On July 1, 1863, Brig. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry division at Gettysburg desperately holds back hordes of Confederates, as both sides sustain terrible losses. That is the popular image, but it is largely myth. Buford did fight a successful delaying action that morning, but there was no wreckage strewn across the landscape or mounds of bodies associated with it. Buford’s men and his opponents, the Confederates of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Division, actually suffered very few casualties during the engagement. That, however, in no way diminishes the importance of what Buford accomplished.
Buford’s division reached Gettysburg the day before about 11 a.m. His mission was to screen the advance of the Union Army of the Potomac as it moved north, while also gathering intelligence about the whereabouts of the Army of Northern Virginia. He found the town “in a terrible state of excitement” because of the approach of a Confederate force on the Chambersburg Pike. That was Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew’s Brigade of Heth’s Division, which had been ordered to reconnoiter to Gettysburg and seize supplies there. When Pettigrew learned of Buford’s approach, he halted his march and turned back to Cashtown, eight miles to the west. Buford, meanwhile, dispatched troopers to shadow and observe Pettigrew and had pickets and scouts cover all of the roads that converged on Gettysburg.
Buford’s orders did not include defending Gettysburg, but to his eternal credit he sensed the town’s strategic importance. The road network made it an ideal point for either army to concentrate and Buford did not fail to note the commanding terrain south of the town. Whoever controlled that ground would control the road network. Through the afternoon and evening of June 30 his scouts gathered intelligence. By 10:30 p.m., Buford had assembled a remarkably clear picture of Confederate positions: Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Third Corps was “massed just back of Cashtown”; Longstreet’s First Corps was behind Hill; and Ewell’s Second Corps was north of Gettysburg, although its precise location was not yet fixed.
Picket posts connected by vedettes gave Buford eyes on every possible approach from the west, north, and east. Buford expected the enemy would be back on July 1. When Colonel Thomas Devin, one of his brigade commanders, expressed doubt about this, Buford replied that the enemy would come “booming” the next morning and “you will have to fight like the devil to hold your own until supports arrive.” Supports were expected. Buford knew that Maj. Gen. John Reynolds and his 1st Corps were marching to Gettysburg the next day. The question was whether he could hold the road network and key terrain until Reynolds arrived.
Shortly after 8 a.m. on the 1st, Buford learned that Confederates on Chambersburg Pike were approaching “in force.” Buford planned a defense in depth to slow them. His primary objective was not to inflict damage on the enemy but to deceive them about his strength; to make them cautious and force them to deploy from column to line, buying time. He formed the bulk of Colonel William Gamble’s brigade along McPherson’s Ridge, about a mile west of town, and sent about 250–300 men forward to Herr Ridge, a mile west, as a first line of defense. He spread his one battery of horse artillery across a broad front on McPherson’s Ridge, with two sections astride the Chambersburg Pike, and a third section several hundred yards south, hoping the Confederates would imagine his force to be larger than it was.
Gamble’s brigade numbered 1,600 men. One of every four men held the horses so the others could fight dismounted with their single-shot breech-loading carbines. The carbines could fire faster than the muzzle-loading Confederate infantry rifles, but the latter greatly outranged the carbines. Heth also had about 7,500 men at his disposal.
The odds were daunting, but Buford’s tactics worked beautifully. Heth proceeded cautiously. He threw out a strong skirmish line that easily pushed back Union cavalry pickets; but the main column could not move any faster than the skirmishers, who had to climb numerous fences and traverse fields and thick meadows while trading fire with Buford’s troopers.
Buford’s pickets proved more nuisance than obstacle to Heth’s skirmishers. Colonel Birkett Fry, commanding the 13th Alabama, in Brig. Gen. James J. Archer’s Brigade, remembered the resistance from the Federal cavalry to be “inconsiderable,” and that “our advance was not retarded, and that the cavalry did us no damage.” This was true, but it took Heth until nearly 9:30 a.m. to reach Herr Ridge.
It was after 10 a.m. before Heth’s two brigades, preceded by their skirmish lines, advanced from Herr Ridge toward McPherson’s Ridge. Confident that two brigades could handle the light force he thought barred his way to Gettysburg, Heth left his other two brigades back behind Herr Ridge. It proved his undoing. Although his leading brigades easily pressed Buford’s skirmish line back, the cavalryman had purchased enough time for Reynolds to reach the field and decide to engage the enemy. Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth’s 1st Division of the 1st Corps reached the field about 10:30 a.m. and in about an hour-long battle surprised and smashed Heth’s two brigades, driving them back to Herr Ridge.
Buford’s division suffered 131 casualties on July 1. Most were sustained during the late-afternoon fighting along Seminary Ridge when part of Gamble’s brigade supported the remnants of the 1st Corps in its last stand before retreating to Cemetery Hill. Very few men were lost in the engagement with Heth.
We often mistakenly believe actions with high casualties were the most important. Buford’s skillful management of his division that morning kept his losses to a minimum while achieving a critical tactical and strategic success for the Union army. He afforded Reynolds the crucial time to decide whether to fight at Gettysburg and kept the road network open for the 1st Corps and 11th Corps to reach the field to fight the delaying action Reynolds chose to make. It is important not to exaggerate Buford’s accomplishments. He did not win the Battle of Gettysburg for the Union, but his intelligent assessment of the general situation, his appreciation of the importance of the Gettysburg position, and masterful management of his division to delay the Confederate advance helped shape the conditions that made a Union victory more likely.
Scott Hartwig writes from the crossroads of Gettysburg.