14 October 2005 by Published in: Union Cavalry 1 comment

Yesterday, Dimitri Rotov had a post about Brig. Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte Buford, the older half brother of John Buford. I responded and gave Dimitri some information. That exchange of information got me thinking about Army politics during the Civil War, and how those Army politics influenced lives and careers. Here’s the best example I can think of.

“John Buford was the best cavalryman I ever saw,” remembered his dear friend, Brig. Gen. John Gibbon. “I have always expressed the belief that had Buford lived he would have been placed in command of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, and once in that position he never would have been displaced.” Another officer of the 1st U. S. Cavalry said of Buford, “He had the respect and esteem of every man in the army, and the cavalry loved him as a father.” In the days after his brilliant performance at Gettysburg, a number of high-ranking officers, including Meade, lobbied to have John Buford promoted to major general. That promotion did not arrive until the day John Buford died, December 16, 1863. That day, Lincoln scrawled a hand-written note to Stanton asking that Buford be promoted to major general, dating to July 1, 1863. When the commission was presented to Buford in the hours just before he died, in a moment of lucidity, he supposedly said “Too late….now I wish I could live.”

Buford’s background and family history haunted his Civil War military career. He was a Democrat, who was born in Kentucky. His wife was raised with her first cousin, Brig. Gen. Basil W. Duke, who was John Hunt Morgan’s brother-in-law and a fine Confederate cavalryman in his own right. John Buford’s first cousin Brig. Gen. Abraham Buford commanded a division of Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest. Buford became a victim of unfortunate consequences through no fault of his own. Mix in Buford’s own disdain for the press and his penchant for avoiding publicity, and it creates a recipe for trouble that prevented him from achieving the high rank he deserved, and forever changed the complexion of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps.

When news of the shelling of Fort Sumter arrived in Salt Lake City in 1861–where Buford was stationed–there was a lot of suspicion that he would follow his Southern roots. At that time, Buford roomed with another captain with Southern antecedents, John Gibbon. Buford and Gibbon were the best of friends–they had a lot in common, and they shared a lot personality traits. Buford’s brother-in-law, a prominent Frankfort merchant named Philip Swigert, had arranged with Gov. Beriah Magoffin that Buford be offered command of all of neutral Kentucky’s troops. Gibbon watched Buford read the letter, and waited for his response. When Gibbon asked what Buford intended to do, Buford responded, “I intend to tell him that I am a captain in the United States Army, and that I intend to remain one.”

In spite of this clear declaration of loyalty to the Union, there were frequent questions about Buford’s fidelity and dependability–as stated, he was a Democrat with Southern roots and lots of stuff in his closet. I have often said that the best single decision that John Pope ever made was to pluck Buford out of the inspector general’s office, have him promoted to brigadier (he held his Regular Army rank of major at the time), and give him command of a brigade in the Army of Virginia. As you well know, Pope was a nearly unmitigated disaster that greatly embarrassed Lincoln and Stanton, who had hand-selected him. Unfortunately, those events meant that Buford was closely associated with Pope, who quickly became a pariah after the twin debacles at Second Bull Run and Chantilly.

Consequently, many have speculated that the combination of all of these things (Pope, Democrat, Southern roots, etc, etc.) actually prevented John Buford from being promoted until it no longer matter–a couple of hours before his untimely death of typhoid fever.

So go Army politics. In the 1870’s, not long before he died, Joe Hooker gave an interview to a San Francisco newspaper. Hooker went to his grave blaming George Stoneman and William Woods Averell for his defeat at Chancellorsville, and that never changed. However, in that interview, Hooker made a statement that really provides deep insight: “I had to put Stoneman in command, and neither he nor Averell were of any account. I sent them to cut off Lee’s connections and the devils went so far around to avoid an enemy that they never accomplished anything they were sent for. If John Buford had been given the command the result would have been different.”

Alfred Pleasonton ranked Buford by nine days. When Stoneman took medical leave on May 15, 1863, Pleasonton took temporary command of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps as its senior officer. But for these issues, Buford probably would have been promoted prior to Pleasonton. The complexion of that Cavalry Corps would have been very different indeed. Buford was thus a victim of the Army’s labyrinthine political machinations. Had Buford not taken ill, and had Gibbon’s prognostication held true–John Buford assuming command of the Cavalry Corps in 1864–and I seriously doubt that Phil Sheridan ever would have been brought east to assume command of that Cavalry Corps.

“For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.”

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  1. Thu 21st Jun 2012 at 1:45 pm

    A very interesting “What if”. Had Buford recovered from his illness, and received command of the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac after Pleasonton had received his walking papers from Grant (With the blessing and approval of Gen Meade whom Pleasonton had stabbed in the back), he and not Sheridan would have emerged as one of the top Generals of the Union. Had this occurred, Major General John Buford would have begun his career in the post Civil War US Army as a permanent Major General. In 1869, when Grant became President and appointed Cump Sherman General in Chief of the Army, the vacant rank of Lieutenant General more than likely would have been given to Buford.

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