John Buford Jr. was born on March 4, 1826. Just 37 years later, he would lose his life in the Civil War after receiving a deathbed promotion to the position of major general of Volunteers from Abraham Lincoln. Known for his key role in major battles including Gettysburg, Buford had a profound impact on Union victory and is remembered as an American hero. Buford was born in Kentucky, which became a battleground state in the Civil War. When he was eight years old, his family moved to Illinois. His father was a well-known Democrat who opposed Abraham Lincoln. Like many Americans, Buford’s ancestors had fought in the Revolution; his grandfather served under Robert E. Lee’s father. Growing up in a political family, Buford was very patriotic. After one year at Knox College in Illinois, he was accepted to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Divisions between American society increased as Buford grew older. The issue of slavery split the country into two factions – North and South. But while the split sounds simple, it wasn’t – many families were split into two opposing camps. For example, Buford’s father owned slaves, although he did not want to leave the Union. On the other hand, Buford’s wife Pattie was from a Southern family, and his in-laws fought for the Confederacy. At West Point, young men from the north and south trained to become officers, only to fight against each other when war broke out. In 1861, the Civil War erupted. While Buford could have chosen to fight with the rebellious Confederates, he stayed in the United States Army and quickly rose to the rank of brigadier general. Buford was a cavalry officer, and one of the finest in the war. He served with distinction in major battles such as the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Brandy Station. However, John Buford is best remembered for his role in the Battle of Gettysburg. The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the most important battles of the entire Civil War, and Buford secured the field for a Union victory. As tens of thousands of troops from North and South neared one another, Buford’s cavalry arrived in the town of Gettysburg, located on high ground. As he looked down, the general saw thousands of Confederate troops marching up the road and knew that he had to hold the high ground if the Union was to win the battle. He boldly ordered his much smaller force to defend their position against the advancing Rebels. They held out just long enough for reinforcements to arrive and staked out a strong defensive position that held for three bloody days of fighting. Buford served ably for some months after Gettysburg. However, it became clear that he was sick, possibly with typhus. This was a serious issue because during the Civil War, more American soldiers died of an illness than of a bullet wound. Buford was quartered at the home of a fellow general in Washington for his last days. President Lincoln, upon hearing that the hero of Gettysburg was on his deathbed, promoted him to “Major General for distinguished and meritorious service.” Buford, upon hearing of his promotion, asked, “Does he mean it?” and then said, “it is too late, now I wish I could live.” John Buford’s funeral was attended by the President, and his pallbearers were Union generals. He was buried at West Point, where he joined other American war heroes. In response to his death, the Philadelphia Enquirer ran the poem: No more to follow his daring form Or see him dash through the battle's storm No more with him to ride down the foe And behold his falchion's crushing blow Nor hear his voice, like a rushing blast As rider and steed went charging past ... Buford is dead!
Interesting Questions to Discuss with your Children:
Was Buford from a military family?
What did Buford’s father do for a living?
What was the most important cause of the Civil War?
What did Buford do at Gettysburg?
Why do you think more American soldiers died from disease than from bullets during the Civil War?
Rarely have state flags flown at half-mast at the death of a former slave. Yet when William Harvey Carney passed away on December 9, 1908, the Massachusetts state house honored him in a manner typically reserved for presidents. Carney earned this honor during the Civil War as a young man when, despite being wounded in the chest, legs, and arms during the fierce battle of Fort Wagner, he kept the American flag waving high. William Harvey Carney was born a slave in Virginia on February 29 of 1840. The details of his escape from servitude are uncertain, but many historians think he made his way to Massachusetts through the Underground Railroad. After this dangerous journey, Carney kept a low profile until he enlisted in the famed 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in 1863 as a Sergeant. The 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry are famous for a reason - they formed the first African-American regiment organized during the Civil War. This was a momentous project at a time when even great men such as Abraham Lincoln harbored doubts about the capacity of black soldiers. As a sign of the times, black enlistees in the regiment were to be commanded by white officers, headed by the abolitionist Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Yet after the bloody fighting of Gettysburg, Americans of all colors were ready for the Emancipation Proclamation - and the 54th Regiment was part of it. When Carney joined the 54th, it was not only unique in its racial composition. The regiment was comprised of men from 15 northern states, four border states, five Confederate states, Canada, and the West Indies. This was highly unusual at a time when most regiments were formed state-by-state. The 54th soon made headlines for another issue: that of equal pay. When black soldiers enlisted for the 54th Regiment, they were promised full pay - $13 a month - for their service. However, they were only given $10 a month, and they were forced to purchase their own uniforms. Carney and his fellow soldiers chafed at the notion that their service was of lesser value than that of their white comrades. As a sign of protest, the men refused pay for 18 months and fought for free. It was during those 18 months that the 54th saw action at Fort Warner, just outside of Charleston, South Carolina. After two days of little sleep and less food, the Regiment volunteered for a bloody charge against the fort. This charge is now immortalized in song, poetry, and even film (It is the climax of Glory). It was as devastating as it was glorious. The 54th Regiment entered the fray by mounting bayonets and charging across the beach. As rifle fire ripped into the Regiment, Carney was shot numerous times. Yet when he saw Shaw and the flag bearer drop under the bullets, he sprang into action and grabbed the flag. Despite being shot in the chest, arms, and legs, Carney planted the flag in the fort’s parapet and fought on. When reinforcements finally arrived, the regiment made a dignified retreat, with Carney carrying the flag. As he reached Union lines, he shouted, “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground.” 74 enlisted men and three officers, including Shaw, died at Fort Wagner in what would come to be known as a noble defeat. Word of the Regiment’s bravery spread throughout Union ranks and had a profound impact on perceptions of black soldiers. Carney, as one of the most heroic men that day, was honorably discharged from service. After the war, Carney married Susannah Williams and worked first in streetlight maintenance, then as a mail carrier. Thirty-seven years after the battle of Fort Wagner, he received the Medal of Honor. He is the first African-American to have received the honor. His citation reads, “When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.” Questions:
How did Carney get to Massachusetts?
Why was the 54th Regiment unique?
What did the soldiers of the 54th Regiment do to protest unequal pay?
Was the battle of Fort Wagner a Union victory?
Why do you think Carney cared about keeping the flag in the air?