Clash at Brandy Station Warfare: The Gettysburg campaign included the Civil War's first and largest cavalry battle

135th Anniversary Re-Enactment

Revisiting Gettysburg

June 21, 1998

Soon after Gen. Robert E. Lee started to withdraw his army at Fredericksburg, Va., on June 3, 1863, for the march to Gettysburg, the Union commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, became suspicious that something was afoot.

On June 5, Hooker ordered a reconnaissance force to cross the Rappahannock River at Franklin's Crossing to see if the Confederates were withdrawing. This crossing was heavily resisted, and Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, who commanded the troops making the crossing, reported that he thought the main Southern army was still in position.

Hooker was not convinced. On June 7, 1863, he ordered Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton to make reconnaissance with all of the available cavalry of the army in the direction of Culpeper, Va., to ascertain whether the Confederate forces were concentrating there, with a view to an invasion of the North, according to Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday's "Chancellorsville and Gettysburg," published in 1881. Doubleday was commander of the Union army's 1st Corps at the outset of the battle at Gettysburg.

Pleasonton ordered the Union cavalry corps toward Culpeper. The cavalry corps consisted of three weak divisions under Maj. Gen. John Buford, Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg and Col. Alfred Nattie Duffie. For the reconnaissance at Culpeper, Hooker also attached two brigades of infantry under Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames and Brig. Gen. David Allen Russell to Pleasonton's command, bringing his force to 10,981.

Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry division at Culpeper was organized into six brigades, commanded by Brig. Gens. Wade Hampton, Beverly H. Robertson, William E. Jones, Fitzhugh Lee, Albert G. Jenkins and William Henry Fitzhugh Lee. The independent brigade of Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden is also usually listed with Stuart's forces. Jenkins' brigade was in the vanguard of the army's northward march and Imboden's troopers screened the western flank, leaving Stuart's strength at the battle of Brandy Station, Va., at 10,292, according to Maj. Gen. Henry J. Hunt in "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War," published in 1884.

Doubleday's account

Doubleday gives the following account of the crossing of the Rappahannock and the subsequent battle on June 9, 1863:

"At daybreak Pleasonton's troops began to cross; Buford's division and Ames' infantry at Beverly Ford; the other two divisions, under Gregg and Duffie, with Russell's infantry at Beverly Ford, six miles below. Each division was accompanied by two light batteries.

"Pleasonton's plan was founded on the erroneous supposition that the enemy were at Culpeper. He used the infantry to keep the lines of retreat open, and directed the cavalry to rendezvous at Brandy Station. They were to arrive there at the same time and attack together. Duffie's column was to make a circuit by way of Stevensburg. Unfortunately for Pleasonton, Stuart was not at Culpeper, but at Brandy Station; that is, he occupied the point where they were to rendezvous, and the plan appertained practically to the same vicious system of converging columns against a central force.

"What happened may be briefly stated as follows: The 1st Division under Buford, came upon the enemy between Brandy Station and Beverly Ford. A battle ensued at St. James's Church, and as their whole force confronted him, and they had 20 pieces of artillery, he was unable to break their line. After fighting some hours he was obliged to turn back with a portion of his command to repel an attempt against his line of retreat.

"Gregg next appeared on the scene and succeeded in getting behind Stuart before the rebel general knew he was there. Buford having gone back to Beverly Ford, as stated, Gregg, in his turn, fought the whole of Stuart's force without the co-operation of either Buford or Duffie. It can hardly be said that Duffie's column took any part in the action, for he did not reach Brandy Station until late in the day. And then, as the rebel infantry were approaching, Pleasonton ordered a retreat. ...

"Stuart's headquarters were taken twice by Gregg's division, and a company desk captured with very important documents, but the enemy had the most men, and most artillery near the point attacked, and therefore always regained, by a countercharge, the ground that had been lost."

Claims of victory

"Stuart claims to have repulsed the last attack of Pleasonton against Fleetwood Hill, and to have taken three guns, besides driving our cavalry back across the river.

"Pleasonton claims to have fully accomplished the object of his reconnaissance, to have gained valuable information which enabled Hooker to thwart Lee's plans; and to have so crippled the rebel cavalry that its efficiency was very much impaired for the remainder of the campaign; so that Lee was forced to take the indirect route of the valley, instead of the direct one along the eastern base of the Blue Ridge, behind his cavalry as a screen; his original intention having been to enter Maryland at Poolesville and Monocacy."

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