U.S. Civil War History & Genealogy

The Devil's To Pay

By Tom Gladwell

General John Buford, USA

Up through the 1960 Centennial, John Buford was an obscure Union Cavalry officer known only to Civil War military scholars and serious students of the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1974, with the publication of Michael Sharra's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, "The Killer Angels," all this began to change. By the time the novel was adapted to film and released as the movie Gettysburg, John Buford was on his way to becoming one of the more popular "unsung" heroes of the war.

Few Gettysburg historians would begrudge Buford his modest celebrity status, or deny that Michael Sharra exercised sound judgment in casting him as a leading character in the novel. By dramatizing the command responsibilities assumed by Buford in the early phase of the battle, the author helped underscore the sentiments of numerous historians, including the Comte de Paris, who had written as follows after the war: "It was John Buford who selected the battlefields where the two Armies were about to measure their strength... he resolved to risk everything in order to allow Reynolds time to reach Gettysburg in advance of the Confederate Army. This inspiration of a cavalry officer and a true soldier decided in every respect the fate of the campaign."

Nor would many scholars quibble seriously with Sam Elliott's portrayal of John Buford in the movie Gettysburg. Although Buford's personal history is sketchy at best, much of what shows rings true with what is known of his character. By and large, the image projected by Elliott blends well with Colonel Theodore Lyman's highly flavored description of the General: "Buford was a compactly built man of middle height, with a tawny mustache, a little triangular gray eye, whose expression is determined, not to stay sinister. His ancient corduroys are tucked into a pair of ordinary boots, from one pocket thereof peeps a huge pipe, while the other is fat with a tobacco pouch. Not withstanding this get up, he is a very soldierly man. He is of good natured disposition, but not to be trifled with. Caught a notorious spy last winter and hung him on the next tree with the inscription 'This man is to hang three days, he who cuts him down shall hang the remaining time'."

But of course there is more to Buford's life than the novel suggests and more to his military career than The Battle of Gettysburg. Indeed, for Buford the battle was merely an episode, albeit a climactic one, within the grueling Gettysburg Campaign itself. Furthermore the campaign was merely one phase in a stretch of fighting that began with Stoneman's Raid in May, and ended only with physical collapse in November during the Mine Run campaign.

In between, he and his men had fought five times back and forth across Brandy Station, a patch of ground with greater significance to Union cavalry that Gettysburg.

In presenting this biographical study I welcome a chance to acquaint you with the neglected aspects of John Buford's Civil War career. In particular, I hope to highlight his role in the transformation of the cavalry arm. It was largely through Buford's influence that the Union cavalry came of age in the summer of '63. It was Buford who set the example and the pace, and in the end the pace would kill him. In telling his full tale I hope I have done him justice.

Gettysburg July 1,1864 5:00 PM

In late afternoon Brigadier General John Buford rode slowly among his troopers as they moved into position on a piece of high ground half mile southwest of Cemetery Hill. Clad in an old hunting jacket and a felt campaign hat, puffing nonchalantly on a pipe, Buford was a calming presence, a reassuring sight to all.

However, outward appearances could be deceiving. In truth, Buford was on the edge of exhaustion; his health was not good and the strain of command responsibility that day had been enormous. The previous evening he had calculated the odds and made decisions and sent messages that virtually committed the Army of the Potomac to battle at Gettysburg. All alone, his division had gone into action at dawn, in a fight that pitted 2,800 horse soldiers against 16,000 rapidly converging Confederates. He had purposely engaged the Rebels to the north and west of town in hopes of buying time to enable Union infantry to come up and seize the high ground to the south. And he succeeded. That morning his two brigades had surprised and stacked up an entire division of infantry, holding it off just long enough to allow John Reynolds to bring up the Union 1st Corps in the nick of time.

In the early afternoon, Buford's brigades had performed admirably on the Union flanks. When the outnumbered blue infantry finally broke and retreated through town to the heights, Buford managed to control his men and retain their unit cohesion. Others might panic, but not John Buford. Earlier, when General Doubleday sent over a courier with orders to mount a foolish cavalry charge, Buford had exploded: "What in hell and damnation does he think I can do against those long lines of enemy out there?"

Fortunately, General Hancock had arrived on the field and was now capably organizing Union defense on the hills to the rear. Across his front, Buford could see Confederate skirmishers near Steven's Run and observe A.P. Hill's infantry milling about along Seminary Ridge. Would they attack? It seemed doubtful, but if they did, he would be ready.

While Colonel Devin's men filtered in from the rear, Buford paused to congratulate Lieutenant John Calef and his battery of horse artillery on their morning performance. Never in nineteen years of soldiering had the general seen a better display on cannonading powers. Coming from Buford, this was a praise indeed. He valued professional competence above all, and had little use for pomp and circumstance. His division now reined up to present a formidable front to the Confederates across the way. Looking on, weary as he was, John Buford must have felt an immense pride. However the battle might end, whatever the newspapers made of it, he knew that his cavalry had done its duty this day. If the army itself remembered, that would be thanks enough.


In a sense, John Buford's destiny at Gettysburg seems to have been contained in his genes. One obvious Buford family characteristic is a predilection of military service. Given the rich pool of military experience within the immediate family, it is easy to see why John Buford became a professional soldier.

During the Revolutionary War, his paternal grandfather, Simeon Buford, a Virginian, had seen action as an officer with the Continental Army. Shortly afterward, Simeon moved to Barren County, Kentucky, to settle and begin the family connection with the Bluegrass State. John Buford's own father, John Buford Sr., served in the Kentucky Militia during the war of 1812 and even named his first-born son Napoleon Bonaparte Buford after the hero of Austerlitz.

With such a name, a military career was bound to follow. In 1823, due perhaps to his fathers influence, Napoleon Buford received a Kentucky appointment to West Point. In 1825, his mother died and his father took another wife, Anne Bannister Howe Watson, the daughter of Captain Edward Howe, a Revolutionary War hero. To this couple John Buford was born on March 4,1826. The older half brother, Napoleon, graduated from West Point the following year and began an eight-year stretch of duty with the army artillery.

During young John's childhood his parents resided in Versailles, Kentucky, a small town located halfway between Lexington and the state capital at Frankfurt. This town is situated in Woodford County in the heart of the Blue grass, Kentucky's prime horse breeding country. Given the geography of his childhood, it is not surprising that Buford was known in his youth as a "splendid horseman", an unerring rifle shot, and a person of wonderful nerve and composure." The advantages of such a childhood for a cavalryman are obvious. Major John Gibbon, one of Buford's comrades summed up the professional "benefits" as follows: "His (Buford's) boyhood was spent in close communion with the horse and he acquired an intimate knowledge of him and his nature, his powers, what he could do and what he could not do... He thus acquired, in his boyhood, the first essential of a good cavalryman on the knowledge of the character and capacity of the cavalryman's coworker....in the field Buford was one of the best horseman I ever saw. He delighted in the horse, was fond of riding, and it is said of him that as a boy he was the greatest daredevil of a rider in the whole country.

In occupational terms, John Buford Sr., was a small farmer/politician who worked his land with as many as eleven slaves. His political activities took him to the state legislature, where he served two terms, much as his own father Simeon had done before him. Indeed, politics seem to have been as much in the family blood as military service. Having named one son Napoleon and another for himself, John Sr. proceeded to name his youngest two boys Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe Buford.

Much has been made of John Buford Jr. " border state" origins, and there is no doubt that a Kentucky childhood and a southern, slaveholding background helped shape a number of his attitudes. But the reality is that John Buford Jr was educated in the North and came to maturity there. In 1836, his father moved to Rock Island, Illinois, apparently for business reasons, and Buford was never again to reside permanently in Kentucky. In later years, of course, he may well have pondered his southern roots. (After all, a much admired cousin, Abraham Buford, was to attend West Point class of '41, become a frontier dragoon, and later serve with the Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest.) All that however, was far in the future. During his teenage years, Buford was more concerned with becoming a soldier and following his older half brother and cousin to West Point.

Accordingly, at age seventeen, John left his parents to join Napoleon, who by then had resigned from the army and was working in Cincinnati as a civil engineer. The elder Buford did his best to tutor and prepare his younger half brother, but entrance to West Point did not come easily. A major stumbling block was an army regulation stating only one person per family, per immediate family that is, could attend. Napoleon countered by launching a massive correspondence to congressmen and senators on his brothers behalf targeting specifically Joseph Totten, the Chief Engineer of the United States Army. He contended that an allowance should be made in this instance since his half brother was from a different state. Furthermore, with its increased population, Illinois was entitled to four additional appointments. As for John himself, Napoleon testified that the lad had a "well cultivated mind."

In the end, Napoleon's efforts bore him fruit. In February 1844, Illinois congressman J.P. Hodge recommended to Colonel Totten that John Buford, Jr. be reconsidered for admission, and he was officially accepted in March into the class of 1848. In July, John Buford presented himself at 'Plebe Muster' and entered the fraternal profession that was to become his true home: the United States Army. Clearly, the older brother was the decisive influence in shaping young John's destiny. It is ironic that in the Civil War to come, Major General Napoleon Buford would be vastly overshadowed by an illustrious half brother nineteen years his junior. Even worse, Napoleon would incur the wrath of U.S. Grant, who wanted him mustered out of the army and sent home.


Cadet 4th classman John Buford began his West Point years on an inconspicuous note. After completing their initial exams, he and the seventy five other plebes of the class of '48 were marched onto the Plain to spend the summer camping in tents. Judging from the recollections of classmate John Tiball, they evidently cut quite a sight: "There were about 60 of us and as we marched, or tried to march, there was a constant losing of step, occasioning the most ludicrous and most vexatious, shuffling, stumbling and kicking of heels. A motley gang we were, coming from every quarter of the country, they necessarily represented every degree of provincialism. Some were arrayed in straw hats, while others sweltered in fur caps, some, the great majority, were painfully rustic in homemade clothes, while a few were foppish with city fashions."

Judging from Buford's later Civil War attire, we may safely assume that he was one of the rustics and that casual dress suited him just fine. As with other Western cadets, most notably William Tecumseh Sherman, there is no indication John Buford was ever a "spit and polish" parade ground soldier.

His casual senses were revealed in other areas as well. While Buford never became a legendary disciplinary case ala George Custer, neither was he a model of virtue on the order of Robert E. Lee. He received nearly 200 demerits during his time at the point, a goodly number. Most interesting is the fact that many of them were handed out for excessive "visiting" and "smoking". Quite obviously, at every stage of his adult life, John Buford was a sociable man whose tobacco pouch was never far away.

At the time that Buford attended it, the United States Military Academy was reputed to be "the best school in the world." While this claim may not have applied in the field of liberal arts, which was given scant attention at the Point, it was probably true in the fields of mathematics, science and engineering. In the pre-Civil War era, West Point cadets were trained primarily as engineers, not as warriors.

Given the nature of the curriculum and his bent as a horse soldier, it is not surprising that Buford failed to distinguish himself as a scholar. Indeed, he was deficient in English grammar midway through his second year, a deficiency he made up by raising his standing from 50th to 31st by the end of the year. With diligence, he made gradual improvement across the board and managed to graduate in the top half of his class, finishing 16th of 38.

During the four years, Buford comported himself well and left a favorable impression on most all that knew him. Comrade John Gibbon (Class of '47) leaves the following description: "Rather slow in speech, he (Buford) was quick enough in thought. He was not especially distinguished in his studies, but his course in the academy was marked by determination. (Buford) Was frank spoken, high spirited, though rather quiet, and held in high esteem by members of his class. He was an excellent shot and an indefatigable hunter. He was one of a few cadets to go hunting at West Point, and whenever John started out after partridges in the woods he was very sure to bring back birds."

In assessing John Buford's West Point years, it is easy to conclude that the fraternity of friends he made were far more important than any formal instruction he received. The same, of course, could be said of most cadets of his year. There was little in the curriculum to prepare them for the mass warfare they would encounter in the 1860's. Even Professor Dennis Hart Mahan's lectures, based on Napoleonic strategy and tactics, were of questionable value. Of greater importance was the human factor, the network of friends that would form the leadership cades of the Union and Confederate armies. At the command level, the Civil War was not so much a people's war as it was a "brothers war" among the Old West Point fellowship.

Buford's particular "motley gang" included William "Grumble" Jones, who would become a constant adversary, almost a nemesis, in the later clash between Union and Confederate cavalry. Upperclassman during Buford's time include Fitz-John Porter ('45), George McClellan ('46), T.J. Jackson ('46), George Pickett ('46) and two future commanders and friends, George Stoneman ('46) and Ambrose Burnside ('47). The class of '47 also included A.P. Hill and Henry Heth, two men Buford would face at Gettysburg on that fateful morning of July 1st 1863.

On July 1st, 1848 John Buford was commissioned as a "brevet" 2nd lieutenant in the United States Army. An aspiring horse soldier, he had requested service with the dragoons and the request was granted: he was assigned to the First Regiment of Dragoons stationed at the Jefferson Barracks near St Louis, Missouri. In the meanwhile, much had happened within his family and in the world outside. His father had died the previous year and the Mexican War had been recently concluded. Buford's class barely missed the adventure of war and the chance to acquire additional brevets for gallantry. As a consequence, Buford could never look back, as many would, to the glories of Mexico. For him, the army meant the frontier. By requesting the dragoons, Buford was electing to spend most of the next thirteen years in the harsh brutal world of the American west. The frontier was to be his real school, not West Point or old Mexico.


In the 1840's, Jefferson Barracks was the mustering point for an army whose principal mission was to protect the ever increasing numbers of settlers heading West. From here, small detachments were dispatched to man a network of forts erected along the main arteries of travel. In Kansas Territory, near the Missouri border, was Fort Scott, where Buford served his first stint with the First Dragoons. Also serving with the regiment was Abraham Buford, his cousin. It was here, in 1849, that John Buford was promoted to permanent 2nd lieutenant while being transferred to the Second Dragoons, the regiment with which he would see the bulk of his frontier service.

In terms of function, the pre-Civil War Dragoons were horse soldiers trained to fight both on horseback and on foot. They were not, strictly speaking, cavalry or mounted infantry, but rather a combination of the two. In performing their dual function, the U.S. Dragoons regarded themselves as a corps d'elite, and after 1851, wore orange trim to mark the distinction. Their principal weapons were the pistol and musketoon, and the "bold and dashing" Second Dragoons in particular, had a proud reputation as tenacious fighters. Buford adapted easily to the duel fighting style and would use both with great effect during the Civil War.

The Second Dragoons and Buford spent most of the next four years being shifted from post to post in the desolated southwest. Buford would serve at Albuquerque and Las Vegas in New Mexico Territory, and Fort Mason in Texas, in company with Sam Starr, Charles May, William Hardee and other legendary pre-Civil War Dragoons. In those areas, the chief Indian threat came from Kiowas, Comanches, and bands of eastern Apaches. This sort of service meant abominable food and hellish living conditions, with the prospect of sudden death never far removed. The deadliest enemies, however, were boredom, isolation, and grinding monotony. Frontier service drove Robert E. Lee to occasional despair and U.S. Grant to drink. Only those with the strongest characters and constitution could survive it without being scarred in some way. Indeed, even Buford would eventually be affected. Late in 1859, when ordered back to the frontier from the east, he wrote that the "dangerous privations on that route at this season of the year are so great that I can hardly summon the courage to make them."

To alleviate the boredom, most officers took every available leave, and John Buford was no exception. Between September 1851 and July 1652, he absented himself to settle some financial problems. The following year he was promoted to 1st lieutenant and sent on detached duty back to Jefferson Barracks and to West Point. Very little is known of his courtship, but in 1854 he married Martha McDowell Duke, a native Kentuckian born in Georgetown, a small village only ten miles from Buford's boyhood home. Known to most as "Pattie", Buford's wife was the cousin of Basil Duke, who later achieved fame as one of John Hunt Morgan's Confederate Raiders. Unfortunately, the couple had only a few months to enjoy domestic tranquility. Far to the west was brewing a storm that would plunge John Buford into his first major battle.


On August 18, 1854, at Fort Laramie, in present day Wyoming a Mormon emigrant complained to the post commander Lieutenant Hugh Fleming that a Sioux Warrior had stolen a cow. Fleming called in Conquering Bear, a nearby Brule Sioux chieftain, to demand the culprit. When the chief refused, the next day Fleming sent Brevet 2nd lieutenant John Grattan with twenty-nine infantry men, two cannon and a drunken half breed interpreter to arrest the chief. Several hundred Sioux warriors, including a young teenaged Crazy Horse, watched in silence as Grattan marched in to present his demands. When the chief refused to budge, Grattan opened fire. Within seconds the foolish lieutenant and his detachment were wiped out.

In Washington, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was outraged. He immediately recalled the nation's foremost Indian fighter, Colonel William S. Harney, from Paris and ordered him to mount a punitive expedition against the Sioux. All of which took time. It was not until the following year that Harney was able to muster his forces at Fort Kearney in the Nebraska Territory. And of course, since Harney was Colonel of the Second Dragoons, it was natural that Buford's regiment would be included in the expedition. Indeed, the reunion with Harney was highly gratifying to all junior officers, who regarded the crusty colonel as a bona fide hero of the Black Hawk, Seminole and Mexican Wars.

In mid July, while waiting for the expedition to get underway, Buford found time to participate in a buffalo hunt with fellow dragoon, Captain Alfred Pleasonton, his later commander in the Gettysburg campaign. During the same month, his wife Pattie gave birth to their only son, James Duke Buford. Meanwhile, Buford had assumed duties as regimental quartermaster. Then in late August, Harney marched west on the Mormon Trail with six hundred soldiers of the 10th and 6th U.S. Infantry, 4th U.S. Artillery and the Second U.S. Dragoons. While Harney led the expedition, Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke commanded the regiment in his place. The mood of the column as it moved out was summed up in Harney's expression: "By God, I'm for battle.... No Peace!"

On September 3, 1855, Harney's force closed on the village of Brule, Nebraska. Nearby was Ash Hollow, the desolate valley which was to give the battle its name. Harney had sent the dragoons and some mounted infantry, including Captain Henry Heath, on a flanking march to gain a vantage point in the rear of the village. That morning Harney stalled for time by meeting with Little Thunder under the pretense of negotiations. Once the dragoons were in position, Harney dropped all pretense and ordered a frontal assault by the bulk of his infantry. The Sioux attempted to flee but were cut to ribbons by the dragoons and mounted infantry descending from the north. Of the 250 Indians present, 150 were killed or captured. Many of the escapees later claimed that the soldiers had committed atrocities. In these claims they had something of a corroborating witness in Lieutenant Gouverneur Kemble Warren, who reported that some were shot as they hid in holes dug in the ground. Depending upon one's perspective, the Ash Hollow affair was either a massacre or a "classic method of attacking a plains encampment."


In 1856 John Buford was to witness frontier violence of another sort. That spring had seen the sacking of Lawrence by pro slavery "border ruffians" and the answering vengeance of abolitionist John Brown in the Osawatomie massacre. Kansas was infested with bushwhackers from both camps and it was the task of the army to keep peace between the two factions. Most of the policing was done by the newly formed First U.S. cavalry, whose regimental quartermaster happened to be J.E.B. Stuart, the later legendary Confederate Cavalryman. As for John Buford, stationed at Fort Riley, we can only guess at the effect of the partisan war in shaping his attitudes. Later on during the Civil War, he exhibited an intense hatred of spies and guerrillas, and hung a number of them without mercy. Without doubt Buford was developing a "regular army" mistrust of shadowy civilians.

One civilian whom he could trust was Percival Lowe, a former dragoon turned wagon master. In the summer of '56, Lowe found himself very sick and stranded at Easton, Kansas. Thanks to John Buford, he was permitted to ride in an ambulance to Fort Riley, a trip that probably saved his life. He repaid the debt the following year by supplying his quartermaster friend with some badly needed mules. Lowe recalls the transaction with an obvious sense of chagrin: "Met Colonel Cooke's command three miles west of the Big Blue. Lieutenant Buford, acting quartermaster for the command, had a order to charge all the mules he wanted to, taking our best, leaving his worst, which he did, leaving us nothing but a bad lot of mules to go in with. The last of my beautiful team was gone. We were getting where the forage was plentiful, they (Second Dragoons) were approaching winter, where forays of all kinds would be scarce. Buford trusted me and I gave him my best.


John Buford's next assignment would be his most difficult as regimental quartermaster. It was his job to keep men and horses adequately supplied during the Mormon Expedition, one of the more grueling and logistically arduous campaigns in U.S. Army history.

In the summer of 1857, President Buchanan had determined that Brigham Young's Mormons in Utah Territory were in rebellion against the United States. In order to reassert federal control, the President decided to mount an army expedition against the Saints. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston was put in command and in mid September his force, which included the Second Dragoons, departed Fort Levenworth on a hurried march up the Mormon Trail to join two infantry regiments six hundred miles further west at Fort Laramie.

On the march to Utah, Johnston and his men found themselves in a race against the weather, which they lost. In October, Mormon raiding parties struck the lead columns and burned seventy two wagons. As temperatures began to drop, Johnston decided to halt the column and winter at Fort Bridger, just inside Utah Territory. During this phase of the march, John Buford performed commendably. On October 15,1857, Colonel Cooke wrote as follows: "I crossed the South Platte with a very cold northwest wind, descended Ash Hollow and marched a mile or two on the North Platte in the vain search for grass. These twenty-two miles were accomplished by the whole train in good time. This must be attributed to the excellent management of that efficient officer, 1st Lt. John Buford, Regimental Quartermaster." (Cooke had always liked Buford. In November 1856, he had recommended that the 1st lieutenant replace Major Lewis Armistead as commander of Fort Riley.)

The next day, Pattie Buford gave birth to a second child, a daughter, Pattie McDowell Duke Buford, and once again her husband was elsewhere. By the reckoning of one of his friends, Buford spent nearly two thirds of his frontier service away from his family.

By November the temperatures had plummeted to forty four below zero and the dragoons were on the verge of freezing to death. They somehow reached Fort Bridger in mid-March and remained there till spring, withstanding conditions not unlike Valley Forge. It was a lesson in hardship the Dragoons would never forget. Miraculously, only one man died that winter, thanks to the leadership of Johnston and Cooke, and the quartermaster savvy of John Buford.

With warmer weather came badly needed reinforcements and supplies. Johnston and his column resumed the march on June 13, 1858, only to find the Mormons now backing away from armed conflict. The army entered Salt Lake City on June 26 without a shot being fired. Feigning bewilderment, the Saints inquired of Johnston what all the fuss was about. The army's disgust was undoubtedly shared by John Buford, whose view of dissembling civilians was already decidedly low. Two months later, he returned to Fort Leavenworth and put in for a transfer to the Army Commissary Generals Office, which was granted. Quite likely he was exhausted and needed a change of climate and scene.

Buford spent much of 1859 - 60 on detached duty, performing a variety of tasks while traveling to Washington D. C., Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Fort Smith, Arkansas and even out to Oregon. On March 9, 1859, he received a promotion to captain and a year later, was given his first assignment as company commander (Company B Second U.S. Dragoons) at Fort Crittenden near Salt Lake City. Whatever his feelings about civilians, Buford continued to make an excellent impression on soldiers of all ranks. A fellow dragoon officer described him during this late frontier period: "Capt. Buford at that time was considered, in the regiment which boasted among its officers some of the most dashing and superior officers in the cavalry service, as the soldier par excellence. No man could be more popular or sincerely beloved by his fellow officers, nor could any officer be more respected and admired by his men than he was. His company had no superior in the service.

However, events far to the east were now determining the future. Throughout 1860, Buford and his mates had lived with talk of secession and the possibility of civil war, and when the Pony Express brought word that Fort Sumter had been fired on in April 1861, that possibility became a reality. As was the case with many West Pointers, Buford had to choose between North and South.

On the surface of his background, Buford had ample reason to join the Confederacy. After all, he was a native Kentuckian, the son of a slave-owning father, the husband of a woman whose relatives would fight for the South, as would a number of his own. On the other hand, Buford had been educated in the north and come to maturity within the Army. His two most influential professional role models, Colonel Harney and Cooke, were southerners who elected to remain with the Union and the U.S. Army. He loved his profession and his time on the frontier had snapped a number of threads that drew other southerners home. The best testimony we have concerning Buford's decision comes from John Gibbon, a North Carolinian facing the same dilemna. In a post war memory, Gibbon recalled the evening that John Buford committed himself to the Union: "One night after the arrival of the mail we were in his (Buford's) room, when Buford said in his slow and deliberate way 'I got a letter from the Governor of Kentucky. He sent me word to come to Kentucky at once and I shall have anything I want.' With a good deal of anxiety, I (Gibbon) asked 'What did you answer, John?' And my relief was great when he replied 'I sent him word I was a Captain in the United States Army and I intended to remain one!'"


With the advent of war, Buford and his regiment were called east to Washington, D. C. Shortly after arriving there in the autumn of 1861, he received promotion to major and was given a staff assignment in the office of the U. S. Army Inspector General. More than likely, he was greatly disappointed to be leaving his regiment, which had been re-designated as the 2nd US Cavalry. Nor was he terribly pleased by the volunteer cavalry that he was sent to inspect in Kentucky in the winter of 1861-62: I have confined my inspection chiefly to the mounted service on account of its inefficiency, and to aid in putting it in shape for active service. But I fear it will be a long time before we shall hear of any brilliant exploits from this branch of the service. As a whole it is so raw, ignorant, and indolent and so poorly armed that it makes a bad comparison with other arms of the service.

In the spring of 1862, Buford was reassigned to the Washington defenses, where he would languish throughout McClellan's Peninsula campaign. At the time, many "old army" friends realized that his considerable talents were being misused and wasted. Brigadier General John Gibbon wrote his wife that Buford was "too good a soldier to lie rusticating in Washington."

Rescue came from an unexpected quarter, from Major General John Pope, freshly arrived from the West to command the newly formed Army of Virginia. History has been unkind to General Pope, but he deserves credit for making two decisions that would begin the transformation of Union cavalry into a formidable fighting arm. First of all, Pope reorganized his cavalry into three brigades capable of taking the offensive. (Heretofore, the cavalry had been relegated to escort and messenger duty.) Secondly, Pope knew John Buford by reputation and requested his services as a brigade commander. Secretary of War Stanton agreed, and on July 27, 1862, John Buford was promoted to brigadier general of Volunteers. Pope would later say of this promotion that "a better one was never made."


General Buford's Brigade was composed of four volunteer cavalry regiments: the 1st Michigan, 5th New York, 1st Vermont, and 1st West Virginia. He would not however, have much time to train or even become acquainted with his men. In early August, Robert E. Lee went on the offensive, sending "Stonewall" Jackson's command to circle round Pope's right flank along the Rapidan River. McClellan was ordered to evacuate the Peninsula and the Second Manassas campaign was underway.

Up until this point in the war, Confederate cavalry had pretty much had the field to itself. Jeb Stuart and his troopers had achieved spectacular success in riding behind Union lines providing the Army of Northern Virginia with invaluable intelligence. The Confederate advantage lay partly in the quality of its horses and riders, and partly in the fact that so many of the old army cavalry and dragoon officers had elected to go south. By contrast, Union cavalry had been the bastard stepchild of their army. Blue-coated horsemen had provided little in the way of intelligence and usually turned tail in the presence of Stuart and his Cavaliers. With John Buford's arrival, all this began to change.

He served immediate notice by moving his brigade to the South in search of enemy infantry. And he succeeded in finding some, informing Pope on August 8 that Jackson's command was on the march. In doing so, Buford had taken his command so far behind Confederate lines as to run the risk of capture; he himself reported that "I may be cut off." One staff officer described their escape: "Buford's situation on that day was difficult. Twenty-five miles from support, with an enterprising enemy in front, on his flanks and rear, but by a wide detour and by skillful movements, he was able to rejoin Pope at Culpeper two days later."

Buford did not stop there. On August 17, upon receiving orders to mount a reconnaissance in force across the Rapidan River, he dispatched two regiments that managed to give Jeb Stuart quite a scare. The next day at Verdiersville, the 1st Michigan and the 5th New York captured Stuart's Adjutant General, Major Fitzhugh, who was found to be carrying dispatches from Robert E. Lee. Continuing on, the bluecoats found the Rebel cavalry leader himself relaxing with his staff at a country home. Stuart barely escaped by jumping a fence, but his famed plumed hat was taken prisoner. Buford's men returned with the hat and the critical intelligence that Pope's Rapidan line had been flanked. In the next week, Buford's Brigade screened the withdrawal of the army and stood picket along the river, while finding time to capture several Confederate supply wagons near Salem.

On August 27, Buford learned of a large Rebel concentration at White Plains, which turned out to be Longstreet's command, marching to join Jackson, who was now in Pope's rear at Manassas Junction. To prevent the union of the two forces, it was essential to seal off the Thoroughfare Gap in the Bull Run Mountains through which Longstreet would have to pass. To hold this gap against Longstreet's 30,000 veterans, Pope dispatched Rickett's division of 5,000 infantrymen and Buford's Brigade.

Over the years a legend has grown that Buford and his men made a six hour Thermopylae-like stand in Thoroughfare Gap. Unfortunately, the facts are otherwise. While Buford's medical officer states that the brigade did hold the gap while awaiting Ricketts, Buford makes no mention of it in his report. It does appear that his men did some skirmishing and provided an effective rearguard in retreat, but in truth, neither Buford nor Ricketts delayed Longstreet's Corps for very long.

But, if Buford failed to hold Thoroughfare Gap against stupendous odds, he continued to send superb intelligence reports. With John Buford on the perimeter, there was never a danger of a commanding general being left in the dark as to what was coming. That morning he had informed General's Pope and McDowell that a "large force from Thoroughfare Gap is making a junction through Centerville, up the Centerville Road, with the force in the direction of the cannonading (Jackson), "While skirmishing in retreat, Buford sent General Ricketts a count of enemy forces and a suggestion as to their joint course of action: "Seventeen regiments and a battery and 500 hundred cavalry passed Gainesville three-quarters of an hour ago on the Centerville Road. I think this division (Buford's and Ricketts') should join our forces engaged at once."

Ten months later at Gettysburg, General's Reynolds and Meade would act on Buford's dispatches. At Second Manassas, his intelligence was ignored. At 4 P.M., August 30, 1862, Longstreet's command rolled forward, crushing Pope's left flank in a single blow. As most of the army streamed to the rear, Buford's brigade was sent to the left to cover the retreat.

No sooner had he positioned his troopers near the Portici House than he was confronted with a Confederate cavalry brigade led by Beverly Robertson, an old West Point and frontier comrade. This was a critical moment, for if Robertson was to break through, the Union army would be cut off from Washington, DC

In the gathering dusk, Robertson spurred his men forward, no doubt expecting the usual retrograde movement from the mounted bluecoats. If so, the Virginian got a nasty surprise. Instead of retreating, Buford pitched into the Rebels with a saber slashing charge which he lead in true dragoon fashion. Before going in, he shouted out to his men, "Boys, save our army, cover their retreat!" For the first time, the gray cavaliers were stunned and rocked in their saddles. Robertson quickly called in reinforcements and managed to retrieve the initiative and drive Buford's men across Bull Run at Lewis Ford, but Buford's charge had the effect he intended; he had bloodied the Rebels and blunted their pursuit. Robertson elected to call it off and the Union Army got away safely.

Buford received some sort of wound in this fight, and although there are conflicting interpretations of its severity, he was reported killed in some southern newspapers. One of his most trusted aids, Captain Myles Keogh, wrote the general had been struck in the knee with a spent ball. What ever it was, the wound did not appear to slow down the former Dragoon. He was able to send an intelligence report the very next day and the brigade medical officer makes no mention of a wounding.

Although General Pope was badly humiliated in the Second Manassas campaign, the result did not sour his opinion of John Buford. On the contrary, the performance of Buford's cavalry had been one of the few bright spots, and Pope knew it. "Buford's coolness and courage were known of all men who to do with him." Dr. Frank Johnson, the brigade medical officer, noted the transformation which his commander was beginning to work with Union horse soldiers. "The cavalry arm improved rapidly and continuously under his hands.... I noted with pleasure its ever increasing effect under him." Unfortunately for the Army of the Potomac, Buford's superiors would fail to use his expertise in the next two campaigns.


In the wake of defeat, much of Pope's army was absorbed into the Army of the Potomac, and on September 10, 1862, McClellan appointed John Buford as "Chief of Cavalry." As grandiose as the title sounded, however, the job was in reality little more than a glorified, advisory staff position. In consequence, the "Chief of Cavalry" had virtually no command role in the Antietam Campaign. Captain Keogh mentions that General Buford was "active" at South Mountain; General Gibbon recalled that the cavalry chief was with General Hooker when the later was wounded near the "Corn Field." But during most of the Battle of Antietam, Buford was tethered to "Little Mac's" headquarters.

After Antietam, McClellan was sacked and replaced by Major General Ambrose Burnside, another of John Buford's close West Point friends. Burnside retained Buford in his "Chief of Cavalry" staff position during the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13th. Though Burnside did restore Pope's three-brigade system, the cavalry did not play much of a role in the battle. During this period, Buford was called to appear at the court martial of General Fitz-John Porter, who had been accused of negligence at Second Manassas, and who, though convicted, would be exonerated sixteen years later as one would expect, Buford's testimony was characteristically terse and to the point.
Q- What portion did you state were so marching?
A- Seventeen regiments of infantry, one battery of artillery, and about 500 cavalry.
Q- Did you see this force?
A- I did.

During the winter of 1862-63, Buford moved his family into a house on Vermont Street in Washington, DC. Perhaps the high point of their season was the evening that his wife Pattie and his half brother Napoleon met President Lincoln at the White House. The lowest point certainly had to have been the night Buford was pick-pocketed of $2,000 in a local bar. Ironically, on the same day that the general lost his money, Union cavalry had fought ferociously at Kelly's Ford and managed to kill Major John Pelham, the famed commander of Stuart's Horse Artillery. Buford's spirit seemed to be catching. For Union cavalry, the tide was about to turn.


On January 26,1863, Major General Joe Hooker replaced Burnside as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. Whatever was to be Hooker's ultimate legacy, it is impossible to ignore his contributions in the reorganization of the Union cavalry. Under "Fighting Joe" the cavalry was consolidated into one Corps of 13,580 men and horses that would fight as one body under the command of General George Stoneman, another of John Buford's old West Point friends.

The corps would consist of three divisions and an elite Reserve Brigade composed of "regular" army regiments, the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 2nd US Cavalry. This brigade would eventually include the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, also known as "Rush's Lancers" after their early commander Richard Rush and their initial use of lances, the later abandoned during the Peninsula campaign. At his own request, John Buford was given command of this elite unit, which was probably the finest brigade of the corps. He would command them at brigade and division level until his death, and they were his favorites.

In the spring of 1863, General Hooker devised a bold and daring plan. He would pin down Lee's army at Fredericksburg with part of his huge 120,000 man force while sneaking up river and around Lee's left flank with the bulk of it. In the meanwhile, Stoneman's cavalry would wreak havoc in Lee's rear by riding south to cut off the Virginia Central Railroad and to harass Richmond.

Unfortunately, neither Hooker nor Stoneman had reckoned with the weather, which came close to crippling the raid at the outset. Buford's brigade arrived at Rappahannock Station on April 15, but before it could cross, the skies unleashed a torrential downpour that would last two weeks. "Such roads and rain I have never seen," lamented Buford. Finally, on April 29, the rains eased a bit and the raid began. Stoneman's Corps crossed over and fanned out south over the Virginia countryside, with some elements reaching eventually to the northern outskirts of Richmond. Buford's brigade rode as far as Thompson's Crossroads on the North Anna River, arriving there on May 3rd. On the return trip, the Reserve Brigade raided Louisa Court House on May 5th and engaged in several sharp fights, losing one of the General's nephews, Temple Buford, to capture in one of them. In all, it had been one rough ride. As one trooper recalled: "We were not allowed to build fires, unsaddle, or sleep. Many of our horses gave out for want of food or rest."

Buford and his bedraggled men re-crossed the Rappahannock on May 7, only to learn that the Union infantry had been dealt a crushing defeat at Chancellorsville four days earlier. Many historians believe that the absence of Stoneman's cavalry was a major cause of defeat, and while the issue is debatable, it is certainly true that General Stoneman became one of Hooker's scapegoats. Nevertheless, morale remained high within the cavalry. Whatever the fate of its commander, the Corps had taken the offensive and fought as a unit on its own. In the view of one horseman, "It was the first great achievement of the cavalry of the army of the Potomac, and from which dated the rise of that branch of the service in the estimation of soldiers and civilians. It was ever after a matter of pride with the boys that they were on 'Stoneman's Raid.'"


In late May, there was a predictable reshuffling within the cavalry Corps. General Stoneman was relieved for medical reasons and replaced by Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton, In terms of personal style, the new corps commander had a few points in common with Jeb Stuart, his Confederate counterpart, but was in most respects the exact opposite of John Buford, his old frontier hunting companion. The dandified Pleasonton gloried in publicity, dressed in outlandish cavalier uniforms, and transformed cavalry headquarters into a veritable social club, replete with the finest food and drink. Furthermore, Pleasonton was something of a martinet with a knack of raising enlisted hackels. By contrast, John Buford shunned publicity to the point of banning newspapermen from his camp, and even once remarked "How newspapers lie." Moreover, Buford got on handsomely with soldiers of all ranks, "volunteer" as well as "regular" Captain Theo Rodenbough provided a clue as to why this was so: "Buford despised the false flourish and noisy parade of the charletans of his service. He avoided too, perhaps, the proper praise due his glorious actions, his bravery and dash, without ostentation or pride, his coolness and able management and above all, the care of his men endeared him to all."

In early June, Buford was promoted to First Division command, a position finally commensurate with his talents. Since he was to lead this division through the Gettysburg Campaign and until his death, it is worth pausing to note its organization and subordinate commanders.

The First Brigade was comprised by the 6th New York, six companies of the 3rd Indiana, and 8th Illinois Cavalry regiments. Four companies of the 12th Illinois would merge with the 3rd Indiana following the Battle of Brandy Station. Brigade commander Benjamin "Grimes" Davis would be killed at Brandy Station and be replaced by Colonel William Gamble, an Irish immigrant and a former member of the First US Dragoons. Its most notable regiment was easily the 8th Illinois, which produced a number of generals, including Elon Farnsworth, who was promoted from captain to brigadier general on the eve of Gettysburg, where he would die leading a futile cavalry charge.

The Second Brigade was comprised of the 6th New York, 17th Pennsylvania, two companies (a squadron) of the 3rd West Virginia, and the 9th New York Cavalry regiments. Its commander was the extraordinarily able Colonel Thomas Casimir Devin, a former house painter from New York City. US Grant would later say that, with the exception of Phil Sheridan, Thomas Devin was the finest cavalry officer in the service.

The Third Brigade was Buford's old brigade of elite "regulars," plus the 6th Pennsylvania, whom Buford called his "7th regulars." As the campaign wore on, command of the brigade eventually devolved upon Brigadier General Wesley Merritt, whom along with Elon Farnsworth and George Custer became one of the trio of "boy generals" promoted from captain on the eve of Gettysburg.

Until the summer of 1863, Federal troopers had lived with the infantry taunt: "Who ever saw a dead cavalryman?" In the weeks to come, the infantry would learn to hold its tongue. Heading into the Gettysburg campaign with a strength of roughly 4,000, Buford's Division would suffer 1,813 casualties in the six week stretch between June 9th and July 26th.


On June 4, 1863, General Hooker ordered Buford to conduct reconnaissance in the direction of Culpepper, Virginia, to determine the number of the enemy cavalry. Hooker suspected that General Lee was considering an invasion, or at the very least, a raid into the North. The next day Buford reported back that all of Stuart's cavalry was in and around Culpepper, and that he believed that the Rebels were about to conduct a Raid northward.

Hooker's suspicions were of course, correct. Lee had already begun to move his army from Fredericksburg, west and north through Culpepper, intending to march up the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland and on to Pennsylvania where he hoped to win a decisive victory on northern soil. Stuart's cavalry had been gathered near Culpepper to provide a screen for the troop movements that had begun June 3rd. Indeed, on June 8th Stuart held a grand review of his division in the opened and rolling farm country near the rail junction of Brandy Station.

But, even as Stuart was throwing his party, "Fighting Joe" Hooker had determined to break it up. He ordered his cavalry to cross the Rappahannock at Beverly and Kelly's Fords to attack the enemy "in their camps" and to "disperse and destroy the rebel force." In its specifics the plan was relatively simple. On the following morning, Buford's Division would cross at Kelly's Ford. Each would have an infantry brigade in support, and when all were across they would combine and move to Culpepper to crush Stuart. A good plan, with but one problem: Stuart's men were not posted where they were expected to be. In fact, they were camped only a mile or so from where Buford would cross Beverly Ford.

On the evening of June 8th, Buford's men prepared themselves for their biggest cavalry to date. One trooper recalled that "we marched that night to within a mile or two of the fords, and awaited the approach of dawn." Another remembered that "the men stood to horse with instructions to make no noise or even light a match." Although the night passed in tension and silence, General Buford was observed passing calmly among his men. "He (Buford) rode a gray horse at a slow walk and smoked a pipe. It was always reassuring to see him in the saddle when there was any chance of a fight."

The chance came at dawn, as Buford's Division splashed across the Rappahannock with drawn sabers. Davis Brigade led the way and quickly overran the Rebel pickets. The surprised Confederates somehow managed to counter attack, and in the hand to hand fighting that followed, Colonel Davis was killed. Nonetheless, his and Devin's brigades had severely mauled a Rebel brigade led by Buford's old classmate, William "Grumble" Jones. Reeling from the blow, Jones now fell back to a low ridge near the St. James country church, where there was supporting horse artillery, and where Wade Hampton soon arrived with a fresh Rebel brigade. Despite their complete tactical surprise, Stuart's men had somehow managed to establish a solid defensive line near the church.

Buford later reported that "when the sad news of Davis's fall reached me, I crossed to the front to find out how matters stood." Upon arriving there and finding his attack stalled at the St. James church, he ordered a mounted saber charge against the Rebel position (once again Buford had ordered a mounted charge, again dispelling the myth that he only fought dismounted.) The 6th Pennsylvania and the 6th U.S. Cavalry thundered across the half mile opened into the teeth of cannon and rifle fire from two Confederate brigades. A magnificent charge it was, but, like most cavalry charges against artillery and dismounted riflemen, it resulted in a bloody failure. The two regiments cut their way out and back, with the Pennsylvanians losing well over a hundred men.

Since the St James line seemed unbreachable, Buford now ordered much of his force to the west, into the teeth of a Rebel brigade behind a stone wall on the Green farm. When this assault failed, he decided to bring the infantry into it, making the following request of Captain George Stevenson of the third Wisconsin Infantry: "Do you see those people down there? They got to be driven out. Mind, I don't order you in: but if you think you can do it, go in. It was odd that an old "regular" would have scruples about giving orders to the infantry, but Buford's appeal worked and one hundred or so Wisconsin foot soldiers were able to take the stone wall, thereby undermining the Confederate position.

Throughout the morning, Stuart's men had the luxury of being able to concentrate almost exclusively against Buford's. With the arrival of General Gregg's Division, at around noon, Stuart was in serious jeopardy of being flanked and broken. To retrieve the situation, he pulled all Rebel forces back to Fleetwood Hills, a long ridge a mile and a half to his rear. Buford stepped up the pressure by sending the 2nd U.S. Cavalry against the retreating Confederates. Captain Wesley Merritt, who was wounded in the action, describes the climatic fighting at the foot of Fleetwood Hill: "We rode pell-mell, with sabers in hand at the astonished enemy... The next moment it (the Rebel line) had broken and was flying, while horseman of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry mingling with the Rebels, dealt saber blows and pistol shots on every side... friend and foe, mixed inextricably together, rode on in this terrible carnage.”

Fighting raged throughout the afternoon as Buford’s Reserve Brigade carried the northern portion of Fleetwood Hill while Gregg’s men pounded Stuart from the south. But the Gray Cavalier was not beaten. With the approach of evening, corps commander Pleasonton, accompanying Gregg's Division, decided enough was enough and sent orders to Buford to retreat; The staff messenger found the General "entirely isolated from the rest of the command under Pleasonton but paying no attention and fighting straight on."

Buford grudgingly withdrew his division and re-crossed the Rappahannock in an orderly fashion, thus concluded the biggest cavalry battle of the war. Among the men there was no sense of defeat, but rather a mood of exultation. They had paid a price in blood, Buford's Division accounted for 500 of the 866 Union casualties but the boost to morale seemed worth the cost. They had caught Stuart badly off guard and they knew it. In the words of one trooper, "the Rebels were going to have a review, but our boys review them." Even their enemies knew it, and sensed a shift in the balance of power. Major Henry McClellan, Stuart’s aide and Biographer, later conceded that "This battle made the Federal Cavalry. The fact is that up to June 9th, 1863, the Confederate cavalry did have its own way and the record of their success becomes almost monotonous, but after that time we held our ground only by hard fighting."


But the pace was quickening, and Buford's division would have little time to celebrate. The day after the battle Lee commenced his invasion of the North. With Ewell's Corps moving first, using the Shenandoah Valley as a conduit to the Potomac River, while Stuart's cavalry screened and guarded the mountain gaps against Federal reconnaissance patrols. As events unfolded, Hooker soon lost track of Lee's army and was forced to order Pleasonton's cavalry into the Loudoun Valley to find it. Feeling the pressure, Pleasonton made it clear to Buford and others that risk must be taken, and casualties too. "Drive in the (Rebel) pickets. if necessary, and get us information. It is better we should lose men than be without knowledge of the enemy."

On June 19, in Middleburg, Buford rode with two of his brigades in support of General Gregg, who managed to collide with Beverly Robertson's troopers on the Little River Turnpike. Gregg had fought Stuart at Aldie on June 17, and now it was Buford's turn. Leaving the Reserve Brigade with Gregg, he took Gamble's men on a flanking ride to the north, only to run into "Grumble Jones" 7th Virginia who stopped them cold. Soon thereafter, the wily Stuart withdrew his forces west to Upperville to better position them near Ashby's Gap.

By June 21, Hooker was becoming livid over the lack of intelligence concerning Lee's movements. Feeling the additional heat, Pleasonton ordered a renewed assault up the turnpike to break up Stuart's screen around Upperville. In this engagement, Buford was again given the task of turning Stuart's left, or northern flank, but again encountered difficulties. First of all, since rations had not been drawn, his men were forced to negotiate the choppy, broken ground near Goose and Pantherskin Creek on empty stomachs. Then again, there was the enemy. In Buford's words: "I took the command up the right bank of the creek over a most difficult country, and came up to the enemy in a position where I could not turn him."

Retracing his steps, Buford successfully crossed the stream and rode into yet another brawl with "Grumble Jones", who had been strongly reinforced, Approaching the Turnpike - Tappe Road intersection, he demonstrated his tactical flexibility by sending a number of Gamble's troopers into a sunken road to fight as dismounted skirmishers. With covering fire from this position, the remainder of the brigade charged hell-bent into Jones troopers and drove them back to the Trappe Road. Looking on, enjoying the whiff of brimstone, John Buford felt elated enough to exclaim: "I’ll be dammed if I can't whip a little corner of hell with that First Brigade." In the meanwhile, his Reserve Brigade had made a gallant though futile charge up the Little River Turnpike. Buford now brought up Devin's men, but Stuart was already beginning to pull back into Ashby's Gap.

Buford followed cautiously, but still managed to put a patrol to the top of the Blue Ridge. Historians have long debated just what these soldiers were able to observe, some contending that they saw nothing at all. Since neither Gamble nor Buford mentioned such sightings in their reports, it seems doubtful that anything of consequence was observed, In truth, Union cavalry had gleaned little intelligence during the Loudon Valley phase of the Gettysburg Campaign. Buford was quite proud of the divisional performance in combat, and especially at Upperville saying "I cannot conceive how men could have done better" but more and better information would soon be essential. Even as the Union cavalry fell back to regroup at Aldie, lead elements of Lee's army were across the Potomac and heading for Pennsylvania.


Buford's men arrived at Aldie badly in need of rest and refitting. Most of the fighting since Chancellorsville had been done by cavalry, and the continual movement and action between Brandy Station and Upperville had taken a toll. During this stretch, Pleasonton's Corps had lost 1,700 men, fifteen percent of their strength, and countless horses had been declared unserviceable. Indeed, one trooper lamented that "if they keep this up much longer, that branch (cavalry) will be extinct." Another remembered watching his entire regiment falling asleep with their horses standing loyally over them.

The First Division was given four days in Aldie before receiving orders to mount up and ride north in pursuit of Lee. Buford was assigned to guard the rear of the newly formed "Left wing" of the Army of the Potomac, consisting of the 1st, 3rd, and 11th infantry Corps, commanded by the able and highly respected General John Reynolds. His troopers followed the infantry across the Potomac River at Edwards Ferry on June 27, and received a rousing, flag waving welcome as they rode into Middletown, Maryland the next day.

In passing through Frederick, however, the reception was somewhat different. Here Buford displayed a frontier sense of justice by summarily hanging a captured spy, an act that prompted an outraged populace to declare him a "Northern Brute." Exhibiting a dark sense of humor, Buford explained that he was afraid to send the spy to Washington for fear that the government might promote him to brigadier general, an obvious reference to the June 28 orders that had promoted the trio of "boy generals"  (Custer, Farnsworth and Merritt). This was not the last spy that Buford would execute and Colonel Lyman was right in describing him as a man "not to be trifled with."

On the same day that the "boy generals" received their stars, General Hooker was relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac and replaced by General George Mead. Since the cavalry branch had made enormous strides under Hooker, many of its officers were gravely concerned by the change. As events unfolded, their fears were proved groundless; Mead was to give corps commander Pleasonton essentially a free hand during the Gettysburg campaign. More to the point, Meade decided to continue the pursuit and immediately ordered Reynolds' "Left Wing" to proceed to Emmitsburg, Maryland, with the cavalry guarding its flanks. Amid the flurry of orders issued on June 29 was the fateful one from Pleasonton directing Buford to move his division into Pennsylvania to the crossroads town of Gettysburg.

On the receipt of orders, "Boots and Saddles" was called and Buford's Division rode out of Middletown to the Northwest, minus the Reserve Brigade, which had been dispatched to guard the Catoctin Mountain passes (Near present day Thurmont MD.) The general would not see his beloved "regulars" for a week, but was fortunate to be reinforced by Battery A, 2nd U. S. Horse Artillery commanded by Lt. John Calef. A bright, energetic youngster, the twenty-one year old Calef had become enough of a veteran to be able to muse about "How satisfactory it must be to go to bed at night without the liability of having one's head shot off the next day." Two days hence, Calef would encounter some serious liabilities.

The division journeyed thirty miles passing through Boonsboro and Cavetown and across the Pennsylvania line to Monterey Springs, and then on to camp finally near present day Fountaindale, PA. Along the way the ride had all the appearance of a triumphal progress, as citizens turned out in droves to cheer them. Many troopers poignantly remembered an old man in Monterey Springs standing with hat in hand, tears streaming down his face. Still and all, despite the cheering and home-cooked food, Buford was beginning to have a premonition as to what lay ahead. As the sun set over the mountains, he stared into the dusk and remarked to one of his officers that "Within forty-eight hours the concentration of both armies will take place within view and a great battle will be fought."

On the following morning, June 30, Buford received a jolt that must have reinforced his premonition. He had intended to take his brigades that day through Fairfield to Gettysburg, but in the early morning fog, his column had ridden into the pickets of two Mississippi regiments. Realizing that he could not pass through Fairfield without a major fight, Buford broke contact and rode south into Maryland to come into Gettysburg from a different direction. Judging from the tone of his report, the experience also tended to confirm his bitter opinion of timid, fair weather civilians:

"The inhabitants knew of my arrival and the position of the enemy camp, yet not one of them gave me a particle of information. The whole community seemed stampeded and afraid to speak out, after offering excuses like 'The Rebels will destroy our house if we tell anything.' Had any of them given me timely information and acted as a guide that night, I could have surprised and captured this Rebel force."

Somewhat later, the division moved into Emmitsburg, Maryland, to make the turn to begin the final ten mile leg to Gettysburg. Here they met the Union 1st infantry corps, and here it is likely that Buford paused to discuss the developing situation with General Reynolds, the Left Wing commander. Although there is some dispute on this point, it is unlikely that two officers as competent as Buford and Reynolds would have passed up an opportunity to compare notes face to face. For his part, Buford had already sent 5:30 AM dispatches to Reynolds and Pleasonton with news of a large Rebel force in Cashtown, some seven miles to the west of Gettysburg.

This large force was General Henry Heth's Division of A.P. Hill's Corps which had marched over from Chambersburg the day before. Furthermore, the Confederate commander had dispatched one of his brigades to Gettysburg that very morning to procure supplies. At the same time that Buford was riding up from the South, Johnston Pettigrew's North Carolinians were marching in from the Northwest. From the Cashtown Road, on the outskirts of town, Pettigrew noticed Buford's scouts, but, lacking cavalry to investigate, wisely decided to withdraw and report the matter to Heth and A.P. Hill. Both commanders tended to discount Pettigrew's observations, and Hill determined to return to town the following morning with his entire corps. Thus, on the Confederate side, the die was cast.

The first of Buford's troopers to enter Gettysburg were scouts from the 3rd Indiana and the 8th Illinois. The remainder of the division cantered in around noon with Gamble's 1,600 troopers leading the way, swallowtail guidons snapping in the breeze; followed by Devin's 1,100 man brigade and Calef's 75 horse artillerymen. Their welcome was more tumultuous than usual, and Captain William Hazelton of the 8th Illinois obviously savored every minute of it: "We were in grand old loyal Pennsylvania, we had reached Beulah land.... We had been used to ladies scowl as we rode along the Virginia pikes until we expected nothing else... and now to see but smiling faces and approving glances was like manna to our hungry souls.


As one might expect, General Buford took a harder and more jaundiced view of the celebration townfolk: "Found everybody in a terrible state of excitement on account of the enemies advance on this place (Gettysburg) his force was terribly exaggerated by reasonable and truthful but inexperienced men. My men and horses are fagged out, I have not been able to get any grain yet. It is all in the country and the people talk instead of working.... no reliable information could be obtained from the inhabitants."

Indeed, he immediately declared martial law and jailed a suspected spy. In order to keep his troopers sober, he prohibited local tavern owners from selling them liquor, and had the local newspaper print flyers to that effect. Ever the professional, Buford knew that his men would need all their wits about them the next morning. As for himself, he had much to ponder, and a decision to make.

By mid-afternoon John Buford knew that his premonition was true and that he had ridden into the eye of a dark and gathering storm. Confederate infantry was all round and signs were ominous that Lee's army was pulling together to converge on Gettysburg. Looking about, he could appreciate the strategic significance of the network of roads radiating from town; his trained tactical eye could also appreciate the value of the high ground, to the South the fishhook shaped series of ridges and hills running from Culp's Hill, to Cemetery hill, to Cemetery Ridge to Little and Big Round Top. The armies were in a race and whichever one seized the high ground would likely win the battle to come.

Buford was in position to sow the wind and determine the fate of both armies. If he could hold the town and fight a successful delaying action to the West while Union infantry came up to take the high ground to the South, all might be well. If not... If the Confederates came in too fast and too many, his brigades might be crushed. If the Union infantry was late in arriving and lost the high ground, the results could be even more disastrous.

While pondering the variables, Buford established his headquarters at the Eagle Hotel at the corner of Washington and Chambersburg Streets, and directed Devin and Gamble to set up their main camps north and west of town near the Lutheran Seminary and the Pennsylvania College. At around 4:00 PM, Gettysburg resident Daniel Skelly observed him wearing an old hunting jacket, at the corner of the Chambersburg and Washington Street intersection: "General Buford sat on his horse in the street in front of me, entirely alone, facing to the West and in profound thought. It was the only time I ever saw the General and his calm demeanor and soldierly appearance. It is possible that from that position, directing through his aides the placing of his brigades.

While we can never pinpoint the moment, it is clear at some point between mid-afternoon and early evening, John Buford made his mind to stand and fight at Gettysburg. When he did, the wind was sown, the Union die was cast.


Through the remainder of the day Buford's scouts ranged to the West and far to the North to obtain the intelligence necessary to his defense. If he was to hold the town until General Reynolds brought up the 1st Corps and the remainder of the Union "Left Wing" (3rd and 11th Corps), he had to know which Confederate forces were coming from where. By mid-evening the reports were in, and at 10:30 p.m. a message was sent informing Reynolds that A.P. Hill's Corps was at Cashtown, with Longstreet's Corps right behind; Ewell's Corps was crossing the mountains from Carlisle, and there were rumors of a Confederate advance from York. In the same breath, Buford notified General Pleasonton that he now knew the enemy position, and later wrote that he had made arrangements "for entertaining him."

If his intelligence was correct and it was then almost the entire Army of Northern Virginia, some 70,000 strong, would be arriving in Gettysburg the next day. Buford, of course, knew that his two brigades could not delay such a force long. He undoubtedly based his defense on the knowledge that the Rebels would be coming in piecemeal, a unit at a time, and on the hope he could confuse and deceive them into thinking that his numbers were much greater than they actually were.

The most immediate danger was the threat posed by A.P. Hill's men, camped just a few miles west up the Cashtown Road. They would return, he knew, at first light, and to hold them he staked his main battle line on McPherson's Ridge, a north-south slope intersecting the Cashtown Road a few miles west of town. Gamble's Brigade would straddle the pike and protect the southern portion of the ridge while Devin's men would the northern part extending to an eminence known as Oak Hill. From here, Devin's line would stretch north and the East as far as the Harrisburg Road, three miles northeast of Gettysburg. In all, Buford's outpost line would extend about seven miles. For his own forward command post, he selected the Lutheran Seminary, an imposing five-story structure with a cupola, which lay half a mile west of town, two hundred yards south of the Chambersburg Pike.

Throughout the day John Buford had favorably impressed a number of observers with his calm professional demeanor. One of General Meade's staff officers, Lt. Colonel Joseph Dickinson, visited him that night at the Eagle Hotel and recorded what seems to be the common impression: "There stands the General Buford, cool, calm, and serenely receiving the reports, quietly weighing in his military mind their value, but saying nothing... This was indeed a trying time and position for a commander of two small brigades to be in, and yet there was not wisdom enough existing to have made a better choice. The modest yet brave, retiring yet efficient, quite vigilant, unostentatious but prompt and preserving, gallant General Buford was, at least for once, the right man in the right place.

Beneath the surface, however, he was experiencing considerable anxiety. His signal officer Lt. Aaron Jerome, observed a meeting with Colonel Devin in which Buford expressed the fear that the battle might commence "in the morning before the infantry could get up." When exuberant Devin tried to reassure the General by touting his brigade's ability to hold back the Rebels, Buford turned on him and snapped: No you won't (hold back Lee). They will attack in the morning and they will come booming skirmishers three deep. You will have to fight like the devil to hold your own until supports arrive. The enemy must know the importance of this position and will strain every nerve to secure it, and if we are able to hold it, we will do well.

Buford's fears were legitimate. It was only with the approach of dawn, 4:00 a.m., July 1, 1863, that John Reynolds received orders to advance the 1st Corps to Gettysburg with the 11th and 3rd Corps to follow in close support. One hour later, Henry Heth began marching his Confederate division through the early morning mist toward town.

Continued in Part Two: http://www.genealogyforum.rootsweb.com/gfaol/resource/Military/Devil2.htm

Copyright © 2001 Tom Gladwell
(email: TUBES14@aol.com)
All Rights Reserved

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