Rendezvous with Destiny
by Mort Kunstler
Gen. John Buford at Gettysburg, June 30, 1863
He was ﬁrst on the field—and may have saved the war's greatest battle for the Union. Brigadier General John Buford was 37 years old when he led his First Cavalry Division into Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on June 30, 1863. Known to his troops as “Old Steadfast,” he was considered one of the best cavalry ofﬁcers in the Northern army—and he showed why at Gettysburg. As General Robert E. Lee moved his spread-out Army of Northern Virginia across Pennsylvania in late June, the crossroads town of Gettysburg lay on his route of march—and also in the path of General George Meade’s pursuing Army of the Potomac. The ﬁrst to fully reach the ﬁeld might win the major battle both armies were seeking. Buford’s cavalry got there ﬁrst, and his orders were clear: “Hold Gettysburg at all costs until supports arrive.”
Buford knew the bulk of Lee’s army was arriving from the West, so he located strong defensive lines for the Federal army on ridges ﬂanking the town’s West side—with an excellent fall-back position on Cemetery Ridge to the rear. Buford did his job—and well. His cavalry was ﬁrst to engage Lee's army, and held back its advance until the Federal army began arriving in force. When Northern troops were ﬁnally driven back on the battle’s ﬁrst day, they dug in on Cemetery Ridge. There, they delivered a defeat to Lee's battle-hardened troops over the next two days, and made Gettysburg the decisive battle of the American Civil War. General Buford’s choice of defensive positions on June 30th had enabled the Union to prevail on the War's greatest ﬁeld of battle.
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