He drove himself so hard that doctors declared him dead from exposure, exhaustion, and typhoid fever at the age of thirty-seven. He had distinguished himself earlier in the war by leading the first cavalry charge for the Union, and was wounded badly enough to keep him out of combat until the next year.
The recent promotion of “boy generals” in the Union army annoyed this seasoned veteran. Just days before the battle, he ordered the hanging of a young spy. When local citizens protested the hanging, he responded with mocking wit: he would not send the spy to Washington on the basis that he might return as a brigadier general.
An after-dinner pipe-smoker, he was a quiet gentleman of small stature; to his men he was “Old Steadfast.” He would give them credit without ever accepting it for himself. They learned to trust their leader and would follow him anywhere, even if it meant suffering the exhaustion of riding on horseback for thirty-five miles in one day. As general of a cavalry unit, he had to keep watch for enemy positions, placing lookouts at strategic points to assess strengths and weaknesses. By the time he reached Gettysburg, his horses and men were exhausted, but that did not stop him from sending out scouts to detect enemy locations. Unlike many generals who were fixated by self-promotion, Buford was strictly business.
The devotion of his men gave him reason to make frank observations about dangerous situations. When one of his subordinate officers expressed certainty about holding his own position on the next day, Buford replied with sobering bluntness: “No you won’t!…You will have to fight like the devil to hold your own.” Like most generals under fire, while he inspired confidence, he was apprehensive and anxious.
Before the first day’s fight began, he was staking the ground on which America’s greatest battle would be fought. He maneuvered his outnumbered men into positions that would buy time for Union General Reynolds to counterattack with a force larger than his, confuse the enemy, and allow the Union army time to slow down the enemy advance. And he did it all while notifying his commander: “My men and horses are fagged out. I have not been able to get any grain yet….Facilities for shoeing [my horses] are nothing….I can get no forage nor rations; am out of both.” Even with limited resources, his casualty rate was less than five percent, one of the lowest in the fighting that day. It was Buford who created the first link in a chain of decisions that would eventually turn the tide in favor of the Union. In his official report he remarked: “A heavy task was before us; we were equal to it, and shall all remember with pride that at Gettysburg we did our country much service.”
Some would suggest that it is the quantity of resources rather than the quality that makes a difference. Buford proved the opposite. Not having enough can influence you to focus more sharply on what will lead you to your objective. In 1975, Marva Collins of Chicago received national recognition as a “miracle worker” with inner-city black children because she was able to make scholars out of troublesome youths, not with inferior classroom conditions that suggested a genuine lack of money, but with the desire to influence children with a better perspective on their futures. She and Buford were effective because they worked with the quality of what they possessed and ignored the quantity they lacked.
Be a team player.
By being himself with no desire for fame, Buford understood that he was part of a larger team, the Union army. As a team leader, your unglamorous effort and simple focus can be responsible for influencing your team to win.
Copyright 2012 Paul Lloyd Hemphill
The Definition Of Leadership