June 9, 1863 – Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry narrowly escaped defeat in the largest cavalry battle ever waged in North America.
Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton’s 11,000 Federals crossed the Rappahannock River at dawn. One wing under Brigadier General John Buford crossed at Beverly Ford, while the other wing under Brigadier General David Gregg crossed four miles downstream at Kelly’s Ford.
Pleasonton had orders to “disperse and destroy the rebel force” of Stuart. He expected to find Stuart near Culpeper Court House, but Stuart’s command was spread across six miles from Brandy Station, a few miles north of Culpeper, to Stevensburg. Stuart was in no position to defend against such a large onslaught.
Buford advanced and surprised Confederates under Brigadier General William “Grumble” Jones, driving them back from the Rappahannock toward Brandy Station. The initial clash also surprised the Federals because they had not expected such strong resistance so far from Culpeper. Confederate troopers raced off to warn Stuart, who hurriedly concentrated his command around his headquarters at Fleetwood Hill. Soon reinforcements under Generals Rooney Lee (son of General Robert E. Lee) and Wade Hampton rushed into the fray.
Buford attacked the Confederate left under Rooney Lee but was repulsed by dismounted troopers firing from behind a stone wall. Buford ordered several more attacks, and a vicious struggle developed. The Confederates desperately held their ground, knowing that if the Federals broke through to Culpeper, they would see the main army camps and discover that the Army of Northern Virginia was heading north.
Gregg’s wing came up around noon and surprised the Confederates from the south. The Confederates quickly stopped the threat with artillery, while a detachment from Gregg’s wing under Colonel Alfred Duffie unsuccessfully attacked enemy horsemen at Stevensburg.
Meanwhile, opposing troopers charged and countercharged for over 10 hours for possession of Fleetwood Hill, the key point on the battlefield. A Maine regiment reached the crest but was beaten back. Two charges by Rush’s Lancers of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry resulted in the wounding and capture of Major Robert Morris, Jr., grandson of Robert Morris, “the Financier of the American Revolution.”
Pleasonton informed Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, that the Confederates put up a fierce resistance, and Hooker authorized him to disengage. Pleasonton finally began withdrawing around 4:30 p.m. His troopers fell back in good order, using the same fords to re-cross the Rappahannock.
Each side committed about 10,000 men to the contest, making it the largest cavalry battle in American history. The Federals sustained 866 casualties (81 killed, 403 wounded, and 382 missing). They also lost three Federal guns and several stands of colors. The Confederates lost 523 men, including Rooney Lee, who suffered a serious leg wound. This was an exceptionally high number of casualties for a cavalry battle, refuting the infantry’s long-repeated question, “Whoever saw a dead cavalryman?”
Stuart may have driven Pleasonton off and retained control of Fleetwood Hill, but the new Federal Cavalry Corps matched their legendary Confederate counterparts for the first time. A Federal officer later asserted that this battle “made the Federal Cavalry.” Although Pleasonton did not discover Lee’s northward movement, he provided Hooker with other valuable information.
The southern press harshly criticized Stuart and his “puffed up cavalry” for being surprised and nearly defeated at Brandy Station. An editorial in the Richmond Examiner alleged that this embarrassment had been caused by “vain and empty-headed officers.” The Richmond Sentinel stated, “Vigilance, vigilance, more vigilance, is the lesson taught us by the Brandy surprise. Let all learn it, from the Major General down to the picket.”
Stuart’s cavalry was assigned to screen the Confederate army’s northward advance. But Stuart soon began planned to make amends for this engagement by staging another sensational raid.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 10, 16-22, 25; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18977; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 293; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 438; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 306-07; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 182; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 46; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 363-64; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 647-48; McCoy, Patrick M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 587; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 307-09