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Book Review: General John Buford (Edward Longacre) : ACW

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 11, 2001 
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General John Buford, by Edward Longacre (Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pa., $24.95).
Union Brigadier General John Buford had his one brief moment of glory at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863. After fighting in Virginia at the first and second battles of Bull Run, at Verdiersville, at Madison Courthouse, at Thoroughfare Gap and at Brandy Station, Buford moved into Pennsylvania ahead of Major General George Meade's hard-marching Army of the Potomac. Buford deployed his cavalry brigade to control the approaches to the crossroads village of Gettysburg in the face of the advancing Confederates of General Robert E. Lee.

Buford's troopers fired the opening shots of the great battle. Using tactics learned from the Indian wars and earlier operations in Virginia, Buford dismounted his men to ensure more accurate carbine and pistol fire, remounted them to change position when necessary, and used the threat of a massed cavalry charge to force the advancing enemy troops to halt. Buford was distressed that thousands of potential Confederate prisoners escaped on pontoons across the Potomac River after the battle. But he was proud of his troopers, who had fought stubbornly and well–a tribute to his own experience and leadership.

The Union Army's ablest and most innovative cavalry leader, Buford showed himself to be a born horse soldier while still a cadet at West Point. Commissioned into the 1st U.S. Dragoons, Buford spent much of his early career in the West, where he saw his first combat in the Sioux campaign of 1855. The Indians' sophisticated combination of flank attacks, cavalry charges and dismounted firing influenced Buford's tactics in the Civil War. He stressed speed and mobility as the two essential factors of cavalry warfare, and his admonitions to "patrol the roads," "halt fugitives from the front," and "fight like the devil" were still in vogue when tanks and armored cars replaced horses in the U.S. Cavalry after World War I.

The first full-length study of Buford is a masterful biography by Edward Longacre. General John Buford (Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pa., $24.95), a comprehensive and revealing portrait of the gallant and aggressive combat leader, details Buford's dedicated though abbreviated career (he was only 37 when he died of typhoid fever, exposure and exhaustion five months after Gettysburg) and the numerous actions of his units.

The man who left an enduring imprint on 19th-century mounted warfare was born into a warrior family–the Beauforts, or Beaufords–that traced its lineage to the Norman knights. His forebears came to Middlesex County, Va., and later moved to Kentucky.

Buford, after reaching the rank of general, almost singlehandedly overturned the Napoleonic cavalry tactics of the U.S. Army. In place of mounted, saber-reliant, heavy-cavalry tactics, he substituted the light-cavalry concept he had mastered against the Plains Indians. He transformed Union horse soldiers from a poor imitation of French cuirassiers into a mobile, versatile force that could fight confidently alongside its infantry and artillery comrades. He also turned the Union cavalry into an expert intelligence-gathering arm, and its accurate and timely reports of enemy movements–coupled with Buford's tenacious defense of strategic ground–helped decide the outcome at the Battle of Gettysburg.

The army, Longacre writes, was tardy in recognizing Buford's ability and contributions. He was denied a command until the second year of the war, and rose to division rank only six months before his death on December 16, 1863. As a Kentuckian, his allegiance to the Union was questioned by certain members of the Northern hierarchy, and he lacked the sort of political support that brought high rank to many officers of lesser ability.

Buford was also hampered by serving under the ineffective Maj. Gen. John Pope, and was inactive during the Antietam and Fredericksburg campaigns. And as Longacre demonstrates, Buford was a victim of his own self-effacing personality and his marked dislike of newspaper reporters, which prevented him from receiving the public recognition he deserved.

Despite his late arrival on the war scene and his premature departure from it, Buford's influence was nevertheless significant and lasting. Through high-ranking disciples like Wesley Merritt, Thomas C. Devin and George H. Chapman, his tactical precepts shaped Union cavalry operations to Appomattox and beyond.

Belatedly, Buford was eulogized by Colonel Charles S. Wainwright of the artillery as the finest cavalry general in the Army of the Potomac–"straightforward, honest, conscientious, full of good common sense, and always to be relied on in any emergency." John Buford receives his due with this literate book, sure to become the definitive work on this underrated soldier.

By Michael D. Hull



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