General John Buford’s Division at the Battle of Upperville June 1863
Brigadier General John Buford will always be remembered for his successful delaying action on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. But he and his cavalry division of Major General Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry corps were in action in the earlier days of the Gettysburg Campaign, as General Robert E. Lee marched his Army of Northern Virginia northward.
In early June, Lee began to swing his army to the west from its position south of the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia, eventually turning it to the north and through the Shenandoah Valley. Lee had General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry operate between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac, to screen the former’s movement and position from the Federals. Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac (he would be replaced in that capacity by Major General George Meade later in the month), began moving north in response. He ordered Pleasonton to gather intelligence on the Confederate movements.
The two sides’ cavalries first clashed at the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9th, with additional fighting at Aldie June 17th and Middleburg on
June19th. The Federals kept the pressure on Stuart, but were unable to break through his screen; the Confederate general
effectively utilized his cavalrymen as both mounted and dismounted, with the dismounted soldiers firing from behind stone walls and other cover.
On June 21st, Pleasonton prepared another attack. Noting the effectiveness of Stuart’s dismounted troopers, Pleasonton requested and received reinforcements in the form of an infantry division from the 5th Corps. On the morning of the 21st, Pleasonton attacked Stuart with five cavalry brigades and one infantry brigade at a bridge over Goose Creek near Upperville, a few miles east of Ashby’s Gap in the Blue Ridge.
General Buford’s division was to attack Stuart’s left flank from the north. But not only was the location of this flank not where the Federals thought it was, it was also strongly defended by the cavalry brigades of Brigadier General William E. Jones and Colonel John R. Chambliss, Jr. After hours of stubborn fighting, Stuart withdrew to Ashby’s Gap. Union cavalry advanced to the Gap, but it was too heavily defended to proceed further. Pleasonton was able to get some intelligence from Confederate deserters confirming the presence of Lee’s army in the Shenandoah Valley, though the Confederate commanding general’s objective remained unknown.
Buford’s division consisted of three brigades. The 1st Brigade consisted of the 3rd Indiana, 8th and 12th Illinois, and 8th New York Cavalry regiments; the 2nd Brigade included the 3rd West Virginia, 6th and 9th New York, and 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry regiments; and the Reserve Brigade consisted of the 6th Pennsylvania and the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 6th U.S. Cavalry regiments. Buford filed this report on his division at the Battle of Upperville:
HEADQUARTERS FIRST DIVISION, CAVALRY CORPS,
Aldie, Va., June 24, 1863.
SIR: I have the honor to report that at 12 o’clock on the night of the 20th instant, the brigadier-general commanding the corps gave me instructions to move my whole division at 2 a.m. on the 21st to Middleburg. The night was extremely dark. Nearly the whole of the division was on duty, very much divided, and without rations or forage. To concentrate and draw supplies which had arrived during the night, and to move at so short a notice, proved to be impracticable. The command, however, got off shortly after daylight, without supplies, and reached Middleburg in season for the day’s operations. The Reserve Brigade, which had been sent to General Gregg the day before, joined me at Middleburg.
From Middleburg I started to turn the enemy’s left flank. On reaching Goose Creek, I took the command up the right bank of the creek, over a most difficult country, and came up to the enemy on his extreme left, in a position where I could not turn him. I then marched back to the ford, drove the enemy’s pickets off, crossed, and started up the creek, intending to recross at Millville. The enemy threw a considerable force (three regiments) in my front to dispute my advance. He was driven steadily before us for some time, until I thought I was getting too far off from the force in front of General Gregg. The Reserve Brigade was then sent across at Millville. Shortly after it had reached the opposite bank, it became apparent that I had not succeeded in gaining the enemy’s flank, and to recall the Reserve Brigade would delay me too long; so I sent word to Major Starr to march to General Gregg, while I took Colonel Gamble’s and Colonel Devin’s brigades, and pushed for Upperville. My advance was disputed pretty warmly by the enemy, but he made no stand save with his skirmishers. These were severely punished.
When within a mile of Upperville, I saw a large force in front of General Gregg, who appeared to be outnumbered. I resolved to go to his aid. The column struck a brisk trot, but ran afoul of so many obstructions in the shape of ditches and stone fences, that it did not make fast progress, and got out of shape. While in this position, I discovered a train of wagons and a few troops to my right marching at a trot, apparently making for Ashby’s Gap. I turned the head of my column toward them, and very soon became engaged with a superior force. The enemy brought four 12-pounder guns into position, and made some excellent practice on the head of my regiments as they came up. The gunners were driven from the guns, which would have fallen into our hands but for two impassable stone fences. The enemy then came up in magnificent style from the direction of Snickersville, and for a time threatened me with overwhelming numbers. He was compelled, however, to retire before the terrific carbine fire which the brave Eighth Illinois and Third Indiana poured into him. As he withdrew, my rear troops came up, formed, and pressed him back to the mountains. He was driven over the mountains into the valley.
I am happy to say that my loss is much smaller than I had reason to suppose. A list of casualties is appended. It is small in comparison with that of the enemy.
Toward night I came back, and encamped on the ground which had been so hotly contested. The enemy’s dead were buried and his wounded provided for. At this place alone, Colonel Gamble’s command buried 18 of the enemy.
After the Reserve Brigade was sent to General Gregg, I had but a section of Graham’s battery, under Lieutenant [Theophilus B. von] Michalowski. He worked his guns with skill and judgment, throwing his shot in the right place, and on one occasion dispersed a column in front of General Gregg.
I transmit the reports of the subordinate commanders. I saw most of the engagement from the start to the end. I cannot conceive how men could have done better. My staff, Captains [Myles W.] Keogh, [Theodore C.] Bacon, Lieutenants [William] Dean, [John] Mix, and P. Penn Gaskill, were most efficient in bringing up troops and delivering messages.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Brigadier-General of Volunteers, Commanding.
Lieut. Col. A. J. ALEXANDER,
Chief of Staff, and Asst. Adjt. Gen., Cavalry Corps.
Buford listed casualties in his command at six killed, 65 wounded, and 110 missing.
Colonel William Gamble, commanding Buford’s 1st Brigade, filed this report on his brigade’s action:
HDQRS. FIRST CAVALRY BRIGADE,
June 22, 1863.
CAPTAIN: I have the honor to report the part taken by this brigade in the cavalry fight of yesterday.
The brigade–composed of the Eighth New York, Eighth Illinois, three squadrons Third Indiana, and two squadrons Twelfth Illinois Cavalry, with one section of the First U.S. Artillery, under Lieutenant Michalowski, in all about 1,600 strong–left Aldie at 5 a.m.; marched to Middleburg; from thence west across a ford at Goose Creek. The rebel skirmishers occupying the opposite bank under cover of a stone wall at the ford, one squadron of the Third Indiana Cavalry was dismounted, and, with the advance guard deployed, drove the rebels from the opposite bank, when the column crossed, and advanced south on the Upperville road. Encountered the enemy 1 mile from the ford, on the right of the road: deployed the column in line of battle, and a few well-directed shells into the enemy’s column dispersed him rapidly in retreat through the woods southward. One mile farther, found the enemy behind stone walls, near a house; a few more shells drove them again toward Upperville. Two miles farther, the enemy’s skirmishers, supported by artillery, were found strongly posted. I deployed the column in line; advanced and drove the enemy from two strong positions behind stone walls, his guns continually throwing shells at us.
We continued the march, and found the enemy strongly posted west of Upperville, at the base of the mountain. The Eighth Illinois, Third Indiana, and Twelfth Illinois Cavalry, about 900 strong, leading the column, came on rapidly at a gallop; formed in line; charged up to the enemy’s five guns amid a shower of shells, shrapnel, and case shot; drove the rebel gunners from their pieces, when the enemy’s cavalry, seven regiments strong, emerged from the woods, and a hand-to-hand conflict ensued, the enemy outnumbering us three to one. We retired a short distance behind a stone wall, and maintained our position, repulsing the repeated charges of the enemy by well-directed carbine and pistol firing.
The enemy then, on account of his superior numbers, attempted to turn both flanks, when a squadron of the Eighth Illinois and one of the Third Indiana Cavalry were deployed to cover the flanks, and, after a sharp conflict, repulsed the enemy, after which the section of artillery arrived, supported by the Eighth New York Cavalry, and shelled the enemy from his position. The enemy then retreated toward Ashby’s Gap, pursued for 2 miles by the First and Second Cavalry Brigades, which at sunset returned, and encamped on the battle-field, buried the dead, and took care of the wounded. Eighteen dead bodies of the enemy were buried, and over 30 of their wounded were found, in addition to what they carried away, besides prisoners, the exact number of which the provost-marshal of the division will report.
Gamble went on to list his casualties as four killed, 35 wounded and five missing. He also stated that 35 enlisted men’s horses were killed, as well as one officer’s–his own.
Buford and the rest of the Federal cavalry continued north, into Maryland and Pennsylvania, scouting the Confederate movements. Buford’s division entered Gettysburg on June 30th and prepared to defend against the advancing Rebels along the Chambersberg Pike on the northeast of town. A few days after the Battle of Upperville, Stuart began an eastward movement that would take him around the northward marching Army of the Potomac–and out of communication with Lee–before reaching Gettysburg on July 2nd, after the battle had begun.
Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears
The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command by Edwin B. Coddington
History of the Eighth Cavalry Regiment Illinois Volunteers During the Great Rebellion by Abner Hard
The Maps of Gettysburg: An Atlas of the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 – July 13, 1863 by Bradley M. Gottfried
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXVII, Part 1.