Excerpt from "General George
H. Thomas – A Critical Biography" by Donn Piatt, 1893
Chapter 7 ‑ Buell Court of Inquiry. page
The Buell Court of Inquiry ‑ Thomas Shows that had his Suggestion of Concentrating the Army at Sparta been acted
on Bragg's Advance would have been Checked.
The disastrous battle of Perryville came to the aid of Governors Johnson, of Tennessee, and Morton, of Indiana; and
General Buell was not only deprived of command, but ordered before a court of inquiry. This was a new sort of tribunal unknown
to the usages of war or the law, constitutional or statutory, and originated in the fertile mind of the Hon. Secretary of
War, Edwin M. Stanton. The court, consisting of Generals Lewis Wallace, Daniel Tyler, N. J. T: Dana, Edward O. C. Ord, Albin
Shoepf, and Major Donn Piatt, judge‑advocate, was convened to assist the president in an inquiry as to the military
conduct of Don Carlos Buell, Major General, lately in command of the Army of the Ohio. When Major Piatt received his orders,
he repaired to the War Department to learn, if possible, the line of inquiry from the charges prepared. He found no charges
on file, and, on making application to the Secretary of War, found that none had been prepared. On stating that he was at
a loss to know how to conduct so blind an investigation, he was told to apply to Andrew Johnson and Oliver P. Morton, who
could furnish him with all the charges necessary to the investigation.
The court convened at Cincinnati in midwinter and the night before its organization the judge‑advocate went to
Indianapolis to consult Governor Morton, as Governor Johnson was at Nashville. Arriving at Indianapolis at 8 P. M., the officer
went in search of the governor. This proved more of a task than he anticipated. The governor could not be found. He was not
at his office nor at his house. They who ought to have known of the eminent man's where‑abouts
denied such knowledge with an amused expression, the meaning of which never was explained. The search was at last abandoned,
and the judge‑advocate had retired to his room to snatch an hour's steep before returning on the early train to Cincinnati
when the governor walked in. He offered no explanation of his mysterious absence, but, learning the object of the visit, plunged
into business. He and Andrew Johnson had demanded this court to try General Buell not for incapacity or misconduct as an officer,
but for being a traitor, and the governor, was quite indignant when he learned that "the double‑dyed villain," as he
phrased it, was not under arrest. The suggestion, however, that a man could not well be arrested when no charges had been
made against him, somewhat quieted the governor's indignation, for Oliver P. Morton was not only an able man, but a profound
The judge‑advocate informed the governor of his instructions from the Secretary of War, and Governor Morton entered
upon a recital of acts clearly indicating that General Buell was in treasonable correspondence and even personal communication
with General Bragg; that the entire movement from Murfreesboro to the Ohio was planned and conducted for the purpose of giving
both Tennessee and Kentucky to the rebels. When the judge‑advocate, however, proposed to formulate these charges and
place them before the court, the governor demurred. "By no manner of means," he said earnestly, "I give you these only for
your own guidance. Johnson and I will furnish the witnesses, and we will appear ourselves at the proper time."
The judge‑advocate returned to his court, which he swore to secresy, an oath General Buell declined taking, and
on a demand from that officer for charges, he was informed that the court was one of inquiry only to assist the president
in a better knowledge of the late campaign that had ended so disastrously to the government. General Buell protested to this
course and claimed that the tribunal had no legal sanction, and, having said so, proceeded quietly with the so‑called
The court sat for six months. When the witnesses promised by the war governor appeared, the better class of them absolutely
knew nothing of the treasonable practices charged, while those who were voluble in their information the law officer of the
court was ashamed to put on the stand. They nearly all belonged to that class of mercenary spies known as detectives that
one, General Baker, of the War Department, made so numerous and utterly unreliable. While waiting for these witnesses, who
never got before the court, the judge‑advocate devoted himself of course to an investigation of the campaign. Among
the witnesses summoned by both sides appeared George H. Thomas.
General Buell conducted his side of the inquiry with marked ability. Confined as this was to the military operations
in Tennessee and Kentucky, he had the advantage not only of better information, but, as the witnesses were subordinates, his
very presence embarrassed and at times confused them. General Buell is under the medium height, but be walks erect with a
singularly military bearing while his austere manners and the striking seriousness of his handsome face made up a personality
that told on the witnesses disposed to criticise his military management. He came into court in full uniform with sword on
side to show that be was not under arrest and accompanied by two aids so well drilled and disciplined that they seemed a chorus
ready at any moment to break into song. This told on the witnesses and had its effect on the court. The law officer, whose
duty kept him impartial, but who really sympathized with a man one out of a thousand in culture and ability who was being
imposed on by two scurvy politicians and a stress of untoward circumstances, soon recognized the fact that the defendant had
won over half the court before the investigation had half ended. Generals Dana, and Ord could not conceal their partiality
for Buell, while Generals Tyler and Shoepf were moved to hostility more by Generals Dana's and Ord's support than ought else.
General Lew Wallace presided with a dignified impartiality that was admirable. He was helped to this in a good manner by the
fact that he bad been put under a cloud by charges openly made by General Grant of misconduct at Shiloh, and as General Halleck
had assigned him to this court instead of a command in the field, he was quite willing to find defects, but defects that could
be traced to Washington. There is no reflection in this upon a man of genius who has since won through his pen the immortality
denied his sword. In conducting the inquiry and in his finding, he proved himself eminently able and just.
This was the situation when General George H. Thomas appeared. His entrance seemed to fetch a new condition, and what
had been General Buell's advantage, swung imperceptibly to the other side. The calm, dignified, yet easy bearing of a man
who made one feel his presence before he uttered a word, prepared the court for evidence of moment. The commission was not
disappointed. Although he confined his testimony strictly to the questions asked, and gave it without the slightest show of
partiality, it soon became clear to the military tribunal that Bragg, with an inferior force, had outmaneuvered, outmarched,
and outfought General Buell. Beginning with the crossing of the Tennessee river, he told of the confused and uncertain information
as to Bragg's movements; how the route through the Sequatchie Valley was left open to the confederates for their march to
Kentucky; then came that extraordinary race of two armies nearly abreast to the Ohio, the reorganization and the short campaign
that ended in the disastrous fight at Perryville.
No man was ever more amazed than General.Buell. He had welcomed the coming of General Thomas as that of a friend, the
friend who had declined the command on the ground that he, Buell, better knew the situation than he, Thomas, could, and who
had never given other reason than the one found in his response to the War Department. General Buell had naturally attributed
this course on the part of his great subordinate to not only a friendly feeling, but to a belief in the generalship that was
being questioned. The revelation was stunning, so much so that his cold, calm manner that had so, far sustained him, vanished,
and it was with difficulty that he could restrain himself until a cross‑examination became proper.
When the witness was turned over, General Buell attacked the main point. General Thomas had been asked the question
that had been put to every witness for the government, as to whether there was not a point at which our troops could have
been concentrated after Bragg crossed the Tennessee where he could have been
attacked with fair prospect of driving him back, or forcing him from the line of' advance upon which he hoped to get supplies
for his army. General Thomas had answered in the affirmative, and pointed upon the map to the place.
"You have said, General Thomas," said Buell, "that at Sparta we could have concentrated our forces with a fair prospect
of defeating Bragg?"
"Please tell the court, General," and a slight sneer tinged the question, "whether that opinion has, come from a study
of the situation since, or whether it suggested itself to your mind at the time?"
"If you will give me your book of telegrams," was the quiet response, "I believe it will answer better than I can."
The book asked for was handed General Thomas, and he slowly turned the leaves until he came to what he was in search
of, and then returned it open to General Buell. The color deepened upon the face of Buell as he read that which terminated
all cross‑examination on that point.
The finding of this extraordinary tribunal was of no consequence. It was virtually an acquittal of General Buell, and
a mild censure of General Halleck. The eventual history of the records was as curious as the conduct of the court. Taken down
by that accomplished stenographer, Mr. Benn Pitman, they were forwarded to the War Department in a box. Some years after a
delver in the dust of worthless things called for these records. They could not be found. Box and all had disappeared. This
very disappearance made them valuable. Congress resolved, and the press was about taking up the mystery, when Mr. Benn Pitman
informed the department that he could replace the records from his original copy in shorthand. This was done, and immediately
all interest in them subsided.