March 4, 1826 – December 16, 1863
Speaking for many of his peers, artilleryman Col. Charles Wainright described John Buford as “straight-forward, honest, conscientious, full of good common sense, and always to be relied on in any emergency,” and “decidedly the best cavalry general” in the Army of the Potomac. In fact, Buford was one of the finest cavalrymen in American history. He was a man who liked to lead from the front, frequently up with the skirmishers and accompanied by the divisional flag. A former Indian fighter, he was all business, driving himself as relentlessly as he drove his men, with the result that six months after Gettysburg he would be dead of what the doctors called “exposure and exhaustion.” Buford’s hard-bitten attitude shone in his face. One observer had recently gotten close enough to get an impression of him as being “of a good-natured disposition, but not to be trifled with,” a “singular-looking party . . . with a tawny mustache and a little, triangular gray eye, whose expression is determined, not to say sinister.”
Buford was quiet and sober, quite in contrast to the flamboyant types which so often gravitated toward the cavalry. “He is kind, and always on hand when there is fighting to be done. . . . He don’t put on so much style as most officers,” wrote one grateful subordinate in the 8th Illinois. The man might have been speaking of Buford’s plain, unpolished manner, or his wardrobe–in the field he usually wore an old hunting shirt “ornamented with holes,” ancient blue corduroy breeches tucked into a pair of ordinary cowhide boots, and always had a big pipe and tobacco pouch sticking out of his shirt pockets. It was obvious this trooper was made of sterner stuff than the “nice little dandy,” his superior Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, with whom he had campaigned on the Plains; and the “circus rider gone mad,” fellow brigadier general George Custer. Buford was not shy about advertising his grim streak. He once hanged a guerrilla, in an area seething with Secessionist sympathies, and left the corpse dangling from a tree limb under the sign “This man to hang three days; he who cuts him down before shall hang the remaining time.”
Coming from a family whose tradition of turning out soldiers dated back to the rough Northern English fighters of the Wars of the Roses, Buford was born in Kentucky and raised in Rock Island, Illinois. He attended West Point and graduated in the upper half of the Class of 1848. Posted to the dragoons, he saw his first combat in the Sioux campaign of 1855, then went west with the Mormon expedition and stayed in Utah until the commencement of the Civil War, when his regiment marched 1,100 miles overland to return to Washington, D.C.
Buford’s War career was slow getting started, however. In the summer of 1862, when Maj. Gen. John Pope came to Washington to take command of the Army of Virginia, he was surprised to find Buford there in an unimportant staff job, where he had been since the previous November. Pope at once obtained for Buford a promotion to brigadier general and gave him command of the Reserve Cavalry Brigade of his Army of Virginia. Buford was one of the only officers to emerge from Pope’s disastrous Second Bull Run Campaign with an enhanced reputation. He showed talent at reconnaissance as often as Alfred Pleasonton revealed his inadequacy, consistently providing Pope’s headquarters with timely intelligence about Longstreet’s Corps’s approach to the battlefield that was fatally ignored. During the climactic battle there in late August 1862, Buford ordered a charge against Rebel horsemen south of the battlefield at Lewis farm, marking one of the first times in the war that Union cavalrymen initiated a stand-up cavalry fight. In the clash, Buford was wounded so badly in the knee that he was left on the field for dead.
The wound laid Buford low until the next year. In the meantime, during the Antietam and Fredericksburg Campaigns he acted as cavalry advisor to McClellan and Burnside. When Hooker consolidated the cavalry into an army corps in February 1863, Buford returned to the command of the elite Reserve Brigade, where he exercised his talents in training recruits–especially in teaching his troopers the advantages of fighting on foot rather than in the saddle, techniques from his old dragoon days which would become Union cavalry doctrine as the war wore on.
Although Buford performed well in the Chancellorsville Campaign, cavalry chief Brig. Gen. George Stoneman’s abortive raid took him away from the important action. When Stoneman was replaced soon after that miserable showing, Buford was considered as a replacement. But Buford was modest, and cultivating connections with newspapermen was beneath him. As a result, commanding Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker gave command of the cavalry to the flashier, publicity-savvy Alfred Pleasonton (though in later years Hooker agreed that Buford would have been a better choice). Buford was given a division.
At Brandy Station on June 9, Buford did not distinguish himself; he fought a passive defensive battle all afternoon. As the Gettysburg Campaign developed in the following couple of weeks, however, he was again energetic and invaluable in reconnaissance, passing on information about the enemy that went entirely unappreciated by Pleasonton. Physically, Buford was still weakened by his knee wound. But, although he had had been in command of the division little over a month, Buford in the summer of 1863 was a seasoned, supremely talented officer in his prime.
On the evening of June 30, recently arrived in Gettysburg and already skirmishing with Confederate infantrymen to the west, Buford told Col. Tom Devin, “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 until friendly infantry can come up, we will do well.” Buford’s signal officer noticed “He seemed anxious, more so than I ever saw him.”
Buford was the first to make contact with Lee’s army, and became the first hero of the battle. Knowing that Lee’s infantry would be coming on July 1, and having decided that Gettysburg was good defensive ground, Buford decided to resist the enemy as long as he could in order to give the rest of the Union army time to concentrate. His men used dragoon tactics–three-quarters of his troopers fighting in a heavy skirmish line while the remaining quarter held their horses–and held the advance of A.P. Hill’s infantrymen to a crawl until Maj. Gen. John Reynolds arrived with the advance units of his First Corps. When the infantry deployed, Buford’s men dropped off to their flanks to provide protection, while at the same time continuing to provide timely intelligence on the arrival of new Confederate units. It was an example of a consummate professional showing an eye for good ground, tactical sense, and tenacity at a moment of crisis. When the Federal infantry retreated to Cemetery Hill in the late afternoon, Buford helped deter a Confederate advance by taking a menacing position on the Union left, near the Emmitsburg Road.
The next morning, July 2, Buford’s men were the only cavalry on the field, patrolling a broad area around the Peach Orchard, performing the valuable duty of guarding the army’s left flank and reporting enemy movement. Pleasonton, however, withdrew Buford’s entire force to Westminster to refit in the army’s rear. Buford’s 2,600 troopers rode off the field in the late morning of July 2 with nobody to replace them–a fact that would have dire consequences for the Union left later that day. They would never reenter the battle.
A man that never quit driving himself, Buford contracted typhoid in the fall, and, exhausted, died in December.