John Buford, Jr. was a career soldier in the United States Army. He is best known for his role at the Battle of Gettysburg, where his cavalry division held off advancing Confederates until Union infantry could reach the battlefield and hold the critical high ground.
John Buford was born on March 4, 1826 to John and Anne Bannister Buford, in Versailles, Woodford County, Kentucky. It was a family with a strong military heritage. Bufotds father and namesake, who owned 40 slaves, was the colonel of a militia regiment. His grandfather Simeon had fought under Colonel “Light Horse” Harry Lee during the Revolutionary War, his older half brother Napoleon graduated with the West Point Class of 1827 and would become a major general of volunteers in the Union army, and his cousin Abraham Buford would serve as a brigadier general of cavalry in the Confederate army.
John’s mother died when he was only eight, and the family moved to Rock Island, Illinois. He would attend Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois for a year before he was accepted in 1848 at the United States Military Academy. He would graduate with the West Point Class of 1848, ranking 16th out of his class of 38 cadets.
Early Army Career
On July 1, 1848 Buford was promoted to Brevet Second Lieutenant in the First Regiment of United States Dragoons. He served in the garrison at Jefferson Barracks, Mo., and then on frontier duty at Ft. Scott, Kansas until 1849, and in New Mexico from 1849 to 1851. He was promoted to full second lieutenant on February 17, 1849, transferring to the Second Dragoons. He took an extended furlough back home to Kentucky in 1851, then returned to duty in 1852 commanding Company H at Ft. Mason, Texas, in San Antonio, Texas in 1853, returning to Ft. Mason at the end of the year. On July 9, 1853 Buford was promoted to first lieutenant in the Second Dragoons.
Buford returned to the garrison at Jefferson Barracks, Mo. from 1854‑55. During that time he married Martha McDowell Duke, his third cousin. They had two children, James and Pattie. Sadly, neither lived to adulthood.
He was made Quartermaster of the Second Dragoons on May 9, 1855, a position he held until to Aug. 4, 1858. During that time he served on frontier duty and on the Sioux Expedition of 1855, when he was engaged in the Action of Blue Water, Nebraska on Sep. 3, 1855. The regiment was stationed at Ft. Riley, Kan., from 1855‑56, and was involved quelling the disturbances in Kansas from 1856‑57. In 1857 Buford and the Dragoons joined the Utah Expedition until he was placed on detached service at Washington, D. C., in 1859.
On March 9, 1859 Buford was promoted to Captain in the Second Dragoons and given charge of recruits at Carlisle Barraks to train and conduct to Oregon. On the return he was stationed at Fort Crittenden, Utah until 1861.
Early Civil War Service
Buford was ordered from Utah at the outbreak of the Civil War. He had been approached by the Governor of Kentucky to take command of its pro-Confederate Kentucky militia but had refused, replying, “I am a Captain in the United States Army and I intend to remain one!”
On November 12, 1861 Buford was promoted to major on the headquarters staff, appointed Assistant Inspector General and assigned to inspection duty in the Defenses of Washington.
On July 27, 1862 he was promoted to brigadier general in the volunteer army and given command of a brigade of cavalry in Major General Nathaniel Banks’ Second Division of Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia. The brigade of four regiments from Michigan, New York, Vermont and West Virginia (a fifth regiment, from Pennsylvania, was added in August) took part in the Northern Virginia Campaign of 1862:
Skirmish at Madison Court House, Aug. 9, 1862
Passage of the Rapidan in pursuit of Jackson, Aug. 12, 1862
Action at Kelly’s Ford, Aug., 1862
Action at Thoroughfare Gap, Aug. 28, 1862
Battle of Manassas, Aug. 29‑30, 1862 – Buford was wounded by a spent bullet in the knee and took some time for sick leave.
When Buford returned from sick leave Pope’s army had been dissolved, and he became Chief of Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac.
Battle of Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, 1862
In February Major General Joseph Hooker took over the Army of the Potomac and reorganized the cavalry. Buford was given command of the Reserve Cavalry Brigade, a brigade of five regiments of whom four were U.S. Regulars.
Stoneman’s Raid to Richmond, Apr. 29 to May 8, 1863
On May 27 Buford was given command of the First Division of the Cavalry Corps.
Beverly Ford (Brandy Station), June 9, 1863
Skirmishes at Aldie, June 17, 1863
Middleburg, June 18, 1863
Upperville, June 21, 1863
Battle of Gettysburg, July 1‑3, 1863 – Buford’s skillful delaying defence north and west of Gettysburg bought the Union First Corps the time it needed to reach the battlefield and keep Lee’s army from seizing the important high ground south and east of the town.
Skirmishes at Williamsport, Boonsboro, Funkstown, and Falling Waters on Lee’s retreat to Virginia, July 5-14
Pursuit to Warrenton
Operations in Central Virginia
Culpeper, Aug. 1 and 4, 1863
Pursuit across the Rapidan, Sep., 1863
Rejoin the Army north of the Rappahannock, Oct., 1863
Reconnoissance to Culpeper, Oct., 1863
Covering withdrawal of Army of the Potomac to Bull Run, Oct., 1863
Combat of Bristoe Station, Oct. 14
Death and Burial
By November Buford was exhausted from the continuous campaigning and sick with typhoid fever. He took a leave of absence, staying at General Stoneman’s house in Washington, but his condition continued to grow worse.
John Buford died on December 16, 1863 in Washington D.C., at the age of 37. He had been given his commission as major general just a short time before. His wife had been notified and was on her way from Illinois but, sadly, would not make it in time. Buford died in the arms of his aide, Captain Myles Keogh, who was later killed with Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Buford is buried at West Point Cemetery next to another Gettysburg hero, Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing.