The largest cavalry battle of the American Civil War, indeed, the largest cavalry battle in American history, the battle of Brandy Station was almost an anachronism when it was fought, wiser cavalry commanders like Nathan Bedford Forrest realizing that cavalry fought much more effectively when dismounted, using their mounts only to get swiftly from point A to point B. In another sense it was a harbinger of things to come, indicating a new aggressive spirit in the Union cavalry and a signal that the days of Confederate cavalry supremacy in the East were coming to a rapid close.
Hooker, still in command of the Army of the Potomac, realized that Lee was massing his army in Culpeper County, Virginia. Jeb Stuart’s cavalry corps, 9500 sabres, was camped around Culpeper. On June 5 Stuart held a grand review before a huge number of civilians, with simulated cavalry charges. The review, sans cavalry charges, was repeated for Lee on June 8. Hooker, assuming that Stuart was readying a raid on the supply lines of the Army of the Potomac, ordered General Alfred Pleasanton, commander of the Army of the Potomac cavalry, to launch a spoiling attack on Stuart to disrupt his plans.
This Pleasanton did on June 9, crossing the Rappahannock River at 4: 30 AM, General John Buford aggressively leading his 1st Division against the Confederates. While this engagement was in progress, General David Gregg, crossing the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford, attacked the Confederates from the South commencing at 11:00 AM, causing the Confederates to withdraw before Buford in order to meet this attack.
A confused engagement followed with the Union forces withdrawing, per Pleasanton’s orders, at sunset. Union casualties were 907 to 523 Confederate. In spite of this, Union cavalry morale soared, taking justified pride in having surprised Stuart and having slugged it out for ten hours with his cavaliers for what at worst was a drawn battle. Stuart, although he did his best to paint the battle as a victory was embarrassed. He and his troopers had been totally surprised, indicating a shocking lack of pre-battle intelligence by his command, the essential mission of any cavalry force. That the Union force retreated and sustained heavier losses in no way negated that his Union counterparts had fought his men as battlefield equals. Confederate newspapers were scathing as to Stuart, who had hitherto enjoyed excellent press, being taken by surprise. For a proud man this was all a bitter turn of events.
The increasing effectiveness of the Union cavalry was shown to good effect on the first day of Gettysburg when Buford and his cavalry division saved the Union army with the delay they gave to the Confederates on the first day, helped by the absence of Confederate cavalry, caused in part by the fight at Brandy Station and Stuart’s reaction to it.
The battle had an enormous impact on the coming Gettysburg campaign, spurring Stuart to launching his grand raid just before the battle of Gettysburg, which effectively left Lee “blind” at a crucial moment in the campaign. Here is Stuart’s report on the battle, Fleetwood being another name given to the battle of Brandy Station:
HEADQUARTERS CAVALRY DIVISION, June 13, 1863.
GENERAL: I have the honor to submit the following report of the battle of Fleetwood, fought on the 9th instant:
Soon after dawn on the morning of the 9th, sharp firing of small-arms was heard in the direction of Beverly Ford, indicating a crossing of the Rappahannock by the enemy. Brigadier-General Jones, whose pickets were at that ford, having heard the firing, notified me of it, and having first sent forward his grand guard, put the remainder of his command quickly in the saddle, and repaired to the support of his pickets. The Horse Artillery, encamped on the Beverly Ford road, was hastily hitched up and put in position, and orders were given to Brigadier-Generals Hampton and Robertson to move their brigades to the front, and to W. H. F. Lee, near Well-ford’s, to move his brigade toward Beverly, drawing toward him Fitz. Lee’s brigade, commanded by Colonel [Thomas T.] Munford, each having a section of [James] Breathed’s battery.
Before the commands had reached Fleetwood heights, where I encamped the night before, I received notice from General Robertson’s pickets, at Kelly’s Ford, that the enemy was crossing infantry with some cavalry at that point, two regiments being already over. I therefore sent Colonel [John L.] Black’s First South Carolina Cavalry, of Hampton’s brigade, down that road, to hold the enemy in check till Robertson’s brigade could relieve him.
Hampton’s brigade was directed to a more central position between the two roads, on Jones’ right, excepting the Second South Carolina Cavalry, Colonel [M. C.] Butler, which was held in reserve at Brandy.
While these dispositions were being made, Jones’ brigade became hotly engaged with the enemy’s infantry and cavalry forces, which were advancing through the extensive woodland on the Beverly Ford road, and extricated the Horse Artillery from its exposed position. Brigadier-General Jones commanded in this contest (in which Acting Brig. Gen. B. F. Davis, U.S. Army, was killed), the Horse Artillery taking position to command the road and the open space on either side, near Saint James’ Church, being at the same time in plain view of Fleetwood.
Robertson’s brigade having been sent toward Kelly’s, I repaired in person to Jones’ position, and found the enemy checked, and his advance apparently abandoned. The movement of W. H. F. Lee s brigade toward Beverly Ford contributed to check the advance of the enemy at this point, for, attacking him in flank, he seriously threatened his rear, while Hampton closed upon his left flank, deploying sharpshooters in the woods in his front.
Hearing from General Robertson that the enemy was still crossing at Kelly’s, and that the cavalry that had crossed there (apparently two regiments) was moving in the direction of Stevensburg, Colonel Butler s First [Second] South Carolina Cavalry was ordered at once to the latter point, and Wickham’s regiment, Fourth Virginia Cavalry, was sent to his support; also one piece of artillery, and the promise of more force, if he needed it. I had all the wagons of the division sent to the rear, toward Culpeper Court-House, including every vestige of my own camp. I also sent Asst. Engineer F. S. Robertson to Brandy, to attend in person to the posting of a dismounted battalion of Hampton’s brigade down the road from Brandy Station toward Carrico’s Mills, one of the approaches from Kelly’s. I afterward ascertained that this battalion could not be found, and was consequently never posted. General Robertson reported the enemy in force of artillery and infantry in his front, and the cavalry bearing farther to his right. Brigadier-General Jones had sent me an infantry prisoner of Slocum’s corps. These facts, as well as the strength and advantages of the position, determined me to make the real stand on the Fleetwood ridge. To this point I also ordered a section of artillery in reserve, and posted there my adjutant-gen-eral, Major [H. B. ]McClellan, in observation, while I was absent on the left.
On a field geographically so extensive, and much of it wooded, presenting to the enemy so many avenues of approach, I deemed it highly injudicious to separate my command into detachments to guard all the approaches, as in such case the enemy could concentrate upon any one, and, overwhelming it, take the others in detail, especially as I was aware that the entire cavalry force of the enemy had crossed the river, with a large proportion of artillery, and supported by nine regiments of infantry on the road to Kelly’s, and seven on the road to Beverly Ford. I conceived it to be my policy to keep my command concentrated, excepting sufficient to watch and delay the enemy as to his real move, and then strike him with my whole force.
Major McClellan reported to me that the column referred to appeared to be advancing upon the Fleetwood Hill, having turned to the right from the Stevensburg road. The artillery sent to that hill unfortunately had little ammunition. Ordering more artillery to that point, and directing General Jones to send two regiments without delay to hold the heights, I repaired in person to that point, leaving General Jones with the remainder of his brigade to occupy the enemy in his front.
The force moving on Fleetwood was at first reported to be two regiments, but, as I approached, I saw that the force was larger, and then sent orders to Hampton and Robertson to move up their brigades, and to Jones to follow, notifying General W. H. F. Lee to rejoin the command on the left.
Harman’s and White’s regiments (Jones’ brigade) led the advance, and the former reached the hill about 50 yards in advance of the enemy, and just as the piece of artillery, which had up to that time checked the enemy’s advance, having fired its last round, was retiring from the hill.
The contest for the hill was prolonged and spirited. Harman’s regiment (Twelfth Virginia Cavalry) attacked the enemy, driving back his advance, but broke in confusion at the approach of the enemy’s reserve, and, in doing so, deranged very much White’s column, which was advancing to his support, and lessened materially the force of White’s charge. That dashing officer, with the brave spirits he could hold together, broke the enemy’s advance, and penetrated to his artillery, for which he was endeavoring to gain position on the hill, but the enemy was too strong for him. The more effectually to support White, the Sixth Virginia Cavalry (Major [C. E.] Flournoy commanding) was ordered by me to leave the house to the right, facing southward, and attack that portion of the enemy in flank which Harman and White engaged in front. This regiment, it appears, also reached the enemy’s battery, but was unable to hold it.
The artillery was hurried up after White and Harman, and participated in their charge to such an extent that the cannoneers were for a time engaged hand to hand with the enemy. At this critical moment, the leading regiment of Hampton’s brigade (Colonel [P. M. B.] Young’s Georgia regiment) came up, and made a brilliant charge upon the flank of the enemy, supported by Black’s First South Carolina Cavalry, thus checking his advance on the hill, while the First North Carolina Cavalry (Colonel Baker), supported by the Jeff. Davis Legion, Lieutenant-Colonel Waring (Hampton’s brigade), sweeping around on Young’s left, facing southward, made a series of charges most successful and brilliant.
Colonel Lomax, Eleventh Virginia Cavalry (Jones’ brigade), charged directly over the crest, took the enemy’s artillery (three pieces), capturing the cannoneers, and it was soon after turned upon the enemy. Colonel Lomax pushed thence directly to Brandy Station, a short distance to his front and right, and, dispersing the enemy at that point, after a sharp encounter pursued his fleeing forces down the road toward Kelly’s till the fire of our artillery, directed upon the retreating column, made it necessary to desist. The dust was so great that it was impossible to distinguish friends from foes at that distance.
General Hampton had an opportunity, being directly on the enemy’s flank, of cutting off a large portion of the force which attacked our right flank, which he was directed to improve, but the fire of our artillery, it appears, stopped him also. Two of his regiments (the Cobb Legion and First South Carolina Cavalry) were ordered by me to reform in the fiat near Fleetwood, as a support to our artillery.
Robertson’s brigade, which, in withdrawing from the vicinity of Kelly’s Ford, had some distance to march, reached the scene of action too late to participate in the fight.
My first care now was to open communication with Culpeper and Stevensburg, which Colonel Lomax was directed to do, and which was soon effected.
Until this time, I had heard nothing from Stevensburg since Colonel Butler first moved down from Brandy.
The enemy, with infantry and artillery, now debouched rapidly from the direction of Thompson’s house and Saint James’ Church (Jones’ late position on our left), and threatened an immediate attack on the hill (Fleetwood), firing furiously.
This advance upon Fleetwood made it absolutely necessary to desist from our pursuit of the force retreating toward Kelly’s, particularly as the infantry known to be on that road would very soon have terminated the pursuit.
Jones’ brigade was posted behind Fleetwood, with artillery on the heights, and his sharpshooters were engaged with the enemy’s infantry to the left.
Hampton’s brigade was in position on the right as we now faced (northward).
Our artillery had scarcely a round of ammunition left, but great exertions were made to supply it.
Brig. Gen. W. H. F. Lee having joined our left, facing northward, on the same range of hills, was closely followed by Buford’s division, composed principally of regulars, while the infantry skirmishers pushed through the woods to within 300 yards of our position. At this moment, General W. H. F. Lee engaged the enemy in a series of brilliant charges with his regiments, alternately routing the enemy, and, overpowered, falling back to reform. This continued till Munford’s brigade, which, having been anxiously expected, arrived opposite this portion of the field, and was ordered in at once to the attack in flank. The enemy fell back, and Munford’s sharpshooters pressed him all the way to Beverly Ford, on the left. Our whole line followed the enemy to the river, skirmishing with his rear, and our line of pickets was re-established that night. Our infantry skirmishers, advancing through the woods, did not engage the enemy.
About the time of General W. H. F. Lee s hot engagement on the left, I received intelligence of affairs at Stevensburg. The two regiments sent there failed to resist the enemy effectually, and one (the Fourth Virginia Cavalry) broke in utter confusion without firing a gun, in spite of every effort of the colonel to rally the men to the charge. This regiment usually fights well, and its stampede on this occasion is unaccountable. Colonel Wickham’s report is herewith forwarded.
The First [Second] South Carolina Cavalry (Colonel Butler), which had the advance there, had also a portion of its column thrown into confusion, which extended through the whole of the Fourth Virginia. Owing to the casualties to officers of the First South Carolina Regiment, no report has yet been received of its operations. The movement of the enemy on Stevensburg ought to have been checked by the force sent there sufficiently long for re-enforcements to be sent.
Attention is called to the accompanying reports of subordinate commanders for a more detailed account of their operations in this battle, and the names of those specially distinguished.
Brigadier-Generals Hampton, W. H. F. Lee, and Jones were prompt in the execution of orders, and conformed readily to the emergencies arising.
Brigadier-General Robertson kept the enemy in check on the Kelly’s Ford road, but did not conform to the movement of the enemy to the right, of which he was cognizant, so as to hold him in check or thwart him by a corresponding move of a portion of his command in the same direction. He was too far off for me to give orders to do so in time. His detailed report will, I hope, account for this. General Robertson’s command, though not engaged, was exposed to the enemy’s artillery fire, and behaved well.
Colonel Munford’s delay in coming to the field has not been satisfactorily accounted for, as the distance was not very great.
General Jones’ brigade had the hardest fighting, all five regiments having been engaged twice. The Twelfth Virginia Cavalry broke unnecessarily after a successful charge, which confusion entailed, as usual, harder fighting and severe loss on itself as well as on the rest of the command.
Brig. Gen. W. H. F. Lee’s brigade was handled in a handsome and highly satisfactory maimer by that gallant officer, who received a severe wound through the leg in one of the last of the brilliant charges of his command on the heights. I regret very much the absence of his report, especially because his brigade being not so much under my own eye, I am unable to mention with particularity the gallantry of the officers and men of his brigade. Still more do I deplore the casualty which deprives us, for a short time only, it is hoped, of his valuable services. The command of his brigade thereafter devolved upon Col. J. R. Chambliss, jr.. Thirteenth Virginia Cavalry.
The conduct of the Horse Artillery, under that daring and efficient officer, Maj. R. F. Beckham, deserves the highest praise. Not one piece was ever in the hands of the enemy, though at times the cannoneers had to fight pistol and sword in hand in its defense. The accompanying report of Major Beckham shows one instance particularly deserving special mention: Lieutenants [C. E.] Ford and [William] Hoxton, of the Stuart Horse Artillery, charged the enemy with their detachments, and Private Sudley, of the same battery, knocked one of the enemy off his horse with the sponge-staff. The officers and men behaved with the greatest gallantry, and the mangled bodies of the enemy show the effectiveness of their fire. Two of the enemy’s guns were turned upon him with decided effect; the other was disabled.
The enemy’s loss is not known, and will, as far as possible, be carefully concealed by him. His dead on the field, together with the wounded and prisoners taken, exceed our entire loss, while he claims to have carried off his dead officers and all his wounded. A list of 192 of his wounded who reached one hospital in Alexandria, among whom were infantry as well as cavalry, is published in his papers, and in that list thirty-six regiments are represented, and it is not claimed that this hospital received all. Their dead, among whom were several field officers, were buried on different parts of the field before an opportunity was afforded to count them. A large number of arms, equipments, horses, 6 flags, and 3 pieces of his best ordnance (2 of which are serviceable) were captured. A list of captures is appended, as well as a statement of our killed, wounded, and missing, amounting to about 480 total.(*)
Among our gallant dead, the memory of whose deeds of heroism on the battle-field will be an heirloom to posterity, I am grieved to record Col. Solomon Williams, Second North Carolina Cavalry–as fearless as he was efficient; the brave and chivalrous Lieut. Col. Frank Hampton, Second South Carolina, mortally wounded. The names of the other officers killed will be found appended.
The limits of this report will not admit of the names of those brave spirits who have fallen in the ranks, but their names are recorded on the muster-rolls of fame, and will live in the lasting remembrance of a grateful people.
Lieutenant-Colonel [J. C.] Phillips, Thirteenth Virginia Cavalry (a gallant officer), and Maj. M.D. Ball, Eleventh Virginia Cavalry, are among the wounded.
Capt. Benjamin S. White, of the regular army, serving on my staff, behaved with the most distinguished gallantry, and was wounded painfully in the neck.
Colonel Lomax, Eleventh Virginia Cavalry, Colonel Young, Georgia Legion, and Lieutenant-Colonel White, Thirty-fifth Virginia Battalion, as coming under my own eye, handled their regiments admirably, and behaved with conspicuous daring; the last-mentioned, though painfully wounded, is still in command of his regiment, on active and important duty.
Col. A. W. Harman, Twelfth Virginia Cavalry, while bravely leading his regiment, was wounded in the neck, but retained command till night.
Col. M. C. Butler, Second South Carolina Cavalry, received a severe wound, causing the loss of his foot, which deprived his regiment and the country of his gallant and valuable services for a time. Capt. W. D. Farley, of South Carolina, a volunteer aide on my staff, was mortally wounded by the same shell, and displayed even in death the same loftiness of bearing and fortitude which have characterized him through life. He had served without emolument, long, faithfully, and always with distinction. No nobler champion has fallen. May his spirit abide with us!
My own staff, on this, as on all other occasions, acquitted themselves handsomely.
Maj. Heros von Borcke, a gallant Prussian, who has fought bravely and served faithfully for one year, was everywhere, animating by his presence and prowess, and checking the wavering and broken.
Maj. H. B. McClellan, assistant adjutant-general, displayed the same zeal, gallantry, and efficiency which has on every battle-field, in the camp, or on the march, so distinguished him as to cause his selection for his present post.
Surg. Talcott Eliason; Maj. Andrew R. Venable, assistant adjutant-general; Capt. W. W. Blackford, engineers; Capt. John Esten Cooke, chief of ordnance: Capt. J. L. Clarke, volunteer aide; First Lieut. C. Dabney, aide-de-camp, and Maj. Norman R. Fitzhugh, division quartermaster, all in their respective spheres acquitted themselves in a highly creditable manner. Surgeon Eliason, though without a superior in his profession, would, from his conduct on the field, excel as a colonel of cavalry.
First Lieut. Robert H. Goldsborough, aide-de-camp, while bearing an important message to Colonel Wickham, was captured by the enemy.
Captain Blackford, engineers, has prepared a map of the country embraced in these operations.
To members of my personal escort, composed of privates from the ranks, I am specially indebted, acting as they did in the capacity of bearers of dispatches, oral or written. They discharged their duty with a zeal, fidelity, and intelligence deserving high praise.
Private Foy, of General Robertson’s escort, was the first who brought me reliable news of the enemy’s movement toward Stevensburg.
Capt. W. B. Wooldridge, Fourth Virginia Cavalry, Lieut. J. L. Jones, Second Virginia Cavalry, and Lieut. R. B. Kennon, Provisional Army, Confederate States, members of general court-martial, Fitz. Lee’s brigade, lately adjourned, while en route to join their commands, met near Brandy a party of the enemy. Collecting a few stragglers, they attacked and routed the party, which was more than double their number, capturing a lieutenant, 6 privates, and a guidon.
I am, general, most respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. E. B. STUART,
Brig. Gen. R. H. CHILTON,
Asst. Adjt. and Insp. Gen., Army of Northern Virginia.