Civil War General John Buford – He Held the High Ground at Gettysburg
“They will attack you in the morning and they will come booming–skirmishers three deep. You will have to fight like the devil until supports arrive.” Words of General John Buford at Gettysburg. John Buford held the high ground for the Union at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.
The Battle of Gettysburg began when two brigades of unmounted Union cavalry led by John Buford, clashed with Confederate soldiers of General Henry Heth’s division. Buford and his cavalry were reconnoitering ahead of the army in Pennsylvania and discovered the Confederates as they were advancing on Gettysburg. Buford knew the importance of Gettysburg as a transportation junction, and the value of the high ground northwest of town. His cavalry dismounted and held McPherson Ridge for the Union. The resulting skirmish on the outskirts of Gettysburg was the beginning of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. Without John Buford’s actions early on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union may not have triumphed at Gettysburg. Sadly, within six-months of the Battle of Gettysburg, John Buford would die of typhoid fever.
Holding the high ground was a crucial advantage for the Union during the Battle of Gettysburg. There is a statue today along the Chambersburg Pike at the Gettysburg National Military Park, of General John Buford. Buford’s monument at Gettysburg depicts him standing and looking to the west, holding a pair of field glasses, wearing cavalry boots, with sheathed sword at his side… as he did on July 1, 1863.
John Buford was born in Kentucky on March 4th, 1826, but early in life his family moved to Illinois. From age eight, he lived in Rock Island, Illinois. Buford’s father did not support Abraham Lincoln, as he was a politician in the Democratic Party of Illinois. The Buford family had a long history of serving in the military, both Buford’s grandfather and great uncle had fought in the Revolutionary War. Buford had a half-brother who served in the Civil War and became a major general for the Union Army, and he had a cousin who fought for the Confederates as a cavalry brigadier general.
Buford spent only one year at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois before entering West Point (the United States Military Academy) as a member of the class of 1848. Others attending West Point while Buford was there included classmates who would eventually fight in the Civil War for the Union, such as Fitz-John Porter, George B. McClellan, George Stoneman (Buford and Stoneman would become close friends), and Ambrose Burnside. Others at West Point during Buford’s time there, would fight for the Confederacy, like Thomas Jonathan Jackson (during the Civil War he would obtain the nickname of “Stonewall”), Ambrose Powell Hill, and Henry Heth. Both Powell and Heth would meet against Buford that fateful day of July 1, 1863 at Gettysburg. John Buford graduated from West Point in 1848, and ranked 16th in his class of 38 cadets.
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After graduation from West Point, Buford started service as a dragoon. He began in the 1st United States Dragoons as a brevet second lieutenant. The following year he went to the 2nd United States Dragoons.
A dragoon soldier uses a horse to get to the battlefield and to move about the battlefield, but he dismounts from the horse in order to fight. This is different from Civil War cavalry because cavalry fight while mounted. This is all in theory however, during the Civil War cavalry were more apt to be performing as mounted infantry. One particular example of a battle fought by mounted cavalry was Brandy Station.
During his dragoon service, Buford was in the Southwest and Texas. He fought the Sioux and was involved with peacekeeping assignments in Kansas during the period of unrest known as Bleeding Kansas. Buford saw action in the western frontier, and during 1857-1858 was part of an expedition in Utah against the Mormons.
John Buford’s Civil War service and assignments:
- 2nd Dragoons captain from March 9, 1854.
- 2nd Cavalry captain (this was a renaming that took place on August 3, 1861 of his same role as the 2nd Dragoon’s captain).
- A major, and then promoted to Major Staff Assistant Inspector General beginning November 12, 1861.
- Performed staff duty in 1862 for the defense of Washington, D.C., then joined General Pope’s staff.
- Promoted to brigadier general, United States Volunteers, on July 27, 1862.
- From July 27 to September 12, 1862, commanding Cavalry Brigade, 2nd Corps, Army of Virginia. Buford commanded this brigade during Second Bull Run. This is when John Buford’s abilities as an exceptional cavalry commander were demonstrated. At Second Bull Run (also known as Second Manassas) Buford led a charge, and was struck in the knee by a spent bullet. Buford’s injury was certainly painful, but not life threatening. Nevertheless, some Northern newspapers reported him killed. On August 27, 1862 Buford’s brigade alone opposed the advancement of Longstreet’s corps at Thoroughfare Gap.
- From February 12 to May 22, 1863, commanded the Reserve Brigade, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac. During this time, Buford’s cavalry units fought at Fredericksburg and took part in Stoneman’s Raid during the Chancellorsville Campaign.
- From May 22 to 27, June 9 to August 15, and September 15 to November 21, 1863, Buford commanded the division. Buford commanded at Brandy Station, Aidie, Middleburg, and Upperville.
- Early on July 1, 1863 at Gettysburg, General John Buford saw the tactical importance of holding the high ground for the Union. Northwest of the town of Gettysburg, Buford’s unmounted cavalry engaged the Confederates, until his final defensive stand was made at McPherson’s Ridge. Buford’s men had stalled the Confederate’s advancement, buying valuable time for the arrival of John Reynolds’ Union infantry. The Union now held the high ground of Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg.
After Gettysburg, Buford served and fought until the end of the Bristoe Campaign. He became sick with typhoid fever and because of his poor health, Buford gave up his command on November 21, 1863. Buford’s illness was very serious and by the middle of December it was plain he would die. Buford was on his deathbed at the home of his good and long-time friend, General George Stoneman, in Washington. Stoneman made a proposal on December 16, that John Buford be promoted to major general. President Lincoln wrote: “I am informed that General Buford will not survive the day. It suggests itself to me that he will be made Major General for distinguished and meritorious service at the Battle of Gettysburg.”
When told of this, John Buford was dubious and asked “Does he mean it?” When he was told it was true, Buford replied, “It is too late, now I wish I could live.” Buford died later that afternoon.
Major General John Buford is buried at West Point. Next to Buford’s grave is the grave of Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing. Cushing fell at Gettysburg while fighting to hold Buford’s chosen high ground.