14 May 2007 by Published in: Confederate Cavalry 10 comments

The great Battle of Brandy Station was fought on June 9, 1863. 12,000 Union cavalrymen splashed across the Rappahannock River at Beverly’s Ford and Kelly’s Ford to strike at Confederate cavalry thought to be near the town of Culpeper. They were surprised to find the enemy right across the river. Although the Confederate troopers were surprised by the bold attack, they rallied and held their own, keeping John Buford from taking the guns of the vaunted Stuart Horse Artillery. A fourteen hour battle raged, with Alfred Pleasonton, the Federal cavalry commander, eventually breaking off and withdrawing, leaving the battlefield in Stuart’s hands.

Pleasonton had received orders to march with his whole command and break up or disperse the large concentration of Confederate cavalry in Culpeper County, and he failed miserably. He also left the battlefield in Stuart’s hands, meaning that Brandy Station has to be considered a Confederate victory by any measure, both tactically and strategically.

Nevertheless, Stuart was excoriated by the Richmond newspapers for having been caught by surprise and for taking heavy losses in the long battle. Many amateur psychologists, most notably Emory N. Thomas, in his biography of Stuart, Bold Dragoon, have contended that Stuart’s surprise and angst over the criticism motivated him to want to do something spectacular to redeem himself, thereby triggering the “ride” during the Gettysburg Campaign. While I hope that J. D. and I have refuted that myth, there’s nothing like the letter that is the source of that theory. So, here’s Stuart’s letter to his wife Flora, responding to the allegations that he was badly surprised and badly beaten. Where something appears in [brackets], I’ve added an explanatory note to help put this letter into better context for you. Most of the officers he refers to in the letter, unless otherwise designated, were part of Stuart’s staff. The underlining is in the original. It makes for an interesting read.

Camp Farley
June 12th, 1863

My Darling Wife:

God has spared me through another bloody battle, and blessed with victory our arms. The fight occurred on the 9th between Brandy Station and will be called “Battle of Fleetwood Heights.”

We mourn the loss of [Capt. Will] Farley, my volunteer aide, killed, and [Maj. Benjamin S.] White wounded painfully. [Lt. Robert H.] Goldsborough was captured taking an important order to [Col. Williams C.] Wickham [,the commander of the 4th Virginia Cavalry]. I hope he was not hurt–he behaved most gallantly. General William H. F. Lee, with his whole Brigade, distinguished themselves, fighting almost entirely against regulars. I have no time for a detailed report to you. The papers are in great error, as usual, about the whole transaction. It was no surprise. The enemy’s movement was known and he was defeated. We captured three pieces of Artillery which the Horse Artillery now have. Lieutenant Colonel [Frank] Hampton [of the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry] was killed–also Colonel Sol[omon] Williams [of the 1st North Cavalry] and a number of brave spirits who will be deeply mourned. Our entire loss does not exceed 500 killed, wounded and missing. Among the wounded are General William H. F. Lee, Lieutenant Colonel [Jefferson] Phillips [of the 13th Virginia Cavalry], Colonel [Matthew C.] Butler [of the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry] (whose foot was amputated). It is considered certain that [Col. Benjamin F.] Grimes Davis (Yankee) was killed (he commanded a Brigade) and that [Col.] Percy Wyndham was wounded

Colonel [Pierce M. B.] Young [of the Cobb Legion Cavalry] made a splendid charge. Fitz Lee’s Brigade did not see much execution as it was but little engaged.

General [Robert E.] Lee reviewed the Division the day before the fight. I have not seen [Lt. Col. C. H.] Tyler since you left. [Col. Thomas L.] Rosser’s regiment [the 5th Virginia Cavalry] was absent. The Richmond Enquirer of the 12th lies from beginning to end. I lost no paper–no nothing–except the casualties of battle. I understand the spirit and object of the detraction and can, I believe, trace the source. I will, of course, take no notice of such base falsehood.

Your friends are all well except those referred to. I received a very affectionate letter from Mrs. Price about [Lt.] Thomas [Randolph Price, Jr.] leaving me [due to personality conflicts with Stuart, he was transferred to Jubal Early’s staff]. I will answer it in the right spirit but I do not regret that I did it. The very day you left I received marching orders but they were countermanded. I am now in a nice grove near the Review ground. I lost nothing whatever. The Examiner to the contrary notwithstanding. I believe it all originates in the Salt question. You must be careful now what you say. Give much love to all friends. [Maj. L.] Frank Terrill has reported to the War Department for orders. Captain [J. L.] Clark has been chosen as Captain of Gilmer’s Company, 12th Virginia Cavalry and I am free again. Weaver has returned from amongst the Yankees; they acknowledge themselves whipped badly. Davis killed, Wyndham mortally wounded. [Brig. Gen. Alfred] Pleasonton wrote to me and asked leave to bury his dead and care for his wounded. I replied that I had attended to both. He commands [Maj. Gen. George] Stoneman’s Corps now. Kiss Jimmy.

Your Own,

J. E. B. Stuart

P. S. Captured Buford’s aide [Capt. Joseph O’Keeffe].

This letter has triggered a vast amount of speculation. Read it and decide for yourself. For me, however, there is nothing in here that suggests that Stuart was anything but angry about the way he was portrayed in the newspaper accounts of the battle. I see nothing that suggests he was so bent out of shape as to feel the need to do something to “redeem himself”.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Steve Basic
    Tue 15th May 2007 at 12:12 am

    Eric,

    Glad you posted that, as I have come across that letter before in my studies, and when I first read it, what I took from it was that he was glad he was alive, but was saddened by the friends he had lost.

    As for the Yankees being whipped badly, there I don’t agree with him. But that’s me. 🙂

    Hope all is well.

    Steve

  2. Mark Peters
    Tue 15th May 2007 at 1:48 am

    Eric,

    The letter shows a measured response, after the battle, by JEB. As you wrote, it appears that there is nothing to suggest that JEB felt a need to “redeem himself”.

    Is there any evidence that JEB knew who was the source for the Richmond Enquirer? I can’t recall the Wittenberg/Petruzzi book dealing with this.

    Best wishes,

    Mark

  3. David Rhoads
    Tue 15th May 2007 at 8:33 am

    I think the telling part of Stuart’s letter is this:

    “The papers are in great error, as usual, about the whole transaction. It was no surprise. The enemy’s movement was known and he was defeated.”

    Clearly Stuart was stung by the press accounts of the Confederate cavalry’s being surprised by Pleasonton’s attack, as indeed they were, Stuart’s denial to his wife notwithstanding.

    I was unable to find the Richmond Examiner account that Stuart refers to so contemptuously, but the brief June 12, 1863, report from the Richmond Daily Dispatch seems to me to give a pretty accurate account:

    “The reports of the late fight in Culpeper county, brought down by passengers on the Central train yesterday evening, are hardly more satisfactory than those which had previously reached us. That our forces were surprised there seems no longer any reason to doubt, and that they fought gallantly after they recovered from the confusion into which they were at first thrown is also certain. It is equally certain that the battle terminated with the repulse of the enemy and the advantage on our side, the enemy’s loss in killed and wounded, and in the number of prisoners captured, being considerably greater than that sustained by our forces.”

  4. Don
    Tue 15th May 2007 at 4:05 pm

    Eric,
    I have to agree that this doesn’t look like motivation for a glory raid during his ride to Gettysburg. I have a copy of Pollard’s Southern History of the War, and vaguely remember the article from the Examiner on Brandy Station. I’ll see if I can find it tonight for david and to aid the discussion.

  5. Christ Liebegott
    Tue 15th May 2007 at 5:03 pm

    Eric,
    Very good post. I kind of put these claims in the same catagory as Lee’s “illness” at G-burg, Grant’s alcoholism, etc.,etc.,etc, Would you please explain Stuart’s reference to the “Salt question”.

    All the Best,
    Christ Liebegott

  6. Tue 15th May 2007 at 7:56 pm

    Christ,

    Dunno. I couldn’t figure that one out.

    Eric

  7. David Rhoads
    Tue 15th May 2007 at 9:51 pm

    I found the Examiner article quoted in Volume III of Lee’s Lieutenants. It doesn’t name Stuart explicitly but it does focus very critically on the tactical surprise achieved by the Federal forces.

    Was Freeman the first person to advance the idea that the newspapers’ critical reaction to Brandy Station influenced Stuart’s decision-making in the subsequent campaign? He certainly takes that tack in Lee’s Lieutenants. To me it seems like the theory is at least plausible but impossible to prove or disprove. The prevarications in Stuart’s letter and in his report are notable, but are in themselves very slim reeds on which to hang the theory.

    For an interesting contemporary counterpoint to Stuart’s letter about Brandy Station and the merits of the newspaper accounts, consider the following from a June 10, 1863, letter by Major General Lafayette McLaws to his wife:

    “Our cavalry were surprised yesterday by the enemy and had to do some desperate fighting to retrieve the day. As you will perceive from General Lee’s dispatch the enemy were driven across the river again. All this is not true, but it will be better to allow the impression to prevail. The enemy were not however driven back, but retired at their leisure–having accomplished I suppose what they intended, that is they felt our lines to make us show our forces; our infantry was not however displayed to any extent–but I am afraid enough was shown to give notice of our general movement.”

  8. Wed 16th May 2007 at 9:58 am

    Salt Question

    Jeb’s brother William Alexander Stuart ran the Salt Works in Saltville, Virginia, during the war. There were efforts underway about the time of Brandy Station to take over the operation by the government and apparently a nasty political debate was occuring. I believe Jeb Stuart thought his criticism was because of his brother’s involvement in that and not about his performance on the battlefield.

  9. Wed 16th May 2007 at 11:08 am

    Hokie Tom,

    Thanks a bunch for clearing that up for us. That really adds a lot of insight, doesn’t it?

    Eric

  10. Jon Strandberg
    Mon 30th Jun 2008 at 5:55 pm

    I should know this, but I don’t. Almost from the beginning of the War slaves left their owners to tag along with the Union armies. Ultimately, some of these slaves were allowed to join the army. Here’s the question:

    For about 1 1/2 years into the war, the federal Fugitive Slave Act was still in effect, making it a felony to aid any escaped slave. Sometimes there was a reward involved. Did any Union officers either surrender the slaves or collect a reward?

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