The Battle of Brandy Station

This entry is part 2 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign

The battlefield at Brandy Station in Culpeper County, Virginia looks much the same as it did almost 150 years ago. Apart from the modern highway, once the Carolina Road, that cuts through the area, the rolling hills and woodlots are similar to the ones that existed then.

The Battle of Brandy Station, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Fleetwood Hill,  is considered the largest predominantly cavalry engagement of the American Civil War, as well as the largest to take place ever on American soil. Over 20,000 men took part in the battle with at least 17,000 being cavalrymen.

General J.E.B. StuartMaj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry corps had arrived in the area on June 5th when they staged a grand review. This grand review included nearly 9,000 mounted troopers and 4 batteries of horse artillery, charging in simulated battle at Inlet Station, about two miles southwest of Brandy Station.

However, the guest of honor, General Robert E. Lee was unable to attend. The grand review was rescheduled for June 8th when Lee was available. The repeat performance was limited to a simple parade without battle simulations.

Stuart’s force consisted of 9,500 troopers that were organized in five cavalry brigades, commanded by Brig. Gens. Wade HamptonW.H.F. “Rooney” LeeBeverly H. Robertson, and William E. “Grumble” Jones, and Colonel Thomas T. Munford (commanding Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee‘s brigade while Lee was stricken with a bout of rheumatism), plus the six-battery Stuart Horse Artillery, commanded by Major Robert F. Beckham.

Unknown to the Confederates, 11,000 Union cavalry and infantry were massed on the northeast side of the Rappahannock River. Commanded by Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, the Union force consisted of two combined arms “wings” under Brig. Gens. John Buford and David McMurtrie Gregg, augmented by infantry brigades from the V Corps.

Buford’s “wing” included his own 1st Cavalry Division, a Reserve Brigade led by Major Charles J. Whiting, and an infantry brigade of 3,000 men under Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames. Gregg’s “wing” included the 2nd Cavalry Division, led by Col. Alfred N. Duffié, Gregg’s 3rd Cavalry Division and an infantry brigade under Brig. Gen. David A. Russell.

On paper, Pleasanton’s plan had everything to recommend it. It called for a two-pronged thrust at the enemy. Buford’s wing would cross the river at Beverly’s Ford, two miles northeast of Brandy Station. Simultaneously, Gregg’s “wing” would cross at Kelly’s Ford, six miles downstream to the southeast.

Pleasonton anticipated that the Southern cavalry would be caught in a double envelopment, surprised, outnumbered, and beaten. He was unawareGeneral Alfred Pleasanton of the precise disposition of the enemy and he incorrectly assumed that his force was substantially larger than the Confederates he faced, when it only outnumber Stuart’s corps by about 1,500 men.

At about 4:30 AM, Buford’s “wing” crossed the Rappahannock River in a dense fog, overwhelming the Confederates pickets and moving against the main enemy force. Almost immediately, “Grumble” Jones’ Brigade responded to the Union advance. Col. Benjamin F. Davis‘s leading Buford’s lead brigade was killed in the ensuing fighting and the progress of his brigade was checked short of Stuart’s artillery position.

Davis had refused to fall back and challenged all comers to combat. He twirled his saber with one hand, firing his Colt revolver with the other until he ran out of ammunition. Confederate Lt. O. R. Allen of Major Caball E. Flournoy’s regiment charged at Davis, hugging his horse’s neck to evade Davis’s saber slashing, then fired his pistol three times at point-blank range. The third shot struck Davis in the forehead, killing him instantly.

The one or two guns of the Confederate artillery battery were able to halt Buford’s progress and allow the rest of the Confederates to set up a defensive line. The artillery unlimbered on two knolls on either side of the Beverly’s Ford Road. Most of Jones’ Brigade was positioned to the left of the Confederate artillery position. Hampton’s Brigade set up their defensive line to the right.

The 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, led by Major Robert Morris, Jr., unsuccessfully charged the guns at St. James Church, suffering the greatest casualties of any regiment in the battle. Several Confederates later described the 6th’s charge as the most “brilliant and glorious” cavalry charge of the war.

Unlike many other battle where the cavalry dismounted to fight, the battle of Brandy Station was for the most part a battle that took place on horseback.

Buford tried to turn the Confederate left  in an effort to dislodge the Confederate artillery and unhinge their defensive position so that his troops could open a direct route to Brandy Station. Rooney Lee’s brigade stood in his way, with troopers on Yew Ridge and behind a stone wall. The Union force sustained heavy losses in this fight. Then, to Buford’s surprise, the Confederates began to withdraw.

Overview Map of Brandy StationThey were responding to the pressure from the second Union “wing”, commanded by David Gregg. The 2,800-man Union force had crossed the river at Kelly’s Ford about two hours behind schedule due to their dispersed positions on the other side of the river. Discovering that their intended route was blocked by Beverly Robertson’s Brigade, Gregg found a more circuitous route that was completely unguarded.

Click Map to enlarge.

Gregg’s lead brigade, led by Col. Percy Wyndham, arrived in Brandy Station about 11 a.m. Fleetwood, Stuart’s original headquarters location, was between the arriving Union force and the bulk of Stuart’s force. The Confederate commander and his staff had left the hill and there was only one 6-pounder howitzer, left there because it had little ammunition.

Major Henry B. McClellan, Stuart’s adjutant, ordered the gun crew to resist the Union advance with what little ammunition they did have. They managed to delay the oncoming Union advance until “Grumble” Jones’ men arrived on the scene to hold the hill.

Gregg’s next brigade, led by Col. Judson Kilpatrick, swung around east of Brandy Station and attacked up the southern end and the eastern slope of Fleetwood Hill. They were checked by the arrival of Wade Hampton’s Brigade. There were a series of charges and counter-charges for possession of Fleetwood Hill. The Confederates eventually retained possession of the hill and captured three Union guns in the fighting.

Col. Alfred N. Duffié’s small 1,200-man division was delayed by two Confederate regiments in the vicinity of Stevensburg and arrived on the field too late to affect the action. Rooney Lee continued to confront Buford, falling back to the northern end of the hill. Reinforced by his cousin Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade, Rooney Lee launched a counterattack against Buford at the same time as Pleasonton had called for a general withdrawal near sunset, and the ten-hour battle was over.

Union casualties were 907 (69 killed, 352 wounded, and 486 missing, primarily captured); Confederate losses totaled 523. For the first time in the Civil War, Union cavalry matched the Confederate horsemen in skill and determination. Stuart’s humiliation as the victim of two surprise attacks, the very thing cavalry is supposed to ensure does not happen, foreshadowed other embarrassments ahead for him in the Gettysburg campaign.



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