U.S. Grant and S.B. Buckner were cadets at West Point.
Cadets Grant and Buckner
Ulysses S. Grant, class of 1843, and Simon Bolivar Buckner, class of 1844, were both midwesterners of middle-class standing both financially and academically.
West Point classes were small prior to the Civil War, perhaps 40 or 50 cadets. Most students had at least a passing acquaintance with their upper and lower academy mates.
Grant, an Ohioan, was a year ahead of Buckner, unremarkable except for his “U.S.” initials and his superb horsemanship. He graduated mid-class.
Simon Bolivar Buckner, a Kentuckian was likewise unremarkable, except for his “namesake” monicker and his good looks. He also graduated in the middle of his class.
The acquaintanceship between them was pleasant, but casual.
Lts. Grant and Buckner renewed their cordial old-school-ties during the War with Mexico. Then they went their separate ways. Grant remained in the Army; Buckner, always drawn to the military and then seduced away by civilian opportunities, joined-and-resigned the army several times, with no detriment to his career or advancement. It was commonplace.
Grant and Buckner: The First Crucial Conversation
When gold was discovered in California in 1849, the Army sent troops to the territory to maintain a presence – and order.
Grant, a recent husband and father, was assigned to quartermaster duties fifteen hundred miles away from his dearly beloveds. Bored with his duties and desperately homesick for his family, he fared badly and began to drink. Faced with the threat of dismissal, Grant resigned, and slowly made his way back home.
He was broke when he reached New York City, and by chance ran into Simon Buckner. Legend has it that Grant asked his old friend for a loan, and Buckner, in more comfortable finances, advanced the funds.
The sentiment and background is true, but the details are not. According to Buckner many years later, Grant was down on his luck, but had wired his father asking for traveling money, and was waiting for the funds. The hotel manager was pressing however, and refusing him further credit. Buckner said that he knew the manager, and would vouch for his old friend. He convinced the manager that Captain Grant was an honorable man and good for his debts. Grant gained an extra day or two of room and board.
No money exchanged hands, but Buckner was a friend when a friend was needed, and Grant never forgot.
Grant and Buckner: The Second Crucial Conversation
A decade later, a more noteworthy meeting took place between the two old friends at Ft. Donelson, TN. The Civil War was raging, and both ex-West Pointers were now Generals – on opposing sides.
Buckner was one of three generals defending the large fortress on the Cumberland River. John Floyd, a “political” general, was senior, and decided to slip away. Having been a member of President James Buchanan’s cabinet, he knew that if captured, he could be hung for treason, a reasonable assumption.
As second-in-command, General Gideon Pillow also opted to slip away believing himself too great a prize for the Union. He had taught Grant and Buckner at West Point, and was a senior officer in the War With Mexico.
That left Simon Buckner.
He sent Grant a formal message, requesting the terms and procedures for surrender. USG replied with a curt note: Nothing but Unconditional Surrender was acceptable, thus earning another one of his nicknames.
Despite the blunt exchange, the actual meeting between the old friends was extremely cordial, according to Buckner – once their business had been accomplished. They reminisced for a half hour, and Grant dryly remarked he would likely have let Pillow go, since he believed he was more valuable to the Union by retaining Confederate command. Neither Grant nor Buckner had high regard for Pillow. Grant added that had he known Buckner was in charge, he would have waited for reinforcements.
Then Grant quietly suggested that since Buckner would be taken prisoner, Grant’s purse was at his disposal. Buckner declined, saying he did not need any money, but they both remembered earlier times.
Grant and Buckner: The Third Crucial Conversation
More than twenty years passed. Grant’s career was well known. Buckner indeed had been a POW in New England before he was exchanged and reassigned. After the War, he returned to private endeavors, took the oath of allegiance, and even served on-and-off in the United States Army.
In 1884-5, ex-President Grant was dying of cancer as well as writing his Personal Memoirs in an effort to provide financially for his family following a disastrous business fiasco.
With the entire country maintaining a death watch during the hot summer of 1885, General Grant was moved from his NYC townhouse to a cooler climate in the Adirondack Mountains. Only a few days before he expired, he was visited by Simon Buckner, one of the very few men the dying General agreed to see.
Grant could barely whisper a greeting, and communicated by written note, but the gesture of their 40-year friendship was appreciated.
According to Buckner, “I wanted him to know the Confederate soldiers appreciated his conduct at every surrender during the war and after the war in reconstruction days.” He continued, noting that when he returned to New York, newspapers were clamoring for interviews but he declined. Their meeting was personal and private.
A day or two later, he received word that General Grant desired that their conversation be publicized, and Buckner granted an interview accordingly.
Grant died only days later. Simon Bolivar Buckner, classmate, Confederate and good friend was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.
Flood, Charles Bracelen – Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year – 2012, DaCapo Press
Goldhurst, Richard – Many Are the Hearts – 1975, Reader’s Digest Press
Grant, Ulysses S. – Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant – World Publishing (reprinted) 1952