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Battle Of Brandy Station : Largest Cavalry Engagement On American Soil

Battle Of Brandy Station : Largest Cavalry Engagement On American Soil

Brandy Station, Va., vicinity. Camp of 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry, 3d Division, Cavalry Corps. Photograph from the main eastern theater of war, winter quarters at Brandy Station, December 1863-April 1864

In June 1863, General Robert E. Lee convinced President Jefferson Davis to try a second Northern invasion.  The purpose was a gamble to change the trajectory of the war. With full recognition that the western theater was not going well, and sustained by the momentum and confidence in his army resulting from the Battle of  Chancellorsville, Lee had two primary objectives: 1) remove the war from central Virginia for the summer and 2) win a decisive battle north of the Mason-Dixon Line to bring about recognition of the Confederacy by France and Britain. 

The Situation

Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, left, and Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, right.

On June 3, the Army of Northern Virginia began to move west, away from Fredericksburg, toward the Shenandoah Valley. His plan was to use the mountains to screen his movement north across the Potomac and ultimately into Pennsylvania. 

The movement had to be carefully choreographed so the Union Army didn’t attack his rear or flank as he marched. 

The first portion of the plan brought Ewell’s and Longstreet’s Corps to Culpeper Court House while AP Hill’s Corps remained behind to cover the advance. The mission assigned to Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry division was to screen the Union Army from knowing where the infantry was located during the march to the Shenandoah Valley. About 9,500 Confederate cavalrymen were concentrated at Brandy Station, a rail station on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad that was also a crossroads roughly halfway between Culpeper and the Rappahannock. 

Lee directed Stuart to launch a diversionary raid across the Rappahannock River the next day, June 9, to hide his planned movement north. The idea was to keep the north bank of the river clear of Union soldiers

Stuart’s concentration, however, was detected by Union cavalry led by Brig Gen Alfred Pleasonton. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, anticipated that Stuart planned a circumnavigation raid around his right flank toward Washington.  To prevent that threat, he ordered Pleasonton to cross the Rappahannock River and attack the Confederate cavalry to “disperse or destroy” Stuart. To accomplish this order, Pleasonton added an infantry brigade to his cavalry arm, gathering 12,000 men. His plan was a double envelopment: one wing under Brig Gen. John Buford’s would cross at Beverly’s Ford and another under Brig Gen. David McM Gregg further south at Kelly’s Ford. They would converge at Brandy Station. The attack was to be a surprise in the pre-dawn hours.

Stuart was mystifyingly unaware of this force in his front. Stuart had held three ceremonial reviews in the three weeks before the Battle of Brandy Station.  On May 22, June 5, and June 8, formal inspections for the entertainment of the locals occurred.  These reviews featured mock battles and a grand ball on June 5.  Union officers were well aware of these meetings, raising suspicions that the Confederate cavalry was concentrating.

The Battle

Early on the morning of June 9, Buford crossed over the Rappahannock at Beverly Ford, located 4 ½ miles northeast of Brandy Station at 5 A.M.  The surprised Confederate pickets returned to the main camp, firing their pistols in the air to arouse their men, who were still in bed.  With enemy cavalry very close by, Stuart’s men were racing against the clock from the beginning of the fight.  The Confederates fell back and rallied, giving stiff resistance at St. James Church at the Richard Cunningham farm. Buford’s second in command, Colonel Benjamin “Grimes” Davis, was killed in this action.

Upon re-grouping, the Confederate artillery created severe casualties on a congested Union line. Buford ordered a charge on the battery, overrunning the guns. A counterattack by Brig Gen “Grumble” Jones drove them back and redeployed the artillery. Buford then attempted to outflank the enemy position on their left flank, positioned on Yew Ridge, where multiple attacks were repelled by dismounted troopers behind a stone wall. 

At this location, a cavalry brigade led by General Lee’s son Rooney battled an infantry regiment led by his college friend, Lt. Col. Charles Mudge. The gray cavalry held off a number of infantry charges. Rooney then led a counterattack during which he was wounded and eventually taken prisoner. Mudge was later killed at Gettysburg in the infamous Union countercharge on Culps Hill on July 3..

The Union force under Gregg met repeated delays at Kelly’s Ford. His scouts identified Confederates in his front, , the Union cavalry split up. so he made a wide march around the enemy, reaching Brandy Station around 11:30 AM. The arrival of union cavalry at Brandy Station threatened the rear of Stuart’s position. He was now in Stuart’s rear. Gregg’s direct path to St James Church was blocked by a long, low ridge called Fleetwood Hill. Union artillery opened on that elevation. Gregg deployed into a line of battle, expecting severe resistance.

Stuart’s headquarters were located there, and he was surprised to find a sizeable union force to his rear, having committed his entire command to his front. At that moment, only a single artillery gun was on top of the hill. It fired a number of times rapidly, giving Gregg an impression that it was heavily defended This gave Stuart enough time to send two regiments back to cover; then later Wade Hampton’s brigades.  

The two sides clashed in mounted combat for control of Fleetwood Hill, which was the key to the position. Despite the withdrawals, Confederates at Yew Ridge held Buford from further advances, allowing Stuart to shuffle more troops to face Gregg. The opposing lines charged and countercharged for about five hours. Finally, Confederate reinforcement with Munford’s brigade led Pleasanton to withdraw at 5 P.M. after fourteen hours of fighting.

The Implications

Brandy Station is usually described as being the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War. Union casualties were 907 (69 killed, 352 wounded, and 486 missing, primarily captured) of about 11,000 troops; Confederate losses totaled 523 of about 9,500 troops.

Was Brandy Station a Union or Confederate victory? This battle is open to a multitude of interpretations. The best way to analyze it is to divide things up by perspective: tactical vs. strategic analysis. 

From the tactical perspective, the battle was a Confederate victory since Stuart had fewer casualties, held the field at the end of the day and had repelled Pleasonton’s attack. From a strategic perspective, the Federals retired without discovering Gen. Robert E. Lee’s infantry camped near Culpeper. That was Stuart’s mission, so he gets credit for succeeding in his primary mission.

However, Hooker reasoned that if Stuart were that far north, Lee must be planning a move further north into Maryland. Hooker began moving the AOP across the Potomac almost immediately, and well before Stuart began his ride around the Union Army with fateful consequences. In that sense, many think it was a strategic Union victory.

Title: Gallant charge of the 6th N.Y. Cavalry, on the 11th Oct. 1863 Physical description: 1 print. Notes: This record contains unverified data from PGA shelflist card.; Associated name on shelflist card: Eno, Henry C.; Copyright deposit: [inscribed] Jan 30, 1864. no. 666; [stamped] 28 Apr 1864; [in pencil] no. 25163…

In contradistinction to most Civil War battles, both commanders were criticized as if they had lost. No doubt, General Stuart was a big loser in the Court of Public Opinion. Stuart had failed to detect two cavalry forces and to prevent a surprise attack. The Southern press was critical of the outcome and of the general. The Richmond Enquirer wrote that “Gen. Stuart has suffered no little in public estimation by the late enterprises of the enemy.” The Richmond Examiner described Stuart’s command as “puffed up cavalry,” that suffered the “consequences of negligence and bad management.” His subsequent foray on the way to Gettysburg was intended as a deflection of these interpretations, but led to further embarrassment. 

Pleasonton, a highly ambitious man, came under heavy criticism for not defeating Stuart at Brandy Station despite the complete surprise. In his own defense, Pleasonton claimed that he had only been ordered to make a “reconnaissance in force toward Culpeper” by Hooker, which was inaccurate.. He certainly did not gain much reputationally.  His failure on this field and in detecting Lee’s whereabouts during his advance north was acknowledged, resulting in his transfer to the western theater after the Gettysburg campaign.

The Confederate cavalry’s dominance in the East over the first two years of the war was demonstrated in this battle to have changed. The Federal cavalry had shown that it had become an effective fighting force that had gained strength and confidence over the prior two years. From that viewpoint, it was a limited operational victory for Pleasonton.

Perhaps the most accurate conclusion is that it was a Confederate tactical victory but a Union strategic victory.

Battle Of Brandy Station : Largest Cavalry Engagement On American Soil

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies. 

Moreover, Dr. Klein is a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.

Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian who has read extensively on the Civil War with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions were made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.

Please see Dr. Klein’s Works:

Siege of Vicksburg

The Battle of Shiloh

The Hampton Roads Conference

Sherman’s March To The Sea

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?)

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston

The “Lost Order” Of General Lee

What caused the South to start the Civil War?

Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Greatest Victory


Battle Of Brandy Station : Largest Cavalry Engagement On American Soil