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John Buford: First to Fight at Gettysburg


Happy birthday to one of the great heroes of the Battle of Gettysburg, General John Buford, born on March 4, 1826 in Woodford County, Kentucky.

An 1848 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Buford spent many years honing his skills as a soldier in the saddle before the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861. Although offered a commission to serve the Confederacy, he stayed true to the old flag and emerged as one of the finest cavalry commanders to fight for the Union.

General John Buford. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

While Confederate horsemen flexed their superiority over their Federal counterparts during the first two years of the war, men like Buford helped close the gap, transforming the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry into a formidable rival. By the time General Robert E. Lee had marched his vaunted Army of Northern Virginia onto northern soil in search of a war-winning victory during the summer of 1863, a new fighting spirit and confidence radiated among Union horse soldiers.

On Tuesday, June 30, 1863, Buford, now commanding the 1st Division of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, led his 2,700 horse troopers into the small crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Scouting ahead of the main army, Buford was on the lookout for the enemy and discovered that Confederate infantry was only a few miles to the northwest. The observant cavalry commander correctly anticipated that General Lee’s army was moving towards Gettysburg in force and recognized that the strong terrain of ridges and hills around the town offered excellent ground to make a fight. To prevent the enemy from seizing this pivotal ground, Buford knew that his men would “have to fight like the devil” to hold off the Rebels until the lead elements of the Army of the Potomac could arrive.

General Buford and his dismounted troopers holding off the Confederates on the morning of July 1, 1863. (Photo Credit: Gallon.com)

Although outnumbered by three times their number, Buford’s dismounted horse troopers fought a valiant two hour delaying action on the morning of July 1, giving the Union First Corps under Major General John F. Reynolds time to reach the field and meet the Rebels head-on outside of Gettysburg. After three days of fiery battle around Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac had achieved a triumph that ultimately turned the tide of the war toward ultimate victory for the Union. Without Buford’s actions to preserve the ground that formed the backbone of the Army of the Potomac’s resistance at Gettysburg, that triumph would not have been possible.

Only five months after performing his greatest duty at Gettysburg, Buford passed away after a bout with typhoid fever on December 16, 1863. Before he left this world, he was told that President Abraham Lincoln had promoted him to “Major General for distinguished and meritorious service at the Battle of Gettysburg.” In a fitting obituary, the New York Times declared, “The country has lost a noble spirit and a brave defender.” For his colossal contributions to the victory at Gettysburg, John Buford will always be remembered as one of the Union’s greatest heroes.

Sources

American Battlefield Trust: John Buford.

Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg by James M. McPherson.

The New York Times: Buford Hold the High Ground.

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