- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

Most Civil War buffs can talk for hours about Gettysburg: Who was there, how it unfolded, what it meant for each side and so on. But here's a tidbit that might stump many: Name the battle at the outset of Gen. Robert E. Lee's fateful invasion of Pennsylvania that summer in 1863.
The battle that took place at Brandy Station, a sleepy crossroads a few miles northeast of Culpeper, Va., is seldom remembered as the kickoff of Lee's Gettysburg campaign. It's usually cited only as the largest cavalry engagement ever fought on American soil, or as a footnote, the battle in which the Union's mounted warriors earned their spurs.
Richard E. Crouch richly details the daylong cavalry clash on June 9, 1863, drawing on official records, dozens of diaries, memoirs and contemporary letters, and books published here and abroad. The result is a solid, though somewhat overwritten, reference work on a battle unlike any other in the war, fought on a grand scale almost exclusively by cavalrymen.
Mr. Crouch, a lawyer in Northern Virginia, laments that "almost all Civil War guidebooks" ignore the battle and its location. "The site … is among the loneliest and least visited of battlefields. There is no park there … [just] many square miles of rolling Virginia farmland."
The only notice of the site in recent years has come from developers. A proposal to build a racetrack there was averted only when preservationists rallied the faithful. Mr. Crouch said he hopes his book, besides telling the "story of a great battle and the brave men who fought it," will help generate more interest in saving the site.
After Lee's brilliant victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, he was resting and resupplying the Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate and Union armies faced each other from opposite sides of the Rappahannock River, and Gen. Joe Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, was uncertain about what to do next. Lee kept floating various misleading rumors to keep his opponent off-balance.
With the battlefield initiative clearly in his favor, Lee decided it was a good time to attempt another invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania. But he told no one and, leaving Gen. A.P. Hill's division to rattle sabers and Hooker's nerves in Fredericksburg, Lee stealthily withdrew the rest of his army to Culpeper to prepare.
Lee's cavalry chief, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, moved his mounted division of almost 10,000 men to nearby Brandy Station, a whistle-stop surrounded by miles of lush pastures. Lee planned to use Stuart's five brigades to screen the rest of the Southern army, allowing the Rebel infantry to sneak over the mountain passes into the Shenandoah Valley, the chosen invasion route.
A rumor of Stuart's massed cavalry reached Hooker, who was under great political pressure to advance on Lee. He ordered his newly appointed cavalry commander, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton to "disperse and destroy the Rebel force."
Commanding a force of three cavalry divisions and two infantry brigades, Pleasonton planned a three-pronged surprise attack on the area around Culpeper. Thus was launched a daylong series of charges and counter-charges pure pandemonium in some instances that culminated in late afternoon.
Loaded and prepared to march the very next day, Stuart was caught, literally, with his boots off, if not his pants down, on the morning of June 9. His failure to heed reports by pickets a few days earlier of large bodies of Union cavalry massing north of the Rappahannock had led to a total and nearly disastrous surprise.
"As with many battle narratives,'' Mr. Crouch writes, "it is difficult, at a century's remove, to tell exactly what was the sequence of events, and if component fights therein were or were not simultaneous. To the extent they were simultaneous, or it can't be ascertained, the telling of a useful story becomes that much more difficult."
Mr. Crouch tries to sort out, analyze and, in some cases, rebut key witness accounts, many of which "contradicted one another wildly on the times and sequence of events."
Indeed, it was a day of mass confusion. One of Stuart's field staff, Maj. Henry McClellan, wrote later that the battle that day "made the Federal cavalry." But their surprise ultimately failed. At the end of a bloody, exhausting day in which Stuart lost more than 500 men to death, wounds or capture, his forces still held the field.
Pleasonton, who had almost 900 men killed, wounded or missing, was forced to withdraw his forces back across the river. His mission to disperse the enemy and learn of Lee's overall intentions was a failure on both counts.
"The battle is covered in chronological order insofar as that is possible, given the number of important fights that were simultaneous," Mr. Crouch writes in his preface. "Certain tangential subjects, which the book might otherwise be condemned for treating less than definitively, are in fact covered in special appendices."
In his effort to leave no research unreported, though, the author slows the pace of what is, in places, a fine story. Parenthetical asides and jumps back and forth in the chronology, while sometimes unavoidable, can confuse a less than persistent reader.
His authoritative recounting of personal stories by key participants gives an immediacy to Mr. Crouch's narrative, but occasional lapses into the windy prose of those eyewitness accounts, such as asides directed at "dear reader," do nothing to move the story along or make it more understandable.
Yet Mr. Crouch's book is an impressive compilation of facts about what happened that day around Brandy Station, and about what had to be one of the most confusing single days of the Civil War. The breadth and tenacity of his research make the book a worthy addition to any Civil War collection.
James L. Pate is a writer in Maryland.

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