Imagine traveling along a road minding your own business when suddenly you stumble across a group of people who definitely are not your friends. Now imagine discovering that you realize that the group is an even larger force and you’re significantly outnumbered. Well, that’s exactly what General John Buford encountered when he and his troops stumbled upon a large contingent of Confederate soldiers. General Buford is best known for making the decision to take a defensive stance on high ground at Gettysburg to stall for time until a larger Union reinforcement could arrive. His decisions ultimately culminated in a Union win after the three day battle at Gettysburg. There are several different words attributed to him, and this post will explore just a few of his notable quotes.
"If I have any choice I would prefer Western Troops."
Despite Buford’s notoriety as a master tactician, he didn’t get this reputation overnight. Buford’s career in the military involved years of service out west.
In 1848, he was first appointed as second lieutenant to the U.S. 1st Dragoons and was sent out to California to fight in the Mexican-American War and Indian Wars. In the 1850s, he took up posts in California, Oregon, and Kansas in Indian campaigns. His notoriety as an expert in tactics allowed him to be promoted to the rank of captain. In the late 1850s, he was involved in the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict between pro-slavery and abolitionist groups.
His years of service out west helped prepare him for the tactics he would utilize during the infancy of the three day battle at Gettysburg.
“I am willing to serve my country, but do not wish to sacrifice the brave men under my command.”
As a Kentucky native and born of a family who owned slaves, Buford easily could have fought for the Confederacy. In fact, the governor of Kentucky sent him a letter asking him to serve in the rebel army. However, Buford allegedly responded “I sent him word I was a captain in the United States Army and I intend to remain one.”
Buford’s smaller number of soldiers was all that stood between Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and higher ground. As a result, Buford planned skirmishes to slow the advance of the Confederate army, but he also planned strategic retreats in order to prevent unnecessary loss of life. He surveyed the land to determine places - fence posts, trees, etc. - that his men could use to take cover. He also fired his six cannons to deceive the rebel forces into thinking that Buford had more munitions.
While the Confederate forces reached Buford’s lines and the Union lost many men in his cavalry, the fact of the mater is that Buford’s delaying tactics put a focus on strategy rather than sacrifice. In fact, his tactics at Gettysburg are still studied and analyzed by cadets at the United States Military Academy (West Point)! Putting men before glory is certainly one reason why Buford was so highly regarded by the men he commanded.
"We entered Gettysburg in the afternoon, just in time to meet the enemy entering the town, and in good season to drive him back before his getting a foothold."
Buford’s strategy and decisions during the first hours of the Battle of Gettysburg cannot be overstated. When he and his division came across rebel forces under the command of General Henry Heth, Buford recognized the necessity of holding the town of Gettysburg and the high ground around it. His cavalry was instructed to fight on foot and to utilize the terrain for defense for his men. He delayed Confederate troops long enough for Union General John Reynolds to arrive with his men as reinforcements and continue to hold the high ground.
Buford’s quick-thinking and strategic planning set the stage for an eventual Union victory after three days of fighting. While speculating about history doesn’t change what happens, it’s worth mentioning that if the Confederate army had been able to take the high ground in Gettysburg, then they not only would have had a significant advantage at the beginning of the fighting, but the outcome of the battle might have been very different. Seeing as how the Battle of Gettysburg is considered to be the turning point of the war, we can only imagine how later events would have occurred if Gettysburg had favored the Confederacy.
"It is too late, now I wish I could live"
A few months after the Battle of Gettysburg, Buford possibly contracted either typhoid fever or dysentery. Both ailments were commonly contracted during the Civil War. Typhoid fever is caused by salmonella and symptoms include fever, abdominal pain, and a rash. Dysentery, on the other hand, is an intestinal infection that also can result in inflammation. Buford’s illness caused him to give up his command in November of 1863, and by December it was apparent that he would succumb to his illness.
During the last days of his life, Buford stayed at the home of his good friend General George Stoneman. Stoneman proposed to President Abraham Lincoln that Buford be promoted to major general, and Lincoln agreed, writing the following:
"I am informed that General Buford will not survive the day. It suggests itself to me that he will be made Major General (two-star general officer) for distinguished and meritorious service at the Battle of Gettysburg”. Doubting the sincerity of the promotion, Buford questioned: “Does [Lincoln] mean it?” When the promotion was affirmed, Buford replied: “It is too late, now I wish I could live.” He died hours later.
It’s heartbreaking to hear that someone who played such a pivotal role in ensuring victory for the Union was unable to see his promotion played out over the long-term. However, it’s comforting to know that Buford was aware of his promotion for distinguished service before he passed away. It is a credit to his character and work ethic that members of his old division paid for a 25-foot obelisk to be placed over his grave as a memorial. The resolution that they published includes the sentiment of how his “chief pleasure was in administering to the welfare, safety, and happiness of the officers and men of his command.” It is apparent that his former men held him in the highest regard.
More than just a General
While Buford might not be as well known as other generals that served during the Civil War, his contributions are a credit to his bravery and humanity. While his deeds are consigned to history, consider purchasing items made from the witness tree that stood watch as Buford’s actions set the stage for a Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Take a look at our unique hand-crafted items made from the wood of the Battle of Gettysburg. Each piece is made with care and attention to detail and is a perfect addition to any history enthusiast's collection. They also make wonderful gifts!
Order now and own a piece of history!