Posted Online: July 06, 2013, 8:22 pm
Gettysburg hero Buford grew up in Rock Island
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By Tom Emery
Last week marked the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, the most famous battle of the Civil War.
Brig. Gen. John Buford of the Union Army played a pivotal role in the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. He grew up in Rock Island.
The Union victory on July 1-3, 1863, checked the northern invasion of Robert E. Lee and is considered the turning point of the war.
Playing a pivotal role in the battle was Brig. Gen. John Buford, a Federal cavalry commander whose actions on the first day of the engagement helped define where, and how, the battle was fought. Brig. Gen. Buford spent some of his formative years in Rock Island.
Born on March 4, 1826, to a prosperous Kentucky slaveholding family, he came to Rock Island (then known as Stephenson) after his mother's death in 1834. His half-brother, Napoleon Bonaparte Buford, graduated from West Point in 1827, and later surveyed the upper rapids of the Mississippi with the Army Corps of Engineers.
Impressed with the area, Napoleon apparently encouraged his family to join him. He later founded the town of Andalusia and was heavily involved in the mining company that gave the town of Coal Valley its name. He served as a Union general during the war.
The patriarch of the family, John Sr., built the first general store in Stephenson and was the town's first official postmaster. Elected to the Illinois Senate as a Democrat, he became a friendly foe of Abraham Lincoln. Two other sons, Thomas Jefferson Buford and James Madison Buford, each later served as mayor of Rock Island.
"The Bufords were born into the bluegrass aristocracy, but chose to become rock-ribbed Rock Islanders," said historian Alexandra Benedict, of Port Byron, who has researched the Buford family. "This one Rock Island family embodied all the confidence and contradictions of their age."
The younger John was destined for the military. As a youth in Rock Island, he prepared himself for West Point and became a fine horseman. Neighbors recalled seeing him often "on a bareback horse that no other boy in the town could ride."
He graduated from West Point in 1848, and fought on horseback on the frontier before the Civil War. Offered a commission in the Confederate service, he chose to remain loyal, and by 1862, he had become one of the top Union cavalry commanders in the East. In the Gettysburg campaign the next summer, he performed ably in the move northward through Maryland and Pennsylvania.
"His primary job was to screen the Union left wing as it left Frederick, Maryland," said John Heiser, a historian at Gettysburg National Military Park. "And he did that job very well. He was a highly efficient, detailed soldier."
Brig. Gen.Buford's division, which included two Illinois regiments, arrived at Gettysburg on June 30, 1863, and he immediately recognized the strategic importance of the town. In addition to ridges that crisscrossed the area and provided natural defense, nine roads converged on Gettysburg.
"He quickly saw that Gettysburg was a good place to fight a battle," Mr. Heiser said. "It was a big wheel of roads, with land that was favorable for troop placement."
Brig. Gen.Buford's scouts had detected Confederates in the area, and he knew thousands of men under Maj. Gen. John Reynolds were soon to arrive. As a result, he deployed his dismounted division west of Gettysburg to delay the Southern advance as long as possible until Maj. Gen. Reynolds could arrive.
Though his men were badly outnumbered, Brig. Gen. Buford's stand on July 1 proved successful and has been credited by many writers as a key to the eventual Union victory. Had the Federals lost, the outcome of the war may have been greatly different, as Robert E. Lee could easily have threatened Washington and other major Northern cities.
"There were many people who played a role at Gettysburg, and Buford is certainly one of them," said Mr. Heiser. "In the decades that followed, he received a lot of recognition from writers and comrades."
Brig. Gen. Buford, though, enjoyed few of the accolades. Driven to exhaustion by autumn, he died of typhoid on Dec. 16 -- a mere five months after Gettysburg. He is buried at West Point.
On the 29th anniversary of his stand in 1892, a statue of Brig. Gen. Buford was dedicated on the Gettysburg battlefield, thanks to the efforts of many survivors of his command.
Pop culture also has depicted him favorably. His role at Gettysburg was emphasized by Michael Shaara in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 novel, "The Killer Angels." Actor Sam Elliott gave an acclaimed portrayal of the brigadier general in the 1993 movie "Gettysburg," which was based on Mr. Shaara's work.