Sunday detour: Remembering General John Buford at Gettysburg

Taking a quick break from the undrafted free agents series (will continue this week with Noel Acciari, Kevan Miller and some of the other up-and-comers in the system) to delve into my love of military history and something that happened Friday that ties it together.

So, this is a somewhat self-indulgent post, but if you stick with it, then it’ll all make sense in the end.

For those of you who may not know this about me, I am a U.S. Army veteran and armor (cavalry) officer still on active duty, now in my final year of service before retiring in mid-2017. I’ve been fortunate and honored to serve, but events a few days ago reminded me of why the profession of arms is a calling, not a task. If you’re only here for the hockey, I doubt any of this will interest you. But, for those of you interested in getting to know this blog’s author more and what makes him tick, then read on.

On July 22, 2016, I had the honor of being a part of the promotion ceremony of my best friend, Jay Miseli, who was elevated to the rank of colonel. Jay is an amazing guy who was a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 with the 3rd Infantry Division, commanding a company during the march to Baghdad. As a lieutenant colonel, he went on to command the storied 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment (Garryowen) from 2012-14 and the Army got it right- he’ll spend the next year as an Army War College fellow before taking command of a Stryker brigade in the summer of 2017. There are stars in his future and I could not be prouder of my friend and fellow Army officer. He’s not only a superb warfighter, but he’s the most humble and honorable man I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and serving with. Our Army is in great hands with people like Colonel Jay A. Miseli in its ranks, and boy- do we ever need it!

Presiding over the ceremony and promoting him was Colonel (retired) Sam W. Floca, Jr.- an old Soldier and artilleryman who received the Silver Star for heroism while serving as a fire support officer (FSO) in the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968. I’ve read his citation (goosebumps) and to me, if he did something like that today, he’d be considered for the Medal of Honor. Col. Floca also received five…that’s not a typo…FIVE Purple Heart medals for being wounded in direct action with the enemy. He’s an amazing American and a personal mentor. Like me, he finished out his Army career as a public affairs officer, and his knowledge of the Army, military history, and old fashioned common sense has given me my own sounding board whenever I need it. Not everyone is so lucky to have a confidant like “Uncle Sammy” of Temple, Texas.

Okay- so why the need to post all of this on the blog?

Well, I have to take you back to 1993, when I was a young ROTC cadet preparing to put in my wish list for the job (we call it basic branch) I wanted to do upon being commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1994. At the time, I was torn by the calling to combat arms- deciding between the infantry and armor (tanks) branches. My dad served in the Special Forces, so if I would follow in his footsteps, infantry was the obvious choice. But, I had always been drawn to tanks and the traditions of the Army’s horse cavalry- I had seen “They Died With Their Boots On”, “She Wore  A Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande”- classic films that helped shine light on the mounted arm (and yes, you can even throw in “F Troop” if you must). I sometimes tell an irreverent story about marching 12 miles as a cadet in the driving rain at Fort Bragg in the summer of 1993 and seeing a column of old Sheridan tanks roll by on a nearby fire break and thinking – A. They’re driving to wherever they’re going and I’m walking, and B. They’re nice and dry and I am not, as the deal breaker that saw me eschew a life in the infantry for the armored cavalry.

But that’s not completely it.

Back in 1992, Sammy Floca was a key military (and history) advisor for the film “Gettysburg”. As a member of the U.S. Army War College’s faculty, he was an esteemed historian and his reputation reached the filmmakers, who brought him on board to lend authenticity to several major characters. One of those characters was Major General John Buford, Jr. (he was a one-star Brigadier General during the battle- later promoted to Major General on his deathbed retroactive to July 1, 1863 when he passed away from typhoid fever in December of that year). Buford was being played by iconic actor Sam Elliott, and Sam Floca and Elliott grew close during the filming.

I had read Michael Shaara’s “the Killer Angels” upon with the movie is based, but my knowledge of the battle and its major players was still pretty superficial at the time. I obviously knew none of production backstory when my dad and I went to see Gettysburg together in Nashua, N.H. in the fall of 1993.  I was home from my senior year of college for a long weekend and was still debating whether to make armor or infantry number one on my “wish list”. My TAC (ROTC) Officer had told me that a Distinguished Military Student (DMS) designate, I stood a good chance of getting my first choice.

So, there we were watching the film, which chronicled not only the decisive engagement of the American Civil War, but within the battle, a key decision that may have been critical to preserving the Union and these United States. That decision was the one by Gen. Buford, who had two brigades of mounted horse cavalry (the Union Army’s 1st Cavalry Division), recognized that General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army would likely reach Gettysburg before the Union Army’s 1st Corps could and would seize the decisive terrain to the south of that soon-to-be-famous Pennsylvania town.

In the film, Elliott gives a memorable performance as he speaks with his brigade commanders and staff and makes the fateful decision to fight a delaying action that might allow the 1st Corps under General John F. Reynolds (later shot from his saddle and killed by a rebel sniper after he got too close to the front lines) to seize the key terrain dominating Gettysburg. This was not the cavalry’s mission- they served as the eyes and ears of the Army commanders, and their job was not to slug it out with the infantry. Buford knew he was putting his some 2,500 men in a tough spot, but he also realized that if he did not occupy and hold, then Lee would beat them to the key ground and a bloodbath (for the Federal Army) would likely ensue.

I remember sitting there, watching Elliott’s portrayal of Buford, and thinking to myself- THAT is it. THAT is what I want to do. Sure, we were a mechanized force more than a half-century past the use of horses, but that bold, audacious spirit captured so perfectly in a brief scene did it for me. I indeed commissioned in armor, had several armor and cavalry assignments, and even though I left the combat arms for Army public affairs as a young major, got my dream job as the 1st Cavalry Division’s Chief of Public Affairs as a lieutenant colonel, a three-year assignment that was everything I could have asked for and more.

As for the battle and what Buford and his cavalrymen accomplished, if you don’t watch the film or are not all that familiar with what happened…Buford’s men held long enough for Reynolds and his corps (followed by Winfield Scott Hancock’s 11th Corps) to grab the decisive terrain and after three bloody days, the Confederate Army was driven back in defeat. How different might things be today if Lee’s Army of Virginia had prevailed? When you think Gettysburg, you think of “Pickett’s Charge” or Little Roundtop, perhaps. But without Buford’s cavalry brigades, those Southern defeats might have been reversed.

It seems perfect, then, that as I sat and watched a movie as a 21-year-old cadet and made my final decision about what I would do as an Army soldier, that nearly 22 years later, I am friends with the man who advised a great actor how to get the performance down.

Little did I know it at the time, but Colonel (retired) Sam Floca had a big influence on my life and subsequent military career. To be able to call him a friend and mentor two decades later is far more than I deserve.

 

Here’s the transcript from the scene and the movie clip- give it a good viewing if you have the time.

 

Brig. Gen. Buford- You know what’s going to happen here in the morning?

Col. Devin- Sir?

Brig. Gen. Buford- The whole damn rebel army is gonna be here. They’ll move through this town, occupy the hills on the other side. When our people arrive, Lee’ll have high ground and there’ll be the devil to pay. The high ground!

Meade will come in slowly, cautiously, new to command. They’ll be on his back from Washington. Wires hot with messages. Attack! Attack! So he will set up a ring around these hills. And when Lee’s army is all nicely entrenched behind fat rocks on the high ground, Meade will finally attack, if he can coordinate the army. Straight up the hillside, out in the open…into that gorgeous field of fire.

We will charge valiantly and be butchered valiantly! And afterwards, men in tall hats and gold watch fobs will thump their chests and say what a brave charge it was.

Devin, I’ve led a soldier’s life, and I’ve never seen anything as brutally clear as this. It’s as if I can actually see the blue troops in one long bloody moment…going up the long slope to the stony top…as if it were already done…and already a memory. An odd, set, stony quality to it. As if tomorrow has already happened and there’s nothing you can do about it. The way you sometimes feel before an ill-considered attack knowing it will fail, but you cannot stop it. You must even take part and help it fail. We have  twenty five hundred men. They’ll be coming in force. There could be twenty thousand coming down that road in the morning. If we hold this ridge for a couple of hours, we can keep them away. We can block that road until the main body gets here.

We can deprive the enemy of the high ground!

Col. Devin- The boys are ready for a brawl. No doubt of that.

Brig. Gen. Buford- We’ll force the rebs to deploy.  That’s a narrow road they’ll be coming down. If we stack them up, it will take them a while to get on track to get into position. Is Calef’s battery up yet?

Col. Devin- Sir, his six guns are deploying forward now.

Brig. Gen Buford- How far back is Reynolds with the main force?

Staff Officer- About ten miles, sir. Not much more.

Col. Gamble- Sir, you were right. My scouts report the rebel army is coming this way for sure. They’re all concentrating in this direction.

Brig. Gen. Buford- We’ll hold here in the morning. Long enough for Reynolds and the infantry to arrive. If we hang on to the high ground, we have a good chance to win this fight that’s coming.  Understood?

Brigade commanders and staff: Yes, sir!

Brig. Gen. Buford- Post the cannon along this road, the Chambersburg Pike. The rebels will hit us at dawn. I think we can hold them at least two hours.

Col. Devin- Hell, General, we can hold them all the damn livelong day!

Staff officers: He’s right, sir…

Col. Devin– At Thoroughfare Gap, you held against Longstreet. You held for six hours.

Col. Gamble- And they never came. We held for nothing.

Brig. Gen. Buford- The rebs will hit us just about first light. Keep a clear eye!
Have the pickets give us a good warning.

All right, gentlemen. Let’s get posted.

***

And if Sam Floca’s own personal Army history interests you at all, here’s a small clip of his oral testimony of his Vietnam War experience (a link to the entire portion is there if it piques at all). “Anyone who tells you that they weren’t afraid in combat is either a liar or a fool,” he says at one point. Yep…that about captures it- Floca at his absolute best. He’s a national treasure, and I will cherish every moment I have with him.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Sunday detour: Remembering General John Buford at Gettysburg

  1. Kirk,
    This was super interesting to read. As a little kid, Gods and Generals, and Gettysburg were two of my favorite films. The heroism displayed in the Battle of Gettysburg in particular was incredible. The leadership, foresight, decision making skills, and little bit of luck that Gen. Buford had seem for sure to go underappreciated. For him to realize the importance of that strategic position that would become the fish hook, and be able to hold it, was just brilliant.

    I think that the Battle of Gettysburg, while well known, doesn’t get fully considered. If the Union had lost then, we’d be living in a different world today.

    I really enjoy your blog, your hockey insight is top notch, but clearly it’s insight that was developed outside the sport and is being applied to it. Would love to read more stuff like this as well, thanks for writing.

    Like

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