THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: John Buford, Unsung Hero of Gettysburg (Wednesday, July 1st, 1863)

Some will say that the largest battle of the American Civil War was destined to be fought at Gettysburg in July of 1863. Because many roads led to the small Pennsylvania town, it was an ideal place for all the scattered divisions of the Confederate and Union army to converge. And since both armies were moving along those same roads toward Gettysburg, a conflict there did appear inevitable. However, it can also be said that the selection of the place that would become the bloodiest battleground of the war was done by a relatively unknown cavalry commander: Brigadier General John Buford.

Brigadier General John Buford

Brigadier General John Buford

John Buford came from a somewhat distinguished military background. His grandfather had served with Robert E. Lee’s father, “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, during the American Revolution. Graduating 16th in his class from West Point in 1848, Buford primarily fought against the Native Americans out west, until the outbreak of civil war. Although tempted to join the Confederacy (As a native Kentuckian, and from a slave-owning family), he chose to remain loyal to the United States and the Union Army. During the early years of the conflict, he served as assistant inspector general to the army, before being promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of cavalry brigade of the II Corps of the Army of Virginia, under Major General John Pope. Under his command, the cavalry fought well at Second Manassas in August of 1862. Buford received a wound to the knee while personally leading a charge in the battle. The wound was not serious, and he returned to active duty, serving as chief of cavalry in the Army of the Potomac in the latter part of 1862, and saw action at Antietam and Fredericksburg.

When Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac in 1863, Buford was made commander of Reserve Cavalry in the 1st Division of the Cavalry Corps. In June, he saw action at the Battle of Brandy Station, considered the opening battle of the Gettysburg Campaign. But it would be at Gettysburg that he and his cavalry would play a crucial role in the campaign. Riding into town on June 30th, Buford learned from scouts that the entire Confederate army was concentrating in their direction, and that he would soon face a large force. Buford already saw the value of the ground around Gettysburg, and vowed to hold his men against an assault until the I Corps under Major General John Reynolds arrived.

On the morning of Wednesday, July 1st, Confederate troops under General Harry Heth of A.P. Hill’s Corps moved toward Gettysburg hoping to acquire some shoes for the men, many of them barefoot. He expected that there would be no resistance, except maybe for some local militia. Instead, coming down the Chambersburg Pike, his men ran into Buford’s two cavalry brigades under Colonels Gamble and Devin. The first assault was done with just one brigade, and was quickly repulsed. Heth then decided to deploy his entire division to attack them. Over the next couple of hours, the fighting was intense, and Buford’s men came close to breaking. However, before his men broke, Reynolds’ I Corps arrived on the field. As the infantry moved into position to face the Confederates, Buford and his men were able to fall back, knowing that they had held the field. For the rest of the Battle, Buford’s men would be responsible for guarding the supply wagons for the Army.

Following the battle, Buford continued to serve with great distinction. However, by December of 1863, it was apparent that the General was falling gravely ill, possibly from typhoid fever. He was at the Washington home of his good friend, General George Stoneman, when he died at 2 P.M. on December 16th. That same day, Abraham Lincoln promoted Buford to Major General for his meritorious service at the Battle of Gettysburg.

John Buford’s legacy is a great one. He may not have achieved the fame of men like Lee, Meade, Longstreet or Hancock, but his contribution to the war was just as vital. And if he is remembered for nothing else, we should remember this man as the one who chose to make a stand against the Confederates at Gettysburg. It was his decision to defend the ground there, and this decision led to Gettysburg being the site of the largest and costliest battle of the American Civil War. This battle served as a major turning point in the war, leading to ultimate Union victory not only in the battle, but in the conflict itself. For this reason alone, John Buford should be remembered as one of the greatest Union officers of the American Civil War.

In the next edition of THE GETTYSBURG DIARY, we look at the actions of one of the officers serving in the Wheatfield, and how his bravery won him the Medal of Honor.


Antietam 150th: The Bloodiest Day Remembered

On September 17th, 1787, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia approved the final draft of the United States Constitution, and thirty-eight delegates, including George Washington, the President of the Convention, filed forward to sign the document. It was a great moment in American history. “In writing the Constitution, the Founding Fathers launched a daring experiment. The idea that a free people could begin a new country by designing their own government and writing down the laws and principles they would follow had never been tried before. The Constitution has guaranteed freedom, equality, opportunity, and justice to hundreds of millions of people.”[1] However, this document, birthed out of the promise of freedom for all Americans, allowed for the continuation of slavery in the United States. The question of slavery would not be answered until the American Civil War, a conflict where the issue of slavery and freedom was at its very heart. A century-and-a-half later, the very existence of the country for which the Constitution was created, as well as the question of slavery, would be fought over for twelve agonizing hours along a creek named the Antietam, near a small Maryland town called Sharpsburg.

The road to Antietam began on August 30th, 1862. On that day, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia dealt a severe blow to Union General John Pope and his army at the Battle of Second Manassas. It was a major triumph for Lee and his men. They had successfully prevented George B. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac from taking Richmond the past July. Now, another large army had been defeated, and forced to retreat from Virginia. Now, Virginia was briefly free of Federal troops. Lee, not one to rest on his laurels, planned a bold move. He planned to take his army north into Maryland.

Lee had several reasons for doing this. With the fall harvest coming along, he could feed his army well. Maryland was also a state being held in the Union by force, and the presence of Confederate troops in that state could be viewed as liberation. He felt the state might show them hospitality, and the army might receive additional troops from the state as well He also saw a chance to possibly move into Pennsylvania, if things went well. Success in the northern states might also convince European powers to intercede in the war on Confederates behalf. Although some felt skeptical that a move into Maryland, which might be construed as an invasion, would succeed, the plan was approved. On September 4th, 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia began to cross the Potomac River into Maryland, for the first invasion of northern soil by Confederate troops. He divided his army into four wings. Three of the wings were sent with General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to deal with the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. The fourth segment would move along the Blue Ridge Mountains.[2]

In Washington City, Union President Abraham Lincoln was having serious troubles. His last three army commanders had proven to be the wrong man for the job. Irving McDowell had been defeated at First Manassas in July of 1861. George McClellan had lost all nerve and had retreated from the Peninsula the past July. And John Pope had been defeated at the Second Battle of Manassas in August. Lincoln was desperate for a victory, so he reluctantly returned McClellan to command of the Union troops in the field. On September 13th, McClellan received a piece of luck in his hands. A copy of General Lee’s Special Orders 191, detailing the troop movements of the entire Confederate Army, was found in a field wrapped around some cigars. McClellan knew the chance to defeat Lee was given to him. “I have all the plans of the rebels and will catch them in their own trap,” wrote the exuberant McClellan to President Lincoln.[3]

On September 14th, 1862, Confederates were surprised by the Union assaults at Fox’s and Crampton’s Gap along South Mountain. Although they stood defiantly, the Confederates were no match for the oncoming Federals, and Lee was forced to order a retreat. However, Lee halted the retreat when word reached him that Jackson’s attack on Harper’s Ferry was succeeding. He stopped his men near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, along a stream known as Antietam Creek, to wait for further word. The following day, Jackson wrote that the garrison had surrendered. Lee decided to wait along the Antietam to reunite his force. While Jackson ordered A.P. Hill and his division to remain at the Ferry to parole Federal prisoners, he took the remainder of his force to reunite with Lee. By the end of the 16th, he had rejoined Lee at Sharpsburg. Still, Lee had only some 38,000 troops, and was outnumbered by McClellan three to one. But McClellan would once again prove being inept to command and his failures as a leader would result in the bloodiest single day in American history.[4]

The Battle of Antietam began at dawn on September 17, 1862. “The Union army launched assault after assault against the Confederate left – precisely where Lee had positioned Jackson. Fierce fighting raged incessantly for nearly four hours in” the Miller Cornfield,” the East Woods, and the West Woods. About midway through the butchery, as Jackson’s reserves were thinning, John Bell Hood rushed forward with his division, the Texas Brigade leading the charge.”[5] Although the Texas Brigade suffered heavy losses, they halted the Union momentum.

The Miller Cornfield, site of some of the heaviest fighting at Antietam.

Also involved in the fighting around this sector was the 49th North Carolina Troops, which would see heavy fighting in the West Woods. Although not present at the battle himself, a member of Company I of the 49th, William A. Day, wrote of the battle in his history that he wrote some thirty years later. “We were in the battle all day and made several charges on the enemy, driving them back several times,” Day wrote.[6] The battle along Jackson’s sector raged for four hours, and although the attacks by six Union divisions had caused the Confederate left to buckle, it did not break. When the first phase of fighting at Antietam was over, over 8,000 men were killed or wounded.[7]

The next phase of fighting shifted to the Confederate center, where Confederates held a depression known as the Sunken Road. Here, Federal troops would once again attack in wave after wave. Amongst the units charging against this position was the Irish Brigade, led by General Thomas Francis Meagher. Although they showed gallantry in the fight, they were unable to successfully drive Confederates from their position. However, Federal attacks did inflict serious casualties. The road became covered in Confederate dead, with blood filling the bottom of the depression. From this time forward, the Sunken Road would be forever known as the Bloody Lane. “The Confederate line broke here after three hours of valiant defense, but the Federals failed to exploit the breach.”[8] 5,500 Confederate and Union troops fell in this phase of the battle.

The Sunken Road (left), and the field Federal troops crossed to get there.

The third and final phase of the fighting shifted to the Confederate right, where Major General Ambrose Burnside attempted to dislodge Confederates on bluffs overlooking the Antietam. He first tried to send troops over a narrow bridge that now bears his name, but to no avail. However, Union troops were able to forward the Antietam downstream, and were successfully able to push the Confederates from their positions. However, just “as Burnside was about to smash Lee’s right, more help arrived: A.P. Hill’s division hurrying up from Harper’s Ferry. Hill’s men swarmed onto the battlefield, stunning Burnside and driving him backward – thus securing Lee’s line and ending the battle at dusk. It represented a remarkable effort by Hill, who had marched his men seventeen miles in seven hours and battled for another three, saving Lee’s army from certain defeat.”[9]

Overlooking the site of A.P. Hill’s attack at Antietam.

With Hill’s successful counterattack, the Battle of Antietam was over. Confederate losses totaled 10,316 killed, wounded and captured or missing. Union losses amounted to 12,401. In just twelve hours of fighting, both sides had lost over 22,700 men, the highest casualty numbers for any single day in American history. And the battle that was fought became a tactical draw for both sides. Although Lee had suffered the loss of nearly a third of his army, he remained in place the following day, as if daring McClellan to strike again. But McClellan chose not to do so, and on the night of the 18th, Lee began to pull his army back across the Potomac, to the safety of Virginia. McClellan chose to not follow, allowing the Confederates to escape.

Although Lincoln was furious with McClellan for not chasing Lee, he realized that the Confederates had been thwarted in their attempt to invade Maryland. This gave the President the “victory” he needed to change the aim of the war. On September 22nd, 1862, five days after the bloody fight at Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, stating that any slave held in bondage in those states in rebellion would be forever free as of January 1st, 1863. With this document, Lincoln gave the war a dual purpose: preserve the Union, and end the scourge of slavery. This document also helped to keep European powers at bay, and Confederates began to realize that a war over the very question of slavery was one they could not win. So, it can be said that the Battle of Antietam was truly the beginning of the end of the American Civil War for the Confederacy.

Works Cited and Consulted

Bennett, William J., and Cribb, John T.E. The American Patriot’s Almanac. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008.

Day, William A. A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War, Between the North and South. Newton, NC: Enterprise Job Office, 1893.

Frye, Dennis E. “Bloody Antietam: ‘The Most Terrible Clash of Arms…’” Gods and Generals: The Illustrated Story of the Epic Civil War Film. New York: Newmarket Press, 2003.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

[1] William J. Bennett and John T.E. Cribb, The American Patriot’s Almanac (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008), 354.

[2] Dennis E. Frye, “Bloody Antietam: ‘The Most Terrible Clash of Arms…’”, Gods and Generals: The Illustrated Story of the Epic Civil War Film (New York: Newmarket Press, 2003), 113.

[3] Frye, 113.

[4] Frye, 113-114.

[5] Frye, 114.

[6] William A. Day, A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War, Between the North and South (Newton, NC: Enterprise Job Office, 1893), 28.

[7] Frye, 114-115.

[8] Frye, 115.

[9] Frye, 115.

“It Was Not War – It Was Murder:” The Battle of Malvern Hill, July 1st, 1862

Today marks the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Malvern Hill, which was fought on July 1st, 1862, outside of Richmond, Virginia. Although a tactical victory for Union forces, this conflict, the final in a series of battles known as the Seven Days’, this battle marked an end to General George B. McClellan’s first time in command of the Army of the Potomac. It also marked the rise of General Robert E. Lee, and the Army of Northern Virginia, as a forced to be reckoned with in the Eastern Theater of the war. Here, we shall look at this battle, and its effect on the war.

Drawing of the Battle at Malvern Hill

The Battle of Malvern Hill was the culmination of the infamous Peninsula Campaign, which began in March of 1862, when Union General George B. McClellan led the Army of the Potomac from the Virginia Peninsula, in an attempt to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. Although a cautious man, “Little Mac,” as his soldiers affectionately called him, was almost successful, bringing his men to within a few short miles of the city. But it was mainly because McClellan faced a similarly cautious general in the form of Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. But all of that changed on May 31st, 1862, when Johnston was severely wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. In his place, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed his military adviser, General Robert E. Lee, to command the Confederate army in the field. It was a decision that Johnston himself credited as a great moment for the Southern cause.[1]

Lee wasted no time in preparing a campaign against McClellan. He sent one of his best cavalry officers, James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, on a reconnaissance ride that would eventually complete an entire circuit around the Union army between June 12th and June 16th. From the information Stuart gathered, Lee chose to attack the enemy. This decision would culminate in what would become known as the Seven Days’ Battles, of which Malvern Hill would be the final conflict in a series of six engagements fought over several days. In assaults at Oak Grove, Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, Savage Station and Glendale, Lee would time and time again attempt to drive Union forces from strong defenses.  And with the exception of Gaines’ Mill, Lee would be defeated at every chance. This frustrated Lee, who wanted to deal a complete blow to his enemy. However, it did have an effect on the mind of his opponent. McClellan feared that he was outnumbered, and even though he won several of the engagements during the Seven Days’, he continued to pull his troops back, fearing that his men might be destroyed, and with it his reputation.[2]

After several failures to defeat the enemy, and drive them from their positions, Lee still hoped to achieve success. But this time, the Federals had set up a defensive position on Malvern Hill, their strongest one yet. “One hundred and fifty feet high and flanked by deep ravines a mile apart, Malvern Hill would have to be attacked frontally and uphill across open fields. Four Union divisions and 100 guns covered this front with four additional divisions and 150 guns in reserve. Unless these troops were utterly demoralized, it seemed suicidal to attack them.”[3] Yet lee chose to do so, with many signs leading him to believe the enemy was demoralized. That, along with his frustration at continual failure, led him to attack “those people” yet again. Longstreet, usually against this type of assault, shared his commanding officer’s sentiments.[4]

The attack was planned for the morning of July 1st. That morning, “Longstreet found two elevated positions north of Malvern Hill from which he thought artillery might soften up Union defenses for an infantry assault. Lee ordered artillery to concentrate on the two knolls. But staff work broke down again; only some of the cannoneers got the message, and their weak fire was soon silenced by Union batteries. Lee nevertheless ordered the assault to go forward.”[5] Lee had once again hoped that artillery crossfire would silence enemy artillery, and once again, that hope was not realized. Despite this, the men were ordered to move forward. What followed was a series of piecemeal assaults. “Some intrepid souls actually stormed to the crest in the face of overwhelming fire; most were mowed down along the slope or fell to the ground, unwilling to advance farther, and made their way back when they thought it was safe.”[6]

For some of the Confederates, Malvern Hill would be their first time in battle. One of the units who would see the elephant for the first time was the 49th North Carolina, commanded by Colonel Stephen Ramseur, and part of Robert Ransom’s brigade. Having only trained for two months before being put into battle, Ramseur wrote to his brother about his misgivings before the fight. “I do not put much confidence in my men,” and said that they “look scared & anxious.”[7] But just as other Confederates would make their own states proud, the 49th NC would do well under fire. One of the men who wrote of his experiences in this fight was William A. Day, a private in Company I from Catawba County. Years after the war ended, he wrote of his experiences while serving with the 49th.

Of Malvern Hill, Day wrote a vivid description of his Company’s action:

We arrived in the vicinity in the evening and formed our line of battle in the woods near the clover field. We remained there till late in the evening. When the advance was made we moved out of the woods into the clover field, and were soon in full view of the hill. We moved rapidly across the field, keeping our lines in perfect order under terrible fire from the batteries on the hill. We could see our artillery retreating, lashing their horses. The fired was too hot for them, and they had lost so many men they had to fall back. When we reached the fence a staff officer was there sitting on his horse crying at the top of his voice: “Lord God Almighty double quick, they are cutting are men to pieces,” and kept on repeating those words. In crossing the fence and swamp our lines were broken and, moving on the foot of the hill where we were sheltered from the fire, we re-formed our line. In a few moments the command charge was given. We gave what the Yankees were pleased to call the “rebel yell,” and started at double quick up the hill, and were soon breasting the storm.

General Bob Ransom, with a white handkerchief around his cap, spurred his horse through the lines and dashing in front of the 49th Regiment, called out in a voice that could be plainly heard above the uproar of battle: “Come on boys, come on heroes, your General is in front” and kept cheering us until we had nearly reached the Crews house. He then turned and galloped down the line. We charged up to the Crews house within thirty feet of the batteries. Sergeant Frank Moody of company I was carrying the colors. They almost wrapped us in flames – we could go no further. We halted and fired round after round at the Yankee artillerymen, whose faces shined by the flash of their guns. Our firing seemed to make no impression on them. Our Colonel Ramseur was badly wounded, and passed the order down the line to lie down. This sheltered us from the fire, which passed over our heads. We lay upon the ground about five minutes, when orders were passed down the line to fall back in good order. The batteries by this time had slacked their fire. We moved back until we were under cover of the hill and re-formed our line.[8]

According to Day, Company I lost sixteen men killed, wounded or captured. Losses amongst the other companies in the regiment were high as well.[9] Overall, Lee’s failure at Malvern Hill cost the Confederates over 5,600 men, while Union losses amounted to around 2,100. D.H. Hill called the battle murder, and not war.[10] Once again, Lee had failed to dislodge Union troops from their defensive positions. And yet, McClellan, fearing himself outnumbered, once again ordered his men to fall back. In August, after spending the entire month of July with their backs against the James River, Lincoln ordered the men to withdraw from the Peninsula to help with events taking place in Northern Virginia.

The Seven Days’ battles, which culminated with Malvern Hill, had been extremely costly for the Confederacy. In the six battles that took place between June 25th and July 1st, the Army of Northern Virginia had only won one of the engagements, and lost over 20,000 men in the process, while Union forces lost nearly 16,000 men. However, despite Confederate failures, McClellan’s cautiousness forced him to continue falling back, despite outnumbering his forces. When he and his men were pulled from the Peninsula in August, Lee and the Confederates had a tactical victory. With this, Lee began to plan an offensive against the Union Army of Virginia, commanded by John Pope, leading to the Battle of Second Manassas at the end of August, briefly freeing Virginia from Union troops, and leading Lee to plan his first invasion of the North. With the Seven Days, the legend of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia was forged.

Works Cited

Day, William A. A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War, Between the North and South. Newton, N.C.: Enterprise Job Office, 1893.

“Dod Ramseur to Brother, 5 June 1862.” Stephen D. Ramseur Papers. Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. New York: Free Press, 2008.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 461-462.

[2] McPherson, 463-469.

[3] McPherson, 469.

[4] McPherson, 469.

[5] McPherson, 470.

[6] Joseph T. Glatthaar, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (New York: Free Press, 2008), 139-140.

[7] “Dod Ramseur to Brother, 5 June 1862,” Stephen D. Ramseur Papers (Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill).

[8] William A. Day, A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War Between the North and South (Newton, N.C.: Free Enterprise Job Office, 1893), 20-21.

[9] Day, 21-22.

[10] Glatthaar, 140.