16 December 2013 by Published in: Union Cavalry 10 comments

bufordj500ae-210x300150 years ago today, Maj. Gen. John Buford, the finest cavalryman produced by the Union during the Civil War, died of typhoid fever at the far too-young age of 37. The rigors of so many years of hard marching and fighting had taken their toll on Buford, who had contracted typhoid fever “from fatigue and extreme hardship,” after participating in the marches and fighting during the Mine Run Campaign that on November 7-8 compelled Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to abandon the line on the Rappahannock River and retire behind the Rapidan River. By November 16, he was quite ill. Buford was granted a leave of absence and removed to Washington, D.C., on November 20, 1863.

There he was taken to the home of his good friend, General George Stoneman. Buford’s condition deteriorated quickly, and it soon became apparent that he would not survive.

On December 16, 1863, President Lincoln sent a note to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who was said not to trust anyone with southern antecedents, and who disliked most of the officers associated with John Pope’s Army of Virginia. Lincoln’s note requested that the gravely-ill Buford, whom Lincoln did not expect to survive the day, be promoted to major general. Although the promotion was well deserved, Stanton permitted Buford’s promotion only when it became certain that Buford was dying. The promotion was to be retroactive to July 1. 1863, in tribute to Buford’s service at Gettysburg. “Buford lapsed in and out of delirium, alternately scolding and apologizing to his black servant, who sat weeping by the general’s bed- side. He was comforted by several old comrades, including his aide, Capt. Myles Keogh, and General Stoneman. When the major general’s commission arrived, Buford had a few lucid moments, murmuring, “Too late. . . . Now I wish that I could live.” Keogh helped him sign the necessary forms and signed as a witness, and Capt. A. J. Alexander, 1st U.S., wrote a letter to Stanton for Buford, accepting the promotion. Buford’s last intelligible words–fitting for a career cavalryman–were, “Put guards on all the roads, and don’t let the men run back to the rear.” He died in the arms of his devoted aide and surrogate son, Keogh, on December 16.

Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt, Buford’s protege and the temporary commander of his First Division, prepared general orders:

His master mind and incomparable genius as a cavalry chief, you all know by the dangers through which be has brought you, when enemies surrounded you and destruction seemed inevitable…. 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 with out reproach.

The First Cavalry Division’s staff officers prepared resolutions of regret, lamenting Buford’s death and resolving that the members of the First Division would wear the badge of mourning for thirty days as a sign of respect for their leader. Another of Buford’s peers wrote in his diary,

December 20: The army and the country have met with a great loss by the death of . . . Buford. He was decidedly the best cavalry general that we had, and was acknowledged as such in the army. [He was] rough in his exterior, never looking after his own comfort, untiring on the march and in the supervision of all the militia of his command, quiet and unassuming in his manners.

In a tribute, the men of the First Division raised money to erect a monument to Buford at his grave site at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a fitting final campground for a Regular. Most members of the 9th New York contributed a dollar each to pay for the monument.

Had Buford not fallen ill, he would have gone west to assume command of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. The thoughts of a confrontation between Buford and Nathan Bedford Forrest boggles one’s mind, particularly since Buford’s first cousin Abraham assumed command of one of Forrest’s divisions in early 1864. Alas, it was not to be.

And so, we will leave it with the words of Buford’s dear friend, Maj. Gen. John Gibbon, who said, “John Buford was the finest cavalryman I ever saw.” What more needs to be said?

At Gettysburg, the Devil gave him a huge debt to pay, but Buford and his troopers did so magnificently. Here’s to Maj. Gen. John Buford, gone far too soon, but most assuredly not forgotten.

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  1. Alton Bunn
    Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Well said. Has anyone done a good biography of the general?

  2. John Foskett
    Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Eric: More excellent material. Among other things I was unaware of the planned transfer. It is my humble opinion that he would have kicked Forrest’s posterior, especially after reading solid, rational assessments of the latter such as Dave Powell’s Failure in the Saddle. Just another reason to eagerly anticipate the forthcoming Wittenberg project which will cover Union cavalry operations in the 2BR campaign in which Buford first displayed his skills on a big stage.

  3. Chris Evans
    Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 5:17 pm

    Thanks for the excellent post on this.

    My local paper has a Civil War section each week and Tim Isbell wrote a good article in it on Buford and his death.

    For biographies I would recommend Longacre’s good book until something better comes along.

    Also, now on DVD I would recommend the ‘Unknown Civil War’ episode on Buford that Mr. Wittenberg appears in from 1999 that Greystone produced. And every Buford fan should watch Sam Elliott’s wonderful portrayal of him in ‘Gettysburg’.


  4. Tue 17th Dec 2013 at 10:03 am


    The only one is Ed Longacre’s. My friend Jim Nolan has been working on one that will be magnificent.

    John, the transfer was at Rosecrans’ request. His chief of cavalry, David Stanley, left the army after Chickamauga to take medical leave, and left without a chief of cavalry, Rosey asked for Buford. Buford agreed provided that he could take his Regulars with him, but the Bristoe Station campaign was underway, and he was needed with the AoP rather than in Chattanooga. That then led to the Mine Run Campaign and the typhoid that took his life, and that was that. It does make for a fascinating “what if”.

    Thanks for that, Chris. That was not my best day. You may not know it–hopefully, we covered it up well–but I was sick as a dog the day that video was filmed. I was definitely not hitting on all eight cylinders that day.


  5. Mike Peters
    Tue 17th Dec 2013 at 12:26 pm

    Buford vs. Forrest! Now there’s a confrontation worthy of pay-per-view. However, afraid it would be reminiscent of Tyson-Spinks and Louis-Schmeling 2, with Buford playing the role of the former in each match. You know how I feel about NBF. Extremely overrated!


  6. Peter Leonard
    Tue 17th Dec 2013 at 3:08 pm

    John Buford may have suffered “fatigue and extreme hardship,” but this in itself will NOT result in typhoid fever!

    The fever is caused by the Salmonella typhi bacteria; this bacteria is usually deposited in water or food by a human carrier and then spread to other people in the immediate area.

  7. Cattail
    Tue 17th Dec 2013 at 6:12 pm

    Of course we now know what causes typhoid, but back in 1863 they didn’t. The Civil War came just a few years too early for the late 19th century advances in bacteriology. (reference: McPherson, “Battle Cry of Freedom,” Oxford Univ. Press paperback, 2003. pp. 486-487).

  8. Phil Spaugy
    Fri 20th Dec 2013 at 9:34 am

    Well written and a very nice tribute. I think Buford would have gotten the “bulge” on old Bedford if he would have had the opportunity !

  9. John Foskett
    Mon 23rd Dec 2013 at 12:58 pm

    Eric: Thanks for the information. To extend the “what if”, we then have the possibility of Buford being in charge of “Sherman’s Horsemen” in the Atlanta Campaign. Would have been interesting to see whether Cump was smart enough to let Buford “have the reins” and, if he were, the results.

  10. Bob Evans
    Sat 04th Jan 2014 at 2:04 pm

    Excellent article on Buford’s last days. Thanks Eric.

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