Civil War Book Review: “The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg

by Brett Schulte on November 10, 2014 · 1 comment

Wittenberg, Eric J. “The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg: A History and Walking Tour. (Savas Beatie: October 2014). 288 pages, 79 images, 17 maps, 4 appendices, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-61121-208-2 $32.95 (Hardcover).

TheDevilsToPayJohnBufordAtGettysburgWittenbergSavasBeatie2014Gettysburg has been done to death and then some.  The dead horse has been beaten so many times it’s disintegrating.  There are no signs of this stopping, as Gettysburg always has been and always will be the most popular battle of the Civil War for the reading and battlefield stomping public.  That said, some Gettysburg books still need to be written, and this is one of them.  In “The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg: A History and Walking Tour, noted Civil War cavalry historian Eric Wittenberg writes the book he’s always wanted to write, adding legitimately to the already massive bibliography of this campaign.

Eric Wittenberg has written 18 books, both on his own and in tandem with others.  Most focus on the cavalry, while more than one covers other aspects of the Gettysburg Campaign.  A lawyer by profession, Wittenberg is one of the best non-academic Civil War authors writing today.  He more than holds his own when compared with professional historians.  Since his first trip to Gettysburg as a third grader, the author has been fascinated by Buford’s determined stand on July 1, 1863.  He has written several articles about this topic over the years, but until now he has not been able to write a book length account.  In addition to checking off a childhood love, this book completes Wittenberg’s efforts to chronicle all of the cavalry actions at the Battle of Gettysburg.  It’s a culmination, then, in several respects.  Look for a book on the Army of the Cumberland’s Cavalry stand on September 18, 1863 on the eve of Chickamauga, one of what I imagine are multiple future planned topics for this prolific author.

By July 1, 1863, John Buford’s First Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac, had been in the saddle for roughly 50 days.  They had participated in a massive cavalry raid during the Chancellorsville Campaign, fought in the massive Battle of Brandy Station, and clashed multiple times with their Confederate counterparts during the early stages of the Gettysburg Campaign.  Put bluntly, they were exhausted and needed rest and refitting.  In addition, Buford’s best brigade, his Reserve Brigade of United States Regulars, was not with him on the morning of July 1.  Despite these less than ideal circumstances, the remaining two volunteer brigades had a massively important job to do.

Brigadier General John Buford had figured out on the last day of June that a large Confederate infantry force was west of Gettysburg, having to sidestep this body of troops just to make it to the soon to be famous town.  When Buford saw the high ground southeast of Gettysburg he determined to delay the Confederates long enough for the Army of Potomac’s infantry to arrive and take positions there.

In a classic covering force action Buford positioned his force of barely over 2,000 men on the numerous roads radiating out west and north of Gettysburg.  His main effort was concentrated on the Chambersburg Pike west of town, where the large force he had sidestepped earlier was expected.  In a classic delaying action which is still studied by the U. S. Army today, Buford and his men managed to delay an entire Confederate infantry corps long enough for the Union First corps and Eleventh corps to arrive.  But their day still wasn’t done.  Covering the Union left late in the day, Buford’s men assumed a posture as if to charge Lane’s North Carolina Brigade on the Confederate right.  This effort caused the Confederates to hesitate, and ultimately they did not press home a final assault on Cemetery Hill on July 1.

On the night of July 1, Buford’s men picketed the Union right near the Round Tops.  On the morning of July 2 they skirmished briefly with Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade in Pitzer’s woods before being ordered to escort the Army of the Potomac’s trains to Westminster, Maryland.  Buford’s Battle of Gettysburg was done, but ultimately the unassuming but tactically brilliant Kentuckian and his men deserve a good deal of credit for their share in the Union victory.

The maps drawn by Philip Laino are well done, continually enhancing Wittenberg’s text with detailed, regimental and section level detail.  As is typical in any Savas Beatie effort, the number of maps, 17 in a sub-300 page book, is praiseworthy.  Wittenberg takes great pride in finding as many primary sources as possible to help tell the tale, and there are many, many conflicting sources to choose from at Gettysburg.  The author does a very good job of explaining why certain accounts are more trustworthy than others, and he isn’t afraid to take on controversies associated with Buford’s delaying action.  For instance, did some or all of Buford’s men carry Spencer repeating rifles or carbines into action on the first day at Gettysburg?  And did Lane’s brigade form squares when confronted with Buford’s cavalry drawn up to charge late in the day?  Several detailed appendices attempt to definitively answer these questions.  The book finishes with a walking tour accompanied by numerous photos courtesy of former Civil War blogger and A. P. Hill aficionado Jenny Goellnitz.

All of the above items mark this as a solid book, and as always, Wittenberg’s text shines.  He gives brief biographies of Buford and his brigade commanders Gamble and Devin, and proceeds through a detailed tactical history of the cavalry’s fight that day and the next.  The tactical accounts contain just the right amount of first person accounts, allowing men who were on the ground to explain what they saw that day.  Wittenberg writes clearly and concisely, allowing the reader to understand and follow the fighting.  He provides the right amount of detail for the text, leaving asides properly in one of the numerous footnotes.  Book number 18 in Wittenberg’s lengthy and excellent run of Civil War volumes shows an author at the top of his game.  May he write many more in the years to come.

“The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg: A History and Walking Tour is a detailed tactical history of John Buford’s delaying action west and north of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.  Eric Wittenberg has produced a detailed account of the finest Union cavalryman’s finest hour, a masterpiece which is still studied today.  This book fills one of the few remaining niches in the Battle of Gettysburg’s bibliography.  Fans of Gettysburg, of the cavalry, and of Eric Wittenberg will find this another winning effort from the detailed and prolific author.  Buy this book.  You won’t be disappointed.

A copy of this book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Michele Sams November 12, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Thank you for the review on “The Devil’s to Pay” by Eric Wittenberg. We appreciate the review and are glad to hear you enjoyed the book! Those interested in checking out this book can read more at the Savas Beatie website here: http://tinyurl.com/m28u6jb

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