Breaking Up Mischief in Its Incipiency

General Robert E. Lee struck his headquarters at Hamilton’s Crossing, south of Fredericksburg, Virginia, on June 6 and headed north to join the main Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. As the troops moved toward the Shenandoah Valley, Confederate cavalry stationed there under Brigadier-General John D. Imboden demonstrated against Romney to divert Federal attention.

Major-General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac near Fredericksburg, ordered scouting expeditions both north and south of the town to “feel the enemy and cause him to develop his strength.” Hooker added, “Let your pickets chat enough not to tell him (the enemy) anything, but to find out his regiments.” Learning that Major-General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry was at Culpeper Court House, Hooker wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “As the accumulation of the heavy rebel force of cavalry about Culpeper may mean mischief, I am determined, if practicable, to break it up in its incipiency.”

Hooker planned to send Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton’s Cavalry Corps, supported by 3,000 infantry in two brigades, to confront Stuart. Pleasonton assembled his two cavalry divisions under Brigadier-Generals John Buford and David Gregg, and the infantry under Brigadier-Generals Adelbert Ames and David Russell.

However, Hooker continued receiving conflicting reports of Confederates both strengthening and abandoning their defenses at Fredericksburg. It seemed clearer in Washington, where Major-General Samuel P. Heintzelman, commanding the capital defenses, wrote Major-General Julius Stahel, commanding Federals at Manassas Junction, “There is little doubt Lee has moved his army from Hooker’s front. His object is not known. Push a strong reconnaissance into the Shenandoah Valley at once, to acquire any information which may be had of the enemy’s whereabouts or intentions.”

Lee reached Culpeper Court House on the 7th, where two divisions of Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s First Corps were camped, along with three divisions of Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps. Lee wired President Jefferson Davis asking him to approve sending Major-General George Pickett’s division at Hanover Junction to rejoin Longstreet’s corps; Lee suggested sending a brigade from the Richmond defenses to replace Pickett’s men. Lee also urged that reinforcements from General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates at Charleston be sent either to himself or to General Joseph E. Johnston in Mississippi. Administration officials expressed reluctance to send Lee reinforcements, prompting him to offer to return closer to the capital if they feared for their safety.

Stuart sent Lee an invitation to attend a second grand cavalry review at Brandy Station, just north of Culpeper on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Lee arrived to the cheers of his men and other spectators and pulled his gray horse up to the grandstand. He joined Longstreet and other officers, along with dignitaries and ladies in watching the procession. Major-General John Bell Hood’s division, known for its roughness, was also allowed to attend, provided the men behaved like gentlemen.

Confederate General Jeb Stuart | Image Credit:

Stuart’s entire command rode past, consisting of 9,536 officers and men in a three-mile line. They moved at a slow walk in accordance with Lee’s order not to wear the horses out. Lee inspected every regiment as it passed and later said, “Stuart was in all his glory.” However, Lee noted that many units had shoddy weapons and tack. When Stuart rode past with a flowered wreath around his horse’s neck, Lee warned him, “Take care, that is the way General (John) Pope’s horse was adorned when he went to the Battle of (Second) Manassas!”

The festivities ended with the firing of cannon and a mock cavalry battle. Stuart then returned to his headquarters on Fleetwood Hill, across from Brandy Station. His troopers were to screen the infantry’s westward march the next day, but by nightfall his command was spread out over six miles.

Meanwhile, Pleasonton’s Federals moved along the Rappahannock, from Falmouth toward Culpeper. Pleasonton had 11,000 men and six light batteries, with orders to “disperse and destroy” Stuart’s command. Pleasonton split his force into two wings, which were to cross the Rappahannock River at different points and then unite at Brandy Station early the next day. Stuart planned to leave Brandy Station later that day, unaware that such a large Federal force was approaching.


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