16 December 2011 by Published in: Union Cavalry 14 comments

On December 16, 1863, the United States Army lost its best cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. John Buford, who died of typhoid fever in the rented house of his fellow horse soldier, Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, in Washington, D.C. Buford’s dear friend Maj. Gen. John Gibbon once said that “John Buford was the finest cavalryman I ever saw.” He died in the arms of his staff officer and surrogate son, Capt. Myles W. Keogh (who later died with Custer at the Little Big Horn). The Union’s loss was enormous, almost unimaginable.

Buford was promoted to major general–a long overdue promotion that had long been sought on his behalf–on his deathbed the day he died. In a moment of lucidity, he said, “too late.” And sadly, it was. His final words, as befit the finest cavalryman in the army, were “Put guard on all the roads, and don’t let the men run back to the rear.”

This was the obituary of Buford that ran in the New York Times the next day:

Major-Gen. JOHN BUFORD, who died at Washington yesterday, was a graduate of the West Point Military Academy, and in the Regular army held the rank of Major in the Inspector-General’s Department. He was appointed Brigadier-General of Volunteers on the 27th of July, 1862, and assigned to the command of a cavalry brigade under Gen. POPE, in his Virginia campaign of that year. When that army was merged with the Army of the Potomac, Gen. BUFORD was assigned to the command of the regular cavalry brigade, which he held until the formation of the cavalry corps into three divisions, when he was placed in command of the First division, and served throughout the severe campaigns of the past ten months with the most distinguished gallantry. He was considered the best field cavalry commander in the service, and was noted for his coolness and judgment under fire. He was about forty years of age, of full habit a man of generous nature and warm impulses. Before his death the President rewarded him with the commission of Major-General. The country has lost a noble spirit and a brave defender.

The great cavalryman was buried in the post cemetery at West Point, where he rests under a handsome monument paid for the by the men of his First Cavalry Division.

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  1. Fri 16th Dec 2011 at 10:09 pm

    A fine soldier and patriot. I had the privilege of viewing his grave this past summer at West Point.

    I have often wondered how the history would have been written if people like John Buford, Robert E. Lee or David Ireland had lived longer to tell their side of the story.

    Sad, so sad.

  2. Lew Taylor
    Fri 16th Dec 2011 at 10:31 pm

    I was doing a living history event at Gettysburg last year and happened to have a chance to sit and talk with one of the Park Service guys for a while. He asked me who I thought what was the most important thing that happened during the three days of fighting at Gettysburg and who was the most important military figure — Union or Confederate. Without thinking I answered John Buford. He asked why, and I said that if Buford had not done what he did on the first day there would have been no second or third days. What surprised him when I gave my answer is that I was born and raised in the South and was taking part in the event with as a Confederate.

  3. Todd Berkoff
    Fri 16th Dec 2011 at 11:54 pm

    Jerry — I believe Robert E. Lee survived the war. 🙂 There are many wartime and post-war accounts from Lee’s personal correspondence from him on his service. It seemed odd for you to include Lee in the same category of Buford and Ireland who died during the war, not to mention the very different roles these commanders had.

    Eric — any idea where Stoneman’s house was located in Washington?

  4. John Foskett
    Sat 17th Dec 2011 at 12:42 pm

    I’ve always thought that Buford’s very competent performance in the Second Bull Run campaign has suffered in its historical treatment because of his contributions at Gettysburg. Maybe that could be the next project for our blog host (LOL).

  5. Chris Evans
    Sat 17th Dec 2011 at 10:19 pm

    Excellent post.

    I’ll have to watch the episode of ‘Buford at Gettysburg’ on DVD from Greystone in honor of him this holiday season.

    Also, need to go back and read the wonderful parts of ‘The Killer Angels’ that feature Buford and watch the excellent portrayal of him by Sam Elliott in ‘Gettysburg’.

    I wish there was more biographies on him than just Longacre’s (very good) bio.

    I’m glad that he has at least received that much attention over the last 40 years. He certainly deserved it.


  6. Dennis
    Sun 18th Dec 2011 at 9:12 am

    Thanks for that Eric. There was some new information there for me!

    Best regards,

  7. Matt Placey
    Sun 18th Dec 2011 at 11:18 am

    Sam Elliott portrayed General John Buford so amazingly well in “Gettysgurg,” I wonder how much study went into the man himself before Elliott played the part. I get the impression he was just like that.

  8. Chris Evans
    Sun 18th Dec 2011 at 11:49 am

    I read that Edward Longacre helped Elliott on playing Buford in ‘Gettysburg’.


  9. Sun 18th Dec 2011 at 2:43 pm


    No, actually, it was Bud Hall.


  10. Wed 21st Dec 2011 at 6:40 am

    Merritt’s general order also displays the affection that Buford’s men had for him:

    Headquarters First Cavalry Division, Culpepper, Virginia, December 22d, I860.
    General Orders.

    Soldiers of the First Cavalry Division,

    We have lost our chief. Our gallant leader, our heroic General, our kind and sympathising friend has been taken from us by the afflicting hand of Divine Providence. We bow submissive to the dispensation, but we mourn, as mortals must, our irreparable loss. It is not for me to relate his virtues. Not a soldier in this command need be told of his qualities. You know his gallantry and chivalric nature. Gettysburg attests his glory. Beverly Ford and the scenes around you here bear witness to his never-dying fame.

    You need not be reminded of his goodness of heart, his sympathetic nature, his high, sensitive, noble feeling ; they were all exhibited in the kind tenderness he has always shown for our sick and wounded comrades, and the solicitude for the safety of each man in his command. His master mind and incomparable genius as a cavalry chief, you all know by the dangers through which he has brought you, when enemies surrounded you and destruction seemed inevitable. The dying words of your wounded comrade, “I’m glad it isn’t the General”, bear testimony to your unutterable love.

    But now, alas ! “It is the General!” “He has fought his last fight !” No more forever will you see his proud form leading you on to victory. The profound anguish which we all feel forbids the use of empty words, which so feebly express his virtues. Let us silently mingle our tears with those of the nation in lamenting the untimely death of this pure and noble man, the devoted and patriotic lover of his country, the soldier without fear and without reproach.

    W. Merritt
    Brigadier General of Volunteers,

  11. Wed 21st Dec 2011 at 6:44 am

    That’s a very accurate description of Keogh’s relationship with Buford: “surrogate son.” Keogh was indeed devasted by Buford’s death:

  12. Tue 27th Dec 2011 at 11:05 am

    Our best regards to the first hero of Gettysburg, the finest cavalry officer in the Union Army. His death was a tremendous loss to the army and especially to the men who followed him from South Mountain and Antietam to his “stop gap” defense at Gettysburg.
    Thank you for your service Major General John Buford.

  13. Sean Rand
    Wed 08th Jul 2015 at 3:24 am

    Well done to Maj Gen John Buford and to Sam Elliott for such a great job

  14. Sat 09th Apr 2016 at 1:50 pm

    John Buford SAVED the US at Gettysburg. How true – “…if he had not done what he did on Day 1…there would not have been a Day 2 or 3.” (I named my Labrador after him…”Buford.” Best dog I ever had.)

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