A prominent Union cavalry officer, Major General John Buford is credited with choosing the ground upon which the Battle of Gettysburg was fought in July 1863.
John Buford Jr. was born on March 4, 1826, near Versailles in Woodford County, Kentucky. He was the first of three sons of John and Anne (Bannister) Buford. Buford’s half-brother from his father’s first marriage, Napoleon Bonaparte Buford, attended the United States Military Academy and achieved the rank of brigadier general of volunteers during the Civil War. Buford’s grandfather, Simeon Buford, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. His grandmother was the daughter of Captain Edward Howe of the United States Navy.
Buford spent much of his youth on the family plantation named “Rose Hill.” His father, known as Colonel John Buford, was a prominent planter who owned over forty slaves. He was also a locally influential politician who served in the Kentucky Legislature for seven years and was a personal acquaintance of President Andrew Jackson. When Buford was about nine or ten, his mother died of cholera. His father subsequently moved the family to Stephenson (later named Rock Island) Illinois, in 1835 or 1836. Colonel Buford opened a general store, quickly became a successful merchant, and won a seat in the Illinois Senate in 1842.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
Young Buford worked in his father’s store until 1842, when he enrolled at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. After spending one academic year there, Buford moved to Ohio and attended Cincinnati College while seeking an appointment to the United States Military Academy. Due in part to a letter-writing campaign by his older brother, Napoleon, Buford received his appointment in 1843 and entered West Point the next year. While at the Academy, Buford proved to be an average student, graduating on July 1, 1848, with a rank of 16 out of 38 cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
Upon graduating from West Point, the army brevetted Buford as a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Dragoon Regiment and assigned to garrison duty at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. For the next 12 years, he served at various stations throughout the American West. On February 17, 1849, Buford advanced to the full rank of second lieutenant while serving in New Mexico after the Mexican-American War. On July 9, 1853, the army promoted Buford to first lieutenant and transferred him to the newly formed 2nd U.S. Dragoons.
On May 9, 1854, Buford married his third cousin, Martha McDowell Duke (they shared great-great-grandfathers). Their marriage produced two children, James and Pattie.
In 1855, Buford served at Fort Riley, Kansas, as quartermaster for the 2nd Dragoons. While there, he helped restore peace in “Bleeding Kansas.” During 1857 and 1858, Buford took part in the Utah Expedition against Brigham Young and the Mormon militia. On March 9, 1859, the army promoted him to captain.
Union Cavalry Officer
After the Civil War erupted, army officials reassigned Buford as assistant inspector general of the defenses of Washington, D.C. and promoted to major on November 12, 1861. On July 27, 1862, Major General John Pope rescued Buford from the drudgeries of staff duties by securing him a commission as commander of the cavalry brigade of the 2nd Corps of the newly formed Army of Virginia. The reassignment brought Buford a promotion to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. A month later, Buford received a gunshot wound to the knee as he was leading a charge during the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862). Despite his injury, Buford was one of the few Federal officers to perform well during the Union defeat.
After recuperating, the army reassigned Buford to an administrative position as Chief of Cavalry for the Army of the Potomac until January 1863. When Major General Joseph Hooker assumed command of the Army of the Potomac following the Federal defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), he merged the army’s cavalry into one corps, commanded by Major General Stoneman. In January 1863, Stoneman named Buford as field-commander of the Reserve Brigade, 1st Division of the Cavalry Corps, reporting directly to Stoneman. Buford’s new unit comprised most of the regular army cavalry units serving in the East.
During the Chancellorsville Campaign, Buford took part in Stoneman’s unsuccessful raid into Confederate territory (April 29–May 30, 1863). Following the Union defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Hooker sacked Stoneman, replacing him with Major General Alfred Pleasonton. In May 1863, Buford assumed Pleasonton’s position as commander of the 1st Division of the cavalry corps, without a promotion in rank.
During the Gettysburg Campaign (June 3–July 23, 1863), Hooker went on the offensive and ordered Pleasonton to lead his cavalry corps, augmented by 3,000 infantrymen, in a two-pronged attack to “disperse and destroy” General J. E. B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry corps. At 4:30 a.m. on June 9, 1863, Buford led roughly 5,500 Federal troopers across the Rappahannock River, surprising Stuart’s pickets at Beverly’s Ford, starting the Battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War. After a long and difficult struggle, the Rebels eventually checked their attackers. Nonetheless, the Battle of Brandy Station showed that the Union cavalry was emerging as a worthy opponent for their formerly, far-superior Confederate counterpart. Throughout the rest of the campaign, Buford’s cavalry clashed with Stuart’s troopers at several other engagements, including the Battle of Aldie (June 17), the Battle of Middleburg (June 18), and the Battle of Upperville (June 21).
Battle of Gettysburg
Buford’s greatest claim to fame came at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863). On June 30, a brigade of Confederate soldiers from Henry Heth’s Division of A. P. Hill’s Corps approached the small village of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania from the northwest in search of supplies. Upon their arrival, they observed Buford’s cavalry entering the town from the south. Avoiding an engagement, the Rebels withdrew and reported what they had seen to their commanders. Suspecting that the soldiers had seen state militia, rather than Federal troopers, Hill and Heth sent two brigades into Gettysburg the next morning to investigate.
Meanwhile, recognizing the strategic importance of the high ground near Gettysburg, Buford ordered his troopers to dismount and attempt to hold the town until reinforcements from Major General John F. Reynolds’ 1st Corps arrived. When Hill determined that he was facing Federal cavalry, he called up more soldiers and launched a major assault. Buford skillfully deployed his troopers in defensive positions that delayed the Confederate advance long enough for Reynolds’s Corps to arrive, buying enough time for the Army of the Potomac to secure the high ground south of town.
Buford’s foresight enabled the Union army to withstand several massive Rebel onslaughts by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia over the course of the next two days. Unable to breach the Federal lines positioned on the site that Buford’s men so courageously defended on the first day of the battle, Lee withdrew on July 4, conceding victory to the Union in the largest battle of the Civil War.
As Lee retreated from Gettysburg, Buford and the Union cavalry harassed the Rebels all the way back to Virginia, including major encounters at the Battle of Williamsport (July 6–16, 1863) and the Battle of Boonsboro (July 8, 1863).
Throughout the summer and fall of 1863, Buford took part in several cavalry engagements in Virginia. During that period, he contracted a case of typhoid fever. As Buford’s condition deteriorated, the illness forced him to relinquish his command on November 21. By December 16, he was on his deathbed at the Washington home of his friend and former commander, Major General George Stoneman.
Just before Buford’s death, President Lincoln promoted him to the rank of major general for his “distinguished and meritorious service at the Battle of Gettysburg.” Upon being informed of Lincoln’s action, Buford asked, “Does he mean it?” When assured that the promotion was genuine, Buford replied, “It is too late, now I wish I could live.”
John Buford died at about 2:00 p.m. on December 16, 1863, in the presence of his aide, Captain Myles Keogh. After a memorial service in Washington on December 20, Buford was buried at West Point Cemetery overlooking the Hudson River.
In 1865, Buford’s comrades-in-arms financed the erection of a 25-foot memorial obelisk over his grave. Thirty years later, government officials erected a bronze statue of Buford at the Gettysburg Battlefield. The inscription reads:
In memory of Major General John Buford, Comdg. 1st Div. Cav. Corps Army of the Potomac, who with the first inspiration of a cavalry officer selected this battlefield July 1st, 1863.