Meeting of September 30, 2008

Tom Roza on “John Buford at Gettysburg”

portrait of Civil War cavalry officer

Brig. Gen. John Buford (Wikipedia)

Although covering other aspects of of John Buford’s life and Civil War exploits, this presentation focused primarily on his role and strategic contributions to the Union cause at the Battle of Gettysburg. Here is a brief synopsis of Buford’s role on that fateful first day of the battle:

“On the morning of July 1st, 1863, Buford’s men faced west as the sun rose to their backs. Shortly after daylight, one of his troopers posted on the road to Cashtown fired at the advance of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s entire Confederate division, sending up the alarm in Buford’s camp. The dismounted cavalrymen, acting like infantry skirmishers, put up a stubborn, slow defense over the two miles to Buford’s main battle line atop McPherson’s Ridge. The Union tactics here called for measured, deliberate resistance that traded ground for time. By the time Heth’s men reached Herr’s Ridge opposite Buford’s main line, two hours of precious daylight had passed and supporting Federal infantry had approached to enter the brawl. Buford, and then infantry commander Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, had their eyes on the ultimate prize—the higher, better ground to the east and south of the town.” This action, combined with the strategic decision of commanding the high ground would have a major impact on the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Tom sent the following description:

John Buford left an enduring legacy with was his embodiment of the dismounted, dragoon-style fighting that he so splendidly executed on July 1, 1863 at Gettysburg. Buford opted for operational flexibility and versatility over devotion to a particular tactical model. Above all, he strove to enhance and promote the basic qualities of the mounted soldier, which are speed and mobility.

In place of mounted saber shock tactics the Army had borrowed from the Age of Napoleon, Buford substituted light cavalry tactics he had mastered during prewar campaigns against the Plains Indians. His emphasis on dragoon-style operations featuring dismounted troops fighting with carbine and pistol helped transform the Yankee horsemen from ineffective screening forces into a potent, mobile, versatile arm of the service.

Those qualities have carried forward to the mechanized warfare of today. Buford’s deathbed wish—that he might live on in his profession—has been granted as his tactics have become part of the modern military’s mode of operation.

Newsletter September 2008