- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

The 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, began with a company of Loudoun and Fairfax men who were recruited in Leesburg in December 1861.

The unit was formed by Elijah V. White, a Marylander from Poolesville who was farming in Loudoun when the war started, and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff made him a hero. The battalion served with distinction, and the next year, it was joined by a company of Maryland men and then four more companies from nearby Virginia and Maryland counties and from the Shenandoah Valley.

By the time of the great cavalry battle of Brandy Station on June 9, 1863 — the opening battle of the Gettysburg Campaign — the 35th was serving as an independent battalion in Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry in the brigade of Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones.

When Union Gen. Alfred Pleasanton led a force of nearly 11,000 men in a swift pre-dawn attack across the Rappahannock River near Brandy in Culpeper County, the northern prong of the attack, charging full-speed across Beverly Ford, caught Stuart’s sleepy cavalry unaware, and the 35th Battalion was one of the first units thrown into the front lines to slow down the overwhelming Union attack.

Lt. Col. White’s battalion gamely charged and gallantly fought the Yankee regiments and was crucial in saving the Confederate artillery from certain capture at St. James Church. Coming to the relief of the 6th and 7th Virginia Cavalry, it charged again and again along with the 12th Virginia and fought all morning almost to the point of exhaustion.

But then, when the second prong of Pleasanton’s attack, under Gen. David M. Gregg, suddenly appeared at Fleetwood Hill above Brandy Station in the Confederate cavalry’s rear, troops had to be pulled out immediately to meet the emergency, and the 12th and the 35th were it.

White’s men, later christened the “Comanches” for their fierceness, were a good choice. Although exhausted from the morning’s fight, as a unit, they had plenty of fighting spirit and high morale, many of them still mounted on the fine horses that had first carried them off to war.

With the 12th Virginia Cavalry in the lead and the hill being held by nothing but one small Confederate cannon and its crew, the Virginians swung around and rode hard for Fleetwood Hill at a gallop. Col. Asher W. Harman’s 12th did not even take time to form into a battle line, and for the leading elements, their counterattack against Gregg’s division was little more than suicidal. The 35th Battalion, small as it was, had a few more seconds to form ranks for an effective cavalry charge. Its men were more successful and were able to retake and hold the crest of the hill as the badly mauled cavalry came streaming back.

As the 1st New Jersey, 1st Maryland, 2nd New York, 1st Maine and other regiments of Gregg’s Union cavalry tried again and again to take the hilltop, the 35th, along with the 6th Virginia Cavalry and finally a massive charge by Gen. Wade Hampton’s brigade, managed to fight them off. Charging through the yards and gardens of the Fleetwood House, they captured large numbers of Union horsemen while exposed to the fire of an expert battery of New York artillery, Capt. Joseph Martin’s 6th Independent Battery.

The 35th Virginia was ordered to charge the three-gun Union battery at the foot of Fleetwood Hill. About 300 yards west of the hilltop, the guns were making it very hazardous for any Southern horse or man to go there. White’s men charged down, with a company of the 6th Virginia Regiment in support, galloping across an open plain for 300 yards, fully exposed to the rifled artillery’s murderous fire.

They drove away the Union horsemen who were supposed to protect the guns, then charged the battery itself. White observed in his report that “the men at the battery fought in desperation, continuing to fire their small arms after they were completely surrounded.” He added that “there was no demand for a surrender or offer of one until nearly all the men, with many of their horses, were either killed or wounded.”

These Yankee gunners earned the respect of John W. Peake of the 6th Virginia: “I must say they were the bravest cannoneers that ever followed a gun. As we shot their men and horses down, they would fight us with their swabs, with but few of them left.”

As the surviving New Yorkers broke and ran from the guns, White let some horsemen pursue them while he and a few other men attempted to turn the guns on the Yankees. That was when the Comanches found themselves surrounded by Union cavalry.

The Confederates constantly looked over their shoulders for the help they were sure Stuart would send. Finally, White decided there was no use sacrificing his command for nothing, and he charged back up Fleetwood Hill, cutting his way through the surrounding blue waves. Capt. Frank Myersof A Company wrote that this alone “cost half the number of the battalion.”

Failure to support far-charging, victorious cavalry was noted over and over by unit commanders on both sides. White, after relating his taking of the Union cannons with such valor, gallantry and severe loss, reported: “We were destined, however, to hold the battery but a short time. I had no support sent to me, and being entirely unprotected, I was soon surrounded by the enemy, who came down upon me from every quarter.”

As Union horsemen formed around Martin’s battery to charge the Fleetwood crest again and take the Rebel guns, they watched the canister being loaded and the Confederate muzzles being depressed to cut off charging horses at the knees, and watching was enough to make them give up the idea. Then, around the west side of Fleetwood Hill, White’s Comanches appeared quite suddenly and charged down on the Union battery as its cavalry companions fled.

Then Martin’s men loaded canister, too, and sent the deadly spray into the oncoming Virginia ranks at close and deadly range. White’s men, though knocked back, gave the New York gunners time to fire only one round before flooding in, encircling them and riding them down.

The New Yorkers fought with pistols, rammers and handspikes from the gun carriage trails, but the battery was doomed. White’s men had methodically gunned down the limber horses, and Capt. Martin’s men had just seconds left to disable the guns. After this final Rebel charge, the rifled guns were abandoned.

In Stuart’s report, White, having kept at his job while painfully wounded and having handled his unit admirably and behaved with conspicuous daring, was singled out for special praise.

Richard Crouch is the author of “Brandy Station: A Battle Like None Other,” published by Willow Bend Books.


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