The Battle of Gettysburg: Buford’s Defense

This entry is part 7 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign

The stage was set to begin the Battle of Gettysburg, where between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers would be casualties. Gettysburg produced the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War, where Nearly one-third of the total forces engaged there became casualties.

The actions of Brig. Gen. John Buford on the morning of the first day of fighting would allow the arriving Union infantry the time to secure secure defensive positions on the battlefield.

General John BufordAt the time of the battle, John Buford was a 37-year old cavalry commander. He was born in Woodford County, Kentucky, but was raised in Rock Island, Illinois, from the age of eight. Buford’s father was a prominent Democratic politician and a political opponent of Abraham Lincoln. Buford came from a family with a long military tradition and he was no exception.

John Buford graduated 16 out of 38 in the 1848 class at the United States Military Academy. He 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.

When the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, John Buford needed to make a difficult decision. He had many ties with the South. His father was a slave-owner and his wife was a native-born Southerner with many family members on the Confederate side. There were members of his own family, including a cousin,who would join the Confederate States Army.

Buford chose to remain with the Union and began a series of postings that would eventually lead to the command of the 1st Division, Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. On the morning of July 1, 1863, John Buford would make the command decisions that would have a huge impact on the the outcome of the battle. His selection of the high ground to defend and the tenacity of his troopers would delay the oncoming Confederates for a number of critical hours.

Buford’s Division consisted of three brigades commanded by Cols. William Gamble and Thomas Devin and Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt. Merritt’s Reserve Brigade was not engaged on the first day. Buford had about 2,748 troopers in his two engaged brigades plus a battery of horse artillery.

Buford ordered his two brigades into defensive positions on three ridges west of Gettysburg: Herr Ridge, McPherson Ridge, and Seminary Ridge (proceeding west to east toward the town). He realized that these three positions were ideal for delaying the on-coming Confederates troops long enough to allow the Union 1st Corps to occupy the strong defensive positions south of town, Cemetery HillCemetery Ridge, and Culp’s Hill.

Facing Buford’s small division was Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Division, from Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill‘s Third Corps. Heth had no cavalry forward and led with Buford's Defensean artillery battalion, followed by two infantry brigades. Heth’s division had a total of four brigades, commanded by Brig. Gens. James J. Pettigrew,  James J. ArcherJoseph R. Davis and Col. John M. Brockenbrough. His artillery battalion had four batteries of guns.

Click Map to enlarge.

Heth’s two infantry brigades, commanded by Archer and Davis, were proceeding easterly in column formation along the Chambersburg Pike. At about 7:30 AM about 3 miles west of town they began to skirmish with Buford’s cavalry vedettes. The Confederates deployed into battle lines and moved forward, eventually running into the dismounted troops from Gamble’s Brigade.

Gamble’s men had positioned themselves behind a fence line and kept up a rapid fire from their breech-loading carbines. Contrary to myth, they had not yet been issued multi-shot repeating carbines. However, they were able to fire at two or three times the rate of a muzzle-loader. The Union troopers could reload without having to stand which was a distinct advantage.

The almost three hours of fighting produced few casualties. The Confederates pushed Gamble’s men back from Herr Ridge by sheer weight of numbers. By 10:20 AM, the Union troopers had repositioned on McPherson Ridge where they continued to maintain a heavy fire on the on-coming Confederate infantry.

At this point the first elements of Maj. Gen. John Reynolds’ 1st Corps, led by the division of Maj. Gen. James S. Wadsworth, arrived to support Buford’s cavalry.

Buford’s men had done their job superbly. They had held the high ground for almost three hours with a tenacious defense and superior leadership. Buford had recognized the need for the Union army to hold the ground in order to maintain the advantage in the coming fight.

Buford’s force retired from the fighting and 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.

John Buford contracted what appears to be typhoid in December of 1863. John Buford died at 2 p.m., December 16, 1863, while his aide, Captain 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.” He was a soldier to the very end.



Series Navigation<< Setting The Stage For The Battle of GettysburgThe Battle of Gettysburg: The 1st Corps Arrives >>

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