The town of Gettysburg is “a small neat place: white board houses, rail fences … one white church steeple.” By noon, the first Rebel infantry is within sight of the town, coming down the mountain ridges to the west. Around the same time, Union cavalry moves toward the town from the south. The soldiers look at each other across the fields. The town’s streets are deserted.
The tidy, civilized appearance of Gettysburg belies the destruction that will occur over the next few days. The enemy troops’ cautious appraisal of each other, and the town’s silence, also contrast with the devastation to come.
Union commander John Buford rides up a hill beyond the town into the cemetery at its top. He overlooks the entire town and counts the Rebel troops coming in. He and one of his brigade commanders, Bill Gamble, wonder at the absence of Rebel cavalry and the appearance of infantry moving alone in enemy country. Not long after, the Rebels begin to withdraw. Buford has been tracking the Confederates for days and concludes that the army has turned toward Gettysburg, not toward Harrisburg as he had first assumed—that’s why the main body of the army is already appearing in town.
Buford unknowingly makes a battle-deciding move when he surveys Gettysburg from the vantage point of Cemetery Hill. He also realizes that the Confederates have begun to concentrate their army toward Gettysburg—intelligence that will likewise be decisive.
Buford senses something about to happen. He decides to scout the town. He waves toward the retreating Rebels, since “you never knew what old friend was out there.” He knows that Lee’s army will converge at Gettysburg by morning, and that Major General Reynolds will not arrive in time to back up Buford’s own brigades.
Buford, a perceptive man, senses that the unassuming town of Gettysburg will be a place of great historical consequence. However, for the time being, he doubts that he can hold off the Rebels with the number of men under his command. His wave underscores the fact that the Union and Confederate armies were filled with personal interconnections.
Concerned, Buford sends a patrol to scout the Confederate troops north of Gettysburg and report to him before sundown. He also sends a message to Reynolds stating that he expects the rebels to arrive in force by morning. But Buford knows that there is no guarantee that the message will proceed to General Meade and thence to Washington by morning. A cavalryman at heart, he laments the necessity of “those damned councils” and longs for open spaces.
Buford, not a typical Eastern commander, is used to the open spaces of the Western prairie. As such, he is also unused to being at the mercy of higher command, and resents having to appeal to the Union commanding general in order to ensure backup for his brigades.
Buford sees the advantages of the high ground on the edge of town, but knows he is only a scout and can’t give orders. In frustration he tells one of his brigade commanders that Lee, being no fool, will surely occupy those hills. The junior officer is startled by the outburst, and Buford tries to stifle his mood, though he is troubled by his vision: that Lee’s army will dig in on the high ground, while Meade belatedly orders the Union army to make a valiant and foolhardy charge.
A far-seeing Union counterpart to the Confederacy’s Longstreet, Buford immediately sees the decisive potential of the hill. Ironically, he also foresees a potential outcome of the battle—except he sees the reverse of what will ultimately take place.
Buford has a “brutally clear” vision of Union troops going up the long slope in a foolish yet irreversible attack. His brigade commander watches him warily, thinking that the odd Buford has spent too much time alone on the plains. Buford dismisses him and rides off, wondering if his men could make a stand here when Reynolds is inevitably late. He has taught his men to fight dismounted, the way he had learned out west in the Indian wars, instead of through foolish, “glorious” charges.
Buford’s oddities also make him receptive to unusual ideas, such as favoring defensive and dismounted fighting, rather than the traditional charge. While his vision doesn’t come to pass, he clearly predicts the risks of going on the attack.
Buford has his men dig into the crest of the ridge just past the seminary on the edge of town. He rides through Gettysburg but avoids talking with civilians; the culture of the east troubles him. He sees a beautiful woman in front of a house but rebuffs a sergeant’s teasing encouragement to pursue her, choosing to eat a silent supper in the cemetery instead.
Buford places his men in a defensive position, but isn’t interested in the “distractions” the town might afford. He returns to his solitude, drawn back to the cemetery overlook.
Buford remembers past appeals for backup that never came, which further weakened his trust in leadership. He has heard his men quoting his tactical discoveries and knows that they love him for his willingness to abandon outdated war doctrines. He admires the country, but muses to himself that it is too neat and cramped for battle. He notices a white cemetery angel and again admires the suitability of the high ground.
Buford’s mistrust of leadership is partly grounded on past experiences of being left hanging in battle. He also feels ill at ease in such settled country. He is drawn to the sight of the cemetery angel, however, silently surveying the battleground below. Its peaceful detachment seems to give him comfort.
Buford walks around the cemetery and thinks about his own mortality; he knows he is slowly dying from past war wounds. He feels a sense of loss at the prospect of never traveling in the South again but feels no hatred for the enemy; he is a professional soldier. He is only irritated by “high-bred, feathery, courtly” men who mistreat their perceived inferiors.
The angel prompts thoughts of Buford’s own death, which likely isn’t far off. As he reflects on his army career, he can’t summon hatred for the enemy, but, like many other Northerners, he disdains aristocratic men.
Scouts return, confirming that Lee’s army is concentrating in the direction of Gettysburg. Buford sits down to send a message to Reynolds but is momentarily frozen by the memory of holding good ground and waiting for help that never came. He doesn’t mind the inevitability of death in war, but he hates “the appalling sick stupidity” he has been forced to watch. He dreads the fact that his job “turns on faith.”
Buford sends the message to Reynolds and dozes against a gravestone, until Reynolds sends back orders to hold the ground, with a promise to come as early as possible in the morning. Buford instructs his men to watch for the Rebels at first light, then makes his headquarters at the Seminary. He sleeps and dreams of the empty, snow-covered plains of Wyoming.
Buford does all he can to prepare for a Rebel onslaught the following morning. He dreams of returning to wide open country, free of the constrictions of the east and its war.