09 June 2006 by Published in: General musings No comments yet

143 years ago today, an epic passage of arms occurred on the hills and fields surrounding an obscure stop on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad called Brandy Station, located a few miles from Culpeper Court House. 21,000 Union and Confederate cavalrymen and 3,000 Union infantrymen spent fourteen hours locked in mortal combat that day.

The Union commander, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, the temporary commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, was given a simple task: fall upon, destroy, or disperse the huge concentration of Confederate cavalry in Culpeper County. Pleasonton designed a brilliant plan. He divided his force into two wings. The right wing, consisting of the First Cavalry Division and a brigade of 1,500 selected infantry, would cross the Rappahannock River at Beverly’s Ford, and the Second and Third Divisions, along with another infantry brigade, would cross six miles further south at Kelly’s Ford. With the Second Division protecting the southern flank, the First and Third Divisions would converge on Culpeper. The infantry would hold the fords.

The plan was brilliant, but for one major problem. It was based on a faulty premise; it assumed that the enemy would be in and around Culpeper, and not just across the Rappahannock River. When John Buford’s First Division crossed the river, it immediately encountered Confederate cavalry, and a great battle commenced. Buford’s command lost a brigade commander, Col. Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis, in the opening moments of the battle. Elements of Buford’s command, including five companies of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, made a determined attempt to capture a battaltion of Confederate horse artillery at St. James Church. Buford’s fight then bogged down into a desperate slugging match.

David Gregg’s Third Division crossed at Kelly’s Ford, and Gregg’s advance reached Fleetwood Hill about 11:00 that morning. There occurred a scene its participants remembered for the rest of their lives: brigade-sized mounted charged and countercharges, featuring sabers glinting in the bright spring sunshine. It was all of the romance typically associated with mounted melees, only a scale almost beyond imagination.

During the climax of the fight, Capt. Wesley Merritt, the commander of the 2nd U. S. Cavalry, engaged in a personal saber duel with Brig. Gen. William H. F. “Rooney” Lee, General Robert E. Lee’s second son. Rooney Lee was wounded in the engagement and was later captured as a result. Buford’s men briefly carried the crest of Yew Ridge, the northern extension of Fleetwood Hill, before being driven back. Col. Alfred N. Duffie’s Second Division, which was held up at Kelly’s Ford for nearly the entire day by two regiments of Confederate cavalry, played no role in the main battle, and only arrived at Fleetwood Hill in time to cover Gregg’s withdrawal.

Jeb Stuart and his Confederate cavalry had been caught by surprise, but they had fought a magnificent fight. The brigade of Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones, in particular, carried the bulk of the day’s fighting, and these men performed superbly.

Finally, at the end of the day, Pleasonton broke off and withdrew, his troopers withdrawing at their own leisurely rate. Stuart was perfectly happy to let them go. By all measures, Brandy Staiton is a Confederate victory: Stuart held the battlefield at the end of the day, and Pleasonton utterly failed to accomplish his objectives. Although Pleasonton later lied and claimed that he had captured Stuart’s field desk and its contents, thereby alerting the Union high command to the Confederate plan to invade the north, nothing of the sort happened. Pleaosnton was a notorious liar, and this was one of his very worst. In short, the raid accomplished none of its objectives, but it was a magnificent effort on the part of both sides.

Stuart came under harsh criticism for being caught by surprise, but he handled his troops superbly. Ultimately, he won the battle, but he caught hell for it. Brandy Station delayed the beginning of the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania by a single day, so it had very little in the way of strategic significance to the ultimate outcome of the campaign. However, many people, including Stuart’s engineer officer. W. W. Blackford, have claimed that the Brandy Station fight made the Union cavalry, and that from that day forward the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps was fully the equal of Stuart’s vaunted horsemen.

Thus, Brandy Station marks a red-letter day in the development of the Federal cavalry, and it also marks the largest cavalry battle ever fought on the North American continent. As such, it is worthy of being remembered, and I pay tribute to the men who fought and died there that day, whether they wore blue or gray.

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