“A battle so fierce that friends and foes knew not who they fought, or behind which banner they charged.” [i] These are some of the words spoken at the dedication ceremony for the Pennsylvania memorial erected in the National Cemetery in Culpeper, Virginia, recalling the great struggle that had taken place there during the battle of Brandy Station. Unknown to both sides, the Battle of Brandy Station fought on June 9, 1863, would become the largest cavalry engagement ever fought on the North American continent. It was said by one of the aides to Confederate Major General J.E.B. Stuart that “Brandy Station made the Federal cavalry.”[ii]
By late spring of 1863, the cavalry branch of the Army of Northern Virginia was practically untouchable by Union troopers. Previously, the Union cavalry was spread out with no central command system. After Major General Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac in January of 1863, he reorganized the army, including the cavalry branch. This culminated in the creation of a separate cavalry corps composed of three divisions, which by the spring of 1863 were commanded by General Alfred Pleasonton. Pleasonton was a seasoned cavalier, having fought the Mexicans, Native Americans, guerillas in Kansas, and the Confederates before his appointment to corps command. He showed skill and courage during the Peninsula Campaign. This experience and a knack for self-promotion impressed his superiors. Under his command he had many able-bodied subordinates including Brigadier General David M. Gregg, and a man who would become a well-known figure at the Battle of Gettysburg, Brigadier General John Buford. The reorganization was an effort to even the playing field against Stuart’s vaunted cavalry, and helped to create an esprit de corps amongst the horsemen of the cavalry corps. Jeb Stuart was Robert E Lee’s eyes and ears and the Army of Northern Virginia’s cavalry commander who had successfully out matched his opponent continually in the field of battle during the first two years of war. The men of the Union cavalry corps were now eager for a fight and ready for the campaign season.
General Alfred Pleasonton
The Union cavalry corps’ adversaries in the Army of Northern Virginia were also feeling confident and well prepared for the coming campaign. After their victories at Fredericksburg in December of 1862, and Chancellorsville earlier that spring, the Confederate cavalry under Stuart felt unbeatable. It was at its zenith in terms of numbers, preparedness, and confidence. As Robert E. Lee made his plans to march north, he moved his cavalry to Culpepper County, a region with foraging opportunities and strategic value. Here General Stuart would plan and execute three “Grand Reviews” of his cavalry corps, massing some 11,000 horsemen in the plains of Culpeper. On the evening of June 8th after the final review, Stuart sent orders to his brigades to camp within a few miles of Brandy Station and the Rappahannock River. The plan was for them to cross the river the next morning, screening Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia’s march north.[iii]
General J.E.B. Stuart
Only two weeks after taking command of the Union cavalry, Pleasonton would be leading his troopers across the Rappahannock River in the opposite direction that same morning to strike Stuart and his veteran horsemen. Reports had come to Union headquarters, in part due to the Grand Reviews, that the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia was massing in Culpeper County. It was believed by the command staff of the Army of the Potomac that either Stuart meant to make another large-scale raid, or the cavalry corps was the vanguard for another invasion by Robert E. Lee into northern territory. To combat this move, General Hooker dispatched Pleasonton and his cavalry, to “disperse and destroy the rebel force assembled in Culpeper.”[iv] The plan was to divide the Union force in two and simultaneously cross the Rappahannock River with some 8,000 cavalry, 3,000 Infantry, and 34 pieces of artillery, surprising and if possible, destroying the Confederate cavalry at Brandy Station.
Hundreds of pages have been written about the ensuing engagement across the rolling terrain between Brandy Station and the Rappahannock. This post will focus on the actions of two of the commanders at Brandy Station who would have their names forever connected to the upcoming Battle of Gettysburg, one famously and one perhaps infamously; Union division commander John Buford and Confederate corps commander J.E.B. Stuart.
Command of the right wing of the Union cavalry corps was given to the capable Brigadier General John Buford. This veteran trooper was respected and admired by his men, one going on to say, “it was always reassuring to see him in the saddle when there was any chance of a good fight.”[v] Buford would lead his 6,000 men across the Rappahannock at Beverly’s Ford early on the morning of June 9, 1863. Being the wing commander, Buford’s division command would fall to Colonel Benjamin Franklin “Grimes” Davis, his First Brigade commander, who would also continue to lead his brigade during the morning’s battle. While crossing the river, the Union column was spotted by two Confederate pickets of the 6th Virginia cavalry who quickly fell back to their picket reserve. The first shots of the Battle of Brandy Station would be between this 30-man picket reserve of the 6th Virginia and the vanguard of the Union Right wing, the 8th New York cavalry. The pickets did their job before retreating two miles back to the main body of their brigade having caused the Union advance to pause and deploy skirmishers.
General John Buford
Several miles away on Fleetwood Hill General Stuart awoke to the sounds of gunfire in the distance. The Union cavalry had taken him by surprise and before the day had begun the renowned Stuart had already made several mistakes. The night before he failed to post an early warning skirmish line of troopers on the north side of the Rappahannock. Another problem was the location of the division’s horse artillery. Other than a couple of pickets at the ford itself, the horse artillery was the closest unit of the division and left unsupported only a mile and a half from where the Union troopers were crossing. Luckily for these men, Stuart responded quickly as he sought to find out what was happening on the Beverly Ford Road, assembled the scattered brigades of his division, and looked for defensible ground.
Stuart’s first action was to send messages to his brigade commanders, Wade Hampton and W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee, to ride to the sound of the guns while General William “Grumble” Jones and his brigade deployed on the Beverly Ford Road to check the advance of the Union horsemen. The Union troopers of the 8th New York and 8th Illinois, led by Col. Davis, pressed forward toward the rebel line of artillery as they made their way up the road from the ford. Just as the guns were about to be overwhelmed, the 6th Virginia cavalry followed by the 7th smashed into the advancing New Yorkers. A melee ensued between the troopers resulting in the withdrawal of the 8th New York and the fatal wounding of Grimes Davis.
As the 8th Illinois checked the Confederate counterattack, Buford was left with a command gap at the division level. With the wounding of Davis, he sought out his Second Brigade commander, Colonel Thomas Devin to take command of the division. A replacement in commanders for both of the division’s brigades then ensued. In two hours of fighting, Buford and his men had made it about 1 mile into Culpeper County. The Confederate force was giving way, but Buford needed time to reorganize his men and make a plan of attack. After a large clash of cavalry on the St. James Plateau, the Confederates again fell back. Soon Confederate reinforcements arrived and deployed in a line of battle. As two of Buford’s regiments attempted to clear Confederate cavalry from the woods in front of them, they quickly found themselves out numbered and facing this deployed artillery and fresh Confederate cavalry.
Buford quickly realized that he could not take the position held by the Confederate forces at St. James Church. This failure scuttled the battle plan to link up with the other wing of the corps under the command of General Gregg. Buford devised an alternate plan to swing around with half of his force and strike the left flank of Stuart’s cavalry. Over the next four hours, Buford and his men would slowly push back Rooney Lee and his brigade as they tried to hold on to Yew Ridge and the left flank of Stuart’s line.
As the Union horsemen pushed through fields, fences, knolls, and stone walls, Lee’s Confederates grudgingly fell back to the northern end of Fleetwood Hill. By now, Devin had observed the Confederate defenders melt away to his front. This was a result of Stuart’s adept shifting of troops in response to the arrival of David Gregg and his troopers from Kelly’s Ford in Stuart’s rear. Buford led his men again in a push for Fleetwood Hill, claiming that he reached the crest and could see Brandy Station in the distance. But soon after, Rooney Lee mounted a counter charge to take back the hill and after a prolonged melee on horseback, the Union troopers gave way.
Buford's cavalry charge by Alfred Waud.
By mid-afternoon man and beast on both sides were exhausted and Buford was unable to break the Confederate line. Pleasonton sent orders for Buford and his men to fall back. The fighting on the other side of the hill was both desperate and bloody and produced a similar effect to that of Buford’s efforts. General Stuart, while caught off guard and initially surprised, responded well to the situation and skillfully maneuvered his troops to defend the position and thwart Pleasonton’s plan. Not only with the advance by Buford to the west but also checking the advance of General Gregg in the rear. Later in the afternoon Gregg sent reports to Pleasonton that Confederate infantry were arriving by train close to Brandy Station and that his division was all used up. Without fresh troops Pleasonton decided to fall back across the river to fight another day, but the lack of a Confederate pursuit showed that they were similarly used up and tired from the days fighting.
The Battle of Brandy Station was a slim Confederate victory, as they remained in possession the of the field at the end of the day. The Union cavalry felt pride in their accomplishment, having proved themselves equal to their Confederate counterparts. For now, the fighting was over, but these same men would once again find themselves in heated combat on the fields and ridgelines of Gettysburg just weeks later.
For more information on the battle of Brady Station we suggest the following sources: Clash of Cavalry: The Battle of Brandy Station by Fairfax Downey, published in 1959; Brandy Station 1863: First Steps Toward Gettysburg by Dan Beattie, published in 2008 ; Brandy Station, Virginia, June 9,1863: the Largest Cavalry battle of the Civil War by Joseph W. McKinney, published in 2006. Additionally, the American Battlefield Trust has a wealth of information on the battle. Visit www.battlefields.org/ for more information.
Ranger, Gettysburg National Military Park