The cavalry battle of Brandy Station, fought about 60 miles from Washington on the banks of the Rappahannock in Culpeper County on June 9, 1863, was big. It involved roughly 10,000 horsemen on each side and was the opening battle of the Gettysburg campaign. It was a rare fight of cavalry against cavalry, with much gallantry, much confusion and lots of saber slashing. It was a cast-of-thousands epic and an unforgettable spectacle — but exactly who won is a frequently asked question.
The consensus that has sifted down from the many participants and historians who have written about it and the long perspective of history is that it was pretty much a draw but that if you had to award the laurels to someone, it would be the Confederates.
At the end of the day, they held the ground, and they inflicted considerably more casualties. The Confederate commander, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, was much criticized for having been surprised, but the Union attackers were badly surprised, too. Thinking the Confederate camps were much farther from the Rappahannock than they were, the Federals did not know what they were riding into.
Immediately after the battle, both sides loudly proclaimed victory, but their enthusiasm was soon dampened by skeptical commentators. The Union newspapers were much kinder to the Union commander, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, than the Southern press was to Stuart, who was unsparingly criticized for having been taken by surprise. The biggest surprise of all, to both sides, was that Union cavalrymen at last showed they had learned how to fight on horseback and to stand their ground and not turn tail. This, historians have agreed, was the greatest, and the most permanent, effect of this unique battle.
The Confederates had 9,536 men there, and the Federals, counting their two heavy brigades of infantry, 10,981. The Confederates lost a total of 523 killed, wounded and captured, and the Union 936.
Capt. W.W. Blackford of Stuart’s staff said: “By all the tests recognized in war the victory was fairly ours. We captured three cannon and 500 prisoners, and held the field.”
Col. Charles Wainwright of the Army of the Potomac said: “I heard this morning that Pleasonton had a big fight on Tuesday at Brandy Station; decidedly the largest cavalry fight this war has yet produced. [Maj. Gen. Joseph] Hooker calls it a victory, though on what grounds exactly I cannot see. The numbers seem to have been about equal on the two sides, and the fighting has been back and forth. First we drove the rebel horse back onto their infantry supports, and then they drove ours back in the same way. The first is proved by our capture of Stuart’s camp and baggage [which later proved untrue]; the latter by our loss of two guns, and leaving most of our wounded on the field.”
Blackford’s brother Charles, on the staff of Gen. James Longstreet, wrote shortly after the battle: “The cavalry fight at Brandy Station can hardly be called a victory. Stuart was certainly surprised, and but for the supreme gallantry of his subordinate officers and the men … it would have been a day of disaster and disgrace. … Stuart is blamed very much, but whether or not fairly I am not sufficiently well informed to say.”
Maj. Heros von Borcke, a Prussian serving on Stuart’s staff, wrote years later of the surprise, and said the victory that Stuart snatched from it was an excellent illustration of his great genius in battle: “Learning that he had been flanked and strong units were occupying his previous headquarters blocking his retreat, Stuart’s strength and military genius rose to their highest.”
It was superb generalship, in von Borcke’s opinion, to fight off Union Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg’s columns with minimal forces, and then pull out all but the barest capable minimum from the Beverly Ford front to drive Gregg fully away before whirling about to concentrate all his forces once again on Gen. John Buford at Beverly.
Von Borcke was candid enough to opine: “If Gregg had kept the two divisions together … he would have been able to bring about a fateful defeat for Stuart’s cavalry — and every Confederate trooper on the field was well aware of this.”
Often quoted in writings about Brandy Station is the comment of Stuart’s West Point classmate, Confederate Gen. William Dorsey Pender, who wrote soon after the battle, “I suppose it is all right that Stuart should get all the blame, for when anything handsome is done he gets all the credit. A bad rule either way. He however retrieved the surprise by whipping them in the end.”
On June 15, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield was able to tell the Union Army’s commander in Washington, Gen. Charles Halleck, that the Richmond newspapers of the 13th were blaming Stuart for the surprise at Brandy Station, “and call upon him to do something to retrieve his reputation.”
In Richmond, one commentator who was obviously reading those papers, John B. Jones, clerk in the War Department, confided to his journal on June 23: “The surprise of Stuart, on the Rappahannock, has chilled every heart, notwithstanding it does not appear we lost more than the enemy in the encounter. The question is on every tongue — have our generals relaxed in vigilance?”
As the historian Richard Wheeler says, “Brandy Station had little effect on [Gen. Robert E.] Lee’s campaign other than to delay Stuart’s move northward.” Five days after the battle, U.S. Cavalry Capt. Charles Francis Adams Jr. wrote, “I am sure a good cavalry officer would have whipped Stuart out of his boots; but Pleasonton is not and never will be that.”
As for Pleasonton, he commanded ably and his men fought bravely, but his ambitious plan of a three-pronged coordinated attack was based on unsound intelligence and soon became, predictably, uncoordinated. As Gen. Henry J. Hunt wrote years later in the summary of an article about the battle, “Accident had thus disposed [Stuarts] forces in the most favorable manner to meet Pleasonton’s converging movements.”
Pleasonton can be faulted for failure to attack with more vigor and persistence only because if he had, a significant victory at a reasonable if not negligible cost could have been within his grasp.
The new Cavalry Division commander was constantly afraid, despite his 10,000-man army, of being cut off at the fords and massacred on the Rappahannock’s western shore. Pleasonton and virtually every one of his subordinate commanders complained constantly of being massively outnumbered, although they were not (a characteristic not monopolized by the Federals), and the threat of isolation from the Army of the Potomac was constantly showing through in his dispatches and reports. (One priceless telegram datelined 8:25 p.m. on June 9, a reply from Hooker’s chief of staff, Butterfield, reads, “General Pleasonton: General says, if enemy say they have 30,000, you give out you have 60,000.”
Pleasonton, however, was not much faulted, at least by the high command. Immediately after the battle, on June 12, Hooker reported to Halleck:
“Learning that the enemy had massed his cavalry near Culpeper for the purposes of a raid, I dispatched General Pleasonton to attack him on his own ground. General Pleasonton crossed the Rappahannock on the 9th at Beverely’s and Kelly’s Fords, attacked the enemy, and drove him 3 miles, capturing over 200 prisoners and 1 battle flag. This, in the face of vastly superior numbers, was only accomplished by hard and desperate fighting by our cavalry for which they deserve much credit. Their morale is splendid. They made many hand-to-hand combats, always driving the enemy before them.”
Later, to prove that he had gloriously accomplished his mission, Pleasonton told an array of conflicting stories.
He first proclaimed that he stopped Stuart from going on a big raid, but when the truth came out that no raid had been planned, Pleasonton said his mission was to gather intelligence. It soon appeared that none had been obtained, however, and that his boss, Hooker, remained ignorant of Lee’s army’s location and plans long after June 9.
As Hunt explained, summarizing the great struggle in “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” “This was in the main a true cavalry battle, and enabled the federals to dispute the superiority hitherto claimed by, and conceded to, the Confederate cavalry. In this respect the affair was an important one. It did not, however, delay Lee’s designs on the valley” (meaning Lee’s march toward Gettysburg).
It is undisputed that Brandy Station marked a turning for the Union cavalry. It showed the blue horsemen were a force to be reckoned with, and ended the Rebels’ easy assumption that when it was rider on rider, they would always win. The spirit of the Union cavalry, and the respect it got from the rest of the Union Army, were enormously boosted by reports of the fight at Brandy Station.
Confederate Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws wrote home to his wife, Emily, from division headquarters at Raccoon Ford on June 10, 1863: “Our cavalry were surprised yesterday by the enemy and had to do some desperate fighting to retrieve the day. As you will perceive from General Lee’s dispatch the enemy were driven across the river again. All this is not true … [as they retired at their leisure] but it will be better to allow the impression to prevail.”
* Richard E. Crouch is a lawyer in Northern Virginia and author of the recently published “Brandy Station: A Battle Like None Other” (Willow Bend Books).