John Buford

General John Buford / General Buford

General John Buford, commander of the Union army 1st cavalry division arrived at Gettysburg on June 30, 1863. With 2 brigades of over 2,000 men under his command, he was greeted warmly by the citizens of Gettysburg who were anxious the battle would come to their homes and saw the Union cavalry as saviors.

After surveying the area, Buford determined the strategic advantage of defending the high ground to the south of Gettysburg. Buford dismounted his cavalry and positioned them in defensive positions to the west of town between the advancing troops and the heights in lines stretched in a half-circle close to 4 miles long. The majority of his troops under Colonel William Gamble were positioned due west of town, and the rest under Colonel Thomas C. Devin northwest of Gettysburg.

Buford had known the bulk of the Confederate army was in Cashtown, PA under General A.P. Hill and he had positioned his men perfectly knowing they would have to come up the Chambersburg Pike to reach Gettysburg. Under Hill's orders, a large mass of Confederate troops converged on the small town from the west up the Chambersburg Pike around 7:30am on July 1, 1863 with close to 8,000 men under Confederate Major General Henry Heth. The initial attack hit Buford's skirmish line and the Confederates thinking they were facing militia had no idea that Buford and his dismounted cavalry lay ahead of them.

john_buford_main_Buford's men fought with tenacity and skill from behind rock walls and fences with their Sharps carbine short rifles that could be fired at 5-8 rounds per minute as compared with the muskets of their enemies that could only fire 2-3 rounds per minute. John Buford was able to move his men around quickly as they would mount and ride to an area that needed defending, then dismount to fight. Buford also had 6 artillery pieces which fired incessantly on the enemy as they struggled to form their 8,000 men into attacking formations.

His goal was not to stop the Confederate advance, but rather delay until Major General John F. Reynolds' I Corps could complete the march into Gettysburg, and reinforce. At times, Buford would go to the cupola of the Lutheran Theological Seminary to gain a better view of the battlefield. From that vantage point he could see in every direction and as he viewed the battle, Reynolds arrived on the scene calling up to Buford and said, "what goes John" to which Buford replied "the devil's to pay" as he motioned toward the advancing Confederates. Reynolds then asked, "can you hold John" to which Buford responded "I reckon I can".

John Buford and his men were able to hold until infantry support arrived around 10:30am and Reynolds quickly formed his men into defensive lines. As the day wore on, the Confederates continued to pour in troops from the west and the north, and the Union troops did their best to defend in a semi-circle formation with lines stretching 6 miles long. The Union army continued to reinforce from the south and deploy where needed.

During the fighting Reynolds was mortally wounded and the Union defenses were pushed back through the town by overwhelming Confederate forces toward Cemetery Hill. The first day's fighting was over and John Buford would thereafter be known as the commander that selected the ground on which the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. The Union army had gained the early advantage as over the remainder of the battle, the Confederates would fail at driving them from the high ground.

On the morning of July 2, 1863, Buford's battered cavalry division was ordered to retreat from Gettysburg to be refitted in Maryland roughly 25 miles from the battlefield. He did not see action for the rest of the battle but the Union army would go on to win thereby ending the Confederate invasion of the north.

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