Brandy Station: The Civil War Battle that "Created" the U.S. Cavalry

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Brandy Station: The Civil War Battle that "Created" the U.S. Cavalry

“Up to that time confessedly inferior to the Southern horsemen, they gained on this day that confidence in themselves and in their commanders which enabled them to contest so fiercely the subsequent battlefields.”

Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart was in all his glory. It was June 8, 1863, and the Confederate cavalry commander was putting on a grand review of his horse soldiers on a plain west of the Rappahannock River near Brandy Station, Virginia, for none other than General Robert E. Lee. In fact, this was Stuart’s third grand review since May 22. The first two had more pomp and ceremony and concluded with a mock battle. The third review was more hastily put together for Lee, who had been invited to the second review but missed out.

10,000 Sabers in the Sunlight

Stuart’s 22 regiments of horsemen were lined up in double ranks that stretched for three miles.  It was an impressive sight, and Stuart had good reason to be proud. His cavalry was at its zenith, boasting five brigades of horse soldiers and two battalions of horse artillery numbering 9,536 troopers and 756 officers. With plans to take the war north, Lee had reinforced Stuart with a brigade of cavalry under the command of Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson from North Carolina and Brig. Gen. William “Grumble” Jones’s brigade from the Shenandoah Valley. Stuart was happy to have the reinforcements, but not with their commanders. He thought Robertson “the most troublesome man in the army” and had been glad to see him reassigned to North Carolina. Stuart also disliked Jones, a feeling that was returned by the rough-talking, hard-fighting cavalry officer.

Besides seeing his cavalry command increased in strength, Stuart had spent almost a month in Culpepper County, where he had been sent to protect the Army of Northern Virginia’s rear from Federal cavalry and take advantage of the good grazing land there. While there he also resupplied his regiments, got fresh mounts when possible, and drilled his men.

After inspecting the troopers, Lee took up position on a low rise and watched as almost 10,000 sabers flashed in the sunlight, colors flying as the squadrons passed him in columns of four. When the review was finally over, the tired troopers rode back to their respective camps near Brandy Station.

Colonel Tom Munford, who was briefly in command of Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade, as Lee’s nephew was laid up with rheumatoid arthritis, encamped for the night at Oak Shade Church near the Hazel River, a tributary of the Rappahannock. Brig. Gen. William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, Robert E. Lee’s son, meanwhile, took up position at Welford’s Farm, while Jones’s brigade encamped near St. James Church along with Major Robert Beckham and the famous Stuart’s Horse Artillery Battalion.

Brigadier General Wade Hampton, one of the richest men in the Confederacy, bivouacked his brigade between Fleetwood Hill and Stevensburg along with Robertson’s brigade. Stuart, meanwhile, headed over to his headquarters on Fleetwood Hill. This scenic terrain was an elevated ridge that commanded the surrounding rolling country and the roads leading north and south from Brandy Station.

Stuart was happy with the day’s pageantry and prepared to move his men out the next day as they were to screen Lee’s army as it began to shift west and then head up the Shenandoah Valley for an invasion of the North. Jones, though, was not pleased with the day’s events and commented: “No doubt the Yankees, who have two divisions of cavalry on the other side of the river, have witnessed from their signal stations, this show in which Stuart has exposed to view his strength and aroused their curiosity. They will want to know what is going on and, if I am not mistaken, will be over early in the morning to investigate.” He was right.

Confederate Organizational Advantage

For some time, Union General Joseph Hooker had been receiving reports about Stuart’s presence in the Culpepper Court House vicinity. Colonel George Sharpe, Hooker’s chief of intelligence, believed the Rebels intended to launch a large cavalry raid. Hooker decided to strike first.

On June 7, Hooker ordered Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, his cavalry commander, to divide his force and cross the Rappahannock River at Beverly and Kelly’s Fords and “disperse and destroy the Rebel force assembled in the vicinity of Culpepper.” The Federal horsemen were also to destroy the enemy’s “trains and supplies of all description” to the best of their ability. If they should be successful in routing the Rebels, they were to pursue them vigorously as long as it was to their advantage.

It was a tall order for the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry. By the third summer of the war, Union cavalry was finally reaching parity with Confederate cavalry. When the war broke out, the North was at a disadvantage for qualified cavalry officers as the majority of those serving in the regular army resigned their commissions to fight for the South. In the first half of the war, the bluecoated cavalry generally suffered from a lack of comfort and experience in the saddle. In contrast, their Confederate counterparts, who had relied heavily on horses for personal transportation before the war, had brought their own mounts when mustered into units. The result was that the Union cavalry mostly had been outfought and outridden by its Rebel adversaries.

The organizational structure of the Union cavalry during the first part of the war also put it at a distinct disadvantage. Rather than being organized in a separate cavalry corps, individual regiments were attached to infantry commands for use as scouts, couriers, and escorts. Such an approach completely nullified their use for raids and long-range reconnaissance.

In contrast, Stuart used his cavalry for large-scale actions that effectively merged reconnaissance activities with disrupting enemy operations during the Peninsula and Second Manassas campaigns. Having circumnavigated the Union Army in the East during the Peninsula campaign, Stuart repeated the feat after the Antietam campaign with his famous Chambersburg Raid in October 1862. Stuart’s ability to ride around the Union Army was deeply humiliating to the Union cavalry units serving in the East.

Under Hooker’s command things had greatly improved for the Federal horsemen as “Fighting Joe” made sure they received better training, equipment, and horses, weeded out poor officers, and most importantly grouped the horse soldiers into a corps. The newly created cavalry corps had done well in its first raid into Culpepper County at Kelly’s Ford in March but did less well in a raid behind Rebel lines during the Chancellorsville campaign in May. Now the Federal horsemen were anxious again to prove their mettle and skill.

9,000 Cavalry, 3,000 Handpicked Infantry

Before the bluecoats mounted up and rode out on June 8, they refilled their cartridge boxes, were issued three days worth of rations, and saw to their horses. Soon 9,000 horse soldiers, divided into three divisions, were in the saddle and on the move for their destinations. Marching along the dusty roads in support of the cavalry were 3,000 blue-coated infantrymen. These handpicked regiments made up two brigades and were among the best marching and fighting soldiers of the Army of the Potomac.

The Federals’ plan to thrash Stuart’s cavalry was to have Brig. Gen. John Buford take his 1st Cavalry Division and the Reserve Brigade across the Rappahannock at Beverly Ford and move on to Brandy Station. Accompanying him was a brigade of infantry under Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames and some horse artillery. Buford’s force made up the right wing of Pleasonton’s plan, and the cavalry corps commander would travel with this wing himself.

At Brandy Station, Buford was to be joined by Brig. Gen. David Gregg’s 3rd Cavalry Division, which was to cross the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford, located about eight miles below Beverly Ford. Also crossing Kelly’s Ford as part of Gregg’s left wing was the 2nd Cavalry Division under Frenchman Colonel Alfred Duffie and an infantry brigade under Brig. Gen. David Russell. Once across the Rappahannock, Duffie was to take his division and ride to Stevensburg to protect Buford’s and Gregg’s left flank as they headed to Culpepper and attacked the Rebel cavalry. Only as the Union cavalrymen were to brutally learn, Stuart and his horse soldiers were not at Culpepper, but rather five miles closer at Brandy Station.

After a hot, dusty ride, Gregg’s 3rd Cavalry Division reached Kelly’s Ford and encamped about a mile from the ford after dark. With the Rebels nearby, extra precautions were taken, no fires were lit, and the men ate a cold meal. Gregg ordered that the horses were to remain saddled and bridled. The troopers, trying to catch some sleep, had to loop the reins around their arms.

“Keep Cool, Men… And Shoot to Kill.”

Around midnight, Buford’s men bivouacked about a mile or two above Beverly’s Ford out of sight from Rebel pickets. With no campfires allowed, the men dined on cold ham and hardtack before grabbing a couple of hours of sleep. At 2 am the horse soldiers were quietly awakened from their short slumber and ordered to mount their horses. Once mounted, they rode toward the ford.

A gray dawn began to appear, casting strange shadows on the landscape when the 1st Cavalry Division reached the ford, which was shrouded in a thick fog. Sitting on his gray horse smoking a pipe, Buford watched as his troopers splashed into the 31/2-foot-deep ford and crossed over in columns of four around 4:30 am. Alabama born Colonel Benjamin F. Davis led the 1st Brigade across the ford first with the 8th New York Cavalry spearheading the way.