Analyses of what ingredients, what key qualities, make a great commander fill the study of military history. These analyses typically cite a wide variety of traits such as audacity, vision, common sense, aggressiveness, prudence, recklessness, physical courage, and discretion. However, one element that is perhaps the most important in good leadership and effective command, and the one that seems to have escaped notice for the most part, is a single, rare attribute, and one that has been a virtual constant in effective command throughout history-moral courage. Further, moral courage is unique in that both its absence and presence creates an impact at all levels of command. A battle and history itself can turn upon this one vital ingredient.
Over the course of time, the American Civil War has become a sort of historical laboratory for the study of strategy, command, and leadership, and, as such, it offers one of the best sources for examining the importance of moral courage in command. Ulysses S. Grant, the man who was arguably the war’s greatest commander and who clearly possessed this exceptional quality, discussed moral courage at length, describing it as a willingness to take responsibility and to make decisions. Taking Grant’s description one step further, renowned Civil War historian James McPherson says that moral courage “embraces a readiness to take risks and to accept the possibility of failure, for without the risk of failure there is little chance of success.” As a result, moral courage can often come into play when a commander faces a decision that is not merely difficult, but is also a decision with absolutely no middle ground. This absence of middle ground means that the choice is simple: one can either shrink from it, take the easy way out, and let it become someone else’s problem, or you can take the hard choice, the one that may require great sacrifice, the one that could result in disaster, but also the one that is probably the only chance for success.
The Civil War is filled with examples of army commanders who both possessed moral courage and those that did not. Those who possessed it, men like Grant, Sherman, and Lee, led their armies to victories, while those who did not, men such as McClellan and Bragg, were rendered entirely ineffective by its absence. However, what about those times when a commander at a lower echelon was called upon to draw on his own moral courage? These can be moments when that quality is the most critical because moral courage often manifests itself in only the direst circumstances, when a commander faces a decision that must be made either quickly or when alone, without the aid of advice or direction from others in the chain of command. The Civil War is filled with thousands of examples where corps, brigade, or even regimental commanders failed to demonstrate moral courage. These were moments when they did not follow orders, retreated without authority, or simply broke and ran with their men. However, despite this, there are not only good examples of the presence of moral courage at the lower echelons of command, some of these demonstrate how important a quality it can be, even when the man who possesses it is not leading an entire army.
The best illustrations of just how critical moral courage can be in lower echelon tactical decisions come from Gettysburg, an engagement noted for its numerous crucial strategic and tactical decisions. However, three of the tactical decisions stand out among all the rest. The first was made by Brigadier General John Buford, commander of the First Division of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps. As the Gettysburg campaign unfolded, Buford’s division was assigned to cover the army’s left flank, both screening its movements and searching for signs of Lee’s army. On June 29, 1863, General Pleasanton, commander of the Cavalry Corps, ordered two brigades of Buford’s division, along with a battery of artillery, to proceed to Gettysburg and directed they arrive by the evening of June 30. Pleasanton could not have given what would turn out to be a most important assignment to a better officer. John Buford was a Kentucky-born West Point graduate, Class of 1848, who, with the exception of a brief staff assignment in Washington early in the war, had served in the cavalry throughout his career. As a junior officer serving in the western frontier, Buford had been a solid, if not occasionally brilliant, young cavalryman. In the war years between 1861 and 1863, Buford had proven to be a steady, capable field commander. Colonel Theodore Lyman would later describe the tough and somewhat colorful Buford as follows:
He is one of the best officers of that arm and is a singular-looking party. Figurez-vous a compactly built man of middle height, with a tawny moustache and a little, triangular gray eye, whose expression is determined, not to say sinister. His ancient corduroys are tucked into a pair of ordinary cowhide boots, and his blue blouse is ornamented with holes; from one pocket thereof peeps a huge pipe, while the other is fat with a tobacco pouch. Notwithstanding this get-up he is a very soldierly looking man. He is of a good-natured disposition, but not to be trifled with. Caught a notorious spy last winter and hung him to the next tree, with this inscription: “This man to hang three days: he who cuts him down before shall hang the remaining time.”
Wounded twice in the first years of the war, by the summer of 1863, Buford’s reputation as a cavalryman and leader was well known among his fellow officers. One of them, Colonel Charles Wainwright, noted that Buford was “never looking after his own comfort, untiring on the march and in the supervision of his command, quiet and unassuming in his manners.” In fact, his comrades warmly referred to him as “Old Steadfast.” When the shooting began at Gettysburg, they would find out that name was truly appropriate.
Upon receiving Pleasanton’s orders, Buford moved quickly, pushing his force of some 3,000 men hard, arriving in Gettysburg at 11:00 A.M. on June 30, well ahead of schedule. Buford immediately sent patrols north and west of the town, searching for signs of the enemy. One patrol actually ran into and exchanged fire with Confederate troops, a lead element of a brigade from Heth’s division of A.P Hill’s corps on the road coming west from Cashtown. Heth’s men were on their way to Gettysburg looking for supplies, but, in light of the resistance they received from Buford’s patrol, they elected to withdraw. From this activity and other reports, Buford was able to put together a picture of his tactical situation, which he reported to General Reynolds, commanding I Corps and the left wing of the Army of the Potomac.
I am satisfied that A. P. Hill's corps is massed just back of Cashtown, about 9 miles from this place. Pender's division of this (Hill's) corps came up, to-day--of which I advised you, saying, "The enemy in my front is increased." The enemy's pickets (infantry and artillery) are within 4 miles of this place, on the Cashtown road...Near Heidlersburg today, one of my parties captured a courier of Lee's...He says Ewell's corps is crossing the mountains from Carlisle, Rodes' division being at Petersburg in advance. Longstreet, from all I can learn, is still behind Hill.
Buford clearly could see that Lee’s army was now concentrating in the direction of Gettysburg, and he later wrote that he “had gained positive information of the enemy's position and movements, and my arrangements were made for entertaining him until General Reynolds could reach the scene.” Buford had decided to make a stand and apparently elected to do so based on his professional judgment of the value of the terrain near Gettysburg. While historians have differed in their views as to whether Buford or John Reynolds picked the battlefield at Gettysburg, it is logical to assume that Buford, as first man on the scene, made his determination to fight based on the terrain he observed. From his actions, it appears logical that Buford carefully examined the ground and the road networks, and he could see that the high terrain southeast of the town offered a good, defensible position for the Army of the Potomac. Therefore, he coolly determined that his role would be to defend that ground and ensure it would be available to the army, once it arrived on the scene. Given that he could be outnumbered by as much as 15 to 1, it was a risky and somewhat remarkable decision.
Now, however, the problem for Buford would be exactly how to do deny the enemy the high ground south of Gettysburg given the numerical superiority and power of the enemy infantry, which he knew was quickly approaching. It had taken moral courage to make the decision to stand and fight, but now it would take even more to execute that decision, along with Buford’s considerable military skills. As he put his defensive plans together on the evening of June 30, Buford remarked to Colonel Devin that “the battle would be fought at that point” and that “he was afraid it would be commenced in the morning before the infantry would get up.” Therefore, Buford decided to make use of the terrain west of Gettysburg and attempt to execute one of the most difficult of all military tactics—a defense in depth against a vastly superior force. His goal would be to delay Lee’s army until Union infantry could arrive on the scene, initially support his delaying tactics, and, then, occupy the key ground southeast of Gettysburg. Once again, Buford analyzed the terrain and could see that the landscape west of the town offered him some advantages.
The terrain west of Gettysburg undulates in a series of wooded ridges, punctuated by rocky creeks, all of which run north to south, perpendicular to the road from Chambersburg and Cashtown. Buford decided to deploy one brigade on the ridges west of Gettysburg, where he anticipated the greatest threat, and place the other north of the town to watch for the approach of Ewell’s corps from Carlisle. His main line of defense would be McPherson’s Ridge, some two miles outside Gettysburg, but he would deploy videttes, intended to act as a sort of early warning system, in an arc seven miles long extending four to six miles from the center of Gettysburg. These videttes would watch for the enemy, make contact, fire warning shots, then delay as long as possible, and fall back to the next defensive position-the idea was to buy time.
At 6:00 A.M. on the morning of July 1, Buford’s plan went into action when a vidette manned by men from the 8th Illinois Cavalry Regiment spotted Confederates troops approaching on the Chambersburg Pike. They fired a shot off in the general direction of the enemy and the Battle of Gettysburg began. The response from Confederate general Henry Heth was to deploy skirmishers and form his division into a line of battle, which delayed the Southern advance by nearly two hours. Heth was, at this point, still entirely uncertain of exactly what size force he was facing, and he was taking no chances. This was exactly the reaction Buford hoped for and, thus far, his plan was succeeding.
Heth finally pushed forward and the fighting began in earnest. Throughout what would become a desperate engagement, Buford presented a cool, determined front. Daniel Skelly, a local boy who saw Buford that morning, later wrote of Buford’s “calm demeanor and soldierly appearance.” At another point in the thick of the fighting, young Lieutenant Calef, who commanded Buford’s lone artillery battery, suddenly found Buford at his side calmly telling him, “Our boys are in a pretty hot pocket, but, my boy, we must hold this position until the infantry comes up. Then you withdraw your guns in each section by piece, fill up your limber chests from the caissons, and await my orders.”
As soon as the enemy approached McPherson’s Ridge, Buford fired off a dispatch to General George Meade, the newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, telling him:
The enemy's force (A. P. Hill's) are advancing on me at this point, and driving my pickets and skirmishers very rapidly. There is also a large force at Heidlersburg that is driving my pickets at that point from that direction. General Reynolds is advancing, and is within 3 miles of this point with his leading division. I am positive that the whole of A. P. Hill’s force is advancing.
Buford’s men continued to hold for what was now approaching four hours. Soon, however, their ammunition began to run short and the weight of Heth’s assault started to bend their flanks. Then, just as the situation became grave, General Reynolds arrived followed closely by the infantry of the I Corps’ Iron Brigade. Buford was now able to pull his men out of the line and fall back to defensive positions on I Corps’ flank.
While John Buford’s men had fought with great bravery, and his tactical skill in planning and executing a seemingly impossible defense in depth are noteworthy, Buford’s decision to stand and fight west of Gettysburg was crucial to the eventual outcome. His steadfastness allowed Union forces access to and eventual control of the high ground southeast of Gettysburg, without which the entire complexion of the battle would have changed.
However, perhaps more importantly, Buford’s decision demonstrates the inner strength, the moral courage, great commanders must possess at crucial moments. Buford could have taken the safest path, electing instead to simply observe the Confederate movements, report information to Reynolds and Meade, and then fall back out of harm’s way in the face of a vastly superior force. Instead, he looked at his options, and chose to pursue the riskiest and most difficult course of action, as well as the one his professional judgment told him was required.