American Civil War: Major General John Buford

Major General John Buford. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Major General John Buford was a noted cavalry officer in the Union Army during the Civil War. Though from a family of enslavers in Kentucky, he elected to remain loyal to the Union when fighting began in 1861. Buford distinguished himself at the Second Battle of Manassas and later held several important cavalry positions in the Army of the Potomac. He is best remembered for the role he played during the early phases of the Battle of Gettysburg. Arriving in the town, his division held critical high ground north and ensured that the Army of the Potomac possessed the critical hills south of Gettysburg.

Early Life

John Buford was born March 4, 1826, near Versailles, KY and was the first son of John and Anne Bannister Buford. In 1835, his mother died from cholera and the family moved to Rock Island, IL. Descended from a long line of military men, the young Buford soon proved himself a skilled rider and a gifted marksmen. At the age of fifteen, he traveled to Cincinnati to work with his older half-brother on an Army Corps of Engineers project on the Licking River. While there, he attended Cincinnati College before expressing a desire to attend West Point. After year at Knox College, he was accepted to the academy in 1844.

Fast Facts: Major General John Buford

Becoming a Soldier

Arriving at West Point, Buford proved himself a competent and determined student. Pressing through the course of study, he graduated 16th of 38 in the Class of 1848. Requesting service in the cavalry, Buford was commissioned into the First Dragoons as a brevet second lieutenant. His stay with the regiment was brief as he was soon transferred to the newly-formed Second Dragoons in 1849.

Serving on the frontier, Buford took part in several campaigns against the Indians and was appointed regimental quartermaster in 1855. The following year he distinguished himself at the Battle of Ash Hollow against the Sioux. After aiding in peace-keeping efforts during the "Bleeding Kansas" crisis, Buford took part in the Mormon Expedition under Colonel Albert S. Johnston.

Posted to Fort Crittenden, UT in 1859, Buford, now a captain, studied the works of military theorists, such as John Watts de Peyster, who advocated for replacing the traditional line of battle with the skirmish line. He also became an adherent of the belief that cavalry should fight dismounted as mobile infantry rather than charge into battle. Buford was still at Fort Crittenden in 1861 when the Pony Express brought word of the attack on Fort Sumter.

The Civil War Begins

With the beginning of the Civil War, Buford was approached by the Governor of Kentucky regarding taking a commission to fight for the South. Though from a family of enslavers, Buford believed his duty was to the United States and flatly refused. Traveling east with his regiment, he reached Washington, DC and was appointed assistant inspector general with the rank of major in November 1861.

Buford remained in this backwater post until Major General John Pope, a friend from the prewar army, rescued him in June 1862. Promoted to brigadier general, Buford was given command of the II Corps' Cavalry Brigade in Pope's Army of Virginia. That August, Buford was one of a few Union officers to distinguish themselves during the Second Manassas Campaign.

In the weeks leading to the battle, Buford provided Pope with timely and vital intelligence. On August 30, as Union forces were collapsing at Second Manassas, Buford led his men in a desperate fight at Lewis Ford to buy Pope time to retreat. Personally leading a charge forward, he was wounded in the knee by a spent bullet. Though painful, it was not a serious injury.​​​

Army of the Potomac

While he recovered, Buford was named Chief of Cavalry for Major General George McClellan's Army of the Potomac. A largely administrative position, he was in this capacity at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Kept in his post by Major General Ambrose Burnside he was present at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13. In the wake of the defeat, Burnside was relieved and Major General Joseph Hooker took command of the army. Returning Buford to the field, Hooker gave him command of the Reserve Brigade, 1st Division, Cavalry Corps.

Buford first saw action in his new command during the Chancellorsville Campaign as part Major General George Stoneman's raid into Confederate territory. Though the raid itself failed to achieve its objectives, Buford performed well. A hands-on commander, Buford was often found near the front lines encouraging his men.

Old Steadfast

Recognized as one of the top cavalry commanders in either army, his comrades referred to him as "Old Steadfast." With Stoneman's failure, Hooker relieved the cavalry commander. While he considered the reliable, quiet Buford for the post, he instead selected the flashier Major General Alfred Pleasonton. Hooker later stated that he felt that made a mistake in overlooking Buford. As part of the reorganization of the Cavalry Corps, Buford was given command of the 1st Division.

In this role, he commanded the right wing of Pleasonton's attack on Major General J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry at Brandy Station on June 9, 1863. In a day-long fight, Buford's men succeeded in driving back the enemy before Pleasonton ordered a general withdrawal. In the following weeks, Buford's division provided key intelligence regarding Confederate movements north and frequently clashed with Confederate cavalry.


Entering Gettysburg, PA on June 30, Buford realized that the high ground south of the town would be key in any battle fought in the area. Knowing that any combat involving his division would be a delaying action, he dismounted and posted his troopers on the low ridges north and northwest of town with the goal of buying time for the army to come up and occupy the heights.

Attacked the next morning by Confederate forces, his outnumbered men fought a two and half hour holding action which allowed for Major General John Reynolds' I Corps to arrive on the field. As the infantry took over the fight, Buford's men covered their flanks. On July 2, Buford's division patrolled the southern part of the battlefield before being withdrawn by Pleasanton.

Buford's keen eye for terrain and tactical awareness on July 1 secured for the Union the position from which they would win the Battle of Gettysburg and turn the tide of the war. In the days following the Union victory, Buford's men pursued General Robert E. Lee's army south as it withdrew to Virginia.

Final Months

Though only 37, Buford's relentless style of command was hard on his body and by mid-1863 he suffered severely from rheumatism. Though he frequently needed assistance mounting his horse, he often remained in the saddle all day. Buford continued to effectively lead the 1st Division through the fall and the inconclusive Union campaigns at Bristoe and Mine Run.

On November 20, Buford was forced to leave the field due to an increasingly severe case of typhoid. This forced him to turn down an offer from Major General William Rosecrans to take over the Army of the Cumberland's cavalry. Traveling to Washington, Buford stayed at the home of George Stoneman. With his condition worsening, his former commander appealed to President Abraham Lincoln for a deathbed promotion to major general.

Lincoln agreed and Buford was informed in his final hours. Around 2:00 PM on December 16, Buford died in the arms of his aide Captain Myles Keogh. Following a memorial service in Washington on December 20, Buford's body was transported to West Point for burial. Beloved by his men, the members of his former division contributed to have a large obelisk built over his grave in 1865.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General John Buford." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, October 29). American Civil War: Major General John Buford. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General John Buford." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).