|THE TRUTH ABOUT THE WITHDRAWAL OF
BRIG. GEN. JOHN BUFORD’S CAVALRY, JULY 2, 1863
By: Eric J. Wittenberg©
The men of Brig. Gen. John Buford’s First Cavalry Division, Army of the Potomac, had fought long and hard on July 1. As their thirty-seven year old Kentucky-born commander proudly claimed, “The zeal, bravery, and good behavior of the officers and men on the night of June 30, and during July 1, was commendable in the extreme. A heavy task was before us; we were equal to it, and shall all remember with pride that at Gettysburg we did our country much service.”1
After nearly twelve long hours of slugging it out with Confederate infantry, Buford’s two weary brigades spent the night strung out in line of battle between the Evergreen Cemetery, atop Cemetery Hill, and Little Round Top, about two miles to the south. The regimental historian of the 6th New York Cavalry of Col. Thomas C. Devin’s Second Brigade recorded, “Buford…formed his division in front of Cemetery Ridge, southwest of the town, near the low ground east of Stevens’ Run, where he occupied an advanced but firm position.”2 The men received orders to stand to horse through the hours of darkness and to be ready for action at any time.3
Elements of his command spent the night on picket duty in the Sherfy peach orchard along the Emmitsburg Road, “watching for the enemy and directing the different commands where to go.”4 Col. George H. Chapman of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry of Col. William Gamble’s First Brigade commented, “Bivouacked last night near the battlefield on the left. Slim fare & slight cover.”5 Capt. Theodore H. Bean recalled, “The Seventeenth Pennsylvania Cavalry fully performed its share of service on the night of July 1, and cheerfully labored without rest or sleep in preventing the advance of the enemy on every road it occupied, and in preparing the field in its rear for the operations of those then marching out to relief.”6 Lt. John Hoffman of the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry noted in his diary that it drizzled all night, making the men miserable.7 Buford’s wagon train came up during the night, bringing his men some well-earned rations and ammunition.8
As morning broke, elements of Buford’s division went into action again. Some of Devin’s men were engaged as early as 5 a.m. At daylight, Capt. Benjamin F. Coffin led Company E of the 9th New York on a patrol to the west, and netted a prisoner who may have been a manservant to one of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s staff officers. The prisoner provided valuable information concerning the disposition of Longstreet’s Corps, which the Union high command had not yet realized was on the field. Another patrol by the 9th New York, passing beyond Pitzer’s Woods on the west side of the Emmitsburg Road, spotted a large body of Confederate infantry of Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox’s Third Corps brigade moving into position along the Union left flank.9 Devin’s men engaged the rebel pickets and, supported by Lt. John H. Calef’s battery of horse artillery in the Sherfy peach orchard, had a firefight with the grayclad infantry.
In the meantime, troopers of the 6th New York deployed to support Col. Hiram Berdan’s Second United States Sharpshooters in the area around Pitzer’s Woods. One New Yorker noted, “The Confederates appeared to secret themselves in every available position not directly exposed to the Union lines. Whenever the effects of their deadly aim uncovered their hiding places, the Sixth New York, with the other regiments, was employed in dislodging them from their strongholds.”10 The 17th Pennsylvania advanced through the peach orchard, crossed the Emmitsburg Road, and engaged Longstreet’s infantry. The regimental historian observed, “The regiment made several charges but was repulsed each time.”11
Col. William Gamble’s men had a quieter morning. Jasper Cheney of the 8th New York noted in his diary that his regiment engaged in “heavy skirmishing in the morning.”12 Colonel Chapman recalled it differently: “The morning has been comparatively quiet, a little work between the skirmishers & an occasional shot from the artillery is all.” However, Chapman observed ominously, “The Enemy seems to be making dispositions to attack our left where the 3rd Corps has taken position.”13
Later in the morning, Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles’s Federal Third Corps came up and formed line of battle behind Buford’s skirmish lines. Buford withdrew to the Emmitsburg Road area and took up a position along the flank of the Third Corps, extending Sickles’ line in the area of the Wheatfield and Little Round Top.14 Around noon, Sickles sent infantry forward to support Devin and the sharpshooters, who had been skirmishing with Wilcox’s infantry. The Rebels drove the Federals back and began pressing the Union left. All but a squadron of the 9th New York withdrew to the main line along Cemetery Ridge, rejoining the rest of Buford’s division. The squadron of the 9th New York remained in position to guard Sickles’ flank.15
“I had strengthened and supported my outposts in order to give me timely notice of the attack,” claimed Sickles when he testified before the Committee on the Conduct of the War in the winter of 1864. “Buford’s cavalry, which had been on the left, had been withdrawn. I remonstrated against that, and expressed the hope that the cavalry, or some portion of it, at all events, might be allowed to remain there. I was informed that it was not the intention to remove the whole of the cavalry, and that a portion of it would be returned. It did not return, however.”16
As a consequence of the withdrawal of the Federal cavalry, Sickles grew unhappy with the position assigned to his corps. Taking great liberties with Meade’s orders, Sickles decided to move forward to some high ground along the Emmitsburg Road, anchored by a prominent knoll in the Sherfy peach orchard. This movement created a large salient in the Union line as well as a large gap between the Second Corps and Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys’ Third Corps division. The movement by Sickles has, of course, generated some of the most violent controversies surrounding the Battle of Gettysburg, most of which go far beyond the limited scope of this article. When Sickles advanced his entire corps to the high ground along the Emmitsburg Road, the squadron of the 9th New York was relieved and fell back to Cemetery Ridge, having taken six casualties.
Buford was worried about the state of his command, which had suffered severely. His horses were in poor condition, having received little in the way of rations over the several days of hard marching and fighting.17 Rumors had reached the front of a significant Confederate threat to the Army of the Potomac’s supply trains, still advancing through Maryland toward Gettysburg.18 Further, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, still had not decided whether to stand and fight at Gettysburg. His competent engineering staff had identified and prepared an impregnable defensive position in Maryland known as the Pipe Creek Line, named for Pipe Creek, which meandered along the front of the formidable ridge line that anchored the position.
That morning, Meade’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, wrote to Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, the Cavalry Corps commander, “The major-general commanding directs that General Buford collect all the trains in the vicinity of Taneytown and take them down to Westminster.”19 This order, which is buried in an appendix to volume 27 of the Official Records of the Civil War, is not in its proper chronological sequence, and has obviously been overlooked by all historians who have examined the question of John Buford’s departure from the battlefield at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. It is the linchpin to the lengthy debate and finger-pointing that has raged for years. Its discovery unlocks the whole puzzle of Buford’s departure with his two brigades from the Gettysburg battlefield on July 2, 1863, exposing the Army of the Potomac’s flank and setting the stage for the brutal fighting of that afternoon.
Meade’s son, George, who served on his father’s staff, published a pamphlet on the Battle of Gettysburg late in his life. “About eleven o’clock was committed a blunder on the left which had a serious effect on the immediately ensuing movements on that part of the field,” wrote Meade. “With only partial information afforded him by Generals Pleasonton and Butterfield, chief of staff, the commanding general became a party to an action the bearings of which, when he soon thereafter learned of them, he repudiated as wholly beside his intention.”
Meade pointed out that the Federal horses had been badly used up, and were short on forage, which is why Buford suggested a refit of his command. “General Meade, having been previously been informed that all of the cavalry was up, and taking it for granted that Pleasonton would substitute other cavalry for Buford’s, gave permission to relieve him, directing that he should collect the trains of the army and guard them to Westminster where he could refit. “Without replacing Buford’s with other cavalry, Pleasonton relieved him from duty, and thus the whole left flank of the army was destitute of cavalry. General Meade did not learn of this state of affairs until shortly before one o’clock. He was exceedingly annoyed, stating emphatically that he had had no intention of denuding his left wing by stripping it of cavalry.” By then, it was too late to recall Buford, thereby setting the stage for the controversy that developed.20
Promptly responding to Meade’s order, Pleasonton instructed Buford to take his division to Westminster, Md., where it would guard the army’s wagon trains about 30 miles from the Gettysburg battlefield. The precise order from Pleasonton to Buford does not appear in the Official Records, so we do not know precisely what it said. Presumably, it tracked Meade’s order to Pleasonton. The day before, Pleasonton had issued the following order, indicating the general idea that the army would fall back to the Pipe Creek Line:
The Major General commanding directs me to order you to fall back on Taneytown, and then to Middleburg, in case the enemy should advance in force upon you and press you hard. The cavalry will dispute every inch of the ground, and fall back slowly to the place designated, and send in all information they can gather.21
Years of controversy followed Meade’s order to Pleasonton, as its execution left the Federal left flank uncovered, and set it up for the sledgehammer blows unleashed on it by Longstreet on the afternoon of July 2. The peremptory language of both Meade’s order made it clear that Buford’s prompt obedience was expected.
Calef observed that Buford’s division was sent “to Westminster, whither it was…to guard our communications, as well as to supply itself with forage, rations, and ammunition, from which it had been separated many days.”22 An officer of the 8th Illinois Cavalry noted, “Gen. Meade…ordered our cavalry division to fall back to…Westminster, and take position on the railroad to guard our left against an apprehended flank movement of the enemy to cut off our communications and supply trains….”23
Meade’s order actually makes a great deal of sense. The Pennsylvanian did not decide to stay and fight at Gettysburg until the night of July 2; instead, he intended to fall back to a pre-selected defensive position in Maryland called the Pipe Creek Line, near the major rail depot at Westminster. Two writings by Meade support this contention. At 3:00 p.m. on July 2, Meade sent a dispatch to army general-in-chief Henry W. Halleck which provided, “If I find it hazardous to do so, or am satisfied the enemy is endeavoring to move to my rear, and interpose between me and Washington, I shall fall back to my supplies at Westminster….”24
In an 1870 letter, Meade wrote,
Longstreet’s advice to Lee was sound military sense; it was the step I feared Lee would take, and to meet which, and be prepared for which was the object of my instructions…But suppose Ewell with 20,000 men had occupied Culp’s Hill and our brave soldiers had been compelled to evacuate Cemetery Ridge and withdraw…would the Pipe Clay Creek (the real military feature is Parr Ridge which extends through Westminster) order have been so very much out of place?25
These writings plainly demonstrate that Meade was extremely worried about his lines of communication and supply and that he also felt Buford was the man to protect them. Just a day earlier, Buford had successfully fought precisely the sort of delaying action that would be required while the Army of the Potomac retreated, and the army commander wanted the best man for the job to defend the Pipe Creek Line.
The order for Buford’s withdrawal was not given until Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, Meade’s chief of artillery, had personally inspected the area and approved the removal of Buford’s troopers from the line. Once Hunt approved the order, Buford’s two brigades left the field. The first regiments from Gamble’s brigade departed around 11 a.m., and the final regiments of Devin’s brigade around 1:00 p.m. Other Federal cavalry was supposed to assume Buford’s role, but Pleasonton did not act promptly to replace the Kentuckian’s brigades, leaving the Federal left flank exposed and unprotected.
Responding, Butterfield fired a snippy note to Pleasonton. “The major-general commanding directs me to say that he has not authorized the entire withdrawal of Buford’s force from the direction of Emmitsburg,” snarled the chief of staff, “and did not so understand when he gave the permission to Buford to go to Westminster; that the patrols and pickets upon the Emmitsburg road must be kept on as long as our troops are in position.”26 Butterfield’s dispatch to Pleasonton indicates that it was written at 12:50 p.m. on July 2, 1863.
A few minutes later, Butterfield amplified on his instructions to Pleasonton. “My note, written five minutes since, is a little confused, I find. The general expected, when Buford’s force was sent to Westminster, that a force should be sent to replace it, picketing and patrolling the Emmitsburg road. He understood that all your force was up.”27 Butterfield’s second note was written at 12:55 p.m. At 1:45, Pleasonton instructed Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg to send a single regiment to picket the left of the Union line. In other words, one regiment was now expected to fill the role played by two brigades.28
Gregg sent the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Its numbers were insufficient to cover the entire flank, and it is unclear when these men arrived in the area. The Pennsylvania horse soldiers had come to Gettysburg by way of Hanover after an all-night march, and they were exhausted. By the time they arrived, it was too little, too late, as Longstreet was about to unleash his sledgehammer blow on the Army of the Potomac’s left flank and center. It is unclear where the responsibility for the failure to replace Buford’s departing troopers lies, but it ultimately must fall upon the Cavalry Corps commander, Pleasonton, for failing to recognize the need to protect the army’s position with a cavalry screen. The Union left flank was left completely unprotected, leaving it open to the attack that would come that afternoon.
As Buford’s troopers filed off the battlefield that morning, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was preparing an attack up the Emmitsburg Road intended to deliver a crushing blow to the Union left. By leaving the left flank uncovered and unprotected, Pleasonton set the stage for disaster. Longstreet’s determined infantrymen rolled up both ends of Sickles’s position with extremely heavy losses. The Union Third Corps was nearly destroyed by the combination of Sickles’ insubordinate and foolish move forward and the determined assaults by the advancing Confederates.
Obeying Meade’s orders, Buford’s troopers rode fourteen miles to Taneytown, Md., where they camped. The next day, they marched the remaining distance to Westminster, where they spent the balance of the Battle of Gettysburg awaiting further orders. They would play no further role in the great conflagration in Pennsylvania, but they would bear the brunt of the burden during the retreat and pursuit to the Potomac River in the coming days.
Because they never spotted Meade’s wayward order to Pleasonton in the Official Records, many historians have wrongfully blamed John Buford for the disaster that befell the Third Corps that day. In his landmark study of cavalry operations in the Gettysburg Campaign, Edward G. Longacre, the eminent cavalry historian, wrote, “About 9:00 a.m. Gamble’s troopers turned their backs to the enemy and marched south to Taneytown. Devin’s people would follow a few hours later.” He continued, “After spending the night in Taneytown, Buford guided his two brigades toward the railhead supply base at Westminster, the sounds of combat growing ever fainter behind him.” Longacre evidently never factored in the critical order from Meade to Pleasonton, for he blamed Buford for the movement. He blamed Buford accountable for leaving the battlefield, and criticized the Kentuckian for making a poor decision to leave in the heat of battle.29
Longacre continued with this theme in his biography of John Buford, which also contains the same inaccurate description of these events. Although Longacre apparently saw Meade’s order to Pleasonton (he cites to it in his endnotes), his interpretation falls into the same trap of relying on Pleasonton’s trumped up testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, which will be dealt with later in this essay.
Haunted by painful memories—horses and men collapsing on the march from Salem and White Plains, winded mounts defeating the charge of the Regulars at Upperville—Buford hesitated to test his division further at Gettysburg, fearing that its continuing debility would make it impotent. Although the record is unclear, it appears likely that he petitioned Meade, who had arrived on the field during the night, to permit his men to go to the rear for a refit. In due course Meade’s headquarters responded that the First and Second Brigades and Calef’s battery should head to Taneytown, Maryland, four hours’ march to the south, where the army’s supply trains had been collected. From Taneytown Buford should convey the trains to the railhead supply base at Westminster, thirteen miles farther east. There his men could rest and replenish cartridge boxes and forage bags beyond reach of the enemy’s guns.
Buford wasted no time availing himself of this opportunity. Gamble’s brigade, which had not seen action today beyond what Colonel George H. Chapman of the Third Indiana called “a little work between the skirmishers & an occasional shot from the artillery,” started down the Taneytown Road past Meade’s headquarters about nine A.M. As soon as able to break contact with Sickles’s opponents, Devin’s troopers and Calef’s gunners followed. They reached the wagon park late that day, spent the night in Taneytown, and the next morning escorted the long column of vehicles eastward. Arriving at Westminster, where the roar of cannon was only a memory, the troopers and artillerymen settled down to their first lengthy respite since before Brandy Station.30
In this work, Longacre tempers his criticism of Buford by pointing out that he had “ample authority” to make the move into Maryland. However, Longacre continues to blame Buford for leaving the battlefield when it is quite clear that he was simply obeying the direct orders of his superior officers.31
Harry W. Pfanz, the respected historian who has written the definitive study of the actions on the Union left on July 2, had a slightly different, but nonetheless incorrect, spin on these events.
Late in the morning, at 10:30 or so (perhaps while General Hunt was still in the area, though he did not mention it), Buford’s two brigades of cavalry began to leave their positions in front of the Third Corps. General Pleasonton, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, ordered Buford’s two brigades back to Westminster to refit and assist in guarding the army’s trains. Pleasonton stated that this was done because Buford had been handled so severely the day before, something that the division’s casualty reports do not support. The particulars of Buford’s departure are obscure at best. Historicus wrote that Sickles was surprised by the cavalry’s departure and that he believed it left the Third Corps’s flank exposed. In response to Sickles’s protest, General Meade replied that he did not intend to withdraw the cavalry and that part of it would be returned. It never was. (emphasis added)32
These statements clearly demonstrate that Pfanz never saw Meade’s direct order to Pleasonton either, meaning that his analysis of these events is based on incorrect assumptions.
Noah Andre Trudeau has written the most recent treatment of these events, with his fine campaign study, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage. Here’s Trudeau’s version of this episode:
One of the figures commanding Reid’s attention was the “trim, well-tailored person of Major-General [Alfred] Pleasonton,” Meade’s cavalry chief. Only after the battle would Reid realize that at least one of the trips he had seen Pleasonton make in and out of army headquarters had has as its purpose to deal with a major tactical blunder. Whether due to exhaustion or to an imperfect understanding of the army’s situation, late this morning, when John Buford requested permission to withdraw his division for refitting, Pleasonton agreed, then directed the experienced cavalry commander to take his troopers “back to Westminster, our depot, to protect it, and also to recruit.” With this decision, one of the army’s best combat leaders and his veteran command left the Gettysburg area, not to return until the fighting was over.
George Meade approved this action on the unspoken assumption that another mounted force would come up and protect the army’s left flank. Pleasonton would later explain that Buford’s division had been “severely handled” on July 1 (which was untrue) and assert that he had promptly moved up another cavalry unit to replace it (a bald lie). No one took over for Buford’s men after they began pulling out, around midday. Not until Daniel Sickles complained about losing his flank protection did Meade realize that Pleasonton had not followed through. Dispatches demanding corrective action were forwarded to the cavalry chief at 12:50 and 12:55 P.M.; an hour later, Pleasonton sent instructions to a cavalry unit posted on the far Union right, directing it to move to the far left. The riders would not arrive in time to accomplish anything this day.33
Trudeau cites Pleasonton’s testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War of February 1864 as the source for these assertions. Pleasonton’s version of the story is fraught with untruths and inaccuracies. It is also clear that Trudeau’s version of these events did not draw upon Meade’s direct order to Pleasonton, either.
Alfred Pleasonton was known as one who frequently embellished the truth. Many believed Pleasonton to be a conniver, a manipulator, and a man desperate to advance his own cause. Active and energetic, he swaggered like a bantam rooster, exuding self-confidence. He was something of a dandy, preferring fancy uniforms, a straw hat, kid gloves, and a cowhide riding stick. “Pleasonton is small, nervous, and full of dash,” reported a war correspondent, “dark-haired and finely featured with gray-streaked hair.”34 After the war, a Confederate dubbed him the “Knight of Romance” in recognition of the cavalryman’s tendency to stretch the boundaries of the truth in order to advance the cause of Alfred Pleasonton. Pleasonton’s courage in battle was suspect; he was “notorious” among those “who have served under him and seen him under fire.”35 Captain Charles Francis Adams, grandson and great grandson of U. S. presidents, and who possessed the acid pen of his great-grandfather, John Adams, correctly noted, “Pleasonton…is pure and simple a newspaper humbug…He does nothing save with a view to a newspaper paragraph.”36
During the winter of 1863-64, rumors flew that Pleasonton would supplant Meade in command of the Army. That unhappy prospect left most of the Cavalry Corps’s officer cadre “in a great stew”. A captain of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry proclaimed the idea “absurd”, announcing that Pleasonton was “not fit to command a regt in active service”, let alone an army.37 Pleasonton’s ambitions were known to be boundless, and it is not a great leap of faith to assume that he wanted to succeed Meade as army commander. In fact, many had been screaming for the cavalry chieftain’s head for months, but Meade had protected him. When Pleasonton turned on Meade and gave damning testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, an exasperated Meade withdrew his support of the beleaguered cavalryman, who was unceremoniously fired and shipped off to Missouri to chase after the guerrillas of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price.38 Accordingly, Pleasonton’s testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War must be viewed with a great deal of skepticism and must be largely disregarded as a reliable source.
Well-respected and prominent historians have long criticized Buford wrongfully for leaving Gettysburg on July 2. Their criticisms are based upon incorrect assumptions and depend almost entirely on the cavalry chieftain’s fictitious and unreliable testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War. The discovery of Meade’s order to Pleasonton completely changes the interpretation of these events. It also absolves Buford of responsibility for leaving the field, since the Kentuckian was just obeying orders when he did so. The primary responsibility for there being no cavalry to guard Sickles’s flank must lie with George Gordon Meade, whose peremptory order for Buford to go to Maryland to guard the lines of communication, supply and retreat caused the move.
The secondary responsibility must rest with Alfred Pleasonton, who entirely failed to make the necessary arrangements for other cavalry forces to take Buford’s place. What little cavalry he sent was dispatched too late, too tired, and in too small of numbers to make a difference. The combination of these events left the flank of the Sickles salient uncovered, led to the destruction of an entire army corps and exposed the Army of the Potomac to catastrophic defeat at Gettysburg. Shakespeare said, “For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost.” This seemingly small chain of events had far-reaching consequences for the Army of the Potomac’s prospects at the Battle of Gettysburg, consequences which were not foreseeable at the time that George Meade issued his ill-fated order for Buford’s cavalry to leave the battlefield.