27 March 2014
Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:
Horace R. Buck: From the Cellars at Vicksburg to the Montana Supreme Court
By Ken Robison
For The River Press
March 26, 2014
This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that came to Montana after the war. This issue features young Horace Buck, a boy caught in the siege and surrender of Vicksburg before coming to Montana Territory where he became a political force. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The devastating blows of Gettysburg in the East and Vicksburg in the West in early July 1863 sealed the fate of the Confederacy. Although the war would continue for almost two more years, the South had effectively lost the Civil War.
Both Gettysburg and Vicksburg were battles that affected more than Yankee and Rebel combatants—both directly impacted the civilian residents of the two towns. Fifteen-year-old Will Van Orsdel roamed the battlefield at Gettysburg dodging gunfire while carrying water to the wounded. Nine-year-old Horace Buck dodged artillery shells and lived underground during the long siege at Vicksburg. Both boys carried the mental scars of warfare for the rest of their lives. This is young Horace Buck’s story.
Horace R. Buck was born in Yazoo County, Mississippi, September 17, 1853, to Charles L. and Maria I. Barnett Buck, both of Huguenot descent. His father, a prominent lawyer, was one of the few members of the Mississippi convention to speak and vote against the resolution of secession from the United States. The ravages of the Civil War deprived the family of everything, and with the death of Charles Buck in 1862 the family struggled to survive. During the 47-day siege of Vicksburg from May 18 to July 4, the family remained in that beleaguered city. Young Horace later related how the shells ranged so close to the house his family occupied that they often were forced to take refuge in a neighbor’s cellar at night. Civilians as well as soldiers suffered from a lack of food and good drinking water.
As Grant closed in on Vicksburg in the spring of 1863, he knew the critical important of that fortress on the Mississippi. President Lincoln set the tone with these words, “Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket. . . .We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg.”
In addition, Vicksburg was strategically vital to the Confederates. President Jefferson Davis proclaimed, "Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South's two halves together." While held by the Confederacy, it blocked Union navigation down the Mississippi. Together with control of the mouth of the Red River and Port Hudson to the south, Vicksburg allowed communication with the states west of the river, upon which the Confederates depended extensively for horses, cattle, other food, and reinforcements.
With its natural defenses, Vicksburg earned the nickname "The Gibraltar of the Confederacy." It was located on a high bluff overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bend in the river, De Soto Peninsula, making it almost impossible to approach by ship. North and east of Vicksburg was the Mississippi or Yazoo Delta, described by geographer Warren E. Grabau as an "astonishingly complex network of intersecting waterways", some navigable by small steamboats.
Since May 18, Grant’s army had formed a tightening ring around Vicksburg, sealing it from the outside world. The city was under siege as the noose ever tightened. To hasten Vicksburg’s surrender, Grant ordered his artillery to shell it around the clock. With some 220 Union cannon firing at Confederate targets in and around the city, life was dangerous for both the military and civilians including their slaves throughout the city. Admiral David Porter’s navy joined in with another thirteen big guns firing from the Mississippi River. Militarily, the Vicksburg Campaign was a joint operation with both the Army and the Navy playing important roles. The campaign is still studied today for the bold and innovative joint serve tactics that Grant and Porter employed.
Life in besieged Vicksburg was not pleasant. In the words of historian Andrea Warren:
“Shells flew fast and furious, sometimes crisscrossing in the air as they rained down death and destruction on the city and the Rebel soldiers. Cannonballs weighing as much as 250 pounds crashed through walls, tore up streets and yards, and exploded in the Confederate trenches. . . Civilian homes could not protect the families. Many families moved into large communal caves that had been dug into the hills.”
Other families, like the Bucks lived in deep cellars. House slaves either slept in their family’s quarters or near cave entrances as did wounded, recuperating soldiers. Children, like young Horace Buck played on the dangerous streets or underground while their mothers sought food, sewed, and gossiped by candlelight. Slaves tended fires and cooking stoves preparing meals for their masters while soldiers brought news to civilians in the trapped, troubled city.
All this time Mr. and Mrs. Barnett, Horace’s mother’s parents, supported the family, although it was all that they could do. When peace was declared, the Buck family removed to Bayou Teche in St. Mary’s Parish, Louisiana, to the heart of the region that Longfellow so beautifully portrayed in “Evangeline.” In 1869 the Louisiana plantation had to be sold, and Mrs. Buck took her children to the farm of John Barrett, a relative of hers, near Sedalia, Missouri. While there Horace attended the public schools for several years, and then by the generosity of his uncle Horace was sent to the Hopkins Grammar school in New Haven, Connecticut, to prepare for Yale College. Graduating from the grammar school in the class of 1872, he entered Yale’s class of 1876.
At Yale College Horace Buck flourished, and in the words of classmate and lifelong friend William R. Hunt, Horace had “great breadth of mind, mature judgment and conspicuously quick perception . . . No member of his class was more beloved.” After graduation in 1876 his uncle was no longer able to assist him financially, so he moved on to St. Louis where he taught night school to earn a living. There he studied law at St. Louis Law School and in the office of John W. Noble of St. Louis, a brevet general in the Union army. General Noble regarded him as “the best student he had ever known.”
Admitted to the bar of Missouri in 1878, Buck joined Hunt in Dakota Territory the following year in search of a place to settle. Being out of money he found employment as a harvest hand on a large wheat farm. He earned the usual harvest hand’s wages, but found the work on a threshing crew very hard. In the fall of 1879 he became principal of the public school in Shakopee, Minn., and remained there until just before Christmas, when he started for Fort Benton to join Hunt, who had already opened up a law office there, and established the firm of Buck & Hunt. He made the trip from Shakopee to Helena as an emigrant, and “reached Fort Benton hanging to a pile of mail sacks on the coach one bitterly cold night about the holidays, with a capital of $7.00.” [p. 41 in Justices of the Supreme Court]
Buck immediately showed his talent and ambition taking part in political as well as legal affairs. During 1881-1882 Buck edited the Fort Benton Record, a staunchly Democratic newspaper, and he married Mary Jewett, of New Haven.
Buck as managing editor of the Record had Hunt as an associate editor, and, as the Anaconda Standard later recalled, “the ‘boys’ made the Record ‘howl’ during the boom days of Benton . . . Buck devoted his talents in those days to grinding out long and dignified editorials, on intricate financial and social problems of a national character, while Mr. Hunt roamed the streets . . . startled the good people of the town by [uncovering local stories] . . . and other sensational facts of a like nature that always interested patrons of ‘the largest newspaper published in the territory’—a nine-column folio.”
In November 1884, Buck was elected to the 14th Territorial Legislative Council, defeating popular pioneer Robert Vaughn. In the Council he became one of the leading members. Buck was elected Fort Benton city attorney in 1885, serving two years, and he led the effort to draw the town’s first charter and organize city government.
While Buck & Hunt built a successful business in Fort Benton, the limits of the old river port town were too restrictive for the ambitious young lawyers so they moved their firm to Helena in 1887. There they joined former territorial governor B. P. Carpenter, forming Carpenter, Buck & Hunt. Buck also reported decisions of the Montana Supreme Court, while Hunt was made a District Judge. Four years later, Governor Joseph K. Toole appointed Buck as judge for the First Judicial District in Lewis and Clark County. For the next decade Buck served as district court judge until he was elected to the Montana Supreme Court in 1896, joining Hunt on Montana’s highest court.
On December 6, 1901, newspaper headlines in Helena read, “Judge Buck Is Dead! Last Night He Sent a Bullet Crashing Through His Brain.” A hastily assembled coroner’s jury heard testimony and reported a verdict, “He came to his death by his own hand, namely by shooting himself in the head with a 38-calibre revolver, but whether the same was accidental or intentional we have no means of knowing.”
In a tribute to his friend W. H. Hunt wrote, “The inexpressibly sad death of Justice Buck, occurring as it did when he seemed in ordinary health and vigorous mind, bids us to remember ‘what shadow we pursue.’ In his death the state has lost one whose pleasing presence was long familiar to those who have had to do with lawyers and courts, for he was in active practice and judicial service since 1879 . . .”
The long and close friendship between Judges Hunt and Buck was remarkable considering the fact that the one had always been a republican and the other a democrat. They were at school and college together, were law partners for years, were associated as district judges for a long time and were together again as associate justices of the Supreme Court.
Another tribute to Horace Buck came from a committee of six of Montana’s leading lawyers:
“To the discharge of the duties of this office (associate justice) he brought legal learning, broad general culture, judicial experience and unswerving impartiality . . .”
Judge Buck was a conspicuous figure in the jurisprudence of the state. The boy from the cellars at Vicksburg was no more, yet he left a lasting legacy in Montana. Today, Horace R. Buck rests in Forestvale Cemetery in Helena.
Ken Robison is a local historian and author of Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield.
Photo: 1. The Siege of Gettysburg (Courtesy of Library of Congress)