The Importance of Buford’s Stand at Gettysburg

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Counterfactuals of the Civil War

General John BufordThe Battle of Gettysburg is filled with what-ifs. The first what-if concerns Brig. Gen. John Buford‘s cavalry division and their stand on July 1st. Buford’s determination to hold up the advancing Confederates allowed the following infantry from the I Corps to reinforce his outnumbered unit.

Buford is credited with selecting the field of battle at Gettysburg. In doing it so well,  John Buford selected the very best field for his Union Army comrades to defend. He was acutely aware of the importance of holding the tactically important high ground about Gettysburg and so he did, beginning one of the most iconic battles in American military history.

John Buford was a 37-year old career soldier. A native of Kentucky, he had graduated from West Point 16th of 38 in the class of 1848. 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.

At the start of the war, Buford remained loyal to the Union and gradually worked his way up the chain of command. In July 1862, he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers. Before Chancellorsville, he was given the Reserve Brigade of the Cavalry Corps and before the Gettysburg Campaign he was promoted to division command.

On June 30th, he rode with his command into the small town of Gettysburg. Realizing that he was facing a superior enemy force, Buford set about building a defense to thwart their advance. He dismounted his troopers and with their horse artillery he delayed the Confederate advance fora crucial three hours until Maj. Gen. John Reynolds’ I Corps could arrive.

Anticipating that the Confederates would march on Gettysburg from the west on the morning of July 1, Buford laid out his defenses on three ridges west of the town: Herr Ridge, McPherson Ridge, and Seminary Ridge. These were appropriate terrain for a delaying action by his small cavalry division against superior Confederate infantry forces.

It was meant to buy time awaiting the arrival of Union infantrymen who could occupy the strong defensive positions south of town at Cemetery HillCemetery Ridge, and Culp’s Hill. Buford understood that if the Confederates could gain control of these heights, Meade’s army would have difficulty dislodging them. By selecting the field and holding it until he was relieved, Buford set the stage for the eventual Union victory.

But what if Buford’s outnumbered force was overwhelmed and forced to retreat through the town of Gettysburg? The Union Army would have been unable to prepare defensive positions south of the town when the inevitable Confederate advance began. They would have more than likely been routed and destroyed in detail.

A Union defeat at Gettysburg may have meant a negotiated peace and the division of the country. Gettysburg may have been the last opportunity for the Confederate Army to win the war on the field. After Gettysburg the South’s last hope was war weariness from the Northern public and Lincoln’s defeat in the 1864 election.

Unfortunately, John Buford would not see the Union victory that he so ably helped with. He 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.”

Buford was buried at West Point alongside fellow Gettysburg hero Lt. Alonzo Cushing, who had died defending the “high ground” (Cemetery Ridge) that Buford had chosen.

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! — Maj. Gen. John Watts de Peyster on Buford’s Dragoon tactics


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