Taneytown's heroic soldier

Petersburg: Sgt. John E. Buffington, serving in the 6th Maryland Infantry, was the first Union soldier to cross the Confederate parapet as Petersburg, Va., fell

Remembrance of Gettysburg

September 12, 1999|By Michael G. Williams | Michael G. Williams,Special to the Sun

Sgt. John E. Buffington took modesty to a new level. This is what his family thinks, and after considering his performance on the battlefields of the Civil War, there can only be one response; they're right.

He was fighting in a time when soldiers on the front lines woke up every day to play the odds of survival. They gambled with their lives as they fought on smoke-covered terrain charging through fusillades of bullets and shrapnel. Many never made it. But Buffington was lucky enough to beat the odds of death. He made it out of the war unscathed, and he did it in a display of valor and gallantry that won him the Medal of Honor. The only question that remains on the minds of family members and local historians is why he waited 43 years to claim it. When he enlisted in Company C of the 6th Maryland Infantry in 1862, Buffington never could have imagined the impact he would have on his unit. He left his mark on history during the siege at Petersburg, Va.

April 2, 1865

On April 2, 1865, his regiment broke through and collapsed the Confederate line. This was a daunting task considering that it had to be done amid a hail of gunfire. And Buffington was the first man to do it. He mounted the parapet (an earthen fortification) and raised the Union flag on the Confederates' territory. The 6th Infantry's aggression was instrumental to the North's progress during this period of the war, and Buffington's courage was a principal source of fuel for their morale.

Civil War historian James M. McPherson stressed this importance despite the fact that the 6th Infantry is not widely discussed in historical accounts.

"The 6th Infantry may not be as well known as some other regiments, but it was certainly a key aspect in breaking through Confederate lines at Petersburg," said McPherson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his book "The Battle Cry of Freedom."

"Their contribution to the siege was, in a small way, one of the factors which led up to Lee's surrender at Appomattox." As a member of this collectively successful regiment, Buffington revealed a cryptic side to his modesty by refusing to accept the medal.

Why didn't he want it? He was being recognized for going beyond the call of duty. He garnered the attention of a number of prominent officials including Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, corps commander of the volunteer regiments. He cited Buffington's achievement in a letter to a fellow general after the war. ". . . [Buffington] is believed to have been the first enlisted man of the 3rd Division who mounted the parapet of the enemy's lines at Petersburg," Wright wrote in his letter. Buffington's comrades seemed to have more faith in his achievement than he did.

After completing his service in June 1865, the Taneytown native moved to the Middleburg district of Maryland, where he began his career as a farmer. There he married and started a family of four daughters and one son. Buffington's grandson still remembers his farm. "He farmed a nice tract of land-about 100 acres in Hapes Mill," recalled 78-year-old John Garner of Taneytown. "The house has been done over, but it's still there." Garner remembers his grandfather as being a lighthearted man who prided himself on the humor of practical jokes.

Surviving family members chuckle in bafflement when asked why Buffington refused to claim his award. "For about 40-odd years people kept pushing him to take the award, but he never wanted to get it because he didn't think he deserved it," said Barry Garner, Buffington's great-grandson. "No one has any idea why he felt like that."

It wasn't until 1908 that Gen. John R. King, a friend of Buffington's, finally convinced the 67-year-old veteran to accept the award. "It was a big deal around Taneytown when he finally decided to accept the medal," said Jay Graybeal, director of the Carroll County Historic Society.

Buffington's friends organized a gala at Taneytown's Reindollar's Opera House on March 28. No one in town hesitated to attend. "The opera house was crowded with people to its utmost capacity ...," a Carroll County newspaper reporter wrote in an article covering the event. The speakers included King, Congressman John A. Goulden of New York, and Col. John R. Rouzer, a former officer of the 6th Regiment. Goulden, a native of Taneytown, made the opening address. The ceremony was interspersed with patriotic songs sung by a choir and ended with "The Star-Spangled Banner," according to the reporter's account. He went on to describe the audience's enthusiastic allegiance as they sang with the choir.

The medal awarded to Buffington was of the third pattern, which was the variation used from 1904 to 1944. If he had received it during the Civil War era, it would have been made of bronze. But instead, he received one of gold with green enamel highlights. It was attached to a blue ribbon with 43 white stars sewn onto it. A gold eagle with its wings extended was attached to the bottom of the ribbon, next to a gold bar bearing the word "valor."

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