Civil War Profiles — Why a battle was fought at Gettysburg

On the morning of June 30, 1863, two brigades of Union cavalry rode into a small town in southcentral Pennsylvania. None of the horse soldiers suspected their names would go down in history for what they accomplished that day, and on July 1, just a short distance to the northwest.

James Getty had established the town known as Gettysburg in 1786, and it had since grown to a population of about 2,400. The existence of 10 roads leading to the heart of the town acted like magnets to military units that were drawn to it because of its easy access and egress.

The commander of the Union cavalry brigades was Brig. Gen. John Buford. Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade had assigned Buford the job of pinpointing the location of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which was reportedly marching across the state of Pennsylvania after traveling north through the Shenandoah Valley from the area of Fredericksburg, Va.

After arriving at Gettysburg that morning, Buford sent scouting parties out to determine the Rebel army’s movements. His initial report, written at 11:30 a.m., was addressed to Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, commander of the Union First Corps, as well as the left wing of Meade’s army, consisting of three corps, including his own. The forces under Reynolds were out in front of the remainder of the army — therefore, in a potentially vulnerable position.

The report was a model of succinctness and specificity. It read:

“Anderson’s division [of A.P. Hill’s corps] encamped last night 9 miles NW of Gettysburg on Chambersburg Pike at base of S[outh] Mountain 1 mile beyond Cashtown. One regiment of [Rebel] infantry came near Gettysburg at 11 a.m. and retired as I advanced. The main force is believed to be marching north of Gettysburg through Mummasburg & Hunterstown. Hampton [commander of a Rebel cavalry brigade] is towards Berlin & York. I will send [scouting] parties out on roads towards the supposed position of the enemy.”

That report and those that followed prompted Reynolds to march toward Gettysburg. His decision was timely, given that an entire Rebel division of 7,500 men under Maj. Gen. Harry Heth came pounding down the Chambersburg Pike on July 1 to confront Buford’s less than 3,000 cavalrymen.

That was the beginning of the momentous three-day battle that many believed at the time would decide the outcome of the war. Despite the odds against them, Buford and his men held their ground until Reynold’s First Corps arrived on the field to relieve them.

Buford’s action that day, in staying and fighting until the infantry arrived, was important, because at stake was the critical high ground south of Gettysburg, known as Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge. If that high ground had been taken by Lee’s army, the outcome of the battle would likely have been reversed, or might not have taken place at Gettysburg at all.

Buford is credited with locating the enemy forces, and for taking a stand with his small force to prevent Lee’s army from capturing the high ground. Reynolds followed suit and helped maintain Union control over the vital hills south of Gettysburg.

The heroes of the Battle of Gettysburg were many, but the work John Buford and his cavalry accomplished on June 30 and July 1, 1863, with the support of Reynold’s First Corps on July 1, is among the most remarkable of the entire campaign. It helped ensure the battle would be fought at that little Pennsylvania town.

Reynolds lost his life for his actions that day. He took a bullet to the back of his head while leading his men into proper position to contest the oncoming enemy infantry and was killed instantly.

Before 1863 ended, John Buford succumbed to the common wartime ailment of typhoid fever. He received promotion to major general on his deathbed, for his service to the country — especially his accomplishments at Gettysburg.

For further reading, see “The Devil’s to Pay: John Buford at Gettysburg” by Eric J. Wittenberg, and “Toward Gettysburg: A Biography of General John F. Reynolds” by Edward J. Nichols.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. His latest book, with co-author Rick Schaus, “Eleven Fateful Days in July 1863: Meade Tracks Lee’s Escape after Gettysburg,” is due out in 2018. Contact him at or through his website at