The Federal Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac, numbering some 11,000 troopers, crossed the Rappahannock River at dawn on June 9. 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. The overall commander was Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton. He had orders from Major-General Joseph Hooker, the Potomac army commander, to “disperse and destroy the rebel force,” which consisted of Major-General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry command within General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Pleasonton 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 Brigadier-Generals William H.F. “Rooney” Lee (son of 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 Hooker that the Federals discovered Stuart’s horsemen sooner than expected, and “prisoners report that Stuart has 30,000 cavalry here.” (Stuart actually had no more than 10,000.) Pleasonton added, “They were aware of our movement, and were prepared.” Hooker authorized him to disengage. When it became clear that Buford and Gregg could not link their forces, Pleasonton ordered a withdrawal. The troopers began falling back in good order around 4:30 p.m., 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 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 managed to drive the Federals off, but he had been caught off guard. Had Buford and Gregg been able to unite, this battle might have ended in disaster for the Confederates. 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.”
Pleasonton may not have carried out Hooker’s order to “disperse and destroy” Stuart’s cavalry, but the new Federal Cavalry Corps matched their legendary Confederate counterparts for the first time. A trooper noted that “the Rebels were going to have a review of their cavalry on that day, but our boys reviewed them.” An officer wrote that the battle featured “more fighting than generalship,” during which the Confederates “lost their prestige and never recovered it.” Another officer later asserted that this battle “made the Federal Cavalry.” Pleasonton did not discover Lee’s northward movement, but he did provide other valuable information to Hooker.
Stuart’s cavalry was assigned to screen the Confederate army’s northward advance. But Stuart soon began planning to make amends for this engagement by staging another sensational raid.
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