General John Buford: Reading the Battlefield


Union General John Buford, the strategic and tactical genius of Gettysburg.

On June 30, 1863, Brig. General John Buford and his cavalry entered the small town of Gettysburg. Buford quickly realized that a large force of Confederates were maneuvering into a tactically superior position.

Two great armies were about to clash.

The lay of the land was, for Buford, a crystal ball into the next day’s battle.

He foresaw Lee’s forces taking the high ground; the hapless Union General George Meade reacting slowly and cautiously and then, finally, ordering a brave but suicidal charge that could only end with the slaughter of the Union army and the loss of the war.

Buford acted quickly and decisively. He deployed his courageous troops in skillful defensive positions, held back the determined Confederate forces and allowed the Union troops to seize the strategic high ground and ultimately win the battle of Gettysburg thereby turning the tide of war.


Sam Elliott as Gen. John Buford in Gettysburg, 1993.

A quick shout-out to actor Sam Elliott, whose portrayal of Buford in the splendid four-hour movie Gettysburg (1993) invariably brings tears to Seraphic Secret’s eyes so precise, steely and intelligent is Elliott’s skill in this difficult role.

Buford led from the front and read the battlefield with almost supernatural clarity. Coupled with the incredible bravery of the dismounted cavalry of his First Corps, Buford selected the ground and then exploited every fold and ridge—the defense of Little Round Top, the Union flank, was much like the Israeli tank defense of the Golan Heights in ’73—leading to a costly victory.

Such genius is rare, but in the life of a nation, necessary.

Heads of state must also know how to read the ground; they must understand every nuance of the international landscape and move with wisdom and bravery in the national interest.

Last week, explaining Barack Obama’s collapsing foreign policy, The New Yorker quoted a White House claim that Obama is, “Leading from behind.”

A deeply Orwellian turn of phrase.

And in truth, the writer Ryan Lizza paints a devastating portrait of a chaotic and incomptent POTUS.

This from the New Yorker, not exactly a bastion of conservative thought.

By undermining America’s allies, England, France, Israel, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, etc., and trying to get all Kumbaya with totalitarian monsters like Syria and Iran, Obama has convinced foreign powers that America is an unreliable if not treacherous ally.

One other note about the great John Buford. He was born in Kentucky but raised in Illinois. His father was a slave-owner, a prominent Democrat who was a bitter opponent of Abraham Lincoln.

Buford had every reason to join the Southern cause. But John Buford’s moral compass was exquisitely calibrated and he committed himself to the Union, thereby transcending the broken morality of his upbringing.

Barack Obama does not lead from the front.

His moral compass seems, at best, unsteady.

And instead of transcending his radical roots including 20-years as a faithful member of Jeremiah Wright’s Jew and America hating church, Obama marinates in the foul identity politics that are the bread and butter of modern progressives.

Certainly, Mr. Obama cannot read the battlefield.

I’m not even sure he’s aware of the existential war being waged against free nations by radical Islam.

At a time when America and the free world need a General John Buford, we have instead a community organizer sowing chaos from the rear.

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  1. Ken
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    President Obama has accomplished in two years what his predecessor either flubbed or ignored for over 9 years. And President Obama reformed healthcare, saved the economy from a depression, repealed the hateful DADT policy, restored the reputation of the US around the world, and enacted tax cuts for the majority of Americans who earn less than $250 per year. This is what the majority, the vast majority, of Americans elected him to do. That is what leadership looks like. And we are just getting started. So get used to it.

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  2. Claudia
    Posted May 5, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I am probably way off here but my guess in the childhood star contest is – 1. Grace Kelly. 2. Angelina Jolie and 3. Goldie Hawn.

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  3. Posted May 2, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I think the view of President Obama is eligible for a re-appraisal. While I still consider him Carter MkII (that’s Jimmy, not Michael Caine in the 1970s gangster movie), I consider he’s handled the OBL situation well.
    I’ve not seen the Gettysberg film yet, thanks for recommending it.

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  4. george
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Obama is well aware of the islamic threat. After all, he is leading it.

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  5. Posted April 28, 2011 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Although I am a student of history, I am not a Civil War buki. However, I just saw “Gettysburg” about a month ago for the first time.
    And, Buford and Chamberlain captured my imagination.
    Although I had my “Civil War; Day by Day” out to watch the movie, I really don’t know if the way these men were portrayed was true or not.
    If the movie was accurate, they were giants.
    I don’t believe that Obama is aware of much else besides Obama… Seriously.
    Clinton was a master Statesman compared to Obama.
    Hell, Crazy Carter who wants to give food to Kim Makes Us Il of North Korea, is a better Statesman than Obama.
    Now that’s scary.

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  6. Kent G. Budge
    Posted April 28, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    “And the timid Meade had a chance to finish off the retreating Southern forces, but allowed Lee to fight – for another 2 years, ”
    I wouldn’t be too hard on Meade. He was abruptly given command of the Army of the Potomac just a few days before the battle, with no opportunity to get settled with his senior commanders. His army was badly bloodied in the battle. He knew Lee wanted nothing worse than for Meade to attack him on ground favorable to Lee.
    I’m not saying the pursuit could not have been a lot more aggressive. I’m just trying to put you in Meade’s shoes.
    I myself have never heard a shot fired in anger. I don’t know what I’d do in a real war. My duty, I hope.

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  7. Shyla
    Posted April 28, 2011 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    ProphetJoe, I suspect the General’s two buttons are unbuttoned so he could slip his hand in to pose for photographs, as was the style of the day (you can see an example in this group photograph, Many did not do this, however, and had their jackets fully buttoned–why he did not, I don’t know.

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  8. Miranda Rose Smith
    Posted April 28, 2011 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    Last week, in defense of Barack Obama’s collapsing foreign policy, The New Yorker unleashed an Orwellian phrase, claiming that Obama is, “leading from behind.”
    I wish you hadn’t quoted that, Robert. It started me visualizing a certain part of Obama’s anatomy.

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  9. Posted April 27, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    After re-reading the post and comments, I have to add a few more thoughts.

    First, why does the General have 2 buttons undone on his tunic?

    Secondly, “leading from behind” seems to be a typo. I believe the proper phrase should have been “leading from his behind” — as in, he seems to pull most of his policies out of his, ahem, behind.

    I agree with the previous assessments of Obama’s success. Whereas Buford was born in Kentucky and raised in Illinois, Obama was born… well, who knows where… and came to light in Chicago, Illinois. Saying that he’s earned his success in Chicago Democratic politics is a little like giving Al Capone kudos for ascending to the top of the Chicago mob. Sure, it’s an accomplishment, but it’s not the kind of accomplishment anyone should *want* to write home about!

    Lastly, DrCarol brought up the point about gas prices. I heard a snippet of Rush Limbaugh today and he suggested Obama will allow Gulf drilling sometimes next year and we’ll see a precipitous drop in the cost of crude oil, just like we did in 2008 when Bush opened drilling in the Gulf. That way Obama could take credit for dropping gas prices… not beyond the realm of possibilities in modern politics.

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  10. Jenny
    Posted April 27, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    It is to laugh.

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  11. DrCarol
    Posted April 27, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Fabulous movie, one we watch incessantly. Love Elliot, Berenger, and also Kevin Conway–cannot stand Sheen.
    I agree that without Buford, there would have been no Chamberlain.
    It’s gotten so I can’t stand to listen to Obama, I yell at the television or radio (as I did this morning, about his lack of concern on gas prices and his whine about bipartisanship–from the guy who called Republicans the enemy and accused Pennsylvanians of bitterly clinging to guns and religion).

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  12. Johnny
    Posted April 27, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Obama does not understand what his job is. He has never succeeded at anything but being Barack Obama so he is the epitome of on-the-job training. Even the Peter Principle doesn’t apply since his level of competence is probably being a summer intern at some middling law firm. Try finding his successes as a community organizer, state legislator or U.S. senator. You will either have to lie or grossly exaggerate his contributions.
    Neither side looked to Gettysburg as the site of a major engagement but Buford’s quick thinking deemed it so. Such is the hand of fate that history is decided at such seemingly insignificant places. Think of a speck of land named Midway where just off it’s beaches the war in the Pacific was changed.

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  13. Posted April 27, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Buford was a brilliant cavalry officer. He is one of my favorites in the Civil War. He was raised in Rock Island, IL, not far from my parents hometown. He also had Myles Keogh as one of his aids — Myles is another interesting story from the Civil War.

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  14. Posted April 27, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    One interesting point about Chamberlain: Early in the Civil War, many people were appointed to fairly high-level command positions based entirely on their local popularity/status/education. Chamberlain was originally offered a regimental command, but he declined, saying that he would prefer to “start a little lower and learn the business first.” After about a year he did become commander of the 20th Maine, having presumably learned quite a bit during the interim.
    How many ambitious people today would choose to “start a little lower and learn the business first”?

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  15. Christopher
    Posted April 27, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I love “Gettysburg.” In length and sweep, it’s a throwback to the great Hollywood epics, even if it was the brainchild of that crank Ted Turner.
    And I agree with you, Robert, about Sam Elliot’s performance. A bravura turn – and it doesn’t hurt that he has that wonderfully resonant gravelly vocie, either. My favorite character, though, is Longstreet, and I enjoyed Tom Berenger’s performance despite the bad whiskers makeup saddled him with.
    Robert, since you’ve said before that all great stories are love stories, would you see that in “Gettysburg?” I do, if you see that Longstreet’s seeming passivity is because he loves Lee and his soldiers too much to throw them away on a fight they can’t win.

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  16. Bill Brandt
    Posted April 27, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    My father and I got into an argument over the hero of Gettysburg. I insisted it was Buford; he insisted it was Chamberlain.
    Certainly both saved the day for the Union forces; but without Buford there would have been no Chamberlain.
    And the timid Meade had a chance to finish off the retreating Southern forces, but allowed Lee to fight – for another 2 years, as it turned out.
    The Civil War is full of stories of family members against each other. The location of Arlington Cemetery was chosen by a Virginian who wanted Lee to be reminded forever what he helped to foster. The cemetery was put on the grounds of his mansion.
    If you want to read a very good book on Gettysburg Robert, read The Killer Angels, upon which this movie is based. I love historical novels and this is superlative.
    All of the facts are true; the author interjects fictional conversations.
    If Lee had only listened to Longstreet….
    On Obama, I believe most Presidents would have a humility on their position. Most Presidents make mistakes in foreign policy but do the best as they see it.
    Very few have the ability to see the Weltpolitik as it is but muddle – and adjust – as they can.
    Lincoln could see the horizon, as could Franklin Roosevelt. I’ll add Nixon for hina. History is too fresh to judge GW Bush. There’s a handful of others.
    Obama has a smug arrogance about him which makes him dangerous. I was reminded yesterday that Nancy Pelosi, who wanted to humiliate George Bush, went on her “Middle Eastern” junket before he left office.
    There is a picture of her posing with a smiling Assad of Syria.

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  17. Vader
    Posted April 27, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I’m very fond of Gettysburg, except for one thing.
    Sheen’s inept portrayal of Lee.
    Lee had a hold on the hearts of his soldiers that still lives on in parts of the South today, four or five generations later. Nothing in Sheen’s performance gives the audience any clue why that might be.
    Sheen plays Lee as a crazy old colonel instead.

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