Few people realize the critical role played exactly 138 years ago this week by a Rock Island resident, Maj. Gen. John Buford, in helping Union forces gain victory at the Battle of Gettysburg.
The July 1-3 struggle between Union and Confederate forces might well have ended differently had not the cavalry leader stood his ground at two pivotal areas of the battle Seminary Ridge and Willoughby Run. Because of his heroism in holding back rebel forces that outnumbered him 3-to-1, a bronze monument stands in his honor at the Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, Pa.
Buford was born in 1828 in Kentucky to Anne Bannister Buford and John Buford, Sr. After his mother died in a cholera epidemic in 1834, his father and brothers Thomas, James and Napoleon moved to the Illinois town of Stephenson. Known today as Rock Island, the small town was a collage of rippling grass and white-washed homes.
The 12-year-old Buford enjoyed horseback riding on the dirt streets and possibly clerked in his father's small grocery store on the Rock Island levee. His father whimsically described the store as looking like a "fancy man's shirt" because of its tall facade and wood painted to resemble granite.
The elder Buford predicted a day when the frontier settlement would grow to a great city connected to Iowa by a bridge and linked to other parts of the nation by a railroad. The 16-year-old Buford dreamed of attending the United States Military Academy at West Point. He applied for admission in 1842, the year his father was elected to the Illinois State Legislature.
The War Department denied his application because policy did not allow two brothers to attend West Point. His half-brother, Napoleon, had graduated from West Point in 1827.
Buford persisted and received his appointment two years later.
At West Point, he excelled in horsemanship and was a good problem solver. He also showed a more frivolous side by sneaking off to other cadets' rooms after hours.
He graduated in 1848 and was assigned to the First Dragoons, a cavalry unit. In the field, Buford favored well-worn clothes, with a pipe and tobacco stashed in one pocket.
In later years, a soldier from the 8th Illinois Regiment remembered Buford as "kind and always on hand when there is fighting to be done. He don't put on so much style as most officers."
Buford served on the Kansas and Texas frontiers and participated in the Sioux campaign of 1855. In 1854, he married Martha McDowell Duke, and the couple had two children, James, born in July 1855, and Pattie, born in October 1857.
The Civil War tested Buford's abilities as a leader and soldier. Given command of the Reserve Brigade, he was often observed riding in the front line and yelling "Charge."
Gettysburg proved his greatest challenge. The momentum began to build towards the end of June, when Confederate troops ransacked the area seeking food and supplies.
Buford told a fellow officer that he was sure the enemy knew "the importance of this position" at Gettysburg. He hoped to hold it until more Yankee troops could solidify the Union position.
Asked by Gen. John Reynolds if he could hold out until reinforcements arrived, Buford swallowed hard and said: "The devil's to pay. I reckon I can."
His July 1 stand at Gettysburg was marked by chaos and blood. One soldier, part of the artillery, would describe the scene as "drivers yelling, shells bursting, shot shrieking over head, smoke, dust, splinters and carnage indescribable."
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His stand helped keep General Robert E. Lee's forces from further penetrating into Pennsylvania.
The next day Buford defended Wolf's Hill and Round Top and chased the rebels to Warrenton, Virginia.
The Battle of Gettysburg ended with Lee's forces retreating back towards Maryland and Virginia. Both sides sustained heavy casualties. Numbers for the total number of Confederate dead vary between 2,600-4,500 and the Union forces lost 3,155. Thousands more soldiers were injured or declared missing.
Buford distinguished himself at a heavy cost. In August he took ill. Days later he learned of the death of his five-year-old daughter, Pattie. He was given a ten day leave and after arriving in Georgetown, Kentucky, found out two more family members had died.
He returned to the front and engaged in heavy fighting in Virginia. In late November, he was forced to return to Washington DC, dangerously ill with typhoid fever.
Buford died Dec. 16 just hours after learning that President Abraham Lincoln promoted him to major general.
The Rock Island Daily Argus announced the sad news of the general's death on December 24. The news cast a gloom over people preparing for Christmas.
An unnamed journalist described the grief and sadness felt by the soldiers in Buford's division.
"The men on picket mutter mournful ejaculations as they pass up and down their lonely walks by the red glare of the crackling campfire."