Shaara temporarily shifts the point of view to the book's "narrator" to set the scene. The narrator describes the land west of Gettysburg and reveals that the Rebels are entering Gettysburg from the west, blue cavalry is approaching from the south, and the two are watching each other from across the fields in between. At this point, things shift to John Buford's perspective.
Buford is a Union general leading two brigades of cavalry that are ahead of the main army, looking for the Rebels. Peering through binoculars, Buford identifies the units as Confederate infantry and disgustedly notes that they are "gentlemen," when one of the Rebel officers waves his plumed hat at Buford.
Buford also notes the lack of Confederate cavalry, meaning that the Rebels have no "eyes" to find out what's around them. He understands the significance of this, senses there is power behind the units he is seeing, and instinctively understands what is shaping up here. In his gut, he knows Lee is here and the size of the battle that is coming.
Quickly assessing the local geography, Buford identifies the hills around a cemetery as "good ground" to be held at all costs. He knows if this ground is captured, many Union soldiers will die a bloody death, and the battle will be lost.
Buford sends scouts to collect information on what Confederate units are there, how many men, and who else is en route. He then sends messages to Meade and Reynolds asking for immediate help, though he is cynical that the help will come in time, if ever.
He places his men on the ridges west of town and makes his headquarters in a seminary nearby. This plan will allow the Union cavalry to stall any Rebel advance and buy time for the Union infantry to arrive and keep the good ground. If they arrive.
Buford is an experienced soldier who has served out West. He has learned much from the Indians about guerilla warfare and doesn't place much emphasis on the glorious cavalry charges and other noble practices popular at that time. He is concerned with preserving the men of his unit and keeping the advantage of high ground for his army. Buford also has the vision to assess the situation and instinctively know what needs to happen to win. He is good at what he does, and just does it.
Buford doesn't like Union leadership and prefers the openness and freedom of the Wyoming snows to being this close to desk generals. He is bitter that at Thorofare Gap he and 3,000 men held out against Longstreet's 25,000 for six hours, waiting for help that never came. He has little faith in the Union generals and fears that help will not come in time.
Buford's disdain toward Southern society is obvious. He is no fan of courtly society or knightly warfare. His western army experience makes him a pragmatic commander interested in using the best and correct tactics for a situation, not ones designed for glory and honor.
The topic of good ground comes up again and again, and it is important to both the Union and to Lee. The owner of the high ground has the advantage, and that advantage can mean the difference between victory and loss, life and death. In the novel, Shaara shows Buford wanting this ground at all costs. This desire may not have been as strong an issue in reality. Buford did want the good ground if the Union decided to fight there. However, Gettysburg was not the only good ground in the area on which to fight. Meade had already selected an area near Pipe Creek as a possible alternative for battle. If the Confederates had captured the high ground at Gettysburg, it is likely that Meade never would have engaged them there.
The image of the white angel surfaces again later as the story and battle progresses. For now, Buford notices the white angel statue in the cemetery, with its arms reaching up to heaven. Near the end of the battle, Shaara shows us this angel again and what has happened to it. It is a symbol for the level of destruction to come.
dragoon pistols pistols in use in the 1700-1800s that were single-shot flintlock technology, thus very slow to operate.
repeating carbines this is not entirely accurate. Buford's men were armed with breechloading rifles, which were an improvement over muskets. Breechloaders were loaded behind the barrel instead of down the muzzle as muskets were. While they were single-shot rifles, they were faster to fire and thus gave Buford's men the ability to hold off superior numbers of infantry. Buford did not, however, have repeaters, which could fire several shells before reloading was necessary.
Indian Wars from the time this country was first colonized by Europeans in the 1600s until the late 1890s, there were intermittent wars waged against various Indian tribes. The goals were either to eliminate them from an area the settlers wanted to colonize or, later on, to relocate them further west. Buford most likely grew up during the wars against tribes in Florida and the Southeast during the 1830s. As an adult, he saw action in some of the later Indian wars out West, before the Civil War.
corn dodger a small cake of cornmeal, baked or fried hard
Murat charge Joachim Murat was one of Napoleon's military commanders who was described as having little intelligence and no sense of strategy. His only ability to distinguish himself in battle was by leading dashing cavalry charges, but even there, his mistakes would sometimes almost cost Napoleon victory.