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If the Jeopardy answer is, "This native Kentuckian who moved to Illinois in his youth earned immortality at Gettysburg one hundred-fifty years ago," one might respond, "Who is Abraham Lincoln?" It will soon be a century-and-a-half since the sixteenth President's incomparable address bestowed moral and political meaning on the Civil War battle there.
But this week, the sesquicentennial of that bloody three-day clash that marked a turning point in that struggle between the states, there is another, better response. It is John Buford, the Brigadier General who commanded the First Division of Union cavalry.
Born in Woodford County in 1826, Buford moved to Illinois about a decade after Lincoln did. The West Point graduate fought in the Mexican War and distinguished himself at Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg before the defining moment of his life in south-central Pennsylvania in July of 1863.
In his award-winning book Gettysburg, Stephen W. Sears describes Buford as "a hard man and a hard fighter." Shelby Foote's majestic three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative calls Buford "a tough, Kentucky-born regular with a fondness for hard fighting and the skill to back it up."
Buford's cavalrymen were the first federals to confront the rebels at Gettysburg. His dismounted troopers firing carbines held off Confederate infantrymen armed with less effective muzzle-loaders long enough for more Union forces to arrive and secure positions that proved pivotal to their eventual victory.
Foote, in his inimitable style, describes the moment. "Buford was all business and hard action, now as always. A former Indian fighter, he drove himself as mercilessly as he did his men, with the result that he would be dead within six months, at the age of thirty-seven, of what the doctors classified as ‘exposure and exhaustion.' Convinced now that the fate of the nation was in his hands, here on the outskirts of the little college town, the Kentuckian was prepared to act accordingly."
Buford, like so many other Gettysburg heroes, acted largely on his own initiative and with almost unimaginable bravery. If he had not risen to the challenge the entire course of American history might have been dramatically different.
As Lincoln said, the world "can never forget what they did here." The stories of valor in service of our nation's "new birth of freedom" are too numerous to name, but a few more exemplify the honor of them all.
The First Minnesota regiment, a mere 262 men commanded by Colonel William Colvill, arrived at the battle lines just as the magnificent General Winfield Scott Hancock desperately needed to plug a dangerous gap. Badly outnumbered, they nonetheless fixed bayonets and charged into Confederate infantry. Only 47 returned, the gallant Colvill among the fallen, but the Union line held.
Joshua Chamberlain and the Twentieth Maine gained deserved fame for defending the Union flank at Little Round Top. But others like Brigadier General Stephen Weed, Colonels Strong Vincent and Patrick O'Rorke, and First Lieutenant Charles Hazlett, along with many of their soldiers, gave their "last full measure of devotion" holding that critical height.
There were, of course, similar stories among the Confederates. Some fought for reasons which were not ignoble. Indeed, the Confederacy embodied some cultural and political virtues we would do well to recover. At bottom, however, slavery and its underpinnings of racial superiority were a moral defect corrupting the Southern cause at its core.
While celebrating the Fourth of July give thanks not just for the Founders of 1776, but also for their spiritual heirs like Buford. Their awesome courage and selfless sacrifices assured, at least for a time, that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Kentucky can take pride that two of its sons, Buford and Lincoln, a soldier and a politician, both essential to victory, ennobled the Gettysburg bloodletting. One began the battle with bold action. The other concluded it with inspiring words.
Bronze statues there honor them, but may they be forever enshrined in the national memory.