Learning from History: General John Buford and The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership at Work

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have been researching leadership for more than 30 years. Their research shows that key leadership behaviors can change over time with deliberate practice. I became interested in seeing if certain leadership practices could be found in U.S. history.

I had the great pleasure of taking a detailed historical tour of Gettysburg with a guide from the Army War College. The tour covered how leadership decisions were made and how these decisions affected the battle over three history-changing days in 1863. A leader who had a key role in the battle was General John Buford. In this article, I want to match the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership to what I could learn about General Buford.


Major General John Buford

John Buford Jr. grew up in Kentucky and Illinois. His father was a prominent politician in Illinois and a political opponent of Abraham Lincoln. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1848 to begin his career in the US Army.

With the firing on Fort Sumter in April of 1861, Buford would have to decide how and who he would serve. Buford was a native of Kentucky, from a family that owned slaves. Members of both his family and his wife’s family would choose to serve in the Confederate forces.

While on active duty, Buford received a letter from the Governor of Kentucky asking him to come home, receive a commission and serve with the Confederacy. Buford was said to have responded, “I sent him word I was a Captain in the United States Army and I intend to remain one.”

Inspire a Shared Vision

General Buford may not be the name that comes to mind when people think of leaders and generals in the Civil War, but many historians view his role as critical to the outcome of the battle at Gettysburg. Buford was a Cavalry leader and considered one of the best horsemen in the Union Army. On the 28thof June, doing reconnaissance, he saw a large number of campfires from Confederate troops and is said to have commented that ”within 48 hours, a great battle will be engaged.”

On June 30, 1863, the 3,000 men of Buford’s First Cavalry Division were looking to find the enemy in the area of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Late that afternoon, his scouts reported that enemy patrols had recently left town.

One of his Colonels assured him that his men could handle the small group of rebel soldiers. Buford was sure the rebels were part of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and that a much larger battle was soon to begin. His small force of cavalry was all that stood between the rebel army and the high ground.  Holding the high ground to the East and South of town would be critical to have any chance to win the battle.

Buford sent a messenger to Major General George Meade, Commander of the Army of the Potomac, and began visualizing how he could use his small force to slow Lee’s army of 70,000 soldiers in the morning. Buford surveyed the farms, fields and topography to begin imagining how the battle would play out. He deployed his forces for maximum effect, to allow skirmishes to slow the advance, and a series of fallback positions to conserve his forces

Willing to Serve John Buford

Challenge the Process

Buford used his cavalry as mounted infantry, digging in to fight a skirmish, then riding to a new defensive position. He set positions where men could take cover; providing as much protection as he could. While it was not a formal defensive line, he used fence posts, trees, and other natural cover.

He set up a seven-mile arc manned by 400 of his men to serve as an early warning system to identify where the enemy was approaching. As the Confederate forces began their advance, his early warning system fired a shot to provide the direction of the advance to Buford’s forces. The warning shot actually gained his forces two hours as the enemy redeployed their troops for the attack.

Read More: Are Leaders Born or Made?

He deceived the enemy into thinking they were taking on a larger force by deploying his artillery, a total of 6 cannons, across a larger arc to make it appear there were more guns than he truly had. This also slowed their advance.


Model the Way

As the battle began on the morning of July 1, the long lines of the Rebel forces began moving toward town behind lines of rebel skirmishers. Facing such a vastly superior numerical force, Buford’s efforts could only slow the advance.

Buford’s delaying action was so well planned and executed that these tactics are still taught at West Point. The initial force attacking Buford numbered over 10,000 men, and another force was coming in from the North.

The much larger Confederate force used infantry and artillery to break up the lines, exacting a heavy toll on Buford’s cavalry. Buford got word out to the approaching Union army to quicken their pace.

Buford’s force had slowed the enemy advance just enough to allow the early elements of the Union army to get to Gettysburg and begin to reinforce their efforts. As the Union infantry came in to support the defensive line Buford’s troops held, his troops continued the fight alongside through the day.

After 12 hours of fighting, Buford and his remaining troops held the left flank of the Union forces as the Confederate forces were preparing the final attack of the day. He received an order to stop the enemy advance. He had his men prepare in a single rank for a cavalry charge. The Confederate General wrote in his report of the impressive sight of Buford’s troops lined up for battle “unshaken and undaunted”. The charge never took place, though the flank was not rolled up and the fighting for the first day of the battle ended.

No shirking or hesitation John Buford

The monument depicting Buford in Gettysburg does not show him riding a horse. Though a cavalry officer, it depicts him standing on the ground surveying the battlefield. This was done to honor the fact that Buford’s cavalry horsemen fought like infantry to hold back the enemy. They used their horses to move between fighting positions but fought from the ground. It rests on the hill that was Buford’s final defensive line for the first wave of attacks. He is depicted looking West toward the advancing Rebel forces.


Enable Others to Act and Encourage the Heart

Buford’s troops spent a rainy night on the line on July 1 with Buford visiting the line to thank his troops for their courage and actions that day, calling out several individually. They were back into the fighting early in the morning on July 2 until Buford and his weary troops were rotated out of the line at midday.

Buford stood out from many of the dynamic military leaders of the time. He had no interest in being the center of attention. He was interested in being the best soldier and leader to the men in his command and serving his country. He sought no recognition for his actions at Gettysburg, though his small band had slowed the enemy enough that the Union army was able to reach the town and keep the high ground. That action turned out to be a pivotal moment during the remainder of the battle. Buford’s actions and bravery changed the course of the battle.

Zeal bravery and good behavior John Buford


A contemporary historian of the time described Buford this way, “Buford despised the false flourish and noisy parade of the charlatans of his service. He avoided too … the proper praise due his glorious actions, his bravery and dash, without ostentation or pride, his coolness and able management; and above all, the care of his men endeared him to all.”


Wrapping it up

General John Buford continued to serve after Gettysburg but did not survive the year, passing in December of 1863.

He was promoted to a Major General on his deathbed. His body was escorted by two of his staff and he was laid to rest at West Point.

Members of Buford’s unit financed a monument to be erected over his grave as a tribute to his service. The officers who served with him published a resolution of the esteem that he held his men in. It reads in part –

“We, the staff officers of the late Major General John Buford, fully appreciating his merits as a gentleman, soldier, commander, and patriot, conceive his death to be an irreparable loss to the cavalry arm of the service. That we have been deprived of a friend and leader whose sole ambition was our success, and whose chief pleasure was in administering to the welfare, safety and happiness of the officers and men of his command.”

Buford was loved by his men. Even in the most dire of situations, they knew that he had the competence, character and caring to serve them to the best of his ability.

Check out more blogs in the Learning From History Leadership Series where I cover other historical figures such as Florence NightingaleHarriet Tubman, and Abraham Lincoln.



Evans Kerrigan

Evans Kerrigan works tirelessly in both corporate and public sectors as a dynamic business consultant, presenter, and coach. With over 30 years of experience working with multi-national organizations such as Cisco, Sun, Blue Cross Blue Shield, BP, State of Arizona and King County Washington, Evans has been at the forefront of change management--building healthy organizations and creating great places to work. His contributions to these organizations have been credited with increasing employee engagement scores, dramatic reductions in costs and improvement in efficiencies and revenue, resulting in improved operational excellence.