John Buford

March 4, 1826–December 16, 1863

John Buford (1826–1863) was a prominent cavalry officer in the United States Army, Buford is most well-known for choosing the ground upon which the Battle of Gettysburg was fought in July 1863. The decision gave the Union an advantage and eventually led to victory over Confederate forces.

John Buford’s greatest claim to fame came at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), where he chose the ground upon which the battle would be fought. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Advertisement

General John Buford Jr. — The Hero of Gettysburg

When the Civil War began, army officials assigned John Buford, Jr. as assistant inspector general of the defenses of Washington, D.C., and promoted him to major on November 12, 1861. On July 27, 1862, Major General John Pope secured Buford an appointment as a cavalry commander in the 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 led a charge during the Second Battle of Bull Run. Despite his injury, Buford was one of the few federal officers to perform well during the Union defeat. After recovering from his injury, Buford transferred to the Army of the Potomac in time to take part in the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863.

During the Gettysburg Campaign, Buford’s cavalry surprised Confederate pickets at Beverly’s Ford, starting the Battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War. Buford’s greatest claim to fame came at the Battle of Gettysburg, where he defended the strategically important high ground around the town of Gettysburg until Union reinforcements arrived. 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 next two days. As Lee retreated from Gettysburg, Buford and the Union cavalry harassed the Rebels back to Virginia, including major encounters at the Battle of Williamsport and the Battle of Boonsboro.

Throughout the remainder of 1863, Buford took part in several cavalry engagements in Virginia. During that period, he contracted typhoid fever. The illness forced him to relinquish his command on November 21. By December 16, he was on his deathbed. Just before Buford’s death, President Lincoln promoted him to the rank of major general. John Buford died at about 2:00 p.m. on December 16, 1863. After a memorial service in Washington on December 20, Buford was buried at West Point Cemetery overlooking the Hudson River.

Advertisement

John Buford Quick Facts

  • Date of Birth: He was born on March 4, 1826.
  • Birthplace: He was born near Versailles in Woodford County, Kentucky.
  • Parents: His parents were John and Anne (Bannister) Buford.
  • Spouse: His spouse was Martha McDowell Duke. They were married in 1854.
  • Death: He died on December 16, 1863.
  • Place of Death: He died in Washington, D.C.
  • Burial: He is buried at West Point Cemetery, West Point, NY.
  • Nickname: Buford was known as “Old Steadfast.”

Early Life and Career of John Buford

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.

Andrew Jackson, Portrait, Painting
Andrew Jackson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

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 was 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.

Advertisement

Marriage

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.

Bleeding Kansas

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.

John Buford in the Civil War

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 him 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.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Buford and the Chancellorsville Campaign

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.

Buford and the Gettysburg Campaign

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 and his 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).

JEB Stuart, Civil War General
J.E.B Stuart. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Buford’s Critical Decision at the 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.

Advertisement

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 and his 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).

Typhoid Fever Forces Buford to Leave the Army

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.

Death of John Buford

Just before Buford’s death, President Abraham 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.

Advertisement

Legacy of John Buford

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.

John Buford Facts and Accomplishments

Childhood and Family

  • Buford 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.
  • His 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.
  • His grandfather, Simeon Buford, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War.
  • Buford’s father, known as Colonel John Buford, was a prominent planter who owned over 40 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 family moved to Stephenson (later named Rock Island), Illinois, in 1835 or 1836.
  • 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.

Education

  • Buford attended Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, for one year in 1842.
  • He attended Cincinnati College while seeking an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1843.
  • Buford attended the United States Military Academy from 1844 to 1848.
  • Ge graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1848, ranked of 16th out of 38 cadets.

Early Military Career

  • Upon graduating from West Point, John Buford was brevetted as a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Dragoon Regiment and assigned to garrison duty at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.
  • Buford was promoted to the full rank of second lieutenant on February 17, 1849.
  • He was promoted to first lieutenant and transferred to the newly-formed 2nd U.S. Dragoons on July 9, 1853.

Bleeding Kansas and the Utah War

  • While stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1855, Buford helped restore peace in “Bleeding Kansas.”
  • In 1857–1858, Buford participated in the Utah Expedition against Brigham Young and the Mormon militia.
  • Buford was promoted to captain on March 9, 1859.

Service in the Civil War

  • After the Civil War erupted, Buford was reassigned 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 named Buford as commander of the cavalry brigade of the 2nd Corps of the newly formed Army of Virginia.
  • Buford was promoted to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers on July 27, 1862.
  • He received a gunshot wound to the knee as he was leading a charge during the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).
  • He was named field commander of the Reserve Brigade, 1st Division, of the Cavalry Corps, in January 1863.
  • During the Chancellorsville Campaign, John Buford took part in Major General George Stoneman’s unsuccessful raid into Confederate territory (April 29–May 30, 1863).
  • Buford advanced to the commander of the 1st Division of the cavalry corps, without a promotion in rank, in May 1863.
  • During the Gettysburg Campaign (June 3–July 23, 1863), John Buford took part in the Battle of Brandy Station (June 9), the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War.
  • During the Gettysburg Campaign (June 3–July 23, 1863), John Buford took part in the Battle of Aldie (June 17), the Battle of Middleburg (June 18), the Battle of Upperville (June 21), the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), the Battle of Williamsport (July 6–16) and the Battle of Boonsboro (July 8).
  • Buford’s greatest claim to fame came at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), where he chose the ground upon which the battle would be fought.

Death and Legacy

  • Buford contracted a case of typhoid fever in the fall of 1863, forcing him to relinquish his command on November 21.
  • President Abraham Lincoln promoted Buford to the rank of major general for his “distinguished and meritorious service at the Battle of Gettysburg., “on December 16, 1863, just hours before Buford’s death,
  • Buford died from typhoid fever at about 2:00 p.m. on December 16, 1863, at the Washington home of his friend and former commander Major General George Stoneman.
  • After a memorial service in Washington on December 20, 1863, 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.
  • In 1895, a bronze statue of Buford was erected 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.”
Advertisement

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title John Buford
  • Coverage March 4, 1826–December 16, 1863
  • Author
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 6, 2023
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 29, 2023

John Buford is Part of the Following on AHC

Advertisement