At the outset of the Civil War, Confederate cavalry was generally superior to Union cavalry in terms of both commanders and tactics. As the war proceeded, better Union commanders emerged and the tactics and capabilities of the Federal cavalry improved until it matched or exceeded its southern counterpart. One of these more effective Union cavalry commanders was Brigadier General John Buford.
A West Point graduate in the Class of 1848, Buford spent the years before the Civil War serving on the Great Plains and in the west. He saw action at Second Bull Run, (where he was wounded), Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Brandy Station. He was in command of the 1st Division of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps during the Gettysburg Campaign.
With the advance elements of General Robert E. Lee’s army approaching, Buford rode into Gettysburg on June 30th, 1863. “I entered this place to-day at 11 a.m. Found everybody in a terrible state of excitement on account of the enemy’s advance upon this place.” Buford reported to his commanding officer, Major General Alfred Pleasonton . “He [the enemy] had approached to within half a mile of the town when the head of my column entered. His force was terribly exaggerated by reasonable and truthful but inexperienced men”.
Buford commanded two brigades, consisting of somewhere between 2700 and 2950 cavalrymen (a third reserve brigade was on separate duty in Maryland and would not arrive until July 3rd) and one six gun artillery battery. The Confederates greatly outnumbered this relatively small force, but Buford was determined to hold off the enemy until more of the Union army, in this case the 1st and 11th Corps, could arrive. Buford set up a defense on either side of the Chambersburg Pike on the northwest edge of town. An unfinished railroad cut ran roughly parallel with the Chambersburg Pike at this location. On the right, or north, of the railroad cut, Buford deployed the brigade of Colonel Thomas Devin (consisting of the 3rd West Virginia, 6th and 9th New York, and 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiments). Colonel William Gamble’s brigade was on the left. The 3rd Indiana Cavalry was positioned between the left of the 3rd West Virginia and the railroad cut, the 12th Illinois Cavalry was to the left of the 3rd Indiana, between the railroad cut and the Chambersburg Pike, and the 8th Illinois and 8th New York Cavalry regiments were to the left of the Chambersburg Pike.
At about 7:30 in the morning of July 1st, with the Confederate division of Major General Henry Heth advancing down the Chambersburg Pike, Lieutenant Marcellus Jones of the 8th Illinois Cavalry fired what is regarded as the first shot of the Battle of Gettysburg. Buford’s plan was for his cavalrymen to fight dismounted, with the idea of fighting a delaying action. Buford’s cavalrymen skillfully defended their positions, and the Federals and made the most from their six artillery pieces, which Buford had ordered dispersed for maximum effectiveness. When Heth discovered he couldn’t just brush aside the stubborn Federals, he ordered his brigades into lines of battle. All of this took time, and by 9:30, with Heth’s brigades in line and advancing, the lead elements of the Union 1st Corps arrived and went into action.
Buford had bought the time necessary for Union infantry to arrive and help stem the Confederate advance. Although, the Federals would eventually be forced to retreat though the town, more Union Corps arrived and set up a strong defensive position on high ground south of Gettysburg. This set the stage for the repulse of Confederate attacks on July 2nd and 3rd, resulting in a Union victory and Confederate retreat back to Virginia. Buford’s cavalry harassed the Confederates as they retreated over the next several days.
Here’s General Buford’s report on his cavalry division’s action during the Gettysburg Campaign including the fighting during the Confederate retreat: