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General John Buford: A Military Biography by Edward Longacre


General John Buford: A Military Biography by Edward Longacre (Combined Books, Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, 1995) by Ian Mitchell

Edward Longacre’s biography of Major General John Buford is an excellent primer for those who want to understand the life of a brilliant cavalry officer whose life was tragically cut short at a relatively young age. I am happy to confess that my interest in John Buford was stimulated first by watching the movie Gettysburg in which the actor Sam Elliott gives a riveting portrayal of Buford and subsequently by reading John Wittenberg’s excellent book 'The Devil’s to Pay' on Buford’s division at Gettysburg. The latter, by the way, was kindly lent to me by my old friend Derek Young. I have also traced the fight of the division of his division at Gettysburg (aided by Mike Vice a battlefield guide) and seen his impressive statue - so yes I am a fan of Buford - but also by the way Sam Elliott.

Longacre is a professional historian of good repute but more importantly from my perspective, he is a good writer who knows how to entertain as well as how to inform. Good writing and good Civil War history should not be mutually exclusive. The majority of the book is devoted to Buford’s Civil War career. However, the first 70 pages are devoted to Buford’s early years, his time at West Point but more importantly his early service in the Dragoons on the frontier. All of these events would play a critical role in moulding Buford into the man and cavalry commander so perhaps could have received a little more attention.

His contemporaries at the US Military Academy included cadets who would play a leading role in the Civil War on both sides. On that fateful first day at Gettysburg for example the Confederate Division commander attacking Buford’s division was Major General Henry Heth, who graduated from West Point a year earlier than Buford in 1847. Among the other Confederate officers who were Buford’s contemporaries at the Academy were AP Hill, Thomas Jackson and George Pickett. Buford’s extended period of service on the frontier with the 1st and 2nd Dragoons gave him invaluable experience. Buford was twice assigned in the 1850s to serve as the Regimental Quartermaster for the 2nd Dragoons. Though such a role gave little opportunity for glory his assignment to it demonstrated that his superiors had a high regard for his abilities as this was a critical role. The knowledge and experience he acquired would pay dividends in his later career.

Service in the Dragoons on the frontier also introduced him to a range of officers some of whom he would serve under or with for example Cooke and Pleasanton and others who he would have to fight for example Beverley Robertson. By 1860 Buford had served on active operations against the Sioux, in Kansas and also taken part an expedition to Utah. When the Civil war began in April 1861 Buford was a 35-year-old Captain serving in Utah under Lt Colonel St George Cooke. As a native Kentuckian and thus considered by Republicans a southerner, Buford could quite easily have decided his loyalty lay with his state and the new Confederacy. It is one of the many tantalising possibilities of Buford’s career that given a different decision he might easily have led a cavalry division or corps in the Confederate army. He was, after all, an older and more senior cavalry officer than Jeb Stuart or Joe Wheeler and moreover his older cousin Abraham Buford III did exactly that! Instead, and fortunately, Buford remained loyal not only to the Union but also to the regular cavalry and thus remained initially in Utah before he joined Cooke as the latter led part of the 2nd Cavalry on a march from Utah to Fort Leavenworth. As Longacre highlights

Buford was initially poorly rewarded for his loyalty and commitment to the Union. At a time when many of his peers or juniors were receiving choice assignments he was lucky to get a role as an Assistant Inspector General. Buford finally received a Cavalry command in 1862 and it is to Longacre’s credit that he devotes time to describing Buford’s role as the Reserve Brigade commander in campaigns of that year. I certainly learned a lot about the ccavalry role in the Cedar Mountain, 2nd Bull Run and Antietam campaigns that I had not known before. Another of the “what ifs” of Buford’s career is what might have happened if Buford’s priceless gift of an early warning of a large Confederate force (Longstreet’s) advancing southeast along the Gainesville Road had been delivered not just to McDowell but also forwarded it on to Pope.

Longacre had already completed his book The Cavalry at Gettysburg so unsurprisingly he rightly devotes two chapters to Buford’s role in the Gettysburg campaign. This was before Eric Wittenberg completed his account The Devil’s to Pay. Both authors rightly praise Buford for his handling of his division on the first day at Gettysburg but critically don’t ask the tough question whether by in effect deciding to bring about a battle at Gettysburg he was following his commander's (Meade) intent. For me the most illuminating part of the book covers the last four months of Buford’s command of the 1st Cavalry Division. This is because, in my view, it highlights a period when Buford made his greatest contribution to the Union cause while also driving himself so relentlessly that he became exhausted. During this time Buford and his division fought several actions that harried Lee during his retreat. This is covered by the biography but perhaps the best account is in the book One Continuous Fight by Wittenberg, Petruzzi and Nugent.

From August to October Buford was engaged in a series of challenging operations screening Meade’s command and rendered particularly valuable service covering his commander’s withdrawal in the October Bristoe Station campaign. Despite being ill and was almost certainly suffering from typhoid, Buford resisted taking extended sick leave until it was too late.

Buford’s death at the very early age of 37 deprived the Union Army of probably its best cavalry commander and a future field commander of great promise. What might have happened had he lived is the last big what if of Buford’s career. Both Sherman and Rosecrans had requested Buford’s services as Chief of Cavalry while Grant might not have brought Sheridan east but instead promoted Buford to be Chief of Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac. Post war, Buford seniority and ability in both staff and command roles would have led him to command units such as the 2nd Cavalry and serve at senior level on a frontier he knew well. It is not a stretch to say that had he lived Buford might have been in charge instead of Terry during the Sioux Campaign of 1876 and a different outcome could have occurred. Edward Longacre’s excellent biography includes four useful maps, several good photographs, a detailed list of sources and bibliography. I recommend it to you.

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