11th, the same day he informed the department of the meeting at Cincinnati, he wrote promptly to both Magoffin and Buckner to notify them of this breach of ‘our understanding that you would not permit Tennessee troops to cross your frontier.’ Did ‘our understanding,’ then, simply mean Buckner's voluntary promise? Either the rumor of the Confederate advance was a false one, or McClellan's protest had the desired effect, for no invasion then occurred. Buckner's answer, if one was made, is not found among the official archives. Subsequent events attached to this Cincinnati meeting of Buckner  and McClellan had unexpected interest and importance. It is evident that the Kentuckian was acting in good faith in the belief that he had a solemn agreement with the Union General that the State's neutrality was to be respected. At a later meeting of the two at Cairo, Ill., he gave McClellan the substance of an interview he had at Memphis with Pillow regarding the subject of neutrality. It is certain that he visited Pillow, and it was generally understood that through Buckner's representations an immediate advance by the Southern forces into Kentucky was prevented. It would seem to be improbable on the face of it that Buckner volunteered his word of honor as a representative of Magoffin and the rampant secessionists of Kentucky, to keep out Pillow's Tennesseeans without receiving from the Union commander some pledge in return to carry back to them, some corresponding concession. That McClellan fully understood Buckner to be clothed with the necessary power or influence to prevent Pillow's advance is admitted in his protest of June 11th, which in some sort also confirms the probability of a mutual agreement wherein it alludes to ‘our understanding,’ although, of course, there may have been a jug-handle arrangement in which Buckner promised everything and McClellan nothing. Buckner being confident meanwhile that under existing conditions the Federals would commit no overt act, anyhow. But, inasmuch as there was then and for long afterwards no advance of the Union troops, McClellan's quick and curt protest at a threatened infringement of ‘our understanding’ by the other side certainly warrants the belief, aside from Buckner's statement, that some comforting assurances were given him. Buckner, it is clear, could have no object in deluding his party. What gave the Cincinnati interview peculiar significance was the appearance in the public press a few weeks later of a letter from Buckner to Magoffin, stating that he had entered into a specific agreement with McClellan at the Cincinnati conference that Kentucky's neutrality was to be maintained by both sides. Hence, that Buckner, who McClellan himself states was the soul of honor, believed there was such an understanding, is beyond the shadow of doubt. That there was a very general understanding that such stipulations existed is also certain. There is, in fact, no dispute that there was on the part of the Federal authorities, or its Western commanders, at least a tacit recognition of Kentucky's neutrality, lasting through several months. However, its expediency may have been  viewed in the beginning, it soon became palpable that the continuance of Kentucky's attitude of neutrality would estop if not prove entirely fatal to Union designs for the suppression of the war. This neutral zone, if maintained inviolable, raised an impassable barrier between the North and the most vulnerable points of the new Confederacy, absolutely closed up the most available routes of invasion. It was a most absurd arrangement, if carried beyond a mere makeshift to soothe the people of Kentucky. All the advantages of such an arrangement accrued to the South, which merely asked to be let alone; the Confederates had no purpose to invade the North. Buckner's penetrating mind divined this, and no doubt that is why he entered the field of diplomacy and sought the conference with McClellan. If he really made a deal with the Union general, he clearly had the best of the bargain. McClellan positively denied the existence of any pledge on his part to respect the neutrality of Kentucky. The publication of Buckner's letter to Magoffin threw him into a great heat, and his utterances display anxiety, because it was clear that he had taken a false step, which must be condemned by the Northern public. In his personal memoirs, issued in 1887, he takes pains to explain in detail his version of the Buckner interview. He says: ‘The object of the interview was simply that we, as old friends, should compare views and see if we could do any good; thus I understood it. Buckner's main purpose seemed to be to ascertain what I should do in the event that Kentucky should be invaded by the secession forces, then collecting under General Pillow. Buckner was very anxious that the Federal forces should respect the neutrality of Kentucky, and stated that he would do his best to preserve it, and drive Pillow out should he cross the boundary line. I could assent to this only to the extent that I should be satisfied if the Kentuckians would immediately drive out any Confederate force that might invade Kentucky, and continued, almost in these very words: “You had better be very quick about it, Simon, for if I learn that the Confederates are in Kentucky, I will, with or without orders, drive them out without delay.” I expressly told Buckner that I had no power to guarantee the neutrality of Kentucky, and that, although my command did not extend over it, I would not tolerate the presence of Southern troops in that State. Not many days afterward I met Buckner again at Cairo, and had a conversation with him in presence of John M. Douglass, of Chicago. Buckner had just then  returned from a visit to Pillow, and he clearly showed by his conversation that he understood my determination at the first interview, just as I have related it above. * * * Buckner's letter to Governor Magoffin, subsequently published, stating that in our first interview I had agreed to respect the neutrality of Kentucky, gave an incorrect account of the case, which was as I have stated it.’ This is certainly explicit and clear enough, and undoubtedly recites the facts as McClellan remembered them, but as it was written twenty-six years after the event, it is possible he may have forgotten some of the details of his conversation with Buckner. McClellan's correspondence at this period makes it probable that he was called to book by General Scott or President Lincoln about this matter, though no letter or telegram on the subject from the Washington end of the line is found. But on June 26th, after he had entered upon his West Virginia campaign, McClellan sent a long telegram to Scott from Grafton, in which he shows great anxiety to explain satisfactorily to his superior his relations with Buckner. ‘This transaction,’ said McClellan, ‘has surprised me beyond expression. My chief fear has been that you, whom I regard as my strongest friend in Washington, might have supposed me to be guilty of the extreme of folly.’ This telegram was supplemented by a letter on the same day, embodying the substance of both, and covering the whole case. This contemporaneous letter is entitled to great consideration in summing up the misunderstanding of these two old friends, both truthful men, concerning ‘our misunderstanding,’ at Cincinnati. One thing is made clear by it—McClellan's ‘policy’ at the time Buckner visited him was, and had been, a policy of strict neutrality toward Kentucky. It is not unlikely that, during a long night's conversation, without entering into any specific agreement, McClellan gave Buckner the impression that that policy of neutrality should continue, if the status quo was maintained, and he received no orders to the contrary from Washington. All the circumstances lend probability to this view.