The Battle of Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle ever fought on the North American continent. Of the 20,000 soldiers involved, about 17,000 were of the mounted branch. Brandy Station is also the first battle of the war's most famous campaign - Gettysburg.
The Confederates had planned for June 9, 1863, to be a day of maneuver rather than of battle. Two of the army's three infantry corps were near Culpeper, six miles southwest of Brandy Station, poised to move into the Shenandoah Valley and thence up to Pennsylvania. Major General J.E.B. Stuart, at Brandy Station, was to screen this movement with his 9,500 man cavalry division, while the remaining infantry corps held the attention of the Union Army at Fredericksburg, 35 miles southeast of Brandy Station.
The Federals knew that Confederate cavalry was around Culpeper, but its intelligence had not gathered information of the sizeable infantry force behind the horsemen. Army of the Potomac commander, Major General Joseph Hooker, interpreted the enemy's cavalry presence around Culpeper to be indicative of preparations for a raid of his army's supply lines. Accordingly, he ordered his Cavalry Corps commander, Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton, to "break up Stuart's raid in its incipiency.
The Confederates apparently did not expect any harassment from the enemy cavalry, for the day before the important screening mission was scheduled to take place, the Southern troops conducted a grand review for General Robert E. Lee at Inlet Station, just two miles southwest of Brandy Station. Meanwhile, 8,000 Federal cavalryman organized into three divisions, and about 3,000 Northern infantryman were preparing to disrupt the Confederate plans.
About 4:30 a.m. on June 9th, Brigadier General John Buford's column of 5,500 soldiers splashed across the fog-shrouded Rappahannock River surprising the Confederate pickets at Beverly's Ford. Nearby Southern horsemen from Brigadier General William "Grumble" Jones' brigade, awakened by the sound of gunfire, rode into the fray partially dressed and often riding bareback. They struck Buford's leading brigade, commanded by Colonel Benjamin F. "Grimes" Davis, near a bend in the Beverly's Ford Road and temporarily checked its progress. In the fighting Davis was killed.
Davis' brigade had been stopped just short of where the Confederate Horse Artillery was camped and was vulnerable to capture. Cannoneers swung one or two guns into position and fired down the road at Buford's men, enabling the other pieces to escape and establish the foundation for the subsequent Confederate line. The artillery unlimbered at the Gee House and at St. James Church -- structures located on two knolls on either side of the Beverly's Ford Road.
Most of Jones' command rallied to the left of this Confederate artillery line, while Brigadier General Wade Hampton's brigade formed to the right. The 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry suffered the greatest casualties of any regiment participating in the battle, when it unsuccessfully charged across a field to the very muzzles of the guns at St. James Church.
Realizing that the Southern artillery blocking the direct route to Brandy Station was a force to be dislodged, Buford determined to anchor his right on the Hazel River and try to turn the Confederate left. But he found Brigade General W.H.F. "Rooney" Lee's brigade blocking his advance with some troops on a piece of high ground called Yew Ridge and some dismounted troopers positioned along a stone wall in front. After sustaining heavy losses, the Federals wrestled the stone wall away from the Confederates. Then, to the amazement of Buford's men, the Confederates began pulling back.
The Southerners were shifting to meet a new threat, adjusting to their second surprise of the day. Brigadier General David M. Gregg's Union division of about 2,800 men had orders to cross the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford and proceed on roads leading directly into Brandy Station, but discovered his way blocked by Brigadier General Beverly Robertson's brigade. However, Gregg determined that another road network leading to the battlefield by a more circuitous route was completely unguarded. Following these roads, his lead brigade under Colonel Percy Wyndham arrived in Brandy Station about 11 a.m. Between Gregg and the battle taking place between Buford and Stuart was a prominent ridge called Fleetwood Hill. The eminence had been Stuart's headquarters, but the general was at the front and the only force on Fleetwood when Gregg arrived was a 6-pounder howitzer, which had been sent to the rear for want of reliable ammunition. Major Henry B. McClellan of Stuart's staff pressed this gun into service and sent a desperate plea to his chief for reinforcements. Wyndham meanwhile formed his men into line and charged up the western slope of Fleetwood. As he neared the crest, the lead elements of Jones' brigade, which had just withdrawn from St. James Church, rode over the crown.
Gregg's next brigade, led by Colonel Judson Kilpatrick, swung around east of Brandy Station and attacked up the southern end and the eastern slope of Fleetwood Hill, only to discover that their appearance coincided with the arrival of Hampton's Confederates. A series of confusing charges and countercharges swept back and forth across the hill. The Confederates cleared the hill for the final time, capturing three guns and inflicting 30 casualties among the 36 men of the 6th New York Light Artillery, which had attempted to give close-range support to the Federal cavalry.
Colonel Alfred Duffie, with a small 1,200-man division, was delayed by two Confederate regiments in the vicinity of Stevensburg and arrived on the field too late to participate in the action.
While Jones and Hampton withdrew from their initial positions to fight at Fleetwood Hill, "Rooney" Lee continued to confront Buford, falling back to the northern end of the hill. Reinforced by Colonel Thomas Munford, commanding the brigade of the ailing Fitzhugh Lee, "Rooney" Lee launched a counterattack against Buford at the same time as Pleasonton had called for a general withdrawal, and the battle was over.
Despite being surprised by his adversary twice in the same day, Stuart was able to retain the field. Union losses numbered 866; Confederate casualties were reported at 575. But the overwhelming superiority that the Confederate cavalry once enjoyed was gone.
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