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Abraham Buford
(1749 - 1833)

Having written an article on Abraham Buford's encounter with Tarleton at Waxhaws, I've already said roughly 99% of what any randomly selected history book has to offer on him. He got up on May 29, 1780, and proceeded to make just about every bad decision a man in his position could make. Facing a column of exhausted men whom he outnumbered three to two, he cleverly managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, escaped the consequences of his decisions by virtue of a fast horse, and spent the rest of the war being held up as a martyr for recruiting purposes but firmly steered away from field command. Still, he crops up here and there in other contexts, so I thought readers might be curious to learn a little more about him. (I emphasize "a little," since I didn't spent a lot of time digging.)

He was born in Culpeper County, Virginia, in 1749, into a well-to-do family descended from members of the Beauford family who had emigrated from England in the 1630s. (In the 1780s, the name still frequently appeared as "Beauford" in contemporary documents.) Although he was well into his twenties when the war began, he had not yet settled on a career. Perhaps, like the man who would one day grant him his footnote in history, he flung himself into military service as a way of escaping such mundane decisions as what to do with the rest of his life.1

In November, 1775, he raised a company of minutemen in his local area, the Culpeper District Battalion. They saw some action early in the war. Two of "Captain Buford's" men were killed during the bombardment of Norfolk (New Year's Day, 1776).2

From 1776 to 1778, Buford served with a variety of Virginia regiments, and worked his way up the chain of command without accumulating any particular laurels. On Nov. 13, 1776, he became a major with the 14th Virginia Regiment, and on April 1, 1777, he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and transferred to the 5th Virginia Regiment. The 5th was present at various battles in the north, including Brandywine and Germantown. Presumably Buford was there with them, but I could find no information on the extent or nature of their participation in these battles.3

He spent the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge. On February 18th, Washington's general orders list "Lieut. Colo. Beauford" as having served as president of a brigade courtmartial. On May 15, 1778, he was promoted to colonel of the 5th Virginia, which formed part of the rebel force which pursued Sir Henry Clinton's army from Philadelphia to New York. If they played any role in the battle of Monmouth, it also seems to have escaped common mention.4

On Sept. 14, 1778, he was transferred to the 11th Virginia Regiment, and remained their colonel until Feb. 12, 1781.5

Buford's next appearance in general orders comes on December 30, 1778, when "Colo. Beauford" was appointed to visit and superintend the hospitals in Jersey. He made his headquarters in Brunswick, N.J. A week or two later, he was given a couple of subalterns drawn from other regiments to assist with the task.6

While he was superintending the hospitals, Buford became friends with Dr. William Read, an army surgeon from South Carolina. In the papers and notes Read left of his days with the Continental Army, he tells how a group of officers, including Buford and himself, formed an amateur theatrical troupe in Brunswick over the winter of 1778-79. Unfortunately, Read doesn't mention whether Buford was a performer or a back-stage supporter.7

In February, 1779, an upcoming celebration of the French Alliance prompted Washington's staff to fear that "the Enemy may be tempted to some Enterprize on a supposition that the festivity of the 18th will occasion remissness in duty." Buford received orders to be particularly diligent, and to have his convalescents and any spare hospital stores ready to be removed to a place of greater security should it be necessary. In the end, the move never took place.8

At the beginning of March, 1779, more officers were assigned to assist Buford on a rotating basis -- perhaps he was spending too much of his time at the theater? -- but only ten days later, Colonel Hall replaced him as superintendent of hospitals. Buford's next assignment wasn't specified, and for the rest of 1779, he remains below my radar. Quite possibly he spent the time recruiting and training men.9

Sometime in 1779 Virginia organized three battalions of troops into the 2d Virginia (Scott's) Brigade, with officers selected by ballot. The 3d Virginia Detachment, was placed under the command of Colonel Abraham Buford. The first two battalions were equipped and sent off by summer, but the 3d battalion "encountered difficulties in raising men." They were slated to move south to reinforce Lincoln, but Buford didn't get the unit in order and start his march towards the Carolinas until well into the beginning of 1780. By then, of course, he was far too late to reinforce Charleston.10

Most accounts simply state that he arrived in the vicinity of Charleston in time to hear of its imminent surrender, then turned around and immediately started north again. He was, however, in the area long enough to participate in the skirmish at Lenud's Ferry in exactly the same way he participated in the defense of Charleston. That is to say, he missed it because he was late.

Arriving at the north side of the Santee River, around May 4, he joined (or at least communicated with) the forces assembling there under Colonel White of Moylan's Regiment. Hearing that Lord Cornwallis was extending his foraging lines along the southern banks of the river, White crossed the Santee, attacked and captured a foraging party, then retired to Lenud's Ferry. He sent for boats, and also sent word for Buford to come and provide him with protection while he ferried his troops and prisoners across. White then settled down carelessly to wait, out in the open on the river bank. Neither Buford nor the boats showed up -- but Ban Tarleton did. He had been on an intelligence-gathering mission when a Loyalist brought him word of White's attack. He swept down on White's men, dispersed them, took a number of prisoners, and rescued the foraging party.11

McCrady quotes from the only account I've seen which offers an explanation for Buford's tardiness:

"John Lewis Gervais... says that the plan was for Colonel White to march from Georgetown on Thursday evening with the cavalry, and to take three hundred foot from Colonel Buford to surprise a body of the enemy which was at Wambaw, Elias Ball's plantation. The arrangement was made with Colonel Buford, and acting upon it Colonel White crossed the river, but did not meet with the infantry; on the contrary, he received a note from Colonel Buford, that he could not send them, and wishing him success. Colonel White determined nevertheless to venture near the enemy in hopes of falling in with some of their parties, and went as far as Wambaw, where he took an officer and thirteen privates, and retreated with them to Lenud's Ferry, at which place the enemy overtook and completely routed him."12

Only days later, Charleston surrendered to Clinton's forces. Buford was in deep trouble if he stayed where he was, so after checking with General Huger for orders, he gathered his detachment, plus some stragglers from other commands, and started northward, first to Camden then on towards Hillsborough. On May 29, about ten days into his march, trouble caught up with him in the form of Tarleton and a detachment of the British Legion. Harry Lee gossips in his memoirs that Buford "added evidently much indecision" to the situation, which is "always fatal in the hour of danger." That's an understatement. By the end of a brief skirmish near the Waxhaws settlement, Buford's command was shattered, dead or captive. Buford himself escaped on horseback at some point during the battle.13

The magnitude of Buford's errors as a commander were recognized within the Continental army. James makes a passing mention of "all the odium excited against him," and he was tried by court martial. While he was acquitted, he would never again be trusted to lead men into combat.14

In the journals of Dr. Read, there is an interesting anecdote about his actions in the immediate aftermath of Waxhaws. Some time later in the war, Read was treating a wounded British officer, and the subject of his old friend from Brunswick came up:

[The British officer] said to Dr. Read, "you have a fine fellow in your service, Abraham Beauford." Dr. Read replied, "yes, I know him well and we think him a fine fellow." "But," said he, "after the surprise at Waxsaws, he sent in a flag to enquire for and ransom a pair of mares, instead of enquiring after his wounded and prisoners." Here Dr. R[ead] counteracted his opinion, and said, "that Beauford would not discredit the humanity of your army so far as to suppose the wounded would not be taken care of."15

Unfortunately, Read doesn't report whether the ransom attempt was successful, but with or without his mares, Buford made his way north. On July 16, in a letter to Horatio Gates, Baron de Kalb commented, "You may also have met with a small party of Col. Buford's remains. I wanted to keep them in the army, but lacking Arms and Clothing, he insisted on marching them to Virginia, and promised me he would join in the beginning of July. I have not heard from him since."16

Having taken the scenic route to the army via Virginia, Buford missed the battle of Camden entirely. In mid-August, about four days after it happened, General Muhlenberg wrote to Gates from Virginia that "Colo. Bufort will command about 300 old Soldiers." A week or two later, now aware of the disaster to Gates' army, Muhlenberg wrote again that "To-Morrow Morning Colo. Bufert will march from this place with 350 Men for Hillsborough."17

He arrived at Hillsborough some time in mid-September, but not before Gates had sent him at least one "haul ass" letter, demanding that he "proceed with all convenient Speed with the Troops under your Command, to this place." Impatiently, Gates added that, "I am inform'd that the Men under Your Orders were ready equip'd for marching the 16th of last Month[.]" (Promptness really does not seem to have been one of Buford's strengths).18

When Buford did finally arrive, Gates took the reinforcements and promptly gave them to Daniel Morgan, which drew an angry letter of protest:

"This is the third time (within fifteen months) that my regiment has been drafted, or rather taken from me to make commands for other officers, To supply the place of which I have been forced to take new levies. At present I have no hopes of making a command for myself, nor is it material. I shall expect to obtain leave of absence til a regiment is raised for me, or til some favourable opportunity to join the service again. It is not probable I can, in my present Sircumstance, render any service to my Country, or would not wish to retire. My misfortunes have placed me in a horrid point of view, nor can I expect otherwise, when I am kept to collect and train men for others to command in the active part of the Campaign. I beg your permition to return to Virginia for a few months unless I can be active."19

Even though there were no plans to let Buford anywhere near combat again, Gates must have refused him permission to go home. A month later, Buford sent off another complaint: "The company of eight Months' men that are taken (By Genl. Stevens) from my Corps leaves me but three companies."20

He was still in Charlotte at the beginning of December, by which point the Southern Army had passed into the command of Nathanael Greene. On Dec. 5, Buford attended a council of war held by Greene, to discuss the practicalities of holding a court of inquiry for the "retiring" General Gates. (The subject must have cut a little close to home.) Greene asked for written opinions from each of his senior officers as to "whether it would be practicable to hold the court under the present circumstances of the army." The following day, Buford replied that he thought the court could be held, if Baron Steuben were summoned from Virginia (presumably to provide an adequate number of general officers). In a flash of common sense, he added that with the enemy there, he felt it would be inadvisable to summon Steuben or hold the inquiry.21

On Dec. 18, Richard Pindell, an army surgeon, wrote to Greene saying that Buford was so unwell that it "would not be prudent for him to move with the army tomorrow." As a result, Buford asked permission to "continue in the rear of the Troops." In response, Greene assigned him to Salisbury, the site of the Continental hospital.22

Salisbury was also the future site of a new PoW camp for British prisoners. Earlier in the month, Greene had written to his deputy quartermaster, Captain Joseph Marbury, saying that he found it necessary "that a Place should be immediately erected for the safe Custody of the Prisoners of War, and wish it to be placed in Salisbury." The letter went on to provide explicit directions of where and how he wanted the PoW camp to be built.23

Although Greene placed Marbury in nominal charge of the project, once Buford was in Salisbury, it seems to have fallen to him to manage it. On Jan 4, 1781, he wrote to Greene that he was much recovered from his illness, though he continued "to have frequent fits of the ague & fever." He hoped to be well enough to return to camp by the following week. His health was in better shape than the PoW camp. Despite the fact that Greene's original instructions had been lengthy and detailed, it seems that Buford (or, to be fair, perhaps Marbury) had gotten so confused that he had set about building the stockade in entirely the wrong part of town. In the same letter, Buford bemoaned that the inhabitants of Salisbury were extremely unhappy with the project. They had complained to him that "exclusive of the stench" from "the Sinks or necessary houses, The streets would be entirely stoped & some houses must be pulled down to make a passage round the fort." He went on to offer some alternate suggestions. 24

On Jan. 7, Greene responded with a somewhat snappish letter to Marbury, reiterating his original instructions, and another to Buford, telling him to go to Marbury for direction. He added that he was happy Buford was recovering, but that it wasn't necessary for him to return to the army. He was to remain in Salisbury. Although there is no mention of what situation or incident prompted it, the letter also contained an admonition that Buford should turn the attention of every officer in his regiment towards improving discipline, and asked whether he had yet complied with some orders of a month earlier, regarding a return of his officers.25

Greene, apparently, had little faith in Buford's reliability with his paperwork, though, for the same day, he sent a letter to Baron Steuben, commenting, "I also gave an order for furnishing a return to Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, of the officers willing to continue in service, now with the army. Colonel Buford who is at the Head of the Virginia Line I expected had forwarded it; but for fear he should have neglected it, Colonel Williams will send it by this Express." His concerns were probably justified, for only one copy of the document reached Steuben.26

On February 12, Buford was transferred to the colonelcy of the 3d Virginia Regiment, a post he retained for the remainder of his military service.27

His optimism about his returning health seems to have been premature, for on Feb. 24, he wrote to Greene that he would not be fit for duty for several more weeks, and asked permission to return home until he had fully recovered. On March 5, Greene granted the request "with pleasure" -- and, perhaps, a certain amount of relief.28

Buford wasted no time returning to Virginia. On March 20, he was home to pen a letter to Thomas Jefferson, complaining that a cornet in Baylor's Regiment (with the truly magnificent name of Epafroditus Rudder) had wrongfully commandeered a stud horse from its owner. 29

By May, he was ready to start back for the army but he only got as far as Roanoke before discovering that a shake-up in the Virginia line had turned him into a supernumerary. Rather than continue his journey, he wrote Greene from Roanoke that he would therefore remain in Virginia unless someone sent him other orders. No reply to the letter has been found, nor have I found any indications that he took any further active part in the war.30

He retained nominal command of the 3d Virginia until January 1, 1783, when it was listed that he "retired."31

After the war, Buford did very well by himself in warrants for land grants. On May 29, 1783, he was given 6666 2/3 acres -- I'm desperately curious what happened to the extra 1/3 acre -- and in later years he received two further grants of 1111 acres (1805) and 833 acres (1807). He also bought out his brother's warrants.32

In October, 1788, he married Martha McDowell, by whom he had at least two sons and one daughter. They moved to Kentucky, where Buford became a deputy surveyor and cashed in his warrants for land in the Blue Grass region and elsewhere.33

Several other members of the Buford family migrated to Kentucky as well, including one of Abraham's brothers. (Letters in the possession of his descendants mention brother Abraham dropping by.) An online article about Civil-war era Bufords (including a great-nephew and namesake who was a Confederate general) lists Abraham and his brother(?), Simeon Buford, as founders of the Kentucky horse-racing industry.

Buford ended his days on a horse farm near Georgetown in Scott County, where he is said to have entertained many prominent people. He died there on June 30, 1833, having outlived his nemesis by a little more than five months. A descendent of the family tells me that "Buford's land in is Fayette County , Kentucky and is now a part of the Kentucky Horse Park. The residence still stands and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Buford/Duke house."34

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1 Allen Johnson, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, 23 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943), 3:242. John T. Hayes, Massacre: Tarleton and Lee, 1780-1781 (Fort Lauderdale, FL: The Saddlebag Press; 1997), p9. [ back ]

2 E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra, A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations in The American Revolution, 1774-1787 (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1978), p16. [ back ]

3 Sanchez-Saavedra, p70. Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the War of the Revolution, ed. Robert H. Kelby (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1967), p131. [ back ]

4 General orders for Feb. 18, 1778, in George Washington, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, 39 vols. (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1931-1944), 10:475. Heitman, p131. [ back ]

5 Sanchez-Saavedra, p45, p66. Heitman, p131. [ back ]

6 General orders for 30 Dec 1778, in Washington, 13:462. General orders for Jan. 13, 1779, in Washington, 14:2. [ back ]

7 R. W. Gibbes, ed. Documentary History of the American Revolution, 3 vols. (Spartanburg, S.C.: The Reprint Company, 1972), 2:262-263. [ back ]

8 G. Washington to Abraham Buford, Feb. 16, 1779, in Washington, 14:124-5. [ back ]

9 General orders, 1 Mar 1779, in Washington, 14:166-167. General orders for 10 Mar 1779, in Washington, 14:223. [ back ]

10 Sanchez-Saavedra, p178-180. [ back ]

11 Henry Lee, The Revolutionary War Memoirs of General Henry Lee, ed. Robert E. Lee (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), p156. Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (London: Printed for T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1787), p19-20. [ back ]

12 Edward McCrady, History of South Carolina during the Revolution, 1775-1780 (New York: Russel and Russel; 1901), p494-5. Tarleton's account agrees with this on several points. [ back ]

13 Sanchez-Saavedra, p180. Lee, p164. [ back ]

14 William Dobein James, Sketch of the Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion, and A History of his Brigade (1821), n.p. [ back ]

15 [Which they were, legend not withstanding.] Gibbes, 2:280-281. [ back ]

16 De Kalb to Gates, 16 July 1780, in Walter Clark, ed., The State Records of North Carolina, 26 vols. (Goldsboro, North Carolina: Nash Brothers, 1886-1907), 14:502. [ back ]

17 Muhlenberg to Gates, 19 Aug 1780, in Clark, 14:560. Muhlenberg to Gates, 26 Aug 1780, in Clark, 14:575-6. Greene, 6:535n. [ back ]

18 Williams to Nash, 7 Sept 1780, in Clark, 15:77, reports seeing him and that he should be at Hillsborough "this week." Gates to Buford, 1 Sept 1780. [ back ]

19 Buford to Gates, 3 Oct 1780, in Clark, 14:663. [ back ]

20 Buford to Gates, 1 Nov 1780, in Clark, 14:722. [ back ]

21 Greene, 6:527, 535. [ back ]

22 Greene, 6:600. [ back ]

23 Greene to Marbury, 6 Dec 1780, in Greene, 5:521-2. [ back ]

24 Greene, 7:49. [ back ]

25 Greene to Buford, 7 Jan 1781, in Greene, 7:58-9 and n. Greene, 6:535n. [ back ]

26 Greene to Steuben, 7 Jan 1781, in Greene, 7:68-70. [ back ]

27 Sanchez-Saavedra, E.M., p38, p66. Heitman, p131. [ back ]

28 Buford to Greene, 24 Feb 1781, in Greene, 7:343. Ichabod Burnet to Buford, 5 Mar 1781, in Greene, 7:394. [ back ]

29 Buford to Thomas Jefferson, 20 Mar 1781, in Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd et al., 28+ vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-), 5:187. [ back ]

30 Buford to Greene, 21 May 1781, in Greene, 8:29. [ back ]

31 Sanchez-Saavedra, p38. [ back ]

32 Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck, Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants Awarded by State Governments (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1996), p72. DAB, 3:242. [ back ]

33 DAB, 3:242. Robert Bass mentions a daughter in passing, The Gamecock: The Life and Campaigns of General Thomas Sumter (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1961), p264, but the DAB doesn't specify whether he had any other children. A biographical note in Thomas Marshall Green's Historic Families of Kentucky (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1982), p100-3, mentions two sons and the daughter by name, with a vague indication that there were other children. [ back ]

34 Heitman, p131. DAB, 3:242. The information on the present situation of the estate comes from Sharon A. Buford via email. [ back ]

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