June 8, 1863 (Monday)
It was another day for a Grand Review of Jeb Stuart’s Confederate Cavalry. In all the regalia fit for the knights of old, the cavaliers met at Brandy Station, Virginia, while spectators from across the countryside gathered to again watch the brilliant display put on by a legend of the saber and saddle. Also in attendance was General Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia was collecting at nearby Culpeper. The only infantrymen who were admitted to this gallant affair was a single division under General John Bell Hood, and this was only under the stipulation that they behave themselves as proper gentleman. Nothing like a “mister, here’s yer mule!” would be tolerated on this fine day.
General Stuart’s mount was garlanded with a wreath of the finest spring flowers, reminding General Lee of a similarly-bedecked horse from the previous year. “Take care,” called Lee to Stuart. “That is the way General Pope’s horse was adorned when he went to the Battle of Manassas!”
In a line three miles long, they came upon the field, led by the dashing Stuart. At a slow walk – for Lee, wishing to conserve strength, had forbidden the trot or the gallop – they broke into regiments and paraded past the review stand. This time, there was to be no firing of blanks, no feinted charges, and no artillery.
Even the often stoic Lee had to admit that “Stuart was in all his glory.” All was beauty, pageantry and gusto, controlled almost effortlessly by General Stuart. On this otherwise perfect day, an artillery officer had, for some reason, traded his horse for a mule. When Stuart spied its long and pointed ears, he cast a quick glance at Hood’s Division. He was in luck, for they had not yet noticed. With a quiet slight of hand, Stuart managed to quickly chase off the offending animal, avoiding the many aforementioned insults that would have, no doubt, been cast by these simpletons of the march.
With a keen eye, General Lee inspected each regiment, each horse, and each rider, as they trod past. Having spent time in the 2nd US Cavalry just prior to the War, he knew a properly outfitted unit when he saw one. To his dismay, however, he witnessed little that was up to snuff. For starters, the carbines, built in Confederate factories, seemed horribly poor in quality. The horses, whose suffering did not escape Lee, were being galled by the saddles, hastily manufactured by the Confederacy for the war. These were no little things. The cavalry needed fine weapons and finer tack for the horses. He would see to it, but such things were already too late for this campaign.
That night, Jeb Stuart retired to his headquarters on Fleetwood Hill, a rise across the tracks from the small railroad town of Brandy Station. His men were spread out from the confluence of the Hazel and Rappahannock Rivers, two miles to the north, all the way south to Stevensburg, a line (if it could be called a line) stretching six or more miles. To their front (if they even had a front on such a day as this), was the Rappahannock, three miles up the railway.
The very next day, Stuart was to start north, crossing the Rappahannock and screening Lee’s Army towards Pennsylvania. General Richard Ewell’s Corps was to move to Sperryville and down the Shenandoah Valley, followed immediately by the corps under James Longstreet – all before Union General Joe Hooker, still back at Falmouth was any the wiser.
But while Hooker still remained at Falmouth, his cavalry had not. On the 7th, they were ordered to cross the Rappahannock in the predawn hours of the 9th and “disperse and destroy” the Confederate cavalry everybody knew was gathering near Culpeper. Hooker had no real grasp of Lee’s entire plan to invade Pennsylvania, but he fully understood that 10,000 Rebel cavaliers in one place could not be any good for anybody.
The task fell to Alfred Pleasonton, the commander of Cavalry in the Army of the Potomac. He had divided his Corps into two wings. The right, under General John Buford, was to cross at Beverly Ford, not a half mile downstream from the confluence. Six miles farther down, at Kelly’s Ford, General David Gregg, commanding the left wing, was to cross at roughly the same time.
Believing Stuart’s Rebel Cavalry to be at Culpeper, the plan was for both wings to meet at Brandy Station. An allowance was made for the stray Confederate picket post, but otherwise, all believed this would be a simple undertaking. The battle, which they were certain was coming, would take place in Culpeper. While there were two wings in the Federal force, a division under Col. Alfred Duffie was to lead the crossing at Kelly’s Ford and protect the flank by riding to Stevensburg.
And so, without even knowing it, General Pleasonton was preparing to attack the Confederate left flank with Buford’s wing, the Confederate right with Duffie and the center with Gregg. But in reality, Stuart’s sprawling camps were not lines. They were not configured to receive any sort of attack. The very same morning that Pleasonton planned to cross the Rappahannock south into Brandy Station, Stuart planned to cross the Rappahannock north from Brandy Station. The only difference was timing. While Pleasonton scheduled an early crossing, Stuart decided to get a later start. After all, it had been a long day.
While Stuart’s men slept soundly along a six mile stretch of camps, Pleasonton’s Federals closed in upon Kelly’s and Beverly Fords. The next day, much would be decided.1
- Sources: The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin B. Coddington; Fighting For the Confederacy by Edward Porter Alexander; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; Here Come the Rebels! by Wilbur Nye; A Glorious Army by Jeffry Wert. [↩]