If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.
Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii
As the sun broke over McPherson’s Ridge on the morning of July 1, 1863, John Buford and the men he commanded stood ready.
Buford’s dry, at times almost cynical, humor and his gruff, blunt manner could sometimes hide the tightly wound emotional man within. As early as the previous afternoon, Buford achieved certainty that today’s rising sun would bring death with it to the open fields west of Gettysburg. Some of his officers noted that he was more agitated than usual that evening. But emotional or no, John Buford stood ready.
Buford had made a habit of being ready. Unlike other Union cavalry commanders, Buford trained and drilled his men in dismounted as well as mounted action. He trained his own eye to read terrain in a sweeping glance, and drilled his mind in the craft of deploying his men expertly, especially for the kind of delaying actions frequently asked of the cavalry. He trained his judgment as well; eschewing glory in favor of solid results, John Buford chose his fights and rarely had one imposed upon him by the enemy. In a lifelong career, he quietly made himself into a soldier’s soldier, and a leader of men who felt themselves more than fortunate to serve under his command.
This morning he would fight a fight that he had chosen. As the sun broke popped above the horizon in the east, Buford’s preparations were already in place. Miles to the west and north of his camps his vedettes awaited the arrival of the enemy columns. The better part of a regiment formed a strong skirmish line behind the vedettes to the west, posted on a highly defensible ridge. His main force still slumbered in camps just north and west of the town of Gettysburg, waiting for the vedette force tripwire to sound the alarm. That the enemy would come Buford did not doubt; his scouts yesterday had reported them heading south from Carlisle to the north, and he himself had seen a Confederate brigade coming from Cashtown. The arrival of his division deterred the Confederates from entering Gettysburg.
Buford’s opponent that fateful morning, Confederate Major General Henry “Harry” Heth, could not offer more contrast to Buford’s dry, understated, and steadfast nature. Heth was impetuous, noted for not doing his homework well, and full of the aggressive spirit cultivated in the officer corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Like his cousin, George Pickett, Heth had a strong sense of personal honor and saw his role in battle as a personal drama in which he should play the bold hero.
The story of the encounter between Heth and Buford is well known. Heth’s impetuous nature played into Buford’s hands. Buford’s skillful action delayed Heth’s forces for three hours, buying precious time for the arrival of Major General John Reynolds and his 1st Division, I Corps infantry on the field. Heth, attacking with only two brigades while two more stood out of supporting distance, saw both shattered at the climax of the action, rendered hors de combat for the day and suffering horrible, unnecessary losses in action that should never have been fought in the first place.
By delaying Heth until Union infantry could arrive, Buford all but assured that Union forces would have the option to hold the Cemetery Hill – Cemetery Ridge – Little Round Top line that proved impregnable on the second and third days of the battle.
Perhaps it is not too bold to claim that the fight made by Buford’s men that morning was the single most important cavalry action of the American Civil War in the Eastern theater.
None of it would have happened without the readiness of Buford and his men – a readiness the general practiced every day, earning his nickname, “Old Steadfast.”