John Buford, Jr. (March 4, 1826 – December 16, 1863) was a Union cavalry officer during the American Civil War. A West Point regular, born in the divided border state of Kentucky, he had many Southern connections, but opted to stay in the Union Army. His first command was a cavalry brigade under Maj. Gen. John Pope, and he distinguished himself at Second Bull Run, where he was wounded, and also saw action at Antietam and Chancellorsville.
Arriving at the small town of Gettysburg before the Confederate army was concentrated for battle, Buford was quick to recognize the importance of the high ground south of the town, and conducted delaying actions against superior infantry attacks until Union infantry units arrived to take up the fight and establish defensive positions on that ground. Later Buford rendered valuable service to Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, both in the pursuit of Robert E. Lee, and in the Bristoe Campaign, but his health started to fail, possibly from typhoid. On his deathbed, he received a personal message from Pres. Abraham Lincoln, promoting him major general in recognition of his tactical skill and leadership on the first day of Gettysburg.
Buford was born in Woodford County, Kentucky, but was raised in Rock Island, Illinois, from the age of eight. His father was a prominentDemocratic politician in Illinois and a political opponent of Abraham Lincoln. Buford was of English descent. His family had a long military tradition. John Jr.'s grandfather, Simeon Buford, served in the cavalry during the American Revolutionary War under Henry "Lighthorse" Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee. His great-uncle Colonel Abraham Buford (of the Waxhaw Massacre), also served in a Virginia regiment. His half-brother, Napoleon Bonaparte Buford, would become a major general in the Union Army. His cousin, Abraham Buford, would become a cavalry brigadier general in the Confederate States Army.
After attending Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, for one year, Buford was accepted into the Class of 1848 at the United States Military Academy (West Point). Upperclassman during Buford's time at West Point included Fitz-John Porter (Class of 1845), George B. McClellan (1846), Thomas J. Jackson (1846), George Pickett (1846), and two future commanders and friends, George Stoneman (1846) and Ambrose Burnside (1847). The Class of 1847 also included A.P. Hill and Henry Heth, two men Buford would face at Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, 1863.
Buford graduated 16th of 38 cadets and was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Dragoons, transferring the next year to the 2nd U.S. Dragoons. He served in Texas and against the Sioux, served on peacekeeping duty in Bleeding Kansas, and in the Utah War in 1858. He was stationed at Fort Crittenden, Utah, from 1859 to 1861. He studied the works of General John Watts de Peyster, who urged that the skirmish line become the new line of battle
Throughout 1860, Buford and his fellow soldiers had lived with talk of secession and the possibility of civil war, and when the Pony Express brought word that Fort Sumter had been fired on in April 1861, that possibility became a reality. As was the case with many West Pointers, Buford had to choose between North and South. Based on his background, Buford had ample reason to join the Confederacy. He was a native Kentuckian, the son of a slave-owning father, and the husband of a woman whose relatives would fight for the South, as would a number of his own. On the other hand, Buford had been educated in the North and come to maturity within the Army. His two most influential professional role models, Colonels Harney and Cooke, were Southerners who elected to remain with the Union and the U.S. Army. He loved his profession and his time on the frontier had snapped a number of threads that drew other Southerners home.
John Gibbon, a North Carolinian facing the same dilemma, recalled in a post-war memoir the evening that John Buford committed himself to the Union:
One night after the arrival of the mail we were in his (Buford's) room, when Buford said in his slow and deliberate way "I got a letter from the Governor of Kentucky. He sent me word to come to Kentucky at once and I shall have anything I want." With a good deal of anxiety, I (Gibbon) asked "What did you answer, John?" And my relief was great when he replied "I sent him word I was a Captain in the United States Army and I intended to remain one!"
In November 1861, Buford was appointed assistant inspector general with the rank of major, and, in July 1862, after having served for several months in the defense of Washington, was raised to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. In 1862, he was given his first position, under Maj. Gen. John Pope, as commander of the II Corps Cavalry Brigade of the Union Army of Virginia, which fought with distinction at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Buford personally led a charge late in the battle, but was wounded in the knee by a spent bullet. The injury was painful but not serious, although some Union newspapers reported that he had been killed. He returned to active service, and served as chief of cavalry to Maj. Gens. George B. McClellan and Ambrose E. Burnside in the Army of the Potomac. Unfortunately, this assignment was nothing more than a staff position and he chafed for a field command. In McClellan's Maryland Campaign, Buford was in the battles of South Mountain and Antietam, replacing Brig. Gen. George Stoneman on McClellan's staff. Under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker in 1863, however, Buford was given the Reserve Brigade of regular cavalry in the 1st Division, Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
After the Battle of Chancellorsville, Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton was given command of the Cavalry Corps, although Hooker later agreed that Buford would have been the better choice. Buford first led his new division at the Battle of Brandy Station, which was virtually an all-cavalry engagement, and then again at the Battle of Upperville.
In the Gettysburg Campaign, Buford, who had been promoted to command of the 1st Division, is credited with selecting the field of battle at Gettysburg. On June 30, Buford's command rode into the small town of Gettysburg. Very soon, Buford realized that he was facing a superior force of rebels to his front and set about creating a defense against the Confederate advance. He was acutely aware of the importance of holding the tactically important high ground south of Gettysburg and so he did, beginning one of the most iconic battles in American military history. His skillful defensive troop dispositions, coupled with the bravery and tenacity of his dismounted men, allowed the I Corps, under Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, time to come up in support and thus maintain a Union foothold at tactically important positions. Despite Lee's barrage attack of 140 cannons and a final infantry attack on the third day of the battle, the Union army won a strategic victory. The importance of Buford's leadership and tactical foresight on July 1 cannot be overstated in its contribution to this victory. Afterward, Buford's troopers were sent by Pleasonton to Emmitsburg, Maryland, to resupply and refit, an ill-advised decision that uncovered the Union left flank.
In the Retreat from Gettysburg, Buford pursued the Confederates to Warrenton, Virginia, and was afterward engaged in many operations in central Virginia, rendering a particularly valuable service in covering Maj. Gen. George Meade's retrograde movement in the October 1863 Bristoe Campaign.
The hero at Oak Ridge was John Buford... he not only showed the rarest tenacity, but his personal capacity made his cavalry accomplish marvels, and rival infantry in their steadfastness... Glorious John Buford!
Buford despised the false flourish and noisy parade of the charlatans of his service. He avoided too, perhaps, the proper praise due his glorious actions, his bravery and dash, without ostentation or pride, his coolness and able management and above all, the care of his men endeared him to all.
— Theo. F. Rodenbough, Brevet Brigadier General
By mid December, it was obvious that Buford was sick, possibly from contracting typhoid, and he took respite at the Washington home of his good friend, General George Stoneman. On December 16, Stoneman initiated the proposal that Buford be promoted to major general, and President Abraham Lincoln assented, writing as follows: "I am informed that General Buford will not survive the day. It suggests itself to me that he will be made Major General for distinguished and meritorious service at the Battle of Gettysburg." Informed of the promotion, Buford inquired doubtfully, "Does he mean it?" When assured the promotion was genuine, he replied simply, "It is too late, now I wish I could live."
In the last hours, Buford was attended by his aide, Captain Myles Keogh, and by Edward, his servant. Also present were Lt. Col. A. J. Alexander and General Stoneman. His wife Pattie was traveling from Rock Island, Illinois, but would not arrive in time. Near the end, he became delirious and began admonishing the servant, but then, in a moment of clarity, called for the man and apologized: "Edward, I hear that I have been scolding you. I did not know what I was doing. You have been a faithful servant, Edward."
John Buford died at 2 p.m., December 16, 1863, while Myles Keogh held him in his arms. His final reported words were "Put guards on all the roads, and don't let the men run to the rear."
On December 20, memorial services were held at a church on the corner of H. Street and New York Avenue in Washington, D.C. President Lincoln was among the mourners. Buford's wife, Pattie, was unable to attend due to illness. The pallbearers included Generals Casey, Heintzelman, Sickles, Schofield, Hancock, Doubleday, and Warren. General Stoneman commanded the escort in a procession that included "Grey Eagle," Buford's old white horse that he rode at Gettysburg.
No more to follow his daring formPhiladelphia Inquirer, December 21, 1863
Or see him dash through the battle's storm
No more with him to ride down the foe
And behold his falchion's crushing blow
Nor hear his voice, like a rushing blast
As rider and steed went charging past ... Buford is dead!
After the service, two of Buford's staff, Captains Keogh and Wadsworth, escorted his body to West Point, where it was buried alongside fellow Gettysburg hero Lt. Alonzo Cushing, who had died defending the "high ground" (Cemetery Ridge) that Buford had chosen. In 1865, a 25-foot obelisk style monument was erected over his grave financed by members of his old division. The officers of his staff published a resolution that set forth the esteem in which he was held by those in his command:
... we, the staff officers of the late Major General John Buford, fully appreciating his merits as a gentleman, soldier, commander, and patriot, conceive his death to be an irreparable loss to the cavalry arm of the service. That we have been deprived of a friend and leader whose sole ambition was our success, and whose chief pleasure was in administering to the welfare, safety and happiness of the officers and men of his command.
... That to his unwearied exertions in the many responsible positions which he has occupied, the service at large is indebted for much of its efficiency, and in his death the cavalry has lost firm friend and most ardent advocate. That we are called to mourn the loss of one who was ever to us as the kindest and tenderest father, and that our fondest desire and wish will ever be to perpetuate his memory and emulate his greatness."
In 1866, a military fort established on the Missouri-Yellowstone confluence in what is now North Dakota, was named Fort Buford after the general. The town of Buford, Wyoming, was renamed in the general's honor. It is the smallest town in America. It was sold at auction for $900,000 on April 5, 2012 to an unnamed Vietnamese by its owner, who had served in the U.S. military in 1968-1969.
In 1992, the M8 Buford light tank was produced and named after him