The Unbroken Bonds of Affection
by Ben Kemp, Grant Cottage Site Coordinator
“I feel we are on the eve of a new era, when there is to be great harmony between the Federal and the Confederate. I cannot stay to be a living witness to this prophecy; but I feel it within me that it is so.” -Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant
One of General Grant’s greatest desires was to see harmony and unity within his country. He served to achieve this in the Civil War and put his career on the line to see that reconciliation take precedent over retribution at the close of the war. He supported all veterans after the war as they were all Americans to him. In his final days at Mt. McGregor Grant received one visitor in particular who truly illustrated his view of the Civil War and bolstered his hopes for the future.
Simon Bolivar Buckner was born one year after and 200 miles from Ulysses Grant. Their careers and circumstances would bring the two men together at pivotal moments in their lives. Grant had first met Kentucky-born Simon Buckner in West Point Military Academy in the 1840’s. After graduation they both went on to serve in the same Division of Winfield Scott’s army in the perilous days of the Mexican-American War on the campaign to take Mexico City in 1847. Before returning from the war they took a dangerous trip together up the Mexican volcano Popocatépetl. Years later in 1854, the two soldiers would meet again in New York City while Grant was on his voyage home after resigning from the army. Grant was staying at the Astor House, and Buckner vouched for his broke friend until funds arrived to pay his hotel bill. Buckner himself would also resign the following year.
The two soldiers would next meet as opposing Generals on opposite sides of the Civil War at the battle of Fort Donelson in 1862. Buckner was left by his superiors to surrender the fort to Grant. Grant gave Buckner the famous ultimatum of “Unconditional Surrender," but remembering the generosity of his old friend, offered him money upon his capture. Grant also showcased his magnanimity towards the southern soldiers when asked when the official surrender ceremony would take place he replied, “There will be nothing of the kind. The surrender is now a fact. We have the fort, the men, the guns. Why should we go through vain forms and mortify and injure the spirit of brave men, who after all are our own countrymen and brothers?” Buckner was exchanged six months after the surrender, returned to service with the Confederacy for the remainder of the war and would be the last General to surrender to Union forces in New Orleans in June 1865.
20 years after the war, on July 10, 1885, the two former soldiers met again. The widower Buckner at 62 had just remarried to 28 year old Delia Claiborne. The two had visited Niagara Falls on their honeymoon and Buckner wanted to pay a personal visit to his ailing friend. Buckner described his intentions for the visit:
“The facts of my calling upon Grant in 1885 at Mt. McGregor were these: I wanted him to know the Confederate soldiers appreciated his conduct at every surrender during the war, and after the war in Reconstruction days. My visit was purely personal. The first I realized of its meaning was when the newspaper men crowded around me in New York. Then I began to see the national significance of it. I declined to be interviewed, however and said it was a personal affair between Grant and myself. Soon after this a telegram came… saying General Grant desires publicity given to your visit. I understood by that that Grant would be pleased to have the world know I called upon him....”
Grant, having lost his voice, wrote the following cordial notes to his old friend “I am very glad to see you indeed; and allow me to congratulate you [on your marriage].” Grant then requested to see Buckner’s new bride to whom he wrote, “I knew your husband long before you did [in fact before she was born].” And mentioned their shared experiences, “We were at West Point together, and shared in the Mexican war. I was with him on a visit to the top of Popocatepetl, the highest mountain in North America.”
Knowing the mythical status of their interactions, Buckner is said to have jokingly remarked about Grant, “Grant… has… many merits and virtues…but he has one deadly defect. He is an incurable borrower and…knows of only one limit – he wants what you’ve got. When I was poor, he borrowed $50 of me; when I was rich, he borrowed 15,000 men.”
Grant wrote a note to Buckner which was later published voicing his hopefulness in light of their meeting: “I have witnessed since my sickness just what I wished to see ever since the war; harmony and good feeling between the sections.… We may now look forward to perpetual peace at home and a national strength that will secure us from any foreign complication.”
Buckner’s personal yet highly symbolic meeting with Grant gave a last glimmer of hope that Grant’s life and career had helped achieved something greater. That no matter the circumstances that had strained the bonds, there was still the shared experiences that could unite all Americans. President Lincoln’s words of his first inaugural address would have been suitable for the occasion. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Buckner would accept a personal request to be an honorary pallbearer at Grant’s August 8th funeral in New York City. Having two former Union Generals and two former Confederate Generals as pallbearers was a fitting tribute and symbolized the unity Grant had hoped for. Buckner would go on in 1887 to serve a term as Governor of Kentucky and would be the last surviving Confederate General upon his death in 1914. Buckner, like Grant, would have generations of namesake descendants go on to serve in the military. The military careers of Simon Buckner Jr. who lost his life as a Lt. General in WWII (the highest-ranking U.S. casualty of the conflict) and Simon Buckner III who also served in WWII would echo Grant’s words that the peace between the sections would give us the national strength needed to deal with future international conflicts.