Battle of Brandy Station
|Brandy Station, by Edwin Forbes|
—The largest cavalry battle in the war, the fight at Brandy Station catches Stuart’s Southern cavaliers unprepared, and scattered in six separate encampments, after the festivities of the previous day, and the Grand Review of the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. Stuart commands 9,500 men, and they are almost all here. Two Union columns of cavalry, supported by a couple of brigades of infantry, cross the Rappahannock at Beverly and Kelly’s Fords. On the Union side, Gen. Afred Pleasonton commands the divisions of Duffie, Gregg, and Buford, with some infantry support: in all, about 11,000 men. Buford’s column, which Pleasonton is riding with, has Buford’s division, plus a reserve brigade under Maj. Charles Whiting, and a brigade of infantry from the V Corps, under Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames. Gregg’s column is made up of his own division, Col. Alfred Duffie’s division, and a brigade of infantry under Brig. Gen. Russell. Buford’s column crosses first, and catches the Rebels by surprise at Fleetwood Hill, and wide, flat-topped eminence just southwest of Beverly Ford.
Buford’s column quickly kills or disperses the Rebel cavalry pickets at the river and splashes across. The alarm spreads quickly, and by the time Buford deploys, the Confederate Brigades of Jones, Rooney Lee, and Hampton have arrived, many of them undressed and riding bareback; reinforced with artillery, the Rebels form a line on Fleetwood Hill. As Buford strikes the left of this line, Lee’s dismounted troopers take shelter behind a wall, and inflict heavy casualties on the Federals as a murderous firefight develops with carbines. Col. Benjamin Davis, commanding that Federal brigade, is killed outright. The Rebel horse artillery is near St. James Church, and a gallant and costly horseback charge by the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry fails to dislodge it.
At about this time, Gregg’s column crosses the river, finding only one brigade, under Beverly Robertson, opposing them. Gregg swings his troopers out to the left, avoiding Robertson, and heads west for Stevensburg and Culpeper, leaving Russell’s infantry to push back at Robertson. Duffie continues on this route, but Gregg takes his division north to threaten Stuart’s left flank. As Gregg arrives with Col. Percy Wyndham’s brigade, and later as Col. Judson Kilpatrick’s brigade lines up on Wyndham’s right, only then do the Confederates realize that their rear is in jeopardy.
|Gregg's attack on the Rebel flank|
Buford’s men finally dislodge Lee’s troopers just as the entire Confederate line has to pull back. But counterattacks on Gregg by the Rebels prevent his advancing. As Wyndham is delayed by Chew’s Battery, his brigade finally sweeps up Fleetwood Hill to find Grumble Jones’ Rebels counterattacking; and as Kilpatrick moves up, he finds Hampton’s Carolinians about-facing to take them on. Soon, the battle is in full swing, with several series of charges and countercharges, and fighting with pistol and saber. The crest of the hill, particularly Yew Ridge, changes hands several times.
On the Confederate left, Rooney Lee leads a charge to stop Buford again, and gets a bullet through his thigh in the action. But Stuart is firming up his line on the hill, and countercharges drive the Yankees back from Brandy Station.
|Confederate counterattack in a painting by Don Troiani|
Pleasonton decides that his troops have given (and taken) enough punishment, and withdraws towards the fords. The battle is a marginal Confederate victory, Stuart argues, since he still holds the hill, and the Yankees withdraw, but the Southern newspapers blame Stuart for allowing the Yankees for stealing a march on him, and for successfully hitting him with two surprise attacks. An infantry officer confides: ". . . Stuart is blamed very much, but whether or not fairly I am not sufficiently informed to say." The Yankees all consider this a Union victory since, for the first time, Northern cavalrymen have held their own with the Southerners in a pitched battle, and hurt them badly. Stalemate.
Losses: Union, 907 Confederate, 527
—Confederate artilleryman Sergeant George Michael Neese, of Chew’s Battery at Brandy Station, writes in his journal some of his memories and impressions of the battle:
Soon after our cavalry fell back into the field the Yankee cavalry made a charge from the woods into the open field. Our courageous cavalry gallantly withstood the enemy’s first determined charge, and the field in front of the woods was covered with a mingled mass, fighting and struggling with pistol and saber like maddened savages.
At that juncture of the fray the warlike scene was fascinatingly grand beyond description, and such as can be produced and acted only by an actual and real combat. Hundreds of glittering sabers instantly leaped from their scabbards, gleamed and flashed in the morning sun, then clashed with metallic ring, searching for human blood, while hundreds of little puffs of white smoke gracefully rose through the balmy June air from discharging firearms all over the field in front of our batteries.
During the first charge in the early morn the artillerymen stood in silent awe gazing on the struggling mass in our immediate front, yet every man was at his post and ready for action at a moment’s notice; and as soon as our cavalry repulsed the enemy and drove them back into the woods, sixteen pieces of our horse artillery opened fire on the woods with a crash and sullen roar that made the morning air tremble and filled the woods with howling shell. . . . Stirring incidents and exciting events followed one another in quick succession, and no sooner was the enemy dislodged in our rear, than a heavy force that had been fighting us all morning advanced on our front, with cavalry and artillery. Their batteries at once opened a severe fire on our position, to which we immediately replied. Then the hardest and liveliest part of the artillery fighting commenced in earnest, and the thunder of the guns roared fiercely and incessantly for several hours.
At one time the Yankee gunners had such perfect range and distance of our position that their shrapnel shell exploded right over our guns, and two or three times I heard the slugs from the exploding shell strike my gun like a shower of iron hail. One shell exploded fearfully close to me and seriously wounded two of my cannoneers and raked the sod all around me. For about three long hours whizzing shot, howling shell, exploding shrapnel, and screaming fragments filled the air that hung over Fleetwood Heights with the music of war. . . .
We were on the field twelve hours, and during that time I fired my faithful gun one hundred and sixty times. This evening just before the battle closed, with the last few shots we fired I saw the fire flash from the cascabel of my gun, and I found that it was disabled forever — burnt entirely out at the breach. . . .