Register News Writer
MADISON COUNTY —
John Buford was born March 4, 1826, near Versailles, the first son of John and Anne Bannister Buford.
After his mother died from cholera in 1835, the family moved to Rock Island, Ill. At the age of 15, 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 revealing a desire to attend West Point. After year at Knox College, he was accepted to the military academy in 1844.
At West Point, Buford proved himself a competent and determined student. 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 tenure 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.
When the Civil War began, Buford was approached by the Kentucky governor about taking a commission to fight for the Confederacy. Alhough from a slave-holding family, Buford believed his duty was to the United States and emphatically refused and stayed in the Union army.
On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, “Buford was the first to make contact with Lee's army, and became the first hero of the battle.”
Buford decided that Gettysburg was good defensive ground and that he would resist the enemy as long as he could to give the rest of the Union army time to arrive.
His men used dragoon tactics – three-quarters of his troopers fighting in a heavy skirmish line while the remaining quarter held their horses – and held the advance of A.P. Hill’s Confederate infantry until Maj. Gen. John Reynolds arrived with units of his First Corps.
Buford was an extremely skilled commander with a cunning acumen for good ground, tactical discernment, and doggedness at a moment of crisis.
When the Federal infantry retreated to Cemetery Hill in the late afternoon, Buford helped deter a Confederate advance by taking a precarious position on the Union left.
The next morning, July 2, Buford’s men were the only cavalry on the field, patrolling a wide area around the Peach Orchard, performing the valuable duty of guarding the army’s left flank and reporting enemy movement.
Buford’s intuitive comprehension of the terrain and tactical discernment secured for the Union the high ground from which they would win the battle and turn the tide of the battle and the war.
In the days following the Union victory, Buford's men pursued Lee's army south as it withdrew to Virginia. Lamentably later that same year, Buford contracted typhoid and died on De. 16.
Source: “The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America’s Greatest Battle” by Larry Tagg.