When Eric Wittenberg’s award-winning book The Devil’s to Pay: John Buford at Gettysburg came out in 2014, it made quite a splash. Eric will be speaking on that subject at the Fourth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge (Aug. 4-6). We asked him to share a few thoughts in advance of his talk.
I am often asked what drew me to study the Battle of Gettysburg. I always answer that question the same way.
Having grown up in Reading, Pennsylvania, it was only an hour and a half drive to Gettysburg. I made my first visit there as an 8-year-old third grader, and I was hooked instantly. There are three things that I carry with me from that first visit to the battlefield: the rocks of Devil’s Den (which is typical for nearly every kid who visits the battlefield), the story of John Fulton Reynolds’ death, and the story of the heroic stand by John Buford and his troopers on the first day of the battle. From that first visit, John Buford’s critical role in the great Union victory at Gettysburg has been the central focus of my studies of the battle.
In 1992, I decided to research Buford’s role in the battle in depth. It was my first real foray into researching the primary sources associated with the Civil War, and it proved that I had a great deal to learn. At one point, I wanted to do a full length biography of Buford with my friend Jim Nolan, but Buford’s widow burned his letters after her husband died, and the thought of trying to cobble together a full life’s story proved daunting. I published several articles on Buford at Gettysburg and then moved on. Other than the fighting in the Loudoun Valley from June 17-21, 1863, I have published (alone or with co-authors) book-length studies of every cavalry engagement in the entire campaign, and John Buford kept coming back up again and again.
Finally, in 2013, on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Campaign, I decided that the time had come to close the loop and do a monograph on Buford’s role at Gettysburg. The resulting book, published in October 14, is, in many ways, the culmination of my life’s work. It filled a significant gap in the historiography of the Battle of Gettysburg, and it completed my studies of cavalry operations in the great campaign. The focus of the book is on the planning that Buford did to delay the advance of the Confederates and to defend the crucial high ground to the south of the town of Gettysburg that he spotted on his way into town on morning of June 30, 1863. It tells the story of a well-planned and perfectly executed covering force action that held out just long enough for Reynolds and the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac to arrive.
All these many years later, I remain just as fascinated by the story of this quiet, modest professional soldier who died an early and untimely death of typhoid fever on December 15, 1863. John Buford was just 37 years old. But, as my wife is fond of saying, it’s not the years, but the miles, and John Buford had seen more than his share of hardship and hard living in the antebellum Regular Army and then during his Civil War service. His is a story of an incomplete life accompanied by intriguing what-if’s. Buford was highly esteemed by his peers, and was considered to be the finest cavalryman in the Union service. No less than Gettysburg hero John Gibbon, a close personal friend of Buford’s, said that “John Buford was the best cavalryman I ever saw” years after the end of the Civil War. A few years before his death, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac, said in a newspaper interview that had he known how good Buford was when he ordered the formation of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps in February 1863, he would have appointed Buford to command it, and not Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, the original corps commander. In the fall of 1863, just before he fell ill with the typhoid fever that soon claimed his life, Buford was offered—and accepted—command of the Army of the Cumberland’s Cavalry Corps, but died before he could report for duty. I’m not one for “what if’s”—I have always believed that there was enough that actually happened to keep me occupied for the rest of my life—but one is irresistible. John Buford’s first cousin, Brig. Gen. Abraham Buford, also a West Point-trained cavalryman, assumed command of a division in Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry corps in 1864, and one can only imagine the battle royale as the two Buford cousins met on the field of battle.
The upshot is that the tactics that John Buford brilliantly designed and brilliantly executed at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 are still taught at West Point today as the perfect example of a delaying action. The same tactics were used by NATO troops in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when NATO doctrine emphasized delaying the advance of Soviet and Warsaw Pact armored forces at Fulda Gap on the East/West Germany border until the main body of infantry could come up and engage. As the old cliche goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same. There are many lessons for students of Civil War tactics, as well as professional soldiers, to learn from the delaying action designed and conducted at Gettysburg. I hope that some of you will come to learn about those events at the Emerging Civil War conference in August 2017.