Young John’s mother died in a cholera epidemic in 1835, and the family relocated to Rock Island, Illinois. His father was an influential businessman and politician in the town, and the Buford family were among the first families of Rock Island. Young John Buford was "a splendid horseman, and unerring rifle shot and a person of wonderful nerve and composure." His dear friend, Gen. John Gibbon, wrote of Buford:
His boyhood was spent in close communion with the horse and he acquired an intimate knowledge of him, his nature and his powers, what he could do and what he could not do…He thus acquired in his boyhood the first essential of a good cavalryman in the knowledge of the character and capacity of the cavalryman’s co- worker in the field. Buford was one of the best horsemen I ever saw. He delighted in the horse, was fond of riding, and it is said of him that "as a boy he was the greatest dare-devil of a rider in the whole county."In 1841, John Buford, Jr. left Rock Island for Cincinnati, Ohio, where his older half-brother was working on an Army Corps of Engineers project on the Licking River. During this period, John attended Cincinnati College, now the University of Cincinnati, where "he acquitted himself well." Denied application to West Point in 1843 due to a War Department policy prohibiting two brothers from being appointed to West Point, John attended Knox Manual Labor College in Galesburg, Illinois during the 1843-1844 academic year. His stay there was brief—after a brisk letter writing campaign by friends and family, John was appointed to West Point in 1844. His performance there was solid, if unspectacular. He graduated 16th in the class of 1848. John Gibbon recalled that Buford was
Rather slow in speech, he was quick enough in thought and apt at repartee. He was not especially distinguished in his studies, but his course in the Academy was marked by a steady progress, the best evidence of character and determination.Upon graduation, and at his request, Buford was commissioned into the First Dragoons as a Brevet Second Lieutenant. He only remained with the First Dragoons for a few months, and was transferred to the newly-formed Second Dragoons in 1849. He served as quartermaster of the Second Dragoons from 1855 through the beginning of August 1858, fighting in several Indian battles along the way, including the Sioux Punitive Expedition under command of Brig. Gen. William S. Harney, which culminated in the Battle of Ash Hollow in 1856. Ironically, the commander of a company of the Mounted Rifles that day was the young Lt. Henry Heth, and Harney’s engineer officer was Lt. Gouvernour K. Warren. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, father-in-law of J.E.B. Stuart, and commanding officer of the Second Dragoons cited Lt. Buford for his "good service" at Ash Hollow, as did Harney himself.
Buford participated in quelling the disturbances in Kansas during the mid- 1850’s, and served on the Mormon Expedition to Utah during 1857. Buford won high praise from Cooke for his service during the arduous march west, and served in Utah until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Buford was torn between his loyalty to his native Kentucky and his loyalty to the government he had served for 13 years. John Gibbon recalled,
One night after the arrival of the mail we were in his [Buford’s] room, talking over the news…when Buford said in his slow and deliberate way, "I got a letter by the last mail from home with a message in it from the Governor of Kentucky. He sends me word to come to Kentucky at once and I shall have anything I want." With a good deal of anxiety, I asked, "What did you answer, John?" and my relief was great when he replied, "I sent him word I was a captain in the United States Army and I intend to remain one."Reporting to Washington with his regiment, Buford requested, and was assigned, a position as a major in the inspector general’s office. He served in that position until June, 1862, when Maj. Gen. John Pope, commanding the Army of Virginia, and an old friend from the Regular Army, rescued Buford, promoted him to brigadier general of volunteers, and gave him command of a brigade of cavalry in the Army of Virginia. Buford served with great distinction during the Second Manassas Campaign, providing superior scouting and intelligence services, and also going toe-to-toe with the vaunted troopers of J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry. His men nearly captured both Stuart and Rober E. Lee at different points during the campaign, and his intelligence saved Pope’s army from destruction shortly after the August 9, 1862 Battle of Cedar Mountain. Buford commanded the Union forces in a little-known but important phase of the Battle of Second Bull Run, the cavalry fight at the Lewis Ford on August 30, 1862, where Buford enjoyed some success against Stuart’s men, and bought time for the beaten Army of Virginia’s retreat. Buford himself was slightly wounded in this engagement.
As a result of his wound, Buford was appointed Chief of Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac under George McClellan on Sept. 9, 1862, and served in this purely administrative capacity until February, 1863, when, at Buford’s specific request, he was appointed to command the Regular cavalry of the Army of the Potomac’s newly-formed cavalry corps. Buford, with no field command, was with the Army of the Potomac’s headquarters at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, and was present when Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker was wounded. Buford heard Hooker state that it was his wish that Maj. Gen. George G. Meade be given command of his corps in his absence. Buford rode back to army headquarters and so informed Maj. Gen. George G. McClellan, who issued the necessary orders. Thus, Buford, in a foreshadowing of the efforts described by Jerome, had the foresight to get the right commander to the right place on a battlefield, much as he did with Hancock on July 1, 1863.
In command of the Reserve Brigade, Buford performed well during the 1863 Stoneman Raid on Richmond, and did extremely well in command of the right wing of the Cavalry Corps during the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9, 1863. His troopers bore the brunt of a brutal fourteen hour fight that day, and one of his brigade commanders was killed in action during the opening phases of the battle. Buford was appointed to command the First Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac immediately after the Battle of Brandy Station, and held that post on July 1, 1863. His men did well at the Battle of Upperville, Virginia, on June 21, 1863, where his division bested two fine brigades of Confederate cavalry and horse artillery in a harsh, day-long fight. Immediately after the Battle of Upperville, elements of Buford’s command spotted the sprawling camps of one of brigades of the Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s Corps in the Shenandoah Valley, thereby providing the high command of the Army of the Potomac with concrete intelligence about the location and movements of the Confederate infantry. By June 29, 1863, John Buford suspected that a great battle would soon rage in south-central Pennsylvania. Standing at the opening of Monterey Pass through South Mountain, and overlooking the plain that makes up the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania, John Buford said, to nobody in particular, "Within forty-eight hours, the concentration of both armies will take place on some field within view, and a great battle will be fought." As we have seen, John Buford’s prophecy was proved true.
In July, 1863, John Buford was 37 years old, and was one of the best cavalrymen in either army. He was a man of few words, full of energy, as Col. Charles S. Wainwright, chief of artillery of the Army of the Potomac’s I Corps, later wrote, 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." Col. Theodore Lyman, of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s staff, met Buford in the fall of 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg. Lyman gave the following description of Buford:
He is one of the best officers of [the Union cavalry] and is a singular-looking party…a compactly built man of middle height with a tawny mustache and a little triangular gray eye, whose expression if 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 is to hang three days; he who cuts him down before shall hang the remaining time."John Gibbon, a fine soldier in his own right, called John Buford "the best cavalryman I ever saw." Perhaps most tellingly, Buford was known to his comrades as "Old Steadfast".
By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, the hardships of his many years of service had taken their toll on Buford. During the Campaign, "he suffered terribly from rheumatism, and for days together could not mount a horse without help, but once mounted, he would remain in the saddle all day." In battle, Buford was a fearless front-line commander. On one occasion, he "dismounted and walked up a hill to see how the day was going, when a bullet passed through his blouse, cutting five holes." On another,
…an officer rode up to General Buford saying that some rebel batteries were posted on the opposite side of the river having range of the road, and we had better move some other way. He had not finished speaking, however, when a shell hit a tree, not a rod from him, and, glancing, struck the ground in our midst, the fuse burning and hissing. As if by instinct the General and his staff spurred their horses, and barely escaped as, the next moment the shell exploded….After the Gettysburg Campaign, Buford’s Division engaged in hard fighting along the banks of the Rappahannock River during the summer and fall, including two more battles for Fleetwood Hill, and the Bristoe Station Campaign. In late October, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans requested, and was granted, Buford’s transfer to the west to assume command of the Army of the Cumberland’s Cavalry Corps, but fortune prevented Buford from fulfilling this crucial role. On November 20, 1863, too sick to stay in the field, Buford was ordered to Washington, D.C. for treatment for typhoid fever. On December 16, he died, in the arms of his loyal aide, Myles W. Keogh, shortly after receiving his promotion to major general. Buford was greatly lamented. Twelve major generals, including Winfield Scott Hancock, served as his pall bearers. He was buried at West Point.