Brigadier General John Buford: Civil War Cavalry Tactics

Brigadier General John Buford

Studies of the Battle of Gettysburg often involve what might have been if one of the principal generals or colonels had behaved slightly differently, or if a particular event had transpired slightly earlier or later than it actually occurred. The election of Abraham Lincoln, the accidental death of Stonewall Jackson, and myriad other events of the war would seem to indicate that history often pivots on very tiny points. So it was with Brigadier General John Buford and his division at Gettysburg; exactly the right force and exactly the right leader arriving at exactly the right time to secure a Union victory.

Buford’s leadership and his actions were critical for the Union’s success at Gettysburg. John Buford was a tough, no-nonsense leader with an eye for defensible ground and the uncanny ability to see how his actions would affect the unfolding battle. He demonstrated unflinching loyalty up and down the chain of command and his troops repaid his dedication and loyalty with performance in battle equal to or better than any of their Confederate counterparts. While Joshua L. Chamberlain and his 20th Maine, or George E. Pickett and his 1st Infantry Division often overshadow Buford and his 1st Cavalry Division, Buford and his division made possible all the other legends.

Looking at the Civil War from today’s perspective it would be easy to make the case that all of the battles in May and June of 1863, all the movements of both the Union and Confederate armies, all their efforts to strategically place themselves and their supply lines, were a build up for what would take place in the small, southern Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg during the first three days of July. Many have said that the Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the civil war. Most claim that the Union army won the three day battle, even though during those three days the Confederate army accomplished some major successes. However, when the casualty list has over 57, 000 names on it for a three day battle, to say that either side won a victory could be questionable. (Stephen Sears, Gettysburg 10)

On 29 June, under what was probably General Hooker’s last command, Hooker had ordered his cavalry to reconnoiter Gettysburg, and in due course the task was assigned to John Buford. In cavalryman Buford, General Meade, now commander of the army, had probably the best intelligence gatherer in The Potomac Army. (Sears147)

There existed a stark contrast between the intelligence gathering done by Confederate General Stuart and Union Brigadier General John Buford. Stuart’s flawed planning and ill luck would place the fortunes of the two most prominent cavalry leaders in drastic contrast. Even as — the Confederate cavalryman was muddling through his least successful and most controversial operation, John Buford was approaching the zenith of a long and distinguished career. (Coddington Edwin. Gettysburg campaign. A study in command. 57)

General Pleasonton set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in enduring fame for John Buford. The cavalry commander, Pleasonton, decreed that the first Division, the advance element of the army, would move any two of its brigades and a horse battery to Emmitsburg, Maryland. From Emmitsburg — the troopers and cannoneers would cross the Pennsylvania line to Gettysburg; near the crossroads town they would locate Lee’s army of northern Virginia and discern its intentions. The third brigade of Buford’s command, along with another battery and divisional trains, would march farther east to Mechanicstown, Maryland, protecting Buford’s right and rear and Reynolds’ left flank. (Edward Longacre 179)

Under Buford’s command, and unencumbered by wagons and artillery, Gamble’s and Devin’s brigades made good time, crossing into the Keystone State late in afternoon of June 29 and bivouacked for part of the night at Fountaindale, PA, about 15 miles from Gettysburg. “At three A.M. on the thirtieth of June Buford shook the men out of their bedrolls and the march resumed to Fairfield, where the columns had its first encounter with the invaders of Pennsylvania.” (Longacre 180-181)

These actions had been preceded by several key battles of May and June 1863. The events of May and June seem to have been a precursor to what would happen at Gettysburg. The events of May and June include: the Battle at Chancellorsville, the significance of the death of Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s move toward the North and of great significance, the Battle of Brandy Station. (Gary W. Gallagher, Brandy Station)

It was at the battle of Brandy Station that the Union Cavalry matched the horsemanship and determination of the Confederate Cavalry for the first time. This was possible to a large degree because of the masterful field command of Brigadier General John Buford. The Confederate’s much loved General Stuart was taken by surprise in two different attacks at Brandy Station. Preventing surprise attacks was one of the fundamental purposes of the Cavalry, thus Stuart’s humiliation became infamous. Indeed, it seems everyone was surprised at Brandy Station but for different reasons. Stuart because he had never imagined the Yankee cavalry would attack, Union General Pleasonton because Stuart was not where he was supposed to be. Pleasonton discovered that Stuart’s troops were bivouacked around Brandy Station where they met substantial enemy strength. Brigadier General John Buford stopped the enemy advance with his division of cavalry. As Stuart’s flank began to collapse around 3:30 P.M. the alert Brigadier General Buford increased pressure and made gains against Stuart. Brigadier General Buford was making a reputation for himself as an excellent tactician on the field and also for knowing where he should be with his cavalrymen, and when he should be there. There were about 17,000 mounted soldiers in this, the largest mounted battle ever to take place in America. (National Park Service web site)

“On June 10, 1863, General Robert E. Lee ordered Major General Richard Ewell to march his corps north toward Pennsylvania, taking a route down the Shenandoah Valley. Ewell was followed by the corps of Longstreet and Hill. On June 13, General Joseph Hooker began to shift the Army of the Potomac to pursue Lee. The Confederate cavalry under Jeb Stuart screened the army’s route before leaving Salem, VA, on a raid that placed them out of contact with Lee.” (Turning Point of the Civil War, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga. 1863, by the editors of Time Life Books, Alexandria, VA 85)

Lee’s army continued up the Shenandoah Valley until it finally crossed into Pennsylvania on June 24 -28. On June 28, General Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac. (ibid. 83) Movement of both armies continued in the general direction of Gettysburg.

Buford’s troopers had stumbled upon a small Confederate outpost made up of two infantry regiments and two cannon from the division of Major General Heth. Heth and Buford had fought together on the Sioux expedition. Now the two former comrades in arms would turn their guns toward one another.

Buford blamed the surprise engagement on the townspeople, who contrary to Buford’s expectations had not warned him of the enemies’ presence, probably for fear of retaliation from the Rebels.

After setting up his headquarters at the Blue Eagle Hotel, he had made contact with what he later termed some “reliable men”‘”very likely belonging to the intelligence network operated by David McConaughy'”who helped fill in some of the details. The cavalry officer had also spent the remaining daylight hours riding about the area to gauge the lay of the land. He was observed at around 4:00 P.M. by Daniel Skelly, who would never forget Buford’s “calm demeanor and soldierly appearance.” As the general seemed to be “in [profund] thought,” Skelly did not bother him. (Trudeau 141)

Buford saw it as his duty to prevent the confederates from entering Gettysburg and therefore protected the entrances on the west, north and east until the infantry arrived. As was his style, he took well thought out precautions. He placed advanced posts more than three miles from the center of Gettysburg. He knew it would take a column of infantry at least an hour to march that distance if they were unopposed. And John Buford had every intention of providing some opposition. (Trudeau 143)

While some of Buford’s troopers enjoyed a quickly assembled meal served by appreciative residents of Gettysburg, Buford led the main body of Gamble’s troopers through town to a point about one and a half miles northwest of town. As Buford and his men drew near Confederate General Hill and his men the Rebels began to retire. Some of Buford’s men mentioned that they seemed to shrink away in fear. Buford thought otherwise. He thought the Rebels were probably under orders to avoid a fight. He was sure they would return with a good many of their friends, and more than likely, the next day. As most of his men were settling, Buford sent scouts toward South Mountain and to the ridges and fields east of Gettysburg. Reports he had received while marching through Maryland led him to suspect that Confederate General Lee was amassing his army in preparation for a major fight. Buford, forever the field tactician, realized that Gettysburg and the surrounding area would be the perfect setting for such a battle. Buford could easily see that the twelve or more roads leading into Gettysburg made the town a magnet for the Army of the Potomac and for the enemy Army. (Longacre pg 183)

The thought that his 3,000 troopers might soon be tangling with an enemy force many times as large would have staggered another general, but not John Buford. As he rode along his line, among the leaders of his men Buford, puffing away on his pipe, peering through field-glasses, studied the road network and the lay of the land. He calculated distances to physical landmarks and tried to determine how long it would take those Confederates massing behind South Mountain to come within carbine range. All the while, he displayed a composure that impressed onlookers. (Longacre 184)

As Brigadier General Buford viewed and studied the topography, he was forming a well thought out, deliberate battle plan. As he studied the surroundings he could anticipate the direction from which he expected the heaviest opposition would come. He located the best defensive positions. The defensive position nearest Gettysburg was Herr Ridge, located less than two miles from the city. The farthest position he chose was a little more than three miles from the heart of the town, School House Ridge. The elevated positions he chose would have to offer adequate vantage points for infantry and artillery to hold until Reynolds’ troops came up in time to relieve Buford. (184, Longacre)

Part of Buford’s plan was quite risky. He intended to accomplish something never achieved in the current war. He intended to mount a ‘‹Å”defense in depth’ by dismounted cavalry against a large force of foot soldiers with full artillery support. His men warned him that he would face a good portion of Lee’s army out of Chambersburg and Cashtown. He would also have to contend with veteran infantry along the roads from Carlisle and York. (Longacre 185)

Buford knew he could not hold his position for long, with only 2,200 men against columns of the enemy. Even though he had 3,000 cavalrymen at his disposal, proper procedure called for one out of every four cavalrymen to stand in the rear and hold the three horses of those at the front as well as his own. His goal was to hold the enemy at bay until reinforcements arrived. They needed to arrive soon.

Some urged him to reconsider. He did. He studied, analyzed and debated with himself. In the end he committed to his plan. The strong defensive locations he had selected for his army and the alluring challenge of the plan he had developed led him to choose to go forward. “Before sundown on the last day of June, Buford had committed himself, in thought and deed, to the greatest challenge of his career. (Longacre 186)

The advance of Buford’s cavalry was at Gettysburg and Kilpatrick’s division at Hanover where it encountered Stuart’s cavalry, which had passed around rear and the right of our position without meeting any serious opposition. On the 30th, the First, Third, and Eleventh Corps were concentrated at Emmitsburg, under General Reynolds, while the right wing moved up to Manchester. Buford reported the enemy in force on the Cashtown road, near Gettysburg, and Reynolds moved up to that place on July 1. He found our cavalry warmly engaged with the enemy, and holding him in check on the Cashtown road. OR Series 1 Vol 27 Part 1

June 30, 1863-4. 30 p. m. (Received July 1, 4 a. m.)

Major General H. W. HALLECK,

General-in-Chief:

HEADQUARTERS, TANEYTOWN.

Two corps between Emmitsburg and Gettysburg, one at Littlestown, one at Manchester, one at Union Mills, one between here and Emmitsburg, one at Frizellburg. Pennsylvania Reserves can’t keep up-still in rear. General Lockwood, with the troops from Schenck, still behind; these troops cannot keep up with the marches made by the army. Our reports seem to place Ewell in the vicinity of York and Harrisburg. The cavalry that crossed at Seneca Ford have passed on up through Westminster and Hanover, some 6, 000 to 8, 000 strong. The people are all so frightened that accurate information is not to be obtained. I shall push on tomorrow in the direction of Hanover Junction and Hanover, when I hope by July 2 to open communication with Baltimore by telegraph and rail, to renew supplies. I feat that I shall break down the troops by pushing on much faster, and may have to rest a day. My movement, of course, will be governed much by what I learn of the enemy. The information seems to place Longstreet at Chambersburg, and A. P. Hill moving between Chambersburg and York, Our cavalry drove a regiment out of Gettysburg this a. m. Our cavalry engaged with Stuart at Hanover this a. m. Result not yet known.

GEO. G. MEADE, (O R Series 1, vol 27, Part 1)

At about 5:30 AM on the morning of July 1, 1863, a detail of troopers from the 8th Illinois Cavalry noted ominous signs of movement in the fog-shrouded valley of Marsh Creek, some three miles west of Gettysburg. Soldiers in uniforms of gray were materializing in the mist, ghostly shapes marching down from the Chambersburg Pike from the direction of Cashtown. Hastily dispatching a courier to alert his commanding officer, Lieutenant Marcellus Jones took a carbine from one of his sergeants and fired a shot at the enemy column. The Battle of Gettysburg had begun.

The troops Jones saw advancing were those of General Henry Heth’s division. Heth was marching with 7,500 men and he assumed they could easily control the local militia he believed to be guarding Gettysburg. However, he soon discovered his error when he saw formations of Federal cavalrymen deploying atop McPherson’s Ridge, half a mile to his front and blocking his advance. It was evident to him by the polished movements of the horsemen that they were veterans. It was obvious to him that the Confederates were not going to get into Gettysburg without a fight. The officer in charge of this impressive group of cavalry on McPherson’s Ridge was Brig. General John Buford. Buford, resolved to cover the approaches to Gettysburg, had already taken the high ground. Buford and his men opened fire on Heth’s troops. (Longacre 95)

After much deliberate planning, Buford sent a message to John Reynolds. He had decided that if necessary he and his two brigades would make a stand against any enemy advance to try to take the town in the morning. He requested instructions for his commanding office regarding falling back should his cavalrymen not be able to stop the enemy advance. (Longacre 147)

General Buford was an experienced, combat hardened officer. He was not over confident about the prospects of the fight he knew would be coming the next day. As Trudeau points out, “In a briefing with one of his brigade commanders, Buford offered a sober assessment of the coming day: “you will have to fight like the devil to hold your own until infantry supports arrive.” (116 Wheeler)

On the morning of July 1 the battle began in earnest. Confederate General Henry Heth’s troops began their advance. Almost immediately the bugle call “Boots and Saddles” was heard among the Union ranks and in Gettysburg. Everyone rushed to their place. At Buford’s direction Gamble began to deploy his entire brigade to meet Heth’s advance. Union artilleryman John Calef was moving his six guns into their appointed place. However, new instructions came from Buford to place four of the guns on the Chambersburg Pike which was near the right flank of the enemy. Buford told Gamble to move the other two to the extreme left flank in an effort to deceive the enemy as to his strength. Obeying John Buford’s instructions to disperse his firepower, Lieutenant John Calef escorted two of his guns to a position southeast of the Herbst Woods. Once there, he could clearly hear “the enemy’s skirmishers open upon our pickets, who were retiring.” A noise coming from much closer snapped Calef’s head toward the Chambersburg Pike, where Lieutenant John Roder, left in charge of the four guns, had caught sight of a mounted Rebel party off to the north, at extreme range. Roder commanded that one gun be fired. With that, Buford’s force was fully engaged. (Wheeler 168)

The fighting intensified throughout the day. At first the reinforcements appeared to count for little. Soon after eight A. M. Buford received word that Gamble’s pickets were being driven back to Herr Ridge by Heth’s infantry, supported by the artillery battalion of Major William J. Pegram. Then, however, the weight of the Union defensive effort began to tell, rapid-firing carbines and the accurate shelling of Calef’s three inch rifles slowing the Rebel advance. (Longacre 191)

The work of Brigadier General Buford had proven its quality. His preliminary scouting, planning and placement of troops had prepared the Union army, and protected it to a major degree. During one attempt to secure Union occupation of Seminary Hill, it became apparent that this attempt would fail. Not long after 4:00 P.M. the Rebels began to overrun the position which made the Union retreat only a matter of time. General Howard, Reynolds’ successor, realized the reinforcements he was hoping for would not arrive in time. Reluctantly, he ordered a full withdrawal to Cemetery Hill. Upon learning of General Reynolds death, General Meade sent Hancock to Gettysburg. Hancock carried authority to supersede Howard, who, while senior to the newcomer, lacked Meade’s full confidence. (Coddington Gettysburg Campaign, 284-85; OR, I, 27, pt.1:366-67)

General Buford may have been responsible in some degree for Hancock’s assignment. Shortly before 3:00 P.M. he had sent a communiqu© to Pleasonton, who quickly passed it to Meade, complaining of a vacuum in the Union command; “There seems to be no directing person — . We need help now.” This comment may have dealt an unfair blow to General Howard, who had acted responsibly in withdrawing from Seminary Ridge and had skillfully initiated in the defense of Cemetery Hill. Even so, Buford’s concern for the well-being of his army ensured that an energetic, quick-thinking, confidence-inspiring officer would be on hand to sustain the buildup on the high ground south of town. (OR I, 27, pt1: 946-47, Nye, Here Come the Rebels!. 207-8)

Hancock knew that in performing his ordained duties he could count on support from Buford’s bone-weary but still serviceable cavalrymen. The division leader had proved as much shortly before Hancock reached the field. At the outset of the pull-back to Cemetery hill, General Doubleday had sent a staff officer to petition Howard for reinforcements. The later had directed the man to Buford, who had grouped Gamble’s remnants a short distance west of the hill. Doubleday’s emissary found Buford as tired as his battle-scarred troopers. When appraised of Doubleday’s request, the Kentuckian rose in his stirrups and exclaimed: “What in hell and damnation does he think I can do against those long lines of the enemy out there?” Taken aback, the aide replied that he was merely following orders, whereupon a mollified Buford remarked, “Very well. I will see what I can do.” (Brandy and Freeland, comps., Gettysburg Papers, 1: 155-57; E. P. Halstead, “Incidents of the First Day at Gettysburg,” B & L 3:285)

What Buford did was to remount the men remaining from Gamble’s troops and lead them in a direction which put them in plain sight of the enemy as well as the Union soldiers still moving toward Cemetery Hill. The retreating Union troops were as heartened as was the newly arrived Hancock to see this display of strength. The corps commander called the sight the most inspiring sights he had ever seen: hundreds of horsemen in a compact mass, pistols and carbines drawn, daring the occupiers of Seminary Ridge to venture within range of their arms. None accepted the challenge. (OR, I 27, pt 1: 143, 913, 938, 1030; pt. 3: 333, 336-37,349, 353, 369, 374; Coddington, Gettysburg Campaign, 126; Hard, Eight Illinois Cavalry,254)

Both armies fought hard on the long, first day of battle. Taking his troopers to a safe distance Buford saw that they were settled for the night then began to relive the day in his mind. “While the troopers and cannoneers slept all around him, he remained awake long into the night, enjoying his pipe, wrapped in the blanket in which he usually slept; Indian fashion, around the campfire. He did not want to relax his grip on this day, the finest in his career. Above all he did not wish to lose the mental pictures that recalled the strength, the savvy, and the sacrifice his officers and men had displayed throughout the fight.” (Longacre 202)

At the end of the first day, July 1, Buford had this to say about the men.

“The zeal, bravery and good behavior of the officers and men on the night of June 30, and during July 1, was commendable in the extreme. A heavy task was before us; we were equal to it, and shall all remember with pride that at Gettysburg we did our country much service.” (Longacre 203)

Buford had an urgent problem to deal with. His men and their mounts were exhausted. After a well deserved night’s rest on July 1, the morning of July 2 came much too soon. Sometime after 5:00 A.M. on 2 July, the fighting flared up again. The fighting on the second day was as intense if not more so. Buford was troubled because he knew the amount of energy his men and their horses would need to expend in order to offer effective performance in the day ahead. Buford and his men and their horses had fought with all necessary stamina on the previous day. Now his men and their mounts were spent. His fear was that the continuing debility of his troops would make them impotent when most needed. It appears he petitioned General Meade for permission to go to the rear for refit. Meade’s headquarters responded that the First and Second Brigades and Calef’s battery should head to Taneytown, Maryland, four hours march to the south, where the army’s supply trains had been collected. From Taneytown Buford should convey the trains to the railhead supply base at Westchester, thirteen miles east. There his men could rest and replenish cartridge boxes and forage bags beyond the reach of the enemy’s guns. (Longacre, Cavalry at Gettysburg, 162-64)

Buford’s men may have earned their respite from battle but their leave-taking had far-reaching consequences for the Army of Gettysburg. Absence of Buford’s troops was felt by those left on the field. During the second day of battle the Rebels decimated the III Corps. (OR I, 27, pt. 1: 131, 515,939; Coddington, Gettysburg Campaign, 343-56, 385-410.)

It must be noted, however, that Buford had ample permission to leave the battlefield; both Meade and Pleasonton shared his concern over the condition of his troops and considered his request justified. Historians seem to agree however, that neither general had a right to remove from the front the army’s only disposable cavalry without making provision for its replacement. (OR, I, 27, pt1: 1032; Cheney, comp., Ninth New York Cavalry, 115; George H. Chapman diary, 3 July 1863.)

As it turned out Brigadier General Buford and his army would not return to the Battle at Gettysburg. Due to the daring yet destructive assault against Meade’s center by Major Generals Pickett and Isaac Trimble and Brigadier General Pettigrew the bloodiest battle of the war seemed to be drawing to an end. The failure of this final offensive prompted the withdrawal of Lee’s Army of Northern VA. From that point on, into the near future the war took on the nature of a race. Both Armies wanted to reach the Potomac first. The Union army wanted to prevent the escape of the Rebels. General Lee and his men wanted to get back into Virginia. Lee was transporting many wounded and supplies. It was a massive task. His wagon caravan was more than seventeen miles long.

John Buford was born into a fighting family. A fellow cavalry commander, Major General James Harrison Wilson, observed that Buford “came by the virtues of a strong hand by inheritance.” (Longacre 15)

Buford’s influence on the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg was, “potent and enduring.” Through high-ranking disciples such as Wesley Merritt, Thomas Devin, and George H. Chapman his tactical precepts shaped mounted operations up to, and beyond, Appomattox. One measure of the belated recognition his contributions elicited from comrades throughout the service was the tribute paid him by artillery Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, who eulogized Buford as the finest cavalry general in the Army of the Potomac, “straight-forward, honest, conscientious, full of good common sense, and always to be relied on in any emergency.” This was lofty praise indeed for any cavalryman, and it still resonates with the ring of truth. (Longacre 14)

Works Cited

Brandy and Freeland, comps., Gettysburg Papers, 1: 155-57; E. P. Halstead, “Incidents of the First Day at Gettysburg,” B & L 3:285

Battles of the Civil War, Johnson, Robert Underwood, Clarence Clough Buel editors, Castle Books, Secaucus NJ 1990. 10-15

The Civil War Battlefield, Frances H. Kennedy, principle editor Houghton Mifflin, 1998.431

Coddington Gettysburg Campaign, 284-85; OR, I, 27, pt.1:366-67

Coddington, Gettysburg Campaign, 126; Hard, Eight Illinois Cavalry,254

Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: a narrative. Vol 2. 388

Gary W. Gallagher, Brandy Station): The Civil War’s Bloodiest arena of mounted combat, Blue and Gray, 8:1 (1990) 11-12, 20 ;)

Stephen Sears. Gettysburg. Gettysburg Campaign. A study in command Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, NY November 3, 2004

Turning Point of the Civil War, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga. 1863, by the editors of Time Life Books, Alexandria, VA 85

United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion. Official records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vol. (Washington D. C.) Government Printing Office 1881 ‘” 1901,

Hereinafter cited as OR; except as otherwise noted, all references are to series

OR I, 27, pt1: 946-47, Nye, Here Come the Rebels!. 207-8

OR, I 27, pt 1: 143, 913, 938, 1030; pt. 3: 333, 336-37,349, 353, 369, 374;

Ibid. pt 1:143; pt. 3:305-06, 337, 349, 353, 370, 377;

McWhiney, Grady. Attach and Die. University Alabama Press. Tuscaloosa. July 30, 1984, 117

Wheeler, Richard, Witness to Gettysburg, 1987, Harper & Row, NY