Cavalry begins to hold up its head’
A drawing by Edwin Forbes illustrates the action at Brandy Station.
In early June 1863, Union Gen. Joseph Hooker grew suspicious that Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was on the move. Both armies had recovered from their losses incurred at Chancellorsville in May, except the Army of the Potomac suffered a decline in morale. Infantry first detected Lee’s motion, and Hooker decided to send forward a reconnaissance of cavalry. The general ordered cavalry commander Alfred Pleasanton to take a combined force of cavalry and infantry, divided into two columns, across the Rappahannock fords defended by Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s troopers.
Early in the predawn hours of June 9 Pleasanton’s columns set out to cross at Kelly’s and Beverly fords. Fog shrouded the river and the crossings went unimpeded. However, once Gen. John Buford crossed at Beverly Ford, the Federals encountered Confederates belonging to the brigade of Gen. W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee, a son of Robert E. Lee, and lost a promising colonel in Benjamin Davis.
The Northern incursion caught Stuart napping. He had scattered his five brigades throughout the Rappahannock River region. Stuart quickly ordered his men to gather. A Southern artilleryman wrote of the surprise as “bullets fresh from Yankee sharpshooters came from the depths of the woods and zipped across our blanket beds.” Other accounts describe Southerners riding into battle bareback and not fully dressed.
After the initial skirmish near the ford, Buford moved towards Brandy Station, partly delayed by Lee’s troopers. Buford’s force forced these Southerners to the side and continued to Brandy Station.
Near St. James Church, the Federals encountered the brigade of William Jones supported by another brigade commanded by Wade Hampton supported by artillery. Combat grew intense. One Pennsylvanian witnessed that “Shells burst over us, under us and alongside ... and bullets were singing through the air like a hornet’s nest.”
A Southerner watched the opposing lines of cavalry collide in the fields near St. James Church. “Hundreds of glistening sabers instantly leaped from their scabbards, gleamed and flashed in the sun, then clashed with metallic ring, searching for human blood,” he wrote. Another trooper recorded ‘‘Sabers clashed and horses and riders fell together.”
Meanwhile, while Buford’s fight developed into a stalemate, John Gregg’s column was delayed. Part of his column got lost in the darkness prior to the crossing. Instead of working in concert with Buford and striking Stuart’s flank, Gregg’s men were still riding towards the sound of the battle.
As Gregg approached the battlefield, Fleetwood Hill, the major topographical feature in the Brandy Station region, lay undefended. Henry McClellan, a member of Stuart’s staff, stood atop the hill and watched a Federal cavalry column appear “Within cannon shot of the hill.” He ordered the sole nearby Confederate artillery piece to open fire and fortunately the head of the blue column halted to await reinforcements. This single cannon bought precious time.
Finally, the Federals charged forward and nearly reached the crest of the hill when two Confederate regiments pounded over the hill and at a full gallop met the Northerners in a “dead, heavy crash.” What followed was a swirling maelstrom of men on horses, firing revolvers and swinging sabers. Fleetwood Hill became the scene of charges and countercharges as the opposing sides contested the hill. Stuart’s men maintained control of the height, but it had been a very close call for the Southern cavalry. The plight of Lt. Col. Virgil Brodrick of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry illustrated the fight’s intensity. The regiment participated in several charges and Brodrick had his horse shot beneath him. Mounting another, he charged into the fray, killing three Confederates before being dismounted again. Surrounded by a dozen Confederates, and unable to escape, he was shot down and mortally wounded.
By 4 p.m., after 10 hours of fighting, Pleasanton commenced a withdrawal back across the Rappahannock. The Union cavalry thrust had become stalled and reports of Confederate infantry approaching hurried the decision.
Gregg’s troopers moved across the river easily, but Buford had more difficulty as Southern cavalry attempted to cut off his line of retreat. By sunset all the Federals had crossed the river.
In the end, Pleasanton lost 866 men, Stuart 523. Considering over 18,000 cavalrymen had fought in a pitched battle, these casualties appeared light when compared to infantry engagements. Nearly 50 percent of Union losses were listed as missing, presumably captured. Such a figure was not unusual as once troopers became unhorsed, they usually became captives, finding it impossible to escape. E. Porter Alexander, a Southern artillery officer, rode over the battlefield the next day and sarcastically commented seeing “only about twenty dead Yankees—only two killed with the saber.”
Discussion on losses aside, the battle provided some respect for the cavalry. One Pennsylvanian wrote, “The Cavalry begins to hold up its head” while a proud New Yorker believed the engagement “forever settled the question of superiority as between the gray and the blue cavalry in favor of the latter.” The Confederate press ridiculed Stuart’s performance. One Richmond newspaper wrote of the “puffed up cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia,” a slight directed at Stuart.
Civil War historian Gary Gallagher wrote: “Brandy Station did herald the rise of the Federal cavalry in the East.”
After the battle, Stuart required a week to rest his regiments. This did not disrupt Lee’s overall plans for the rest of his army. On June 10, he ordered one of his army corps on the road. It headed north towards Pennsylvania.
Donald Wickman is an author and historian who lives in Rutland.