|General Napoleon Bonaparte Buford.|
(The Portrait Monthly. August 1863.)
Napoleon Bonaparte Buford was born at Rose Hill, his family’s plantation in Woodford County, Kentucky, on January 13, 1807. He graduated sixth in his class at West Point in July 1827 and received a commission as second lieutenant of Third United States Artillery. He was assigned to the Topographical Engineers Corps from 1828-1830 and did the survey for the slack water navigation in Kentucky. He later surveyed the land around Rock Island and the Des Moines River rapids on the Mississippi.
He took a leave of absence from the military in the early 1830s to attend the Harvard University Law School. After graduation, he taught natural and experimental philosophy at West Point.
Like many of his fellow West Point graduates, Buford found advancement in the peacetime army next to impossible, so he resigned from the military in 1835. He worked as a civil engineer in Kentucky, then relocated to Illinois in 1843, where he worked as a banker, manufacturer, and later as president of the Rock Island and Peoria Railroad.[ii]
He built his home, called “Ivy Place,” in Rock Island somewhere around 1849-1850. The inside walls were three feet thick, and it had a three-story circular staircase. The home had thirteen rooms with a fireplace in each room.[iii]
At the start of the civil war, Napoleon operated a bank in Rock Island. He was heavily invested in the southern securities and the financial crisis that ensued swamped his business. Buford signed everything he owned over to his creditors and re-enlisted in the service, serving as a colonel in the 27th Regiment of Illinois Volunteers. Abraham Lincoln appointed him a brigadier general of volunteers in April 1862.
He fought with General Ulysses S. Grant at Belmont Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. He later distinguished himself in the fighting at Vicksburg and Corinth. “His career has not been very showy,” noted the New York Daily Herald, “but it has, nevertheless, been a brilliant one.”[iv]
Napoleon served on the court-martial of General Fitz-John Porter after the Union debacle at the Second Bull Run.
When General Grant learned Lincoln intended to promote Buford to major general in 1865, he vigorously protested his appointment. Napoleon Bonaparte Buford “would scarcely make a respectable hospital nurse if put in petticoats,” exclaimed Grant. “He is unfit for any military position. He has always been a dead weight to carry, becoming more burdensome with his increased rank.”[v]
John Rawlins, General Grant’s assistant through most of the war, felt the same way about Buford. His confirmation “would be so unjust to the many brave and deserving men and officers of the Army of Tennessee.” Rawlins considered Buford a “kind-hearted and affectionate old gentlemen,” but out-of-sync with America’s republican institutions. Buford preferred the British system of government and felt the country would go that way after the war. Such thinking showed Buford had a “diseased and addled brain,” said Rawlins. He was a “weak and foolish old man.”[vi]
When the war ended, Buford returned to Rock Island. He served as government inspector for the Union Pacific Railroad from 1867 to 1869 and as a special commissioner of Indian affairs in 1867 and 1868.
Napoleon Bonaparte Buford died in Chicago, Illinois, on March 28, 1883. He was 76 years old. The general was buried at Chippiannock Cemetery in Rock Island.