Civil War Battles
State War Records
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The Battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War, resulted from the initial movements of the Gettysburg Campaign. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commander of the Army of the Potomac, sorely needed solid evidence of a rumored major Confederate offensive. A reconnaissence in force by the Union VI Corps on June 5, at Franklin's Crossing on the Rappahannock River, failed to verify the suspicions, so Hooker assigned the task to his cavalry corps, supported by 2 infantry brigades and 6 light batteries.
The victorious Army of Northern Virginia streamed into Culpeper County after its victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg (Second). Under the leadership of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the troops seemed invincible and prepared to carry the war north into Pennsylvania. These half-starved men had defeated armies twice their size at the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, but the constant hunger and poor equipment were showing their effects. Lee was determined to strike north to capture horses, equipment, and food for his men.
On June 5, 2 infantry corps under Lt. Gens. James Longstreet and Richard S. Ewell were camped in and around Culpeper. Holding the line of the Rappahannock River, 6 miles north of town, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart bivouacked his cavalry troopers, screening the army against surprise by the Federals.
Most of the Confederate cavalry was camped near Brandy Station. Stuart, the "dashing cavalier", requested a full field review of his troops by Lee.
On June 8, Stuart's request was granted, nearly 9,000 mounted troopers passed Lee's reviewing stand, first at a walk, then in full gallop as sabers glistened in the sun and 22 batteries of horse artillery roared in simulated battle.
On June 9, a dense fog hung over the Rappahannock in the morning. Unknown to the Confederates, 10,000 Union cavalry had massed their forces on the other side. Misinterpreting the screening action of Stuart's cavalry, Gen. Pleasanton thought he was attacking a Confederate raiding party of unknown strength. Pleasanton's attack plan called for a 2-prong thrust at the enemy. One half of his men would cross the river at Beverly's Ford, 2 miles below Brandy Station, and the other half would cross at Kelly's Ford, 4 miles downstream. Caught in these pincers, the Confederate cavalry would be surprised, outnumbered, and beaten. Pleasonton's cavalry was ready to launch a surprise attack against Stuart at Brandy Station.
Early in the morning, Stuart heard ragged gunfire from the river. Soon his troopers reached his Fleetwood Heights headquarters with the news that Union cavalrymen had forced a crossing at Beverly's Ford and charged up the narrow road toward St. James Church and Gee House Hill. Just as Stuart heard that the Federals had been checked at St. James, he received the startling news that Union troops were riding in on his rear. The vanguard, then visible, was approaching Fleetwood from the Stevensburg Road, having crossed at Kelly's Ford and reached Stevensburg via La Grange.
One lone artillery piece was left atop Fleetwood Hill, and only a token force to guard Stuart's headquarters. As this single gun fired the few shells available, the Union horsemen halted their advance. Racing against time, Confederate cavalry rushed back from the St. James battle line to meet this new threat.
Never before had the Union cavalry shown such strength and skill in combat. Stuart's headquarters was overrun, and the rear lines at St. James were threatened.
Help arrived as Brig. Gen. W.H.F. (Rooney) Lee's cavalry rode in from Little Fork Church (7 miles from Brandy Station) and saved the day for Stuart. After 12 hours of raging battle, Union troops retreated to the north side of the river. After an all-day fight in which fortunes changed repeatedly, the Federals retired without discovering Lee's infantry camped near Culpeper.
Though Stuart claimed a victory because he held the field of battle, the Battle of Brandy Station, said a Confederate, "made the Union cavalry". In the past, Stuart's superb cavalry had consistently defeated and embarrassed the Union cavalrymen, but no more. With the confidence they earned at Brandy Station, Union cavalry became a fierce antagonist. The sensitive, ambitious Stuart, however, suffered public humiliation over the surprise and near defeat. As the Confederates moved north, the flamboyant general eagerly sought to erase the stain; his attitude would have grave consequences for Lee at Gettysburg.
This battle marked the apogee of the Confederate in the East. From this point in the war, the Union cavalry gained strength and confidence. Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle of the war and the opening engagement of the Gettysburg Campaign.
Some 19,000 mounted men were engaged in this, the greatest cavalry battle ever to take place in the western hemisphere. For the first time in the Civil War, Union cavalry matched the Confederate horsemen in skill and determination.