I believe the story because I believe the man. The legend is that on the evening of Sunday, 29 June 1863, 34 year old Federal Brigadier General John Buford (above) and some of this staff climbed Jack's Mountain, just northeast of Fountain Dale, Pennsylvania, in the eastern mouth of Monterey Pass, and saw dust rising from the masked Cumberland Valley beyond.
And being who he was – born in Kentucky, raised in Illinois, disowned by his slave owning family after he chose to defend the union - Buford could sense the brawl that was about to break out, he could smell the testosterone and adrenaline of 160, 000 approaching men. The General turned to his aides and told them, “Within 48 hours the concentration of both armies will take place on a field within view and a great battle will be fought.”
But while the view from 1,775 feet above the Juniata River was and is magnificent, there were no dust clouds in view. A little further back down the road, near Emmitsburg, Maryland, marching with the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes remembered “I don't think I ever before saw...such a long continued, misty, drizzling storm as we have been marching through since we crossed the Potomac.” And two days before he had written to his wife of "...trudging along all day in soaking rain, getting as wet as a drowned rat...and then wrapping up in a wet woolen blanket and lying down for a sleep.." There was plenty of mud in southern Pennsylvania, but there was no dust.
But this was the third year of a civil war, in which brother literately was killing brother. The vast majority of those 160,000 combat veterans knew what they were marching toward - knew it as sure as they knew it could not be stopped. As the great Historian Bruce Catton put it, The soldiers were, “...led together by the turns in the roads they followed. When they touched they began to fight, because the tension was so high that the first encounter snapped it, and once begun the fight was uncontrollable. What the generals intended ceased to matter; each man had to cope with what he got...” That was the reality I believe General Buford saw in the fading mist.
Perhaps the clearest glimpse of John Buford in this third year of the war was provided by what happened to a young civilian suspected of spying on the Federal cavalry near Frederick, Maryland. A quick “drum-head court martial” found the boy guilty, and he was promptly condemned, and left hanging by his neck from a roadside tree. When a committee of Frederick civilians demanded an explanation from Buford, the General explained he would have sent the boy back to Washington for trial, except he feared the bureaucrats and politicians there would make the spy a Brigadier General. That is what passed for a joke after 2 1/2 years of war.
Twenty miles to the south of Buford's cavalry were the three leading corps of the Army of the Potomac. From south to north, they were the 13,000 men of the III Corps, under the 44 year old legally insane New Yorker and congressman, Major General Daniel Edgar Sickles (above)
They were following the 9,000 despised and disparaged “Damned Dutch” of the XI Corps under the 33 year old Puritanical nativist Major General Oliver Otis Howard, from Maine.
In the lead were the 12,200 men of the veteran First Crops, under the command of the 42 year old charismatic Pennsylvanian, Major General John Fulton Reynolds.
President Lincoln had wanted Reynolds to run the Army of the Potomac after the Chancellorsville debacle. But on Tuesday, 2 June, 1863, Reynolds made met the President one-on-one and told Lincoln he would take the job only if Lincoln kept politics out his decisions. Lincoln had his fill with Generals who decided which orders they would follow. He might even have explained to the naive General that all wars were as much political as martial. But whatever he told Reynolds, the top job had gone to Meade.
Meade immediately drew up plans to establish a 20 mile long defensive line facing north (above) - “roughly parallel to the Mason-Dixon line” - between Manchester and Middleburg, Maryland, along the south bank of Big Pipe Creek. It was an extraordinary defensive position. But perhaps still irritated at being passed over for the command, Reynolds expressed concern that Meade's cautious nature would allow the rebels to continue “ plundering the State of Pennsylvania”, referring to the Pipe Creek plans as “dilatory measures”. But Meade had already sent Reynolds west and north of that line. First Crops and Howard's XI Corps made camp the night of 29 June, around Emmitsburg, Maryland. And as Meade explained in a post script to his orders issued that night, “Your present position was given more with a view to an advance on Gettysburg, than a defensive point.” And screening Reynolds 22,000 men by ten miles or so were the 2 battalions of John Buford's cavalry, just 6 miles outside of Gettysburg, that night.
That damp Sunday morning, 38 miles to the north, 37 year old rebel Brigadier General Henry Heth (above) had marched his infantry division down the eastern slope of South Mountain to occupy a small collection of houses and barns around a store and inn called Cashtwon. They were the advance guard of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill's 22,000 man Third Corps, and Heath's task was to establish a defensive line to hold the pass. The next morning he would send a brigade 8 miles further down the Chambersburg Pike to the little town of Gettysburg, looking for supplies to feed and clothe his men. And looking for Federals.
Thirty miles north and east of Gettysburg on Sunday, 29 June, 1863, was Richard Ewell's 22,000 man Second Corps. Jubal Early's division was due east Gettysburg, at York, Pennsylvania, where they had cut the Baltimore and Harrisburg railroad. The day before a 1,200 man Georgia brigade under the often wounded General John Brown Gordon had even reached as far as Wrightsville, on the Susquehanna River. But after the Yankees burned the bridge, that Sunday Gordon's men returned to York.
The remaining two divisions of Ewell's Second Corps – commanded by 34 year old Major General Robert Emmett Rodes and 37 year old Major General Edward "Allegheny" Johnson - were further north, in Carlisle, fulfilling General Ewell's 4 day old prediction, “We will get fat here.” Georgia private Gordon Bradwell recalled his 20 man company had been issued “two hindquarters of very fine beef, a barrel or two of flour, some buckets of wine, sugar, clothing, shoes, etc.”
Further east, in Mechanicsburg, Brigadier General Albert Jenkins' (above) troopers demanded 1,500 rations. After that demand was met within 90 minutes, the rebels started looting, as they had done in Chambersburg. Noted one bitter journalist, “Some people, with . . . antiquated ideas of business, might call it stealing...but Jenkins calls it business...”
On that same Sunday, 29 June, other troopers from Jenkin's cavalry were trading shots with Pennsylvania militia at Oyster's point on the river, while Jenkins himself, along with 3 of General Ewell's engineers , were looking over the defenses of the state capital of Harrisburg (above) Nobody was impressed.
Even the burning of the Cumberland Valley Railroad bridge over the Susquehanna (above) failed to discourage these rebels. That evening, General Ewell ordered his infantry to move toward the river, determined to capture Harrisburg. This was the proof that Hooker's delay in matching Lee's movement across the Potomac, was leading to disaster.
Then an exhausted courier arrived at Ewell' (above)s headquarters outside of Carlisle, with orders issued by General Lee just 12 hours earlier, in Chambersburg.
In Lee's typical passive-aggressive fashion they read in part, “...if you have no good reason against it, I desire you to move in the direction of Gettysburg....you can thus join your other divisions to Early's...Your trains and heavy artillery you can send, if you think proper, on the road to Chambersburg. But if the roads which your troops take are good, they had better follow you.”
Ewell, who had some experience with Lee's choice of language, realized the urgency hidden in the message. He immediately called off his attack on Harrisburg, and prepared to swing Johnson's division and his supply trains back down the Cumberland Valley toward Chambersburg, and Rodes division due south toward Gettysburg – first thing in the morning.
The next morning, on the last day of June, 1863, while Major General J.E.B. Stuart was clashing with Major General Pleasanton's Federal cavalry at Hanover, and General Rodes division was just beginning their 30 mile march south from Carlisle, John Buford was riding onto the high ground south of Gettysburg, at the head of 3,000 troopers. On the ridge opposite the town, known as Seminary Hill, he could see rebel infantry on the Chambersburg turnpike. These were the 2,000 man infantry brigade Heath had sent forward, looking for supplies. But seeing blue cavalry about to enter the town before them, and aware of Lee's orders to avoid a fight, they reversed their march, returning to Cashtown.
Seeing them retreat, Buford immediately galloped into the town of Gettysburg and arraigned his defenses
The Second Battalion under Colonel Tom Devin (above) was ordered to post pickets as far as 4 miles west and north, and entrench his men along the Mummasberg road. Devin confidently said he thought the command could handle whatever rebels threw at them, but Buford cut him off, saying, “No, you won’t. They will attack you in the morning and they will come booming – skirmishers three-deep. You will have to fight like the devil until supports arrive.”
At 10:30 that night Buford sent his report 10 miles back to Reynolds, now north of Emmitsburg. It read in part, “...I am satisfied that A. P. Hill's corps is massed just back of Cashtown, about 9 miles from this place...One of my parties captured a courier of Lee's...He says Ewell's corps is crossing the mountains from Carlisle...”.
In short, Lee's entire 75,000 man army was converging on Buford's 3,000 man force in Gettysburg. To have added a cry for help would have been superfluous. After the messengers had left, Buford's signal officer, First Lieutenant Aaron Brainard Jerome, noted that his commander seemed more anxious, “than I ever saw him.”