SIMON BOLIVAR BUCKNER
Governor of KY—1887-1891
West Point Graduate and career soldier Simon Bolivar Buckner a native of Munfordville and Hart County became Kentucky’s 30th governor and the 28th person to serve as governor with his election in 1887. Prior to his entry into politics, Buckner was a West Point (1844) friend of Ulysses Grant (West Point 1843), served in the Mexican War and he was wounded at Churubusco and after that war taught at West Point. He left his post at West Point due to his objection to mandatory chapel attendance.
On May 2, 1850, Buckner married Mary Jane Kingsbury. Her father was also an army officer who had extensive real estate holdings in Chicago. In 1855, Buckner resigned his army commission to assist his father-in-law in the real estate business in Chicago. With the birth of his daughter, Lily in 1858, Buckner and his family returned to Kentucky.
Prior to the Civil War, Buckner was active in the Kentucky and Illinois Militia. He was adjutant general of the Illinois militia and later had a similar position in Kentucky. In 1861, Buckner represented Governor Magoffin in negotiations with Confederate and Union officials in an effort to preserve Kentucky’s neutrality. Buckner was offered a commission as a Brigadier General in the Union Army. He accepted one with the Confederate Army instead in September 1861.
Buckner was one of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston’s trusted subordinates. In September 1861, Buckner occupied Bowling Green.
In February 1862, Simon Bolivar Buckner was part of the Confederate command defending Western Kentucky and Northern Tennessee. During Union General Grant’s campaign against Confederate forts on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Buckner became one of the sole Confederate Generals at Fort Donelson when General Bedford Forrest fled. As a result he surrendered Fort Donelson to his friend from West Point Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Buckner had loaned Grant money in the previous decade. In accepting Buckner’s surrender at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, Grant made sure Buckner had funds to make himself confortable during his time as a POW. He was part of a prisoner exchange in late 1862. Upon his release he was promoted to major-general. On May 26, 1865, as a lieutenant general Buckner surrendered the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi. As a result of his activities on behalf of the Confederacy, Buckner was prohibited from returning home to Kentucky until 1868.
After the war, he worked on the staff of the New Orleans’ Daily Crescent newspaper. Upon returning to Kentucky he became involved in commercial interests which resulted in him becoming extremely wealthy. He also served as editor Louisville’s Daily Courier.
In 1874, Buckner’s wife Mary Jane died after a long bout with tuberculosis. He continued to live in Louisville until 1877 with his daughter Lily. In 1877, he returned to his family home of “Glen Lily” in Hart County near Munfordville. On June 10, 1885, Buckner then age 62, married Delia Claiborne, age 28 of Richmond. The following year on July 16, 1886, their son Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. was born. (Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. was the commander of the 10th Army which invaded Okinawa. General Simon Bolivar Buckner was the highest ranking officer to be killed by enemy fire during World War II.)
In 1887, he won a close race for governor over W.O. Bradley who would be elected governor in 1895.
As governor, Buckner made extensive use of the veto to kill private interest bills.
Much of Buckner's time was spent trying to curb the continuing problem of violence in the eastern part of the Commonwealth. Soon after he was inaugurated the Rowan County War which had been a problem under his predecessor escalated to vigilantism, when residents of the county organized a posse and killed several of the leaders of the feud. Though this essentially ended the feud, the violence had been so bad that Buckner's adjutant general recommended that legislature dissolve Rowan County (Morehead), though this suggestion was not acted upon. Further east in1888, a posse from Kentucky entered the state of West Virginia and killed a leader of the Hatfield clan in the Hatfield-McCoy Feud. This caused a political conflict between Buckner and West Virginia Governor Emanuel Willis Wilson who complained that the raid was illegal. The matter was adjudicated in federal court, and Buckner was cleared of any connection to the raid. There was additional friction between Buckner and the Governor of West Virginia when West Virginia refused to extradite members of the Hatfield clan under indictment in Kentucky. Violence broke out or escalated in Breathitt, Harlan, Letcher, Perry and Knott counties later in his term.
As Governor, Buckner proposed a number of “progressive bills” which were rejected by the legislature. He was successful with the creation of a parole system for convicts, state board of tax equalization and codification of school laws.
After the 1888 session of the Kentucky General Assembly, Governor Buckner vetoed 60% of the 1,571 bills or about 942 pieces of legislation due to the fact Buckner believed they were special interest bills or were passed for the personal gain of individual legislators. By vetoing over 942 bills, Buckner vetoed more bills than the previous ten governors put together. Only one of those vetoes was overridden by the legislature.
The 1890 session of the Kentucky General Assembly failed to heed Buckner’s warning that he would continue to veto “special interest” legislation. As a result, he vetoed half of the legislation passed in that session. This caused the Kelly Axe Factory (formerly of Louisville) and the largest axe factory in the nation to present him with a ceremonial “Veto Hatchet”.
One of Bucker’s vetoes in 1890 was the tax cut passed by the legislature. Taxes had not been raised during Buckner’s term. However, the tax cut as proposed would drain the treasury. When the legislature overrode Buckner’s veto, the treasury was in fact drained. Fortunately for the Commonwealth, Buckner was wealthy enough to make an interest free loan so the state had enough money to remain solvent until existing tax revenues were collected.
While Simon Bolivar Buckner is considered a successful governor, there was a financial scandal in 1888. Buckner ordered a routine audit of the state’s finances which had not been done for years. The audit revealed that the longtime state treasurer, James “Honest Dick” Tate had been mismanaging and embezzling the state’s money since at least 1872. Faced with possible imprisonment, Tate was last seen taking a train from Frankfort to Cincinnati. It was later discovered that he had taken at least $250,000 in cash with him. The legislature soon thereafter impeached Tate and convicted him in absentia in order to declare the office of treasurer vacant. Tate had been KY State Treasurer since 1867 and re-elected every two years. As a result of Tate, the Kentucky Constitution of 1890 put consecutive term limits on the Constitutional Officers below Governor and Lt. Governor.
In 1890, Buckner was chosen as a delegate to the state's constitutional convention from Hart County. In this capacity, he unsuccessfully sought to extend the governor's appointment powers and levy taxes on churches, clubs, and schools that made a profit.
After leaving the Governor’s Mansion, Buckner retired from politics except for a stint as the Vice Presidential candidate on the “Gold Democratic” Ticket with former Union General and Illinois Governor John Palmer for President. This ticket was a protest against William Jennings Bryan his policy of “free silver” in 1896.
By 1908, Buckner was the only living Confederate of the rank of Lt. General.
On January 8, 1914, he died at his home “Glen Lily” in Hart County, Kentucky.
Photos of the young Buckner and older Buckner and his son--the WWII General who was famous in his own right for his leadership in the war in the Pacific.
Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. WWII