Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. The Uncertainty of Life: A Civil War Soldier’s Will


In the summer of 1861, John E. H. Buford walked into the courthouse at Oxford, Mississippi, went to the circuit clerk’s office, and made out his will. He was only 24 years old, and in perfect health, but Buford had a good reason for putting his affairs in order. His country was at war; and he planned to join the army and accept the dangers of a soldier’s life. John E.H. Buford wrote the following on page 165 of Will Book 1:

In view of going into camp to meet our countries enemies and the uncertainty of life, I have this day made this as my will. In the name of the Almighty God Amen. I have this day written and executed this my last will and testament and being sensible of the uncertainty of life particularly in the camp where there are battles and diseases and being in my right mind and desirous of disposing of my property without difficulty or trouble to any I have for this purpose given and do give and bequeath all my slaves & interests in land, horses, cattle and hogs together with the household and kitchen. In the first place I want my notes collected in Maury County, Tennessee, in the hands of Fleming and Frierson, lawyers at Columbia, Tennessee. Also note of Will Lee Buford and note on Stevenson & Thompson, the last note named to partnership note with my brother Thomas when collected. I wish my debts paid and my part of the land note with my brother Thomas who is equally interested in said. I wish all my lawful debts paid from money due me from my part of the growing crop and when all is paid I wish my father Goodloe W. Buford to receive all the rest and make such distribution to my brothers and sisters as he may think proper. I wish my sisters Olivia & Julia to have $500, five hundred above the others and have my interest in the buggy to my father Goodlow W. Buford & my mother, S.G. Buford, & also leave my watch to my sister Julia. In testimony where of I have signed and sealed this my last will and testament in presence of witnesses this Thirtieth 30th day of July, Eighteen Hundred and Sixty One.
John E. Buford
Jas. M. Tankersley
H. N. Buford
Jas. L. Boyce
John Buford was not the first in his family to join the army; his brothers Goodloe W. Buford and Thomas P. Buford, along with cousins Joseph P.C. Buford, Walter S. Buford, and Morgan P. Buford had enlisted in the “Lamar Rifles,” Company G, 11th Mississippi Infantry in the spring of 1861. (History and Genealogy of the Buford Family in America, by Marcus B. Buford, et al., page 439.) He could have gone to Virginia and joined his relatives in the 11th Mississippi, but instead John enlisted as 3rd sergeant in Company B, 30th Mississippi Infantry, on February 15, 1862.
It was a wise decision that John Buford made to have a will drawn up, as his was a life destined to be cut short. He was killed in action at the battle of Stone’s River, Tennessee, on December 31, 1862. His service record noted that he was shot down “In the first field on the right of the Murfreesboro Pike in front of Yankees batteries planted in Cedar thicket. Extreme left of this (corn) field when we charged these batteries.” (Compiled service record of John E. Buford, 30th Mississippi Infantry, accessed on, September 18, 2020)
The Battle of Stone’s River (Library of Congress)
Scores of Mississippians besides John Buford fell while assaulting the Union line in a copse of trees at Stone’s River known as the “Round Forest.” After the battle the area would be given a more descriptive name by those who fought there: “Hell’s Half-Acre.” The 30th Mississippi Infantry, fighting as part of Walthall’s Mississippi Brigade, had 63 men killed and 146 wounded, their bodies carpeting the ground in front of the Union position. Brigadier General J. Patton Anderson, temporarily commanding Walthall’s Brigade during the battle, wrote this report of the fighting at the Round Forest:
About 9 a.m. Colonel Manigault came to me and informed me that he intended to charge a battery in his front; wished me to send two regiments to his support. I consented to do so, and immediately ordered the Forty-fifth Alabama and Twenty-fourth Mississippi forward to perform that duty. They became hotly engaged soon after leaving their breastworks, the enemy being in heavy force and strongly posted, backed by many pieces of artillery, so planted as to enfilade a portion of our line. In addition to this enfilading fire, Colonel Manigault was exposed to a cross-fire from a battery in front of his left. In the unequal contest our line halted, staggered, and fell back in some confusion, but were easily rallied, reformed, and moved to the front. The Thirtieth, Twenty-ninth, and Twenty-seventh Mississippi were now successively ordered forward, with instructions to swing around upon and preserve the touch of elbow to the right. Captain Barret, commanding the battery, was directed to hold his fire, not to respond to the long-range guns of the enemy, and only to use his pieces when a favorable opportunity of playing upon the masses or lines of the enemy was presented. Immediately in front and in short range of these regiments the enemy had two batteries advantageously posted, so as to sweep an open field over which they had to pass in their advance. The ordeal to which they were subjected was a severe one, but the task was undertaken with that spirit and courage which always deserves success and seldom fails of achieving it. As often as their ranks were shattered and broken by grape and canister did they rally, reform, and renew the attack under the leadership of their gallant officers. They were ordered to take the batteries at all hazards, and they obeyed the order, not, however, without heavy loss of officers and men.
Illustration of the battle of Stone’s River (Library of Congress)
General Anderson went on to make note of the bravery displayed by the 30th Mississippi:
On the left of this last regiment was the Thirtieth Mississippi, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Scales. Most gallantly did they perform their part. In moving across the open field in short range of grape, canister, and shrapnel, 62 officers and men were killed and 139 wounded, of this regiment alone, all within a very short space of time, and upon an area not greater than an acre of ground. (The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Volume 20, Part 1, pages 763-764)
John Elihu Harper Buford has a stone in the family plot at College Hill Cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi. It is unclear if the family had his body brought back to Mississippi or if this is just a memorial stone. On the marker are cut these simple words: “Killed in the battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.”
Published in History
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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    You always do excellent work, Jeff. Thanks for another poignant story of a brave young life. 

    • #1
    • September 21, 2020, at 6:49 PM PDT
  2. Limestone Cowboy Coolidge
    Limestone CowboyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    @JeffGiambrone Ditto what Gary McVey said above.

    I’ve visited the military cemeteries at Shiloh and at Gettysburg.

    There are few more poignant sights than the graves of young men (boys, really if the some of birth dates on their gravestones are correct) cut down in the days slaughter. Or the mass graves of Confederate Shiloh.. Again many probably just boys.

    It troubles me greatly that many of our young college “educated” people who probably regard themselves as empathetic lack the imagination, the empathy, to step out of the present and try to see the world as the people of the Civil War period saw it.

    It is a marvel of the post Civil War period that the country did not descend into interminable bitterness and guerilla war thanks to Lincoln’s (and Grant’s and Sherman’s) generous attitude. It’s also a tribute to many of the leaders of the Confederate forces that they were able to contribute to a genuine post-war reconciliation.

    And yet still we are commanded to tear down their monuments. After 17 to 20 years of expensive public education, truly they still “Don’t know much about history.” Or empathy. Or human nature. They live in the eternal Present. And they’re proud of it.

    • #2
    • September 21, 2020, at 8:53 PM PDT
    • This comment has been edited.
  3. Dr. Bastiat Member

    Fantastic essay. Thanks.

    • #3
    • September 22, 2020, at 5:38 AM PDT