September 13, 1863 (Sunday)
These kinds of rumors were heard countless times. Whether they held that Beauregard’s men had come east to help Lee or that Lee’s men had gone west to help Johnston, for the most part, all that ever came from them was nothing. So used to them had Washington become that when the New York Herald wrote that General James Longstreet’s Confederate corps from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had boarded trains to head west to add troops to Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee near Chattanooga, it was hardly worth a passing glance. Except that this time it was true. Even before Longstreet’s troops had left the station, the news of their ride was in the papers. This was certainly irksome, but what could be done?
Longstreet’s departure sapped Lee’s Army of nearly a third of its strength, bring its strength to 45,000. General George Meade, leading the Union Army of the Potomac, learned about it on the 11th, two days after Longstreet was off. Since the fizzling out of the Gettysburg Campaign, Meade’s Army had rested along the northern banks of the Rappahannock River. For a time, he and Lee’s army stared at each other across the stream, but before long, Lee fell back to the Rapidan, fifteen or so miles south, leaving Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry, based out of Culpeper and Brandy Station, to patrol the land between.
Federal Cavalry under Judson Kilpatrick noticed this first hand, reporting to Meade that many of the posts previously held by infantry were now in the hands of Confederate cavalry. Additionally, Lafayette McLaw’s Division from Longstreet’s Corps was not in its old position. Putting everything together, Meade wrote Washington that his scouts believed Lee to be “falling back from the Rapidan.” This wasn’t true, per se, but Meade had to make sure. “I have other scouts who will endeavor to penetrate nearer Orange Court House,” he wrote in closing, “and if I can get any evidence more positive, I will push to Culpeper and beyond a strong reconnaissance of cavalry and infantry.”
Meade’s scouts returned with the corroborating news, and on the 12th, he ordered General Alfred Pleasonton’s entire Cavalry Corps to cross the Rappahannock. John Buford’s Division would use the bridge near the railroad, holding the center. On his left would be Judson Kilpatrick at Kelly’s Ford, while on his right would be David Gregg, with a division each. As support, Meade elected to send Gouverneur K. Warren’s II Corps (a choice that rankled the brow of I Corps commander, John Newton).
The preparations made on the 12th must have alerted some Southern citizens, who told the tale to Jeb Stuart at Brandy Station. By 3am of this date (the 13th), the legendary cavalry commander was fully aware of the Union move and began to file his supply wagons toward the Rapidan River.
Stuart had placed only three of his cavalry brigades in the Brandy Station area. Under the overall command of Lunsford L. Lomax, a young West Point officer who had quickly risen through the ranks, from Lieutenant to Colonel to General, during the Gettysburg Campaign. His own brigade was joined by that of Grumble Jones’ and Rooney Lee’s, though the latter was under the command of Col. Richard Beale.
Troopers from both Lomax’s and Beale’s Brigades held the fords near Brandy Station, and would warmly welcome Buford’s and Kilpatrick’s men come the dawn. Two of Grumble Jones’ regiments rode north to take on Gregg’s advance. The Rebel cavalry remaining were held in reserve near Culpeper.
Buford and Kilpatrick’s advance came quick, the overwhelming numbers easily pushing Stuart’s men beyond the old Brandy Station battlefield toward Culpeper, where, as they neared the town, the resistance was augmented by Rebel artillery. Meanwhile, Gregg was having similar success pushing back the two Confederate regiments facing him to the north.
As the morning wore to afternoon, the Federal Cavalry was ready to make the kill. Gregg had come in from the north, while Buford was poised to strike from the east. Kilpatrick, who was supposed to slide south of Culpeper to cut off the Rebel retreat was late. When Gregg and Buford made their final attack, they cleared the streets of the town, but Kilpatrick was held up by a swollen creek.
He did, however, arrive just in the nick of time to capture some Rebel artillery. At least, that’s how Kilpatrick told it. General Gregg had a different story. He held that Kilpatrick had indeed captured the guns, asserting that he had taken them not from the Rebels, but from Gregg’s own men. Gregg’s troopers had apparently captured the pieces, secured them, and then continued the pursuit of the Rebels past Culpeper. Kilpatrick flatly denied this, insisting that it was George Armstrong Custer who had taken the enemy’s guns. Adding to the drama, General Pleasonton, put forth that not only was it Custer, but that he had been wounded and his horse shot dead in the process. Pleasonton was the only one to mention Custer’s wounding, but the 1st Vermont, the only non-Michigan regiment in Custer’s Brigade, reported they had captured the artillery, though allowed that it was only one gun.
At any rate, the Federals scoured Culpeper, pushing the Rebels beyond the southern limits of the town to the Rapidan River. There, the Northern troops were met with more Confederate artillery and additional cavalry. With the fall of darkness, the battle limped to a close.
General Pleasonton reported the day’s findings to Meade that evening. Lee’s army, minus Longstreet’s Corps, was still very much along the Rapidan. Richard Ewell’s Corps was near Orange Court House, while A.P. Hill’s Corps was near Raccoon Ford. Meade reminded the general to fall back to the Rappahannock should Lee attack. Until then, Culpeper Court House would remain in Union hands.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p111, 128; Part 2, p167, 175, 178; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse. [↩]