Battle of Brandy Station: On the 150th Anniversary of the largest cavalry engagement of the Western Hemisphere



9 June 1863, 150 years ago, at the beginning of the Gettysburg campaign during the US Civil War, the largest cavalry engagement of the Western Hemisphere was fought at Brandy Station, Culpeper County, Virginia.


“The advance squadron was being charged by a regiment or more of the enemy, and in less time than it takes to tell of it the regiment was over the ravine, and only halting a moment to partially reform, we rode pell mell, with saber in hand, at the astonished enemy. For a moment the regiment which had charged our skirmishers halted. The next moment it had broken and was flying, while the horsemen of the Second, mingling with the enemy, dealt saber-blows and pistol-shots on every side. There was little halting to make prisoners, as friend and foe, mixed inextricably together, rode on in their terrible carnage, each apparently for the same destination.“ (Cpt Wesley Merritt, 2nd US Cavalry)


A painting by Don Stivers called “The Duel of Yew Ridge” showing the attempted capture of Lee’s second son Col “Rooney” Lee by Cpt Wesley Merrit*


After the defeat at Chancellorsville four weeks earlier, two columns of Union cavalry under the overall command of Major General Alfred Pleasonton crossed the Rappahannock River at Beverly’s Ford and Kelly’s to reconnoitre the advance of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania and disperse and destroy Confederate cavalry in Culpeper.

Their presence was well known to the federals since their commander “Beau Sabreuer” J.E.B. Stuart had all his 9.500 men on parade on three occasions, the last with mock battles and a ball afterwards. Actually assuming one of Stuart’s trademark raids into Union territory, Joseph Hooker, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, decided to act and send his own newly created Cavalry Corps.


"Beau Sabreur" J.E.B. Stewart 


After two years since the beginning of the war, federal cavalry was generally regarded as inferior towards their enemy from the South by everyone, including themselves. However, on this occasion, the Southrons somehow missed their role of being the eyes and ears and screen of the army and were plain surprised by the advancing Federals. Some met them riding bareback and only half dressed but managed to mount a stiff defence line nonetheless.


Edwin Forbes (1839 – 1895): "Cavalry Charge Near Brandy Station, Virginia" (1864)

The ensuing Battle of Brandy Stations with its almost 20.000 combatants and mass cavalry melees lasting the whole day ended with 2.500 men on both sides dead, captured or wounded and an indecisive outcome, both sides claiming to have at least fulfilled their orders and objectives – Stuart to hold his ground at Culpeper – he did – and Pleasonton to have reconnoitered. And even though the Union Cavalry Corps did not disperse and destroy the Confederate Cavalry, they stood their ground for the first time, both sides observed that Brandy Station had “made the Union Cavalry” and Stuart suffering further embarrassments as the Gettysburg Campaign progressed.

* image was found on http://warfarehistorian.blogspot.de/2012/11/the-19th-century-cavalry-charge-warfare.html and more about Don Stivers’ art on http://www.donstivers.com/home


And the usual further reading starts at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Brandy_Station