June 9, 1863 (Tuesday)
The sun had not exactly risen, but what light there was illuminated the gray mists hovering above Beverly Ford across the Rappahannock River. Jeb Stuart’s Confederate pickets guarded the crossing, but suspected nothing as the crisp crack of carbines split the morning silence. Then came hooves and splashing, the sounds of men, of countless enemy troopers in blue. What pickets left alive fled for their lives back towards their camps two miles behind them.
General Stuart has plans to rise, take breakfast, gather his troops, who were spread out along a six mile conglomeration of camps around Brandy Station, and then begin their trek across the Rappahannock, screening General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as they tramped north on their invasion. But as the couriers sent by the pickets informed him that masses upon masses of Yankee cavalry were attacking across Beverly Ford, Stuart sent word to all of his camps – reinforcements were needed post haste.
And soon, they arrived. First Grumble Jones’ Brigade was joined by Wade Hampton’s, quickly followed by Rooney Lee’s, stretching the Confederate line a mile in front of Fleetwood Hill. With artillery backing them, this was a formidable position. The Federals had surprised them, catching them asleep and disorganized, but their skill and swiftness soon rendered that most precious of elements nearly void.
The Federals themselves were equally surprised. The Rebel camps were situated eight miles or so from Culpeper, where General Alfred Pleasonton, commanding the Federal cavalry, believed Stuart to be encamped. They expected no opposition at all before reaching Brandy Station, where his two wings, the right under John Buford, the left under David Gregg, were to unite. Simply getting to the rendezvous might just be impossible.
Seeing such an unexpected force before him, John Buford first attempted to hit the Rebel left, held by Rooney Lee. They charged Lee’s troopers, who were dismounted and behind the cover a stonewall, but were beaten back. The fighting swirled as horses and riders swam quickly from line to line, pushing and receiving, giving ground and taking, as the Rebels exacted a horrific toll upon their Pennsylvanian attackers.
The sheer intensity of this vicious explosion stunned the cavaliers on both sides. When neither Lee’s nor Buford’s men could continue to scratch and claw, a calm stalemate fell across the battlefield. This lull allowed time for both Stuart and Pleasonton to assess their situations.
General Robert E. Lee, now fully informed of Stuart’s unwelcome guests, was worried about one thing. Two-thirds of his entire army were in and around Culpeper, ready upon this day to begin their march north. General Joe Hooker, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, had no idea at all that the Rebels were so far advanced in such a plan, and Lee wanted to keep it that way. Should the Yankee cavalry get behind Stuart’s lines, they would see infantry camp upon infantry camp outlying Culpeper. Then, the plan could very well be foiled before it even began. As Lee watched the evolving battle, this was the sole thought in his head.
General Pleasonton’s original idea for the day called upon both wings, Buford’s and Gregg’s, to cross simultaneously at Beverly and Kelly’s Fords. Gregg, however, was far behind. But this delay may have worked in his favor. Having no idea that there was even a single Union column in his front, let alone two, Stuart called most of his men to the line to beat back Buford’s men. This left the area around Kelly’s Ford, where Gregg was to cross, covered by a single brigade under Beverly Robertson.
As soon as Roberton’s pickets spied Gregg’s men crossing the Rappahannock, they sent word to Stuart via Grumble Jones. When Jones’ messenger reached him, Stuart disregarded the warning. “Tell General Jones to attend to the Yankees in his front,” replied Stuart, “and I’ll watch the flanks.” Jones, grumbly as usual, washed his hands of the matter figuring that Stuart would find out for himself soon enough.
Though disbelieving of Jones, Stuart trusted that Beverly Robertson’s Brigade, posted near Kelly Ford, would be able to stop whatever few Yankees had poked their heads across the river. To make extra sure, he sent a single South Carolina regiment farther south to Stevensburg, covering his rear.
Before long, another message informed Stuart that a column of Union troopers were riding hard from the southwest. This made no sense at all as the main attack came from the northeast. “Ride back there and see what this foolishness is all about,” ordered Stuart to one of his staff. Before the officer could leave, yet another message came in. The Yankees were at Brandy Station, directly behind Stuart’s lines. He was rattled, but took it in turn.
Gregg’s men skirted Roberton’s Brigade near Kelly’s Ford without a shot. The Federals, taking a round about collection of roads, had picked their way to Brandy Station. Another division, under Alfred Duffie, continued west towards Stevensburg and Culpeper.
Gregg wasted little time in deploying his men for an attack. The pause, short though it was, allowed Stuart to draw reinforcements from Jones’ Brigade. They were faced about and sent scrambling to form a thin line before Gregg could launch his attack. They pitched into the forming Yankees, stalling them long enough for Wade Hampton to disengage his brigade and meet the coming southerly attack.
With wild excitement Gregg’s men charged, one regiment after another, charging and yelling as horses clashed with men and sabers slashed muskets. And though the Rebels were hit hard, they hit back, and Fleetwood Hill never fell. A regiment from Maine had gained its crest, but could not carry the position.
Now, all along the Confederate line, the fighting screamed to life. Buford, whose initial attack had stalled, took advantage of the fewer Rebels to his front and relauched. But still, he could not break the defenders. If only a few more Federals could have pitched into the Southerners, the battle might have turned in their favor.
These few more Federals, however, were no where to be found. The division under Col. Duffie had met with the single South Carolina Regiment at Stevensburg. Augmented by some Virginians, their numbers totaled perhaps 400. After smashing the Virginia regiment, Duffie thought the road clear all the way to Brandy. But every inch was contested by the South Carolinians under Calbraith Butler. Duffie, however, seemed to care little for joining his comrades in the assault, and so probably didn’t give it his best try.
General Pleasonton’s messages back to General Hooker were grim, describing the horrible battle, and emphasizing his fears that the Rebels were fully prepared for the attack, knowing their every move. Hooker, many miles away at Falmouth, gave Pleasonton allowance to call off the attacks. It was well before nightfall that both Buford and Gregg were ordered back to Beverly and Kelly’s Fords. By 9pm, the Federals were across the Rappahannock and Stuart was damn fine with letting them go.
Before the attack, Hooker had told Pleasonton to “disperse and destroy” Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry, believed to be at Culpeper. This, he failed to do. The Rebels sustained over 500 casualties in killed, wounded and missing, while Pleasonton’s came to well over 800. Both commanders would claim victory, though neither rightly deserved it.
In all, nothing actually changed following the battle. True, the Rebel Cavalry now had a new, healthy respect for their Northern counterparts, but in the grand scheme, nothing was different. Lee still planned to start his Army of Northern Virginia north the following day, while Hooker still had no idea what Lee was about.1
- Sources: Here Comes the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington; A Glorious Army by Jeffry Wert. [↩]