There were thousands of battles in the Civil War, dozens of them categorized as major by any standard – number of combatants engaged, number of casualties, military or political significance, and so forth. Of these, many consider the Battle of Gettysburg to be the capstone. It certainly is the most studied of Civil War engagements. It pitted against each other the best and the worst of leaders, leadership, tactics, and logistics. At the tactical level, Brigadier General John Buford is emblematic of the best on either side. His performance in command of the United States First Cavalry Division in the campaign leading into, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the battle provides classic examples of leadership, determination, and tactics that are studied by military professionals to this day.
Eric Wittenberg has captured this well. Not only is his book superbly researched, documented, and written, it is a grand book – not in size, at a modest 245 pages, but certainly in subject, scope and sweep. With an engaging style, it is fast-paced, easy to ready and comprehend, and covers not only the operational and tactical levels, but individual officers and soldiers involved – on both sides.
Now, I already knew about Buford and his gaining time to the west and north of Gettysburg as the Army of the Potomac closed in. So, in addition to being a good read, what did I get out of the book? What did I learn?
For one, Buford’s background, family and personal, and a detailed insight into his character. A Kentuckian by birth, he was destined to be a soldier. Coming from a family history of military service stretching back to the Revolution, he naturally vectored in that direction. He developed superior horsemanship skills as a youth, which pushed him towards the cavalry. Graduating from West Point in 1848 (16th out of a class of 42), he showed strong leadership qualities from the beginning of his career. Eric discusses his various unit assignments from graduation through the beginning of the war. He was in uniform the entire period. Buford’s family split in their loyalties, with an older half-brother taking the Union side, briefly commanding a division under Ulysses S. Grant, and a first cousin that went South commanding a division of cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest. Buford struggled with his loyalty to Kentucky, but despite a personal plea from the South-leaning governor, his loyalty to the US Army and the US government it served won out. He served primarily in staff positions in the first two years of the war, although he commanded a reserve cavalry brigade with distinction in the Second Battle of Bull Run (getting wounded in the process). He got back into field command in February 1863, serving as a cavalry brigade commander under Major General George Stoneman before being selected for command of the First Cavalry Division in May 1863. From there, the war led him to Gettysburg.
I also gained a deeper appreciation for the fighting quality of his division at all levels and, in particular, his brigade commanders. His subordinate commands and commanders at Gettysburg are discussed in detail. Eric makes extensive use of contemporary accounts (newspaper articles, official reports, journals and diaries, and personal letters). He includes period photos and thumbnail bios of every commander of significance on both sides of the battle.
Most of all, I came away with a better understanding of the truly pivotal role Buford and his division played on July 1. The skill and determination displayed not only by Buford but his brigade commanders*, Colonels William Gamble (First Brigade) and Thomas C. Devin (Second Brigade), along with several of the division’s subordinate leaders, such as Lt. John H. Calef, commanding Battery A, 2nd US Artillery, was exemplary. What Buford and his division accomplished that day was amazing, and Eric captures it in detail from start to finish. (* Colonel Wesley Merritt commanded the Reserve Brigade, which had been assigned to security duties in the army’s rear and was not present on battlefield on July 1.)
The book also includes several helpful appendices. A detailed order of battle of course, plus discussions about the Spencer rifle, and analyses of crucial events on the battlefield. These contribute to the insights Eric brings to the battle.
Oh, and then there is the walking and driving tour guidance. Eric points you towards specific sites associated with Buford and the US First Cavalry Division’s actions. The photos, period and current, particularly those looking west on Chambersburg Pike and Mummasburg Road, will help calibrate one’s view today. The GPS coordinates will be of particular use finding some of the spots. All in all, this is a good, comprehensive guide.
There were several notable episodes of superior leadership and skill on the Gettysburg battlefield over its three days, and Eric has described one of the most important. Buford’s delaying action on Herr Ridge and Seminary Ridge on July 1 enabled the Union Army of the Potomac to secure good defensive ground. Had he and the US First Cavalry Division not performed as they did, the Battle of Gettysburg may well have been a one-day affair, with the decisive battle being fought later at some other locale (the Pipe Creek Line in Maryland, for example), possibly with a different outcome. As it was, he delayed the Army of Northern Virginia and thereby set up what would be one of the decisive battles of the war.
This book is a great read! I recommend it highly. Eric Wittenberg is an accomplished Civil War cavalry historian and author, and I look forward to reading as many of his other books as I can manage.
Review by Emil Posey