The Civil War: Battle of Brandy Station, largest cavalry battle of the war

It was one brave Confederate, Lt. John Carter, who was able to get a cannon onto the hill and fired one shot that stopped the Union men in their steps and led to the Confederate victory.

VIENNA,Va., June 6, 2012 — General Robert E. Lee was in a precarious position. The Battle at Chancellorsville had been a disaster, the most devastating aspect being the loss of General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, whom Lee referred to as “my good right arm.”

It was Jackson that President Jefferson Davis referred to when he said, “Our loss was much less killed and wounded than that of the enemy, but the number was one, a host in himself, Lt. General Jackson…war has seldom seen his equal.”

In addition and not to be overlooked, Jackson had lost 13,000 men or roughly one-fourth of his troop strength.

President Abraham Lincoln was aware of the situation, but he was appalled at the total defeat of General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker and anguished, “My God! My God! What will the country say?” His faith in his key general’s disjointed army was shaken and he could only say what others thought, “I just lost confidence in Hooker.”

Lincoln had to do something to make an action statement so bold that his people, both military and civilian, would have confidence in his leadership. And Lee, despite his concerns, had to do the same.

Lee’s Plan

Lee knew there was no way he could actually conquer the Union group of states. His Confederacy did not have the resources of men or material to accomplish that. However, he reasoned, if he could make a fast strike into their part of the country, if he could be successful enough to make the Union leaders and men doubt their own abilities, then he could break the eagle’s will and possibly cause some sort of negotiations for peace, favorable to the South. 

Ahead lay Pennsylvania: in the early days of June 1863, though neither side knew that the fate of the country would rise or fall on events yet to come at a small farming area called Gettysburg, which would become a killing field for both sides.

An invasion into the North would provide Lee and his men the much needed food, horses, and the opportunity to possibly take some prisoners along the way. This way he could also pose a partial threat to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, which would encourage the growing peace movement in the North. The little war, which had been estimated, to last only a few months had now lasted two years, and men on both sides were still hoping for a swift end. 

Stuart’s Review at Culpeper

So Lee sent General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry to a little town to the east of Culpeper, VA, called Brandy Station, hoping that this would provide a screen of sorts as the Army of Northern Virginia began to move toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, between Virginia and Pennsylvania’s borders.

In one of those activities of the Civil War, which, in retrospect seems so difficult to understand, Gen. Stuart promptly seized the opportunity to stage a “grand review” or parade of troops, which he hoped would encourage his men and show off these dashing horsemen to the local residents.  History is replete with stories of these “grand reviews,” held all over the place (including one at Fairfax Court House later on), whose purpose was just to impress the locals and any visiting dignitaries.

This review of Stuart’s included almost 9,000 mounted men, and four batteries of horse artillery that charged in a simulated battle at Inlet Station, a small area near Brandy Station. (This review field still remains much as it was in 1863, except that a Virginia police station now has part of it.)

As it turned out, General Lee was not able to attend, so it was repeated in his presence three days later, leading some of the men and various reporters present felt that even with it downsized to only a parade, Stuart was feeding his own ego and exhausting the horses.

Stuart, he of the plumed hat and flowing neck scarf, a “beau sabreur,” was so busy getting his review in place that he failed to notice that a group of Union cavalry as well as infantry led by General Alfred Pleasanton were stationed right across the Rappahannock River.

Pleasanton’s Surprise

General Pleasonton

Pleasanton’s troops broke up the review by surprising Stuart’s men at 4:30 a.m. in a two-pronged attack, resulting in a battle, which lasted all day around St. James Church. And then the worst came. The Union troops regrouped and left for Fleetwood Hill, an elevation from which they could send shell and shot onto the whole battlefield. 

It was one brave Confederate, Lt. John Carter, who was able to get a cannon onto the hill and fired one shot that stopped the Union men in their steps. While it was only one cannon and one man, with barely enough black powder for one shot, it was enough to convince the Yankees that there was a line of Confederates ready to take them down. Just that single shot gave the Confederates time and they were able to hold the hill.

The battle continued most of the day and became the largest Cavalry battle of the entire war. Both cavalry charges, as well as the normal hand-to-hand combat by dismounted riders, made for a terrible spectacle. Several Confederates would later describe the charge of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry as a “brilliant and glorious” charge, even though it resulted in that unit’s losing the greatest casualties of any in the battle.

Ultimate Confederate Victory

Union casualties totaled 907 soldiers or 69 killed, 352 wounded, and 486 missing, most whom were captured. Confederate losses totaled 523 and the battle would go into the books as a Confederate victory. One of the Southern casualties was Robert E. Lee’s son Rooney Lee, who was seriously wounded in the thigh. T taken to Hickory Hill, an estate near Hanover Court House, he was captured on June 26. Stuart claimed the victory since his men held the field at the end of the day and successfully had repelled Pleasanton’s attack.

Old sketch of the Cavalry Charge at Brandy Station

On the other side, some of Pleasanton’s officers criticized him for not acting more aggressively in defeating Stuart at Brandy Station.  Maj. Gen. Hooker’s orders had been to “disperse and destroy” the cavalry, but Hooker argued that he had only been told to “make a reconnaissance toward Culpeper,” and that he had followed orders.

It was said that Brandy Station MADE the Union cavalry. It had always been inferior to the Southerners, but their actions that June day gave them inspired confidence to carry into the future. Stuart would always carry the memory that he had been surprised twice, which is anathema to the reason for having an astute cavalry.

Current Battle of Brandy Station 

Even 150 years after the battle, continuing conflict remains at Brandy Station. The immense acreage sat unprotected and unwanted for years, until a developer came in to build a large corporate building there. That idea was defeated, and later on another entrepreneur arrived, wanting to turn the area into a Formula One racetrack. The idea of a commercial enterprise of this sort infuriated the formerly quiet owners and supporters of the historic area, and the Brandy Station Foundation was created to protect the land from further incursions.

The Civil War Preservation Trust has now acquired over 50 acres of the battlefield land and is continuing its work to save the rest of the site of the largest cavalry battle in the United States. In 1990 the National Park Service stepped in, mapping historic resources there and recommending the preservation of 1,262 acres at four separate engagement areas. 

There is now a walking trail with signage and efforts are made to include it as a tourist site for those interested in this aspect of the Civil War. It’s a great place to pack the kids in the car. Just go out Route 29 from northern Virginia toward Culpeper and see a new battle site with lots of history. 

Follow the column on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email it’s Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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