"The Devil's to Pay": John Buford at Gettysburg: A History and Walking Tour

by Eric J. Wittenberg

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An award-winning Civil War historian’s profile of the brilliant Union cavalry officer and the strategies he employed to prevent catastrophe at Gettysburg.
The Battle of Gettysburg turned the tide of the Civil War. But the outcome of the decisive confrontation between North and South might have been dramatically different if not for the actions of Brig. Gen. John Buford, commander of the Union army’s First Cavalry Division.
An award-winning chronicler of America’s War between the States and author of more than a dozen acclaimed works of historical scholarship, Eric J. Wittenberg now focuses on the iconic commanding officer known to his troops as “Honest John” and “Old Steadfast.” Wittenberg describes in fascinating detail the brilliant maneuvers Buford undertook to keep Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at bay and later rescue what remained of the devastated First and Eleventh Corps.”The Devil’s to Pay” celebrates the stunning military achievements of an unparalleled tactical genius at the onset of the Gettysburg Campaign and paints an unforgettable portrait of a quiet, unassuming cavalryman who recognized a possible disaster in the making and took bold action to avert it.
Based on a wealth of information from primary sources, “The Devil’s to Pay” includes pages of illustrations, maps, and photographs, as well as a walking and driving tour of the battlefield sites where America’s history was made at a staggeringly high cost in blood. A comprehensive tactical study that is both scholarly and eminently accessible, it is an essential addition to the library of any Civil War enthusiast.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611212099
Publisher: Savas Beatie
Publication date: 10/19/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 126,562
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Eric J. Wittenberg is an accomplished American Civil War cavalry historian and author. An attorney in Ohio, Wittenberg has authored over 21 books on various Civil War subjects, with particular focus on cavalry operations, as well as three dozen articles in popular magazines such as North & South, Blue&Gray, America’s Civil War, and Gettysburg Magazine. His first book, Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions (Thomas Publications, Gettysburg PA, 1998) won the prestigious 1998 Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award. The second edition won the Army Historical Foundation’s Distinguished Writing Award, for Reprint, 2011. His 2014 book, “The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg. A History and Walking Tour, was awarded the Gettysburg Civil War Roundtable’s 2015 Book Award.

Wittenberg is a favored speaker at Civil War Roundtables, and conducts tours of various Civil War battlefields and related sites. He was instrumental in saving important battlefield land at Trevilian Station and Brandy Station, Virginia, and wrote the text for the historical waysides located at Trevilian Station. He lives in Columbus with his wife Susan and their beloved dogs. Visit Eric J. Wittenberg's website: http://www.ericwittenberg.com

Read an Excerpt


John Buford and his Troopers

"John Buford was the best cavalryman I ever saw," declared Buford's longtime friend, Gen. John Gibbon, many years after the end of the Civil War. That was high praise from a man who fought in the thick of the War of the Rebellion before spending years fighting Indians on the Great Plains. Who was this soldier that had earned Gibbon's undying admiration?

John Buford, Jr., was born in Woodford County, Kentucky, on March 4, 1826. The Buford family had a long martial tradition dating back to the family's roots in France. He could trace his French Huguenot stock back to the time of the Norman Conquest, when the family name was "Beaufort." Young John was the first child of John and Anne Bannister Watson Buford. His father was a Democratic state legislator in Kentucky and the son of Capt. Simeon Buford, a prominent Virginia veteran of the Revolutionary War. John's mother was the daughter of Capt. Edward Howe of the United States Navy. John was born into a large family that included two full brothers — Thomas Jefferson Buford and James Monroe Buford — and 13 half-brothers and sisters from the first marriages of both of his parents. By the time he was a teenager he was "a splendid horseman, an unerring rifle shot and a person of wonderful nerve and composure."

Like many other American families, the Civil War divided the Buford clan, which contributed more than its share to fighting the conflict. John's older half-brother, Napoleon Bonaparte Buford, graduated sixth in his class at West Point in 1827 and commissioned into the Regular Army as a brevet second lieutenant of engineers. He studied law at Harvard, resigned in 1835 with the permission of the War Department, and served a stint at the academy as an assistant professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy. Napoleon rejoined the army and was elected colonel of the 27th Illinois on August 10, 1861. After serving in the early Western campaigns, he was commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers on April 15, 1862, immediately after the battle of Shiloh. He was given command of a brigade in Brig. Gen. William S. Rosecrans' Army of the Mississippi and served in that capacity during the early phases of the Vicksburg campaign. "He would scarcely make a respectable hospital nurse if put in petticoats and certain — is unfit for any other military position," thought Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in February 1863. The future president despised Buford, and had accused him of disobeying his orders at the 1861 Belmont fight. "He has always been a dead weight to carry, becoming more burdensome with his increased rank." Napoleon was exited to garrison command at Cairo, Illinois, a position he held until September 12, 1863, when he took command of the garrison of Helena, Arkansas, a post he held until the end of the war. On March 13, 1865, he was promoted to brevet major general of volunteers and mustered out of the service five months later.

John Buford's first cousin, Abraham Buford, also saw extensive service in the army. Abraham graduated 51st (second to last) in West Point's Class of 1841. From there, Abraham Buford was commissioned into the First Dragoons, where he served for 13 years. He saw duty in the American West and also served with distinction during the Mexican War, eventually rising to the rank of captain in the Regular Army. After that conflict, Abraham served along the Mexican border, attended the Cavalry School for Practice at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and finally resigned his commission in 1854. A man of great physical size and strength, he was known as a fighter and something of a hell- raiser. "Buford, as you may suppose, is hardly calculated to shine in any ballroom except a Mexican fandango, where he seems in his element," observed future Confederate general Richard S. Ewell, who served with Abe in the First Dragoons. "Here the natives call him 'Hell-roaring Buford.' He is over six feet tall and out of proportion, large in other respects." Henry Heth, another future Confederate general who would play a major role with John Buford at Gettysburg, and who knew Abe in the antebellum Regular Army, noted, "Buford was the most accomplished swearer I had ever seen up to that time — I had not [yet] met General [William S.] Harney." After resigning his commission, Abe settled in Woodford County, Kentucky, where he bred and sold thoroughbred horses and served as president of the Richmond & Danville Railroad.

After much contemplation, Abraham Buford cast his lot with the Confederacy, joining Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan's Raiders in Kentucky in 1862. He was appointed brigadier general and with a brigade of raw recruits helped cover Gen. Braxton Bragg's October 1862 retreat from Perryville into East Tennessee by way of the Cumberland Gap. After a dispute with Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, Abraham was transferred south to command a brigade of cavalry. In 1864, he joined Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry, where he assumed command of a mounted division. He participated in the battles of Brice's Cross Roads and Tupelo, prompting Forrest to seek Buford's promotion to major general. "It is true that Genl Buford has only served with me a short time, long enough, however, to fully establish his reputation and display his ability as an energetic and efficient cavalry commander and if any promotion are or can be made, in this department to the rank he desires," wrote Forrest. "I respectfully recommend his appointment and promotion to Major General [Provisional Army of the Confederate States]."

Buford's command covered the retreat of the Army of Tennessee during the 1864 Nashville campaign. During that action, he killed a Union major with his pistol after that officer struck him in the head with his sword while shouting, "Surrender, you damn big rebel!" Somehow Abraham escaped with but a slight wound in the leg. After the end of the Civil War, Abe Buford returned to Kentucky and became one of the best-known and most sought-after breeders of thoroughbred horses in America.

Against this martial backdrop, it is no surprise that young John Buford become a soldier. After his mother died during the great cholera epidemic that swept across Kentucky in 1833, the family moved to Rock Island, Illinois. "Rock Island was his home, if he had one, and here are clustered memories of his boyhood days," recalled several friends years after his death. The earliest reference to this domicile is found in the 1840 United States Census, which indicates that the John Buford family of six persons resided in the town. Young John would have been 14 years old at that time. In 1842, his father was elected state senator for Rock Island County, and the next year was commissioned appraiser of the real estate belonging to the State Bank of Illinois. He remained in public service for the rest of his life. John Buford, Sr. was a staunch Democrat and supporter of Stephen C. Douglas. His sons shared his political leanings.

In 1842 young John was "a fine promising young man, well grown for his age, and of excellent mind and morals." That year, the 16-year-old was nominated for an appointment to West Point, but the application was denied because his half-brother Napoleon had attended the academy. At that time, War Department policy prohibited two brothers from both obtaining a free education by attending either West Point or the Naval Academy. The denial sparked a flurry of letter writing on young John's behalf, including one from Napoleon that stated, "[h]e has all of the qualities for making a good soldier, and is well prepared to enter in the course of studies at the Academy." With his denial firm in hand, John enrolled for the 1842-43 academic year at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. After one year there, John moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he lived with Napoleon Buford and attended college.

With his half-brother Napoleon leading another vigorous letter writing campaign, John was once again nominated for an appointment to West Point in 1843, was accepted in 1844, and entered West Point that fall. The place suited him well and Cadet Buford thrived in the regimented environment. "Rather slow in speech, [Buford] was quick enough in thought and apt at repartee," recalled his friend Gibbon. "He was not especially distinguished in his studies, but his course in the Academy was marked by a steady progress, the best evidence of character and determination." Another comrade said, "Buford did not display any great military talent in the limited field at West Point, not having been selected as a cadet officer until late in his career at the Military Academy. But this was not uncommon in those who, subsequently, greatly distinguished themselves in high military command."

Buford stood 28th in his class at the end of the first year (38th in mathematics and 19th in French). He accumulated 49 demerits, placing him 86th out of 204 total cadets. By the end of his second year he was 25th in class standing (34th in mathematics, 14th in French, 31st in English grammar, and 24th in drawing). That year he had but 14 demerits, placing him 46th out of 213 cadets. For his third year, 1846-1847, Buford rose to finish 17th in his class (24th in philosophy, 14th in chemistry, and 12th in drawing). He earned 45 demerits year, placing him 92nd out of 218 cadets. He graduated 16th out of 42 in the Class of 1848, with future Civil War generals William E. "Grumble" Jones, John C. Tidball, Nathaniel H. McLean, William N. R. Beall, Nathan G. "Shanks" Evans, George H. Steuart, Jr., and Hugh B. Ewing. He was commissioned, at his request, into the First Dragoons as a brevet second lieutenant, and transferred to the Second Dragoons six months later.

Buford was a superb horseman. "His boyhood was spent in close communion with the horse and he acquired an intimate knowledge of him, his nature and his powers, what he could do and what he could not do," observed John Gibbon. "He thus acquired in his boyhood the first essential of a good cavalryman in the knowledge of the character and capacity of the cavalryman's co-worker in the field. Buford was one of the best horsemen I ever saw. He delighted in the horse, was fond of riding, and it is said of him that 'as a boy he was the greatest dare-devil of a rider in the whole county.'" During the Civil War, Buford rode a handsome Kentucky thoroughbred named Grey Eagle. The horse was a gift from his Confederate cousin Gen. Abraham Buford, named for the Mississippi River steamboat commanded by John Buford's brother, Thomas Jefferson Buford.

In the early stages of his career Buford served along the Mexican border and was promoted to second lieutenant in 1849 and to first lieutenant in 1853. On May 9, 1854, Lieutenant Buford married his third cousin, 24-year-old Martha McDowell Duke of Georgetown, Kentucky, known to friends and family as Patsy. A "great favorite" and "a most estimable woman," Patsy was the granddaughter of Col. Abraham Buford, the Revolutionary War hero and brother of John's grandfather Simeon, and the one who was responsible for bringing the Bufords to Kentucky. By all accounts they had a happy marriage. John and Patsy Buford had two children, James Duke Buford ("Duke"), born on July 26, 1855, and Pattie McDowell Buford ("Little Patsy"), born on October 14, 1857. In a tragedy all too common in those times, neither child would live to see adulthood.

John served as quartermaster of the Second Dragoons from 1855 through the beginning of August 1858, fighting in several Indian battles along the way. One of these was the Sioux Punitive Expedition under Brig. Gen. William S. Harney, which culminated in the Battle of Ash Hollow in 1856 where a young subaltern named Lt. Henry Heth commanded a detachment of mounted infantry that played an important role in the decisive victory. Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, the commanding officer of the Second Dragoons, cited Lieutenant Buford for his "good service" at Ash Hollow, as did Harney himself. While he served as quartermaster, the Second Dragoons was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, where Buford participated in quelling the disturbances in "Bleeding Kansas" in 1856 and 1857.

The Second Dragoons went west under the command of Col. Albert Sidney Johnston to participate in the Utah Expedition against Brigham Young and his Mormon followers during 1857 and 1858. Buford won high praise from Cooke for his service during the arduous march west, and was posted at Camp Floyd, Utah. "I was stationed at Camp Floyd with General Buford at the commencement of the Rebellion," recounted an old friend. "I then considered him a model officer, whose distinguishing quality was a large fund of good, practical, common sense." Buford was promoted to captain on March 9, 1859, instructed recruits at the Army's Cavalry School of Practice at the Carlisle Barracks for a year, and returned to frontier duty, where he was given the task of conducting recruits to Oregon. Buford went on to serve at Fort Crittenden, Utah, with the Second Dragoons until the beginning of the Civil War.

Buford was torn between his loyalty to his native Kentucky and his loyalty to the government he had faithfully served for 13 years. The difficult choice deeply troubled him. John Gibbon, who had three brothers who would serve in the Confederate army, decided to remain loyal to the Union. He recalled, "One night after the arrival of the mail we were in his [Buford's] room, talking over the news … when Buford said in his slow and deliberate way, 'I got a letter by the last mail from home with a message in it from the Governor of Kentucky. He sends me word to come to Kentucky at once and I shall have anything I want.'" An anxious Gibbon asked his friend, "What did you answer, John?" Buford's reply came as quite a relief: "I sent him word I was a captain in the United States Army and I intend to remain one."

Buford and his regiment of Regulars, having been re-designated the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, traveled from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Washington, D.C., where they arrived in October of 1861. There, Buford requested and received an appointment as a major in the inspector general's office. He served in that position until June of 1862, a role that did not fully suit his temperament and abilities. Simply put, Buford languished there until Maj. Gen. John Pope learned of his plight. Pope had served with Buford in the "old" army, knew him well, and was surprised to find Buford deskbound in the nation's capital. He asked the dragoon how he could remain in such a position with a war raging, and inquired whether Buford had any objection to being assigned to a field command. Buford "seemed hurt" that Pope could doubt his desire to take the field, and he told Pope "he had tried to get a command, but was without influence enough to accomplish it." In what was perhaps his best decision as an army commander, Pope rescued Buford from oblivion as a staff officer and ordered him to report for assignment to the Army of Virginia on July 27, 1862. The move resulted in a promotion to brigadier general of volunteers and an assignment to command the reserve cavalry brigade attached to Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks' infantry corps.

Buford served with distinction during the Second Bull Run campaign, which included a large-scale engagement with Confederate cavalry at the Lewis Ford on Bull Run creek on August 30, 1862, during the closing hours of Second Bull Run. Buford covered the army's chaotic retreat and led a bold mounted charge that drove several regiments of Confederate cavalry before a Rebel counterattack routed Buford's troopers. This was John Buford's first important contribution as a cavalry commander, and it also represented the first time the blue cavalry stood up to Maj. Gen. James E. B. Stuart in a toe-to-toe fight. Unfortunately, a spent ball struck Buford on the right knee. The severe contusion that resulted forced him to go on sick leave for a few days to recover.

Buford learned much from his experiences at Second Bull Run, including perhaps his most important lesson: he did not commit his entire force to the fight at Lewis Ford, and ultimately lost as a result. This defeat reinforced his dragoon training that mounted charges were not always the most effective means of employing cavalry. These lessons stuck, and he made good use of them throughout the remainder of his career.

Buford's greatest service during the Second Bull Run campaign, his outstanding work gathering intelligence, passed largely unnoticed. Some of his men came within a whisker of nabbing Stuart himself, but had to content themselves with capturing his famed plumed hat. On August 29, Buford observed the passage of James Longstreet's command through Thoroughfare Gap and reported this fact. The intelligence was forwarded to Pope's second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, who failed to forward the dispatch on to Pope. The news established beyond a doubt that Longstreet's divisions were on hand at Manassas and prepared to enter the fight. If Pope had properly interpreted the neglected dispatch, the ensuing disaster that befell his army the next day may well have been averted. That others ignored Buford's warning was not his fault. Nevertheless, Buford learned once more the importance of scouting and the delaying effect dismounted cavalry could have against advancing infantry.


Excerpted from "The Devil's to Pay: John Buford at Gettysburg"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Eric J. Wittenberg.
Excerpted by permission of Savas Beatie LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Preface and Acknowledgments,
Chapter 1: John Buford and his Troopers,
Chapter 2: Marching to Pennsylvania,
Chapter 3: June 30, 1863,
Chapter 4: The Night Before the Battle: June 30-July 1, 1863,
Chapter 5: Opening the Ball: Early Morning, July 1, 1863,
Chapter 6: The Devil's to Pay: Buford Holds On,
Chapter 7: Gamble Saves the First Corps,
Chapter 8: Unshaken and Undaunted,
Chapter 9: The Night of July 1-2, 1863,
Chapter 10: Devin's Brigade Skirmishes in Pitzer's Woods,
Chapter 11: Buford Departs the Battlefield,
Conclusion: An Assessment of John Buford's,
Performance in the Battle of Gettysburg,
Appendix A: Order of Battle, Morning, July 1, 1863,
Appendix B: The Myth of the Spencers,
Appendix C: What was the Nature of John Buford's Defense at Gettysburg?,
Appendix D: Did James Lane's Confederate Brigade form Infantry Squares in Echelon on the Afternoon of July 1, 1863?,
A Walking and Driving Tour,

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"The Devil's to Pay": John Buford at Gettysburg. A History and Walking Tour. 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Have been a long-time fan and admirer of John Buford and the role he played in the Battle of Gettysburg. This excellent book provides many details of which I was unaware, and completes the picture of the Cavalry presence and role at the Battle.