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John Buford

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If you have ever visited the Battlefield of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, you may have seen the statue of John Buford at the northwest entrance. An inscription reads: In memory of Major General John Buford, commanding the First Division Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac, who with the first inspiration of a cavalry officer selected this battlefield July 1, 1863.

The twists of fate which brought John Buford to Gettysburg involve Rock Island. John's older brother, Napoleon, had been sent by the Corps of Engineers to map the Rock Island Rapids in 1829—the first step in making the rapids navigable for growing steamboat traffic. Impressed by the Mississippi Valley, Napoleon talked his family into leaving their horse-breeding business in Kentucky and moving here in 1838. The father, John Buford, built the first store in Rock Island—a town he fell so in love with that he called it "New Jerusalem."

The father and four sons became northerners by conviction as well as location. John and his brothers fought for the Union in the Civil War. As General Buford stood in the tower of Gettysburg College on July 1, watching the buildup of General Lee's troops below, did he think how easily he might have been among those troops rather than on the Union side?

If so, he did not hesitate. He fought so bravely and hard before and after Gettysburg—so many days, and nights, in the saddle, that he exhausted his strength, and caught typhoid. He died on December 16th, 1863. He was 36 years old. The whole nation honored him as a war hero. Papers called his funeral the largest military funeral ever held in Washington D. C.

General Buford's family wanted him buried in Rock Island, but they acceded to the wishes of his devoted soldiers, who escorted the body to West Point where he had graduated in 1848 and buried him on its wind-swept heights.

Even here, Rock Island was not far away. General Buford’s favorite horse, Grey Eagle, had walked in the funeral procession behind the casket. Few in the east new that the horse was named after a famous Upper Mississippi steamboat, wrecked against the Rock Island bridge just before the war.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.