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When Brig. Gen. John Buford, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s 1st Cavalry Division, dictated those words to describe his troopers’ performance on the Gettysburg battlefield in July 1863, he very likely may also have had his division’s feats of the entire campaign in mind. From the cavalry battle at Brandy Station, Va., on June 9, until Lee’s defeated veterans recrossed the Potomac on July 14, Buford’s three brigades suffered just under 1,200 casualties, or nearly one-third of his entire division. His losses were the highest of the three divisions in the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps for the Gettysburg campaign.

In late May 1863, Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker became concerned that Robert E. Lee was planning a march into the North and ordered his cavalry to find and engage the Southern cavalry, led by the legendary and confident Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. Hooker’s Bureau of Military Information tracked down Stuart’s horsemen near Culpeper, Va., and “Fighting Joe” ordered Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton to take his cavalry across the Rappahannock at Beverly’s and Kelly’s fords, attack Stuart early on the morning of June 9 and “disperse and destroy” his command.

Pleasonton divided his cavalry into two wings, one to cross at each ford. Buford commanded the right wing, which consisted of the 1st Cavalry Division, the Reserve Brigade of Regular Cavalry and a brigade of infantry, and was to cross at Beverly’s Ford. Six miles downstream, the 2nd and 3rd Divisions under Colonel Alfred Duffié and Brig. Gen. David Gregg, respectively—also supported by an infantry brigade—were to cross at Kelly’s Ford. If all went as laid out, Buford’s and Gregg’s wings would link up somewhere near Brandy Station, and the combined force would hit Stuart hard northeast of Culpeper Court House.

Such schemes, however, seldom go as planned. After spending a fitful night a half-mile north of the Beverly’s Ford crossing, Buford’s command saddled up and quietly began marching at 4 a.m. on June 9. The ford’s banks were steep, it was still quite dark and the water was stirrup-high, so the crossing went slowly. It wasn’t long before Buford’s advance force ran into two videttes of the 6th Virginia Cavalry guarding the ford. The videttes—brothers Fleet and Robert James—knew resistance was futile, so they galloped south to their reserve while firing pistols to sound the alarm. The reserve alerted Stuart’s brigade camps, and the great fight was on.

As Buford’s column began appearing on the south side of the river along the road to the ford, the bluecoats were charged by about 150 troopers of the 6th Virginia Cavalry. The Southerners had been so surprised by the attack that some galloped away without saddles and most were still in their underwear. The attack slowed the Federal column’s progress, but only for a moment. As both Buford and Stuart fed more men into the open areas along the Beverly’s Ford Road, the fighting grew intense. Confederate horse artillery was coming up into positions that could easily sweep the field, and it was soon apparent that Stuart’s people were much closer to the river than any of the Federal commanders had thought.

A series of mounted charges, countercharges, dismounted fighting and Southern artillery fire caused casualties to quickly mount. Worse yet, Buford’s support from the Federal left wing didn’t cross at Kelly’s Ford until Buford had been engaged for nearly two hours.

The battle would eventually involve some 20,000 cavalrymen, 3,000 infantrymen, and several hundred horse artillerymen, centered on Stuart’s headquarters on Fleetwood Hill. Mounted cavalry charges during the 14 solid hours of bloodletting left veteran artillerymen watching with their mouths agape. One of Buford’s troopers called the day “a race for life.” Unable to dislodge the Confederate strongholds, and fearing that Southern infantry was being brought upon the field, Pleasonton ordered Buford and Gregg to withdraw their commands. Stuart’s horsemen had not been dispersed or destroyed, and Lee’s planned advance into the North had been delayed only one day. But the Southern cavalrymen gained respect for their Northern counterparts—respect bought at a dear price. Buford’s wing suffered 500 casualties, 10 percent of his force. The 1st Cavalry Division, of which Buford took official command after the battle, suffered nearly 400 of the total losses.

Hooker now knew Lee’s dispositions, but not the Gray Fox’s intentions. The following day, one of Lee’s corps began marching north, and Stuart’s cavalry was tasked east of the Blue Ridge Mountains to keep the Federal cavalry at bay. Colonel William Gamble, badly wounded the previous August, rejoined the army and took command of the 1st Brigade of Buford’s Division. The 2nd Brigade was commanded by Colonel Thomas Devin, known to his troopers as “Buford’s Hard Hitter.” The Reserve Brigade of Regulars, soon to be commanded by Wesley Merritt, joined the division. Merritt would jump from captain to brigadier general.

As the Northern and Southern cavalry fought for control of the mountain passes, several small but important actions broke out in the ensuing two weeks, drawing nearly 20,000 troopers into an area less than 20 miles from Aldie, Va., to the Blue Ridge Mountains. On June 21, as the Union cavalry was hastening toward Ashby’s Gap, the gateway to the Shenandoah Valley, J.E.B. Stuart was handed a rare battlefield defeat in a stirrup-to-stirrup brawl at Upperville, Va., that cost Buford 115 casualties. Despite that setback, Lee and Stuart were eventually able to meet their objectives. The Federals had been kept out of the mountain passes, and the Southern infantry was able to carry the war to the North.

As the Army of the Potomac paralleled Lee’s advance, Buford and his exhausted riders crossed the Potomac at Edward’s Ferry on June 27, guarding the left wing of the army. The following day they passed through Jefferson and then reached Middletown, Md. Upon breaking camp on June 29, Buford detached Merritt’s brigade to Mechanicsville to guard his trains and picket the Catoctin Mountain passes—only Buford’s 1st and 2nd Brigades would follow him to his destination, a small but important crossroads town across the border called Gettysburg.

That evening Buford’s command, reinforced by Battery A of the 2nd U.S. Horse Artillery, reached South Mountain and crossed over it to camp near Fountaindale, Pa. His troopers were so exhausted that many tied their reins to their wrists and simply fell to the ground, making their beds where they landed. Here, with a spectacular view of the Keystone State farmlands and hills before him, Buford reportedly remarked, “Within 48 hours the concentration of both armies will take place on a field within view and a great battle will be fought.” If true, Buford’s prognosis was likely due more to experience than to any extrasensory powers—but he would find out within those 48 hours that he was correct.

Buford intended to march the 10 miles from Fairfield, Pa., to Gettysburg early the next morning, but hardly had his brigades begun moving when his plans went off course. Gamble’s horsemen, leading the way, unexpectedly marched right into the pickets of two Mississippi regiments. Skirmishing broke out in the predawn fog, but Buford prudently stopped the fighting and countermarched back into Maryland so he could instead move to Gettysburg via Emmitsburg. About 11 a.m. on June 30, as Buford’s column passed through fields soon to be immortalized as the site of Pickett’s Charge, a Confederate unit was spotted just west of Gettysburg. Gamble sent a squadron to investigate, and the Southerners quickly withdrew toward Cashtown.

After deploying the two brigades to the west and north of Gettysburg, Buford sent pickets out several miles on all the roads, and interviewed local citizens. By the time the sun dropped beneath the South Mountain ridgeline, Buford was aware that all of Lee’s army was no more than a day’s march from his position. Whereas that morning his prediction of battle had encompassed some “field” within his view, he now could be more specific—Buford warned Devin and Gamble that night that he felt sure the enemy would “come booming in the morning.”

The following morning, July 1, 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, Lt. Marcellus Jones, fired at the advance of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s entire Confederate division, sending up the alarm in Buford’s camps. 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. This was no Brandy Station—it did not call for relentless, thundering saber charges by two mounted opponents. Instead, 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—higher, better ground to the east and south of the town. When two Union corps stepped in to replace their lines, Gamble and Devin continued to fight desperately on the flanks. When the blueclad soldiers in those corps were routed through Gettysburg to that higher ground, Buford—with “hell and damnation!” on his lips—lined up his troopers in one final show of defense in the face of the enemy. The sun dropped again, and the Federal line held, as it would for the following two days of brutal battle.

After the war one of his cavalrymen—who had fought and survived at Brandy Station and a hundred other horrific battlefields—looked back at July 1 at Gettysburg and affirmed, “We fought like wild cats all day.” On July 2 Buford’s two brigades were sent south from the battlefield, and when Merritt’s brigade shared in the final day of fighting, Buford’s division suffered nearly another 500 casualties.

Rejoined with Merritt’s troopers as Lee began his retreat from defeat at Gettysburg, the Federal cavalry was sent ahead of its infantry to pursue the Gray Fox and his still-dangerous Southerners. There was no rest for man or beast during those 10 days of the retreat, causing one Rebel to call the retrograde “one continuous fight.” At Williamsport, Md., on July 6, when Buford’s cavalry burst upon Lee’s ponderous collection of battle survivors, the Union troopers were held at bay by hundreds of walking wounded who took up muskets.

Buford turned his attention to Stuart’s cavalry screen covering Lee’s infantry—their backs against a swollen Potomac that they couldn’t yet cross. With the Union cavalry division commanded by a young spitfire, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, Buford’s men clashed with Stuart’s riders at sites that both armies had already crossed countless times—Boonsboro, Funkstown and Hagers­town. Buford lost nearly 100 more casualties over three days, which one of his troopers termed “the hardest fought” of the entire war. As the Union infantry under Maj. Gen. George Meade slowly advanced toward Lee’s defenses in front of the river crossings, the soldiers glanced quietly at the hordes of cavalrymen and horses that lay upon their final battlefields. The onlookers were already hardy veterans, all but immune to carnage, but the old Army jab “Whoever saw a dead cavalryman?” no longer seemed funny.

Lee finally crossed his army over the river to safety late in the morning on July 14, leaving Buford and Kilpatrick to make a fruitless assault at the Falling Waters that came just a little too late. Having to watch helplessly across the river as the Confederates cut loose their pontoon bridge was perhaps a fitting end to the campaign for Buford and his men, who six weeks before had looked across another river while waiting to attack Stuart’s cavalry on the plains of Brandy Station.

The campaigns that fall would be Buford’s last. By the time of Gettysburg, the 37-year-old career cavalryman already suffered from arthritis so severe that he often had to be assisted into the saddle. Years of hard riding had crushed his vertebrae and settled into his joints. On November 21, after contracting typhoid that likely came from drinking a bad cup of water, he relinquished his command and went to stay with a friend in Washington, D.C.

What a cannonball, saber or musket shot couldn’t do, an insipid little bug did—it took the life of a fighter. In his final moments of delirium on December 16, Buford called out to an imaginary line of troopers—perhaps dusty from their hard ride, perhaps bloody from a hard fight—but all of them with their face to the enemy: “Don’t let the men run to the rear!”

Buford’s Gettysburg campaign was his finest hour. Decades after the war, Buford’s troopers and associates prepared to place a monument of him on the battlefield, at the spot where he had opened the fight. Unknown to the men, however, sculptor James Kelly chose to portray Buford standing his ground rather than on a horse, as they had expected. At the unveiling in 1893, the onlookers—many of whom had served beside Buford—initially protested. But after a few moments, the crowd realized it was a fitting tribute after all. The statue was simple and unobtrusive, like their commander, and Buford’s men could look upon it with pride. n

J.D. Petruzzi is the co-author with Eric J. Wittenberg and Michael F. Nugent of One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863.