He rode slowly away to inspect the ground in front of him, between him and the Rebels. If we made a stand here, how long do you think we could hold? Long enough for John Reynolds to get here with the infantry? How long would that take? Will Reynolds hurry? Reynolds is a good man. But he might not understand the situation. How do you make him understand? At this distance. But if you hold, you at least give him time to see the ground. But how long can you hold against Lee’s whole army? If it is the whole army. These are two very good brigades, you built them yourself. Suppose you sacrifice them and Reynolds is late? For Reynolds will be late. They’re always late.
Think on it John.
(The Killer Angels, “Monday, June 29, 1863,” Michael Shaara, 1974)
This is Michael Shaara’s interpretation of the mindset of a solider on the eve of battle, as precise and insightful as Tolstoy and even more momentous. The decisions Brigadier General John Buford made that evening and the following morning had an enormous impact on history (Tolstoy tended to focus on the futility and absurdity of such situations), altering the course of the Civil War’s most important battle and likely securing the preservation of an American Union that has gone on, for better or worse, to dominate the history of the century and a half that have passed since. Buford survived Gettysburg but was felled by scarlet fever before the year was out. He died in the rented Washington D.C. house of George Stoneman, who owes his own modern day fame to the Cavalry raid which became the source of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and in the arms of Myles Keough, who died at Little Big Horn and owes such modern day fame as he may possess to being the subject of John Wayne’s graveside reverie in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
Any present fame Buford possesses is likely due to Shaara’s book and his being played (wonderfully) by Sam Elliott in Gettysburg, the greatest battle film ever made.
We now live in an age when the individual does not count, where anything really momentous–certainly anything of military value–has been machine-tooled, focus grouped and shaped by a committee working for the good of all mankind and little concerned with such trivial matters as victory and defeat. The idea that one man, alone, would be allowed to make such momentous decisions, let alone be forced to do so, is as alien to our world as the idea that he wouldn’t was to Buford’s. One of the many great virtues of Shaara’s novel is that it uses voluminous research to put the reader in the minds of many such men before and during the most important battle ever fought on American soil.
Dec. 16 will be the 156th anniversary of Buford’s death, at age 37. It’s not likely one American in a thousand recognizes his name. Some day soon, it won’t be one in a million.
Then Gettysburg won’t matter at all, except as a cautionary tale to whoever takes our place.