Nate Hollis, my protagonist in Nate’s Destiny, book six in the MacLarens of Boundary Mountain historical western romance series, fought in the Civil War as a member of the Union Cavalry. The Battle of Brandy Station was a significant battle, pitting two great cavalry groups against each other. It is in this battle that Nate, my fictional character, sustains a life-altering wound, which becomes the heart of my story. I hope you enjoy a little background on the battle and the real-life men who took part.
At the outset of the Gettysburg Campaign, General Robert E. Lee needed a diversion, to keep the U.S. Army from noticing his advancement north into the Shenandoah Valley. To accomplish his goal, he ordered noted horseman, Major General J.E.B. Stuart, to launch a cavalry raid.
Confederate Major General J.E.B. Stuart
Stuart was a flamboyant figure, far younger than most men of senior rank. He stood apart from other officers by wearing capes, sashes, an ostrich-plumed hat, and he had a heavy beard.
True to his colorful reputation, Stuart had his men mimic a battle for a grandiose review of his undefeated Calvary. General Lee didn’t get to attend it, so on June 8, 1863, Stuart held a splashy parade to show off his Cavalry to Lee. Apparently, it was so grand that some of the southern women in attendance actually swooned at the spectacle.
General Robert E Lee was impressed. However, General Grumble Jones, who commanded a cavalry brigade under Stuart, thought it was likely to raise the enemy’s curiosity and bring them closer. Stuart and his troops crossed the Rappahannock River the next day and set up camp around Brandy Station. Grumble Jones had been right to worry about federal troops showing up.
Union Major General Alfred Pleasanton
Union cavalry commander Major General Alfred Pleasanton organized his forces into two wings and launched a plan for Brigadier General John Buford’s wing to sneak across the Rappahannock River at Beverly’s Ford. At the same time, Major David McMurtrie Gregg’s wing would cross at Kelly’s Ford, six miles downstream. Both wings included brigades of the best infantry soldiers in the Union Army of the Potomac.
Buford’s troops splashed into the ford around 4:30 a.m. Union Colonel Benjamin F. Davis led the 1st Brigade across the ford first with the 8th New York Cavalry spearheading the way.
The picket reserve from Jones’ brigade, the 6th Virginia Cavalry, awoke to the sound of gunfire. and rode onto the scene to slow down the Federal onslaught. Captain Gibson’s Confederate pickets let lose a volley at close range into the Union’s 8th New York Cavalry, turning the federal brigade back. But, soon their main body forced Gibson and his men to fall back. Davis’s brigade pressed them hard toward Stuart’s camp and spotted the Rebel artillery in an open plateau.
As bullets zipped over their blankets, the Confederate artillerymen scrambled to their feet and dashed for their horses. Fast-thinking Captain James Hart of the Washington Artillery of South Carolina had a Blakely gun (a cannon) rolled onto the road and began hammering the Federal Calvary. Soon he rolled out another for added firepower. This brought the Confederate artillerymen enough time to get their guns to safety.
Major Cabell E. Flournoy, commander of the Confederate 6th Virginia, led 150 horse soldiers onto the field, some of them partially dressed and riding bareback, as they had also just risen. They clashed with the 8th New York in fierce, bloody fight. Eventually, they pushed back the 8th New York.
Union help soon arrived. Outnumbered and suffering about 30 casualties, Flournoy had to fall back.
Lieutenant R.O. Allen of the 6th Virginia quickly turned his horse around when he spotted Colonel Davis about 75 yards ahead of his men. Davis turned to see Allen coming toward him. Davis swung at Allen with his saber, but the Confederate dodged the blow. Then Allen fired his revolver, killing Davis.
The 7th Virginia Cavalry arrived with Jones and entered the fray. The blue and gray horsemen attacked and counterattacked along the Beverly Ford Road and surrounding woods. The 8th Illinois Cavalry of Davis’s 1st Brigade, now under the command of Major William McClure, hit the two Virginia cavalry regiments hard, driving them out of the woods.
Hart’s two guns covered their retreat. Stuart’s Horse Artillery took position on a ridge near Emily Gee’s brick house. Eight hundred yards of open terrain to the southern edge of the woods lay in front of the Rebel guns.
I was there that the 8th Illinois made its appearance and came under Confederate artillery fire. The 12th Virginia Cavalry crashed into the 8th Illinois, who drove the Rebels off, only to be hit by two more units from Jones’ brigade. But reinforcements arrived for the 8th Illinois—the 8th New York and 3rd Indiana Cavalry. The Rebels fell back near the artillery holding the ridge.
Union Brigadier General John Buford
Buford brought up the two infantry regiments of Ames’s brigade. He ordered the 124th New York Infantry to take position at the edge of the woods on the west side of the Beverly Ford Road, while the 86th New York Infantry took a stand on the east side of the road. To the left of the 86th, most of the 1st Brigade, except the 8th Illinois, took up position. Held in reserve was the small 2nd Brigade. Buford’s artillery was also brought up.
The 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry
Buford ordered Major Robert Morris Jr., commander of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry of the Reserve Brigade, to clear the woods of any Rebel skirmishers. They unsuccessfully charged the guns at St. James Church, suffering the greatest casualties of any regiment in the battle. Several Confederates later described the 6th’s charge as the most “brilliant and glorious” cavalry charge of the war. It was highly unusual as it was a mostly mounted fight.
Buford tried to turn the Confederates left and dislodge the artillery that was blocking the direct route to Brandy Station. However, Rooney Lee’s brigade stood in his way, with some troops on Yew Ridge and some dismounted troopers positioned along a stone wall in front.
Union Major David McMurtrie Gregg
After sustaining heavy losses, the Federals pushed the Confederates away from the stone wall. The Confederates began pulling back at the arrival of Gregg’s Union cavalry division of about 2,800 men—the second major surprise of the day.
Gregg had intended to cross at Kelly’s Ford at dawn, but with Duffie’s division getting lost and having to assemble his men from dispersed locations, he was two hours late. They tried to proceed on roads leading directly into Brandy Station but found them blocked by Robertson’s brigade. Using a more circuitous route that was completely unguarded, Gregg’s lead brigade, under Col. Percy Wyndham, arrived in Brandy Station about 11 a.m. at Stuart’s rear.
Union Col. Percy Wyndham
Wyndham opened their battery on the Confederates in front of the Barber House. He ordered a portion of the First Maryland cavalry to charge the station. He then commanded the section of artillery to advance, and at the same time ordered the First New Jersey to charge on a battery stationed in the rear of the Barber House, and the First Pennsylvania reserve corps and the rest of the First Maryland corps to charge the heights where the house stood.
The First Maryland, little more than a squadron, charged first but were pushed back by the enemy. The First Pennsylvania charged next. Col. Taylor, lead part of the regiment and struck the rebels in front, while Lieutenant Colonel Gardiner, with the rest of the regiment, hit the Confederates’ flank, driving them out into the open plain below, where they were met by the First Maryland cavalry.
Assailed on both sides, the rebel force was scattered, and many killed, wounded or captured. Wyndham led the charge of the First New Jersey on the battery in the rear of the house, aided by Lieutenant Colonel Broderick. At the first onset, the enemy was driven from their guns. Confederate reinforcements were met and also driven back. But the Rebels returned and were repulsed once more. Not long after that, the rebels were strongly reinforced and Wyndham had to withdraw.
He collected his men at Brandy Station and formed them into a rear guard until the field was cleared. The enemy charged his line twice, but his carbineers repulsed them each time. Wyndham took the field and a squad of Confederates concealed in the weeds fired, wounding him in the leg, he kept command until ordered to retreat. Due to loss of blood, he turned over the command to Colonel Taylor, of the First Pennsylvania reserve cavalry.
The only force on Fleetwood when Gregg arrived was a howitzer cannon. Major Henry B. McClellan, Stuart’s adjutant, called Lt. John W. Carter and his gun crew (of Captain Robert P. Chew’s battery) to ascend to the crest of the hill and they opened cannon fire on the federal troops exiting the village of Brandy Station, delaying the Union advance. He also sent couriers to Stuart requesting reinforcements.
Cannoneers swung the guns into position and fired down the road at Buford’s men, enabling the other soldiers to escape and establish a Confederate line. Jones’s command rallied to the left of this Confederate artillery line, while Hampton’s brigade formed to the right.
Stuart pulled his regiments from the St. James Church area and sent them galloping to Fleetwood Hill. Stuart’s men reached the crest of the hill before Gregg’s brigade, which attacked up the southern end and the eastern slope. Hampton’s brigade arrived at the same time. A series of confusing charges and countercharges swept back and forth across the hill. Sabers clanged against sabers, cannons boomed, the bang of pistols rang out and Fleetwood Hill changed hands several times.
By late afternoon, the Confederates cleared the hill for the final time, capturing three guns and inflicting 30 casualties among the 36 men of the 6th New York Light Artillery, which given close-range support to the Federal cavalry. Col. Duffie’s small 1,200-man division was delayed by two Confederate regiments in the vicinity of Stevensburg and arrived too late to offer further support.
Rooney Lee continued to confront Buford, falling back to the northern end of the hill. But then he launched a counterattack against Buford at the same time Pleasanton called for a general withdrawal near sunset. The ten-hour battle was over.
Despite the Union’s advantage of surprise, the battle ended in a narrow defeat for Pleasanton’s forces and Lee’s infantry remained undetected, so the diversion worked.
Union Casualties were: 866
- 81 killed
- 403 wounded
- 382 missing and captured
Confederate losses including killed, wounded, missing and captured totaled 433. Robert E. Lee’s son, Rooney, was seriously wounded and later captured on June 26.
Riders of the 16th Pennsylvania Calvary
The 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry was organized at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, September 1862 as the “161st Volunteers” and mustered in for three years’ service under the command of Colonel John Irvin Gregg.
They fought at Chancellorsville, April 26 to May 8. Chancellorsville was known as Lee’s “perfect battle” because his risky decision to divide his army in the presence of a much larger enemy force resulted in a significant Confederate victory. The 16th were part of Stoneman’s raid, a cavalry operation led by General George Stoneman that preceded the start of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Many historians look on Stoneman’s Raid as the Union’s cavalry moment of resurgence.
They served in many other places and battles, including Brandy Station and Gettysburg. They were honored with a monument on the Gettysburg battlefield. It’s a statue of a dismounted cavalryman at ease, his hands resting on his saber.
The regiment lost 302 men during the civil war, as five officers and 100 enlisted men were killed or mortally wounded and 3 officers and 194 enlisted men died from diseases.
Overall, the Union Calvary proved they were as capable as the Confederate horsemen in The Battle of Brandy Station—the largest Calvary battle of the Civil War.
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