The Wisdom of Buford

It has been said that General John Buford’s brave hold at the start of the Battle of Gettysburg may very well have saved the Union in those fateful days of July 1863. Indeed, it was he who came first to the scene at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and he who skillfully eyed the land and realized that the Union had to retain the strong high ground at Cemetery Ridge in the face of oncoming Confederate forces from the northwest. Without infantry and clearly outnumbered, Buford had to think strategically to keep the cemetery ground; he needed to stop the advance of the Rebel brigade long enough for the infantry from General John Reynolds to catch up with him and secure Cemetery Ridge. Buford needed to buy time. He accomplished this by positioning buffer defenses along Herr, McPherson, and Seminary Ridges northwest and west of Gettysburg, far northwest of Cemetery Ridge. These hillsides were exceptional locations for this buffering action, and when the Confederates charged, he fell back in portions, slowly along the northern ridges. Before his retreating forces reached Cemetery Ridge, Reynolds had arrived with his fresh forces. The reinforcements kept the ridge and the Army of the Potomac secured itself into that strong high point. In the crucial days following, the importance of this ridge became clear: Here, the Union held itself against Confederate attacks like Pickett’s Charge. For the whole of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union was not ousted from this position. Days before, Buford had known the difficulty there would be to dislodge an army from Cemetery Ridge. He lost many men, but the sacrifice was worthwhile: In his words, “A heavy task was before us; we were equal to it, and shall all remember with pride that at Gettysburg we did our country much service” (qtd. in Wittenberg, 1994).

Buford on the Chambersburg Pike


Chadwick, R. (n.d.) Brigadier general John Buford. Retrieved from
Shaara, M. (2004). The killer angels. New York, NY: Modern Library. (Original work published 1974)
Wittenberg, E. (1994, July). John Buford and the Gettysburg campaign. Gettysburg Magazine, 11(6). Retrieved from

The previous entry is a part of a series of Gettysburg posts recounting Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and the actual battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. The complete list of entries can be found at the page The Killer Angels.


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