Brandy Station

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Brandy Station, Battle of (1863).This battle, fought just south of the Rappahannock River in Culpeper County, Virginia, stands as the largest clash of cavalry in North America. While not strategically important, the battle had long‐range consequences for cavalry operations during the second half of the Civil War.

Robert E. Lee intended to launch his Gettysburg campaign from Culpeper County on the morning of 9 June 1863. Gen. James E. B. Stuart, commanding five cavalry brigades and five artillery batteries (9,700 men), had orders to screen the infantry's line of march northward from Union forces under Gen. Joseph Hooker. Stuart had encamped his men on a north‐south line ten miles long and midway between Lee's infantry at Culpeper Courthouse and the Rappahannock River. The approximate center of his line was Brandy Station, on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.

Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, cavalry chief of the Army of the Potomac, moved first. Benefiting from reforms enacted the previous February by Hooker, Federal cavalry was beginning to take a more aggressive role in the war. Pleasonton on this day had orders to cross the Rappahannock with three cavalry divisions, two infantry brigades, and six artillery batteries, and destroy whatever Confederate forces he found in Culpeper. Unfortunately, Pleasonton did not know the precise location or size of those forces, which he erroneously assumed would be encamped around Culpeper Courthouse, eleven miles west of the river.

Following instructions from Hooker, Pleasonton divided his force on 9 June. The right wing (5,418 men) under Gen. John Buford crossed the river at Beverly's Ford around 5:00 A.M. The left wing (5,563 men) under Gen. David M. Gregg crossed at Kelly's Ford, six miles below Beverly's Ford, an hour later. The two wings were to rendezvous at Brandy Station and move west toward the courthouse. Buford was surprised to encounter rebel resistance near the river, but he advanced swiftly toward the brigade camp of Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones, near St. James's Church and two miles north of Brandy Station. Jones established a strong defensive line, composed largely of artillery and dismounted cavalry, that repulsed repeated assaults by Buford. The line was soon reinforced and extended in the shape of a crescent by the arrival of Gen. Wade Hampton's brigade on Jones's right flank and Gen. W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee's brigade on his left, along the base of Yew Ridge.

By that time, however, around 11:00 A.M., the Federal left wing was approaching Stuart's rear. Gregg's command, consisting primarily of his own cavalry division and a cavalry division under Col. Alfred N. A. Duffie, had overwhelmed pickets at Kelly's Ford. Gregg's division circumvented Gen. Beverly Robertson's brigade and was poised to seize Fleetwood Hill, just north of Brandy and the site of Stuart's headquarters, before Stuart appreciated the danger. In this second and most famous phase of the battle, thousands of mounted cavalry launched charge after countercharge seeking to control the heights of Fleetwood. At the same time, a third phase of the fight unfolded near Stevensburg, four miles south of Brandy, where Duffie, who had been dispatched toward Culpeper Courthouse, battled two Confederate regiments. Duffie, with nearly 2,000 horsemen, outnumbered his opponents four to one, but his overly cautious nature prohibited him from breaking through to join Buford and Gregg.

By 4:00 P.M., Pleasonton, who had accompanied Buford's wing, had ordered his command to recross the Rappahannock. Federal retreat was accelerated by a final Confederate attack. As troops were withdrawn from the fighting around St. James's to engage on Fleetwood, Buford had slowly pushed back Rooney Lee. Now the brigades of Rooney Lee and Fitzhugh Lee rallied to slam into the Union right flank as Pleasonton's entire line faded back toward the river.

Stuart would never admit to being taken by surprise at Brandy Station, and he could, in fact, claim a tactical victory. He had held his ground, and Confederate casualties amounted to only 485, compared to Federal losses of 866. The heaviest fighting and the lion's share of the casualties came around St. James's. But Federal cavalrymen believed they had earned a stalemate deep in rebel territory. This sense of accomplishment, combined with the new Federal strategy that gave them a larger combat role, enhanced their confidence and morale. Stuart, say some authorities, stung by public criticism of his performance at Brandy Station, tried to atone with an ill‐conceived raid during the Gettysburg campaign, a raid that left Robert E. Lee blind during the early, critical stages of that campaign and battle.
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Gettysburg, Battle of.]


Stephen Z. Starr , The Union Cavalry in the Civil War, 3 vols., 1979–85.
Emory M. Thomas , Bold Dragoon: The Life of J. E. B. Stuart, 1986.
Clark B. Hall , The Battle of Brandy Station, Civil War Times Illustrated, 19 (June 1990), pp. 32–42, 45.
Clark B. Hall , ‘Long and Desperate Encounter’: Buford at Brandy Station, Civil War, 8 (July–August 1990), pp. 12–17, 66–67.
Gary W. Gallagher , Brandy Station: The Civil War's Bloodiest Arena of Mounted Combat, Blue & Gray Magazine, 8 (October 1990), pp. 8–22, 44–53.
Daniel E. Sutherland , Seasons of War: The Ordeal of a Confederate Community, 1995.

Daniel E. Sutherland