By: Eric J. Wittenberg
Having set the stage for the battle, and examined both the strategy of Pleasontons mission and the strengths of the opposing forces, we are prepared to examine the battle itself. The first phase of the battle was carried entirely by the force of Brig. Gen. John Buford. Further, Bufords men carried the fight for a period of 14 hours that day. It is therefore appropriate that Bufords fight be examined first. On the night of the 8th, Bufords men camped on the north side of the Rappahannock, just above Beverlys Ford. One of his troopers later recalled, we marched that night to within a mile or two of the fords, and awaited the approach of dawn. (1) Not all of the troopers of the Cavalry Corps, however, had confidence in Pleasontons abilities to lead them into a pitched battle. One member of the 6th U.S. wrote home on the eve of the battle, Stuart is in our front with a big force of cavalry. I only wish Stoneman was here. I have no confidence in Pleasonton. (2)
Chaplain Samuel L. Gracey, the regimental historian of the 6th Pennsylvania, of Bufords Division, described the eve of the great battle:
Late in the night we arrive behind the wood nearest the river, and bivouac for the night. No fires are allowed, and we make our supper on cold ham and hard tack, spread our saddle-blankets on the ground, and with saddles for pillows, prepare for a nights rest. Our minds are full of the coming battle on the morrow, and various speculations are indulged in regard to our prospects of success. We understand that the cavalry forces of the two armies are to meet at early dawn in what will doubtless prove the greatest cavalry engagement of the war. Our men are confident of success, and eager for the fray. A group of officers are eating their cold supper, perhaps the last they shall all take together. The morrow will soon break upon us, full of danger and death. Messages are committed to friends to be transmitted to distant loved ones, in case anything should occur. And after solemn and earnest prayer we are all sleeping soundly.
At two in the morning, the Federal troopers awakened to hushed orders; the command to horse was whispered, instead of blared by the Divisions buglers. Bufords troopers quietly mounted up and moved stealthily toward Beverlys Ford where they arrived at 4:30. (3)
That night a thick fog had settled across the river, and a ghostly haze covered the approach of the Union troopers, making it difficult to discern shapes across the river in the cool and pleasant dawn. (4) Trooper Sidney Davis of the 6th U.S. recalled that [t]he dull gray dawn gave a weird shadowy appearance to the landscape and those morning figures. (5) Capt. Frederick C. Newhall, of the 6th Pennsylvania, made out a cluster of officers standing by the riverbank. One among them, John Buford, acknowledged the passage of his command with his usual smile. He rode a gray horse, at a slow walk...and smoked a pipe...[and] it was always reassuring to see him in the saddle when there was any chance of a fight. (6)
That day the First Brigade of Bufords Division was under the command of Col. Benjamin F. Grimes Davis, formerly of the 8th New York. Davis had become famous in the aftermath of Jacksons capture of Harpers Ferry during the 1862 Maryland Campaign when, refusing to surrender, was among the group of officers who led 1,500 Union cavalry on a dangerous escape. This feat led to his appointment to brigade command, and he served in that capacity with distinction. Like Buford, Davis had Southern roots, born in Alabama and raised in Mississippi. A graduate of the West Point class of 1851, Davis was a veteran Regular, and not afraid to lead men into a fight. His command that day consisted of the 8th New York, 8th Illinois, and six companies of the 3rd Indiana. (7)
The water at Beverly Ford was three-and-a-half feet deep, with narrow openings atop the steep river banks, meaning that the Union troopers had to cross the river in column of fours. One of Daviss staff officers was positioned at the Ford, and as each company commander came through the Ford, he received the whispered order, Draw sabers!. Daviss command splashed across the Rappahannock, his 8th New York in the lead, followed by the 8th Illinois and the 3rd Indiana. (8) Once across the river, Buford ordered Davis to push any enemy videttes back from the Ford a mile or so. (9)
In fact, Bufords old nemesis, Grumble Joness Brigade, lay just across the river, standing picket duty after the second grand review. Jones had graduated 10th in the West Point Class of 1848, several places ahead of Buford. He was commissioned in the Mounted Rifles, and served along the southwestern border. A veteran cavalryman, Jones was competent but disliked by his peersand by Stuart especially--because of his caustic personality. Like Buford, he was plain in appearance, shunning the flamboyant apparel and style adopted by Stuart, and to referred to his superior as that young whippersnapper. Stuart, in turn, wrote of Jones in October 1862, when Jones was promoted to command of a brigade, I hope he will be assigned to the Infantry, I dont want him in the Cavalry, and have made a formal statement to that effect. (10) However, both Stuart and Col. John S. Mosby, the Confederate partisan, who served for a time as Joness adjutant, agreed Jones was the best outpost officer in the army. Jones led a veteran and successful brigade of Confederate cavalry, the same troopers who, under Robertsons command, had bested Bufords men at Lewis Ford. Buford and his old classmate were destined to tangle many times over the coming months. (11)
Unbeknownst to the Federals, across the river, and along the edge of a wood, Joness men had built a barricade of rails. (12) The area was picketed by a company of the 6th Virginia, who were surprised by Daviss sudden appearance in their front. Many of these Confederates were either still asleep, or cooking their breakfasts when Daviss onslaught caught them. One member of the 6th Virginia described the surprise created by Bufords sudden appearance in their front:
The Company was surprised, yet contended for every foot of ground between them and the camp of Joness and W.H.F. Lees brigades, near St. James Church, with the battalion of horse artillery. The 6th Regiment, which was out on the road, got off first; the 7th Regiment next, just as the Federals were getting up into our midst. Many of our men had not finished their breakfast and had to mount their horses bareback and rush into the fight. (13)
As Bufords men closed in on their camps, Confederate officers turned out their commands and ordered them to horse. (14) Company A of the 6th Virginia, commanded by Captain Bruce Gibson, resisted the Union approach, falling back slowly, their retreat protected by ditches in the low ground on either side of the Beverly Ford road, thereby preventing the Union troopers from flanking them, and limiting their attack to the 6th Virginias front:
Captain Gibson, who was a brave and prudent officer, had already blockaded the road as best he could with the material at hand, and waited patiently to receive them. When at close range the captain gave the word and a sheet of fire flashed in their faces and the shower of lead poured into their ranks, emptied many saddles and caused the advance to recoil, but the head of the main advancing rapidly to the support of their advance. Capt. Gibson was compelled to fall back, the Yankees pressing close on his rear.
It proved to be General [Bufords] Division. It crossed at what was know as Beverlys fords, at break of day. (15)
Gibsons action permitted Maj. C.E. Flournoy, the regimental commander, to scrape together a force of 150 men with which to blunt the Union onslaught. The sleepy troopers sprang to horse after being awakened by the crack of gunfire coming from the vicinity of the Ford. Flournoy led a hasty countercharge, many of his men being without their coats or saddles. (16)
The two forces collided in the road, and a brief and savage saber fight took place. During the brief altercation, the 6th Virginia sustained approximately 30 casualties, or 20% of the total force engaged. Fluornoy yielded to the sheer weight of numbers. However, Lt. Owen Allen, of Company D of the 6th Virginia, in the rear of Fluornoys retreating column, spotted Grimes Davis, alone and approximately 75 yards ahead of the rest of his column. Seeing an opportunity, Allen rode up to Davis, who was facing his men, urging them on. Daviss last words were, Stand firm, Eighth New York! Even as he yelled this, Davis evidently sensed that he was in danger, for he turned upon Allen with a swing of his saber, which Allen avoided by throwing himself on the side of his horse. At the same time, Allen fired his pistol, and Davis fell dead from the saddle. Sgt. John Stone of Company D of the 6th Virginia rode forward to Allens assistance. Enraged by the loss of their beloved commander, the Union troopers charged Stone, and mistaking him for Daviss killer, attacked him ferociously. A sabre blow split Stones skull midway between eyes and chin, killing him instantly. (17)
At the same time, the 7th Virginia Cavalry, under the command of Lt. Col. Thomas Marshall, arrived and joined the 6th Virginias counterattack on their left. The 8th New York, confused by Daviss death, lost its way in the woods and pulled back to regroup. Command of the brigade devolved upon Maj. William S. McClure, commanding the 3rd Indiana. The 8th Illinois, next in the Union column, held off the Confederate counterattack, permitting the rest of the column to regroup and prepare to resume the charge. Riley Lowe, of Company H, 8th New York, was wounded and captured during this portion of the fighting. The Confederates took his horse and weapons from him, and were about to march him off on foot when the Confederates themselves retreated. Lowe was left behind, and laid down in the ditch alongside the road to avoid being trampled in the melee. Lowe later reported that horses of both sides passed over him a number of times during this engagement. (18) In the end, the Rebels gave way.
The loss of Davis hit the Union troopers hard. Buford later wrote,
The success was dearly bought, for among the noble and brave ones who fell was Col. B.F. Davis, 8th N.Y. Cav. He died in the front giving examples of heroism and courage to all who were to follow. He was a thorough soldier, free from politics and intrigue, a patriot in its true sense, an ornament to his country and a bright star in his profession. When the sad news of Daviss fall reached me, I crossed and pushed to the front to examine the country and to find out how matters stood. I then threw the 1st Division on the left of the road leading to Brandy Station with its left extending toward the R[ail] Road.
In response, Buford ordered Ames infantry brigade brought up, and posted the Reserve Brigade on the right, all connecting from right to left. (19)
P.J. Kennedy, of the 8th Illinois, wrote:
The 8th New York Cav. crossed ahead and went about a mile when the rebels charged them. They broke and ran like a flock of sheep, and we, being close in their rear, now found ourselves among the rebels, who thought they were just doing it, and true enough, they were. But it was played out when they met us the frightened New Yorkers came rushing on and we were obliged to draw our sabres and threaten to split their heads, to bring them back to their senses. (20)
Three companies of the 8th Illinois were surrounded and nearly captured by the Confederate troopers. Buford dispatched the 3rd Indiana to rescue them, and the charge of the Hoosiers drove the Confederates back, allowing the Federals to escape. The men of McClures command then proceeded to engage the Confederates in a running battle.
As Bufords troopers attempted to form into lines of battle they were hard-pressed by the now roused Confederate cavalry and horse artillery. Four batteries of Confederate horse artillery were nearly captured in the surprise of the original Union assault, and only quick thinking by Capt. James F. Hart of the Washington (South Carolina) Artillery saved them. One of the Confederate gunners, George Neese, of Chews Battery, described the scene:
Our camp was in the edge of a woods, and this morning at daylight, just as we were rounding up the last sweet snooze for the night, bullets fresh from Yankee sharpshooters came from the depths of the woods and zipped across our blanket beds, and then such a getting up of horse artillerymen I never saw before. Blankets were fluttering and being rolled up in double-quick time in every direction, and in less than twenty minutes we were ready to man our guns, and all our effects safely on the way to the rear. Before I got out of bed I saw a twig clipped from a bush by a Yankee bullet not more than two feet above my head. (21) Seeing the oncoming Union onslaught, Hart unlimbered one of his guns, drawn by hand, on the Beverly Ford Road to cover the retreat of the Confederate troopers and the other horse artillery batteries. This action slowed the Yankee approach long enough for Grumble Jones to deploy his brigade in line of battle to protect the guns from the Union attack. (22) Jones had been awakened by the rattling of the gunfire, and ridden into battle at the head of his troops without either his coat or his boots. (23) Once safely out of range of the stalled Yankees, Stuarts batteries unlimbered again east of St. James Church, approximately 1.5 miles from Beverly Ford, defending a ridge which they held for much of the mornings fight. These Confederate batteries kept up a steady fire, helping to repulse repeated Union attacks on the St. James Church position. (24) One of the Confederate gunners noted, It was a close call and brilliant dash on the part of the enemy (25)
By this stage of the battle, Pleasonton himself had not yet reached the battlefield, and was uncertain as to the severity of the fight going on across the river. At 6 a.m., he sent a dispatch to Hooker: Enemy has opened with artillery, and shows some force of cavalry. Col. Davis, commanding Second Brigade, First Division, led his column across and was badly wounded. (26) Calling the desperate fighting along the Beverly Ford Road and at St. James Church a sharp skirmish did not do it justice.
The 8th Illinois charged into the 6th and 7th Virginia, routing them. As one Confederate trooper succinctly put it, Quicker than some of us came we went. (27) Col. Thomas C. Devins Second Brigade was close behind the 8th Illinois, coming up to join the action. Beckhams guns rained fire on the Second Brigade:
As Colonel Devin approached the skirmish line, he at once became the target for the Rebel sharpshooters and, the way the minie balls were whizzing around him, it was the next thing to a miracle that he was not killed. One of the skirmishers hailed him and said, Colonel, this is no place for you. He replied by saying, Those fellows across the ravine could not hit an elephant if they would try. Shortly thereafter, Devins horse, which was smaller than an elephant, was shot out from under him by those Confederates. (28)
Seeing the approaching Union troopers and recognizing the danger his lone brigade was in, Grumble Jones committed the last of his reserves to the fight. In an effort to secure his flanks and rear, he sent the 11th and 12th Virginia regiments, along with the 35th Virginia Battalion, to his battle line centered around St. James Church. (29) Before the 35th could even form line of battle, Jones ordered it to charge the Yankee approach as the 12th was being repulsed by the Union troopers. One trooper of the 12th Virginia later recalled that
Only a part of the squadron [Companies A and D of the 12th Virginia] got into the road which had been graded two feet below the level on each side.
We could not go down this bank very fast. The Federal battalion of the [6th Pennsylvania], charged our squadron when only about half of our squadron had reached the road. We turned out on each side and gave them the full road; as they passed we emptied our revolvers into their ranks from both sides of the road. Our regiment was at our rear and they closed in on them. I dont think any of them got back. Some of them were killed; others were wounded or captured. When I fired my first shot, the key that held the barrel to the handle dropped out. This left me with nothing but my saber.
I saw one of them coming at me with his revolver aimed at me. I drew my saber and forced my horse to full speed. My horse struck his horse and at the same time I struck him with my saber. Both horse and Yankee fell to the ground. I dismounted and picked up his revolver and it had two cartridges in the cylinder. I dont know why he did not shoot me. I had struck him on the collar of his coat or it would have been all day with him. I helped him up and made his horse get up. I also helped him mount his horse. He told me he belonged to the [6th Pennsylvania]...This was the only time I used my saber during the war. (30)
Another member of the 12th Virginia remembered the charging Yankees as thick as angry bees from a hive. (31)
The 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry struck the lead elements of the Federal charge and blunted it. After a brief melee, the Union troopers were driven back into the woods, where they were joined by reinforcements. Rallying, the Union troopers again charged and this time drove the 35th back into the woods from which they had come. In the meantime, the 12th Virginia was also heavily engaged. One member of Company H of the 12th Virginia exclaimed, It was then warm work, hand to hand, shooting and cutting each other in desperate fury, all mixed through one another, killing, wounding, and taking prisoners promiscuously. This stalemate lasted a while, with each charge being met by a countercharge. Another member of the 12th Virginia recalled, For hours this seesawing was kept up. Finally, after we had driven them the fourth or fifth time to their rallying point [the nearby woods], they showed no disposition to charge again, and we fell back to the hill. (32)
In the meantime, the Reserve Brigade crossed the Rappahannock and approached the sound of the firing. Advancing, the Regulars met little resistance for the first mile of their approach. Near an old farmhouse, Trooper Sidney Davis of the 6th U.S. and his companions spotted partially covered by an army blanket, lying prone on his back, was the dead body of one of our officers, from whose death wound the warm blood of life still dripped over his dark blue uniform. The sight of Grimes Davis corpse chilled the Regulars, causing many of them to pray for safety in the coming battle. (33) Buford was unaware of the strength of the force guarding the Confederate guns at St. James Church. He deployed the guns of Lt. Samuel S. Elders battery of horse artillery and ordered the 6th Pennsylvania of the Reserve Brigade, commanded by Maj. Robert Morris, Jr., to charge the guns and capture them. The 6th Pennsylvania made a dash of conspicuous gallantry across a field and into the teeth of the Confederate artillery at St. James Church. (34) Indeed, the performance of the 6th Pennsylvania that day so impressed John Buford that he henceforth called them my Seventh Regulars. (35) In fact, many of the Confederates already considered the former Lancers a Regular unit trooper George W. Watson of the 12th Virginia later remembered them as the Seventh Pennsylvania Regulars. (36)
The 6th Pennsylvania charged the enemy home, riding almost up to the mouths of his cannon, nearly capturing two of the Confederate guns. (37) Maj. Henry C. Whelan, second in command of the 6th Pennsylvania that morning, wrote,
We dashed at them, squadron front with drawn sabres, and as we flew along-our men yelling like demons-grape and cannister were poured into our left flank and a storm of rifle bullets on our front. We had to leap three wide deep ditches, and many of our horses and men piled up in a writhing mass in those ditches and were ridden over. It was here that Maj. Morriss horse fell badly with him, and broke away from him when he got up, thus leaving him dismounted and bruised by the fall. I didnt know that Morris was not with us, and we dashed on, driving the Rebels into and through the woods, our men fighting with the sabre alone, whilst they used principally pistols. Our brave fellows cut them out of the saddle and fought like tigers, until I discovered they were on both flanks, pouring a cross fire of carbines and pistols on us, and then tried to rally my men and make them return the fire with their carbines. (38) Maj. James F. Hart of the Washington (South Carolina) Artillery remembered the Federal charge: [n]ever rode troopers more gallantly than those steady Regulars, as under a fire of shell and shrapnel, and finally of canister, they dashed up to the very muzzles, then through and beyond our guns, passing between Hamptons left and Joness right. (39) At the muzzles of the guns, the Confederate artillery opened up, raking the Union line.
The regimental historian of the 6th Pennsylvania described the charge:
...What an awful fire! So close that we are almost in the smoke of the battery. Many of our saddles are emptied, and the horses, freed from the restraint of their riders, dash wildly away; and at the same moment, hundreds of carbines fend their charges of death into our never-wavering ranks. Our color sergeant reels, and falls from his horse; another sergeant catches the colors before they reach the ground; and on through the storm of death our weakened lines advance until they meet the enemy, and hand to hand the conflict rages. Though we are outnumbered two to one, we break their ranks, and pursue them into the woods. Now the enemy on our right begin to close upon us: our commander has fallen. Major Whelan assuming command, attempts to withdraw us from our terrible position. But how are we to retreat? The enemy have completely surrounded us--all is lost! (40)
Seeing the predicament the Sixth Pennsylvania was in, four squadrons of the 6th U.S. were ordered to charge in support of the gallant Pennsylvanians. (41)
Just as the Confederates were about to fall upon the bloodied Pennsylvanians, the 6th U.S. arrived on the scene, distracting the Rebels. The Blue and Gray troopers merged into a wild melee among the guns. Gunner George M. Neese of Chews Battery recalled:
the warlike scene was fascinatingly grand beyond description, and such as can be produced and acted only by an actual and real combat. Hundreds of glittering sabres instantly leaped from their scabards, gleamed and flashed in the morning sun, then clashed with metallic ring, searching for human blood, while hundreds of little puffs of white smoke gracefully rose through the balmy June air from discharging firearms all over the field in front of our batteries the artillerymen stood in silent awe gazing on the struggling mass in our immediate front. (42) Another survivor remembered a mingled mass fighting and struggling with pistol and saber like maddened savages. (43) Maj. Daniel A. Grimsley of the 6th Virginia later wrote, The line of battle swayed back and forth from the woods, in front, towards the church, now advancing, now receding. (44)
In the confusion created by the clash, the Yankees, realizing that they were not strong enough to hold the position, retreated back across the same fields toward the main Union line, all the while suffering heavy Confederate artillery fire, sometimes from a range as short as 50 yards. The air whistling with the sounds of shrapnel and minie balls, the beleaguered Federal troopers clung to the necks of their horses as they dashed across the fields toward friendly lines in the woods. As the 6th U.S. attempted to reform in the woods, the timber on the left was so dense that, but for the coolness of the officers and men, the formation of squadron would have been an impossibility. (45) In his after- action report of the battle, Devin noted: The Rebel Battery then advanced and opened on my position and for two hours rained a storm of shot, shell, grape, and canister through the woods. (46)
Buford ordered Elders battery to open on the Confederate artillery. Firing from a range of 1,500 yards, Elder found that the Confederate batteries were well-protected by the terrain, and found his efforts at counter-battery fire futile. Instead, Elder opened on the Confederate cavalry, sending an occasional shot toward the Confederate battery just to keep it occupied. The weight of the Yankee cavalry charges soon caused the Confederate battery to be withdrawn, and Elder moved forward to further support the cavalry. Elder later wrote, In my frequent changes of position, [I] was never alone, nor did my support flinch, although compelled to sit in their saddles under the most severe artillery fire. (47)
Bufords plans for the attack had been for the two Sixths to be supported in their charge by the 2nd U.S. However, the 2nd U.S., under the command of 29 year old Capt. Wesley Merritt, received different orders from his brigade commander, Maj. Charles J. Whiting, and did not join the charge. While the charge relieved the pressure on Bufords left, which had been pressed by Joness counterattack, it caused his right flank to be exposed and sorely pressed. Moving the 17th Pennsylvania and 6th New York of the Second Brigade, as well as a section of Grahams battery of horse artillery, forward on the right to relieve the pressure, Buford drove off the Confederates from his right flank, and anchored the right flank of his line along a tributary of the Rappahannock called Hazel River and the left flank along the Rappahannock, spread across the Cunningham farm. A rather prominent ridge line on the Cunningham farm served as Bufords command post for most of the day. (48)
Recognizing that he was about to be overrun and desperately hoping that Stuart would arrive with reinforcements, Jones sent the 35th Battalion and the 11th Virginia charging into the midst of the Federal attackers. Their charge was so determined that the bluecoats faltered, and McClures troopers fell back through the woods onto the oncoming columns of Col. Thomas C. Devins Second Brigade, then headed for the fighting. McClures troopers eventually retired all the way to the Rappahannock before regrouping. The charge of the 35th Battalion also drove Devins supporting troopers 100 yards back into the woods. (49)
Devins brigade rallied, and formed a dismounted line of battle in the woods. Charging the Virginians on foot, Devins men drove the gray cavalry back toward St. James Church. The fight in the woods around St. James Church was severe, and hand-to- hand in many places. One of Devins staff officers, Lt. H.E. Dana of the 8th Illinois, encountered two Rebel troopers, and engaged them in a hand-to-hand fight. After discharging the contents of their pistols they used them as clubs. The Lieutenant finally threw his at one of his antagonists, striking him in the face and inflicting a severe wound; then, warding off the others blow with his arm, escaped with no further injury than a lame arm and a face well powder-burned. (50) More than 25 Union officers and enlisted men were captured and sent to rear by the 35th Virginia Battalion. The fight was much tougher than any of the Union officers could have anticipated, and Buford was surprised to learn that Brig. Gen. Wade Hamptons command was now on the field. (51)
Hearing the crash of gunfire while drinking his morning coffee at 8:30 a.m., Jeb Stuart hurried off to the sound of the firing. Along the way he had to dodge the panicked teamsters of the Confederate wagon trains hurrying away from the fighting: The wagon trains came first and went thundering to the rear mid clouds of dust-then came the cavalry regiments at a trot with here and there a battery of artillery,-all hurrying to the front with the greatest possible speed. (52) Stuart reached St. James Church and took personal command of the fight.
As Stuart and his aide, the giant Prussian soldier of fortune Maj. Heros von Borcke, approached St. James Church they encountered Confederate stragglers from Joness Brigade, who shouted, The Yankees are in our rear! Everything back there is lost! (53) While Stuart tried to bring order to the fight at St. James Church, Brig. Gen. W.H.F. Rooney Lees brigade also came up from its camp at the nearby estate known as Welford, rushing to the sound of the guns. Thus, Joness hard-pressed command received reinforcements at a critical moment. Seeing the fierce combat raging around Beckhams guns, Stuart took personal command of the fight there, and ordered Hamptons men into the line of battle, to the right of Jones, facing north. To flush the Federal cavalry from the woods, Hampton ordered some of his horse soldiers to dismount, and sent them forward as skirmishers. Before long, several hundred of Hamptons command were fighting dismounted against the dismounted men of Devins brigade, attempting to outflank Devins position, shifting steadily to his right. Thus stymied, Devin remained in position along the Union right, anchoring the flank, for much of the afternoon. (54)
Rooney Lees command fell into line to the left of Jones, extending to the north. Parallel to Lees position was a stone wall which offered a strong defensive position. The position, following the lay of the land, was L-shaped, with the two wings of the line almost at right angles to each other. Lee posted some dismounted troopers along the wall and others along a ridge line directly behind and above the stone wall. These defensive positions offered excellent fields of fire at advancing Federals and afforded Lees men an opportunity to enfilade the flank and rear of the Union position. The Confederates awaited the next attack with determination, some of their best troops on line, and with their chieftain in personal command. (55)
From this ground Lees men fended off a number of uncoordinated, piecemealattacks by Bufords cavalry. The first assault came when Buford sent the 5th U.S. forward to take the position along the stone wall occupied by Lees men. The 5th, under Capt. James Harrison, had only three small squadrons that day, and was understrength. Keeping one squadron to support a section of Grahams Battery, Harrison dismounted the remaining two squadrons dismounted, and sent them forward as skirmishers. Carbines blazing, the men of the 5th seized and held a portion of the stone wall, fending off a number of Confederate counterattacks, and remaining in place until its men were completely out of ammunition. Finally, these two hard-pressed squadrons were relieved, and Harrisons men were pulled back to support Grahams Battery. The three squadrons of the 5th U.S. sustained 38 casualties, a high percentage of their small force involved in the fighting, giving an idea how intense the fighting for the stone wall was. (56)
Emboldened by Harrisons limited success, Buford decided to attack with the rest of the Reserve Brigade. He ordered the Regulars forward, supported by Elders battery and Ames infantry brigade. Buford deployed the dismounted Regulars into line of battle alongside McClures and Devins Brigades, with the infantry regiments deployed along either flank. While the fresh troops were being organized, Buford called up his artillery.
A vigorous counter-battery duel erupted between Beckhams and Elders
guns. The counter-battery fire kept the Confederate artillery occupied,
making an assault easier. Now under the cover of artillery fire, Buford
sent his lines forward, supported by the deadly fire of the longer-ranged
rifled-muskets of Amess infantry. Beckhams guns soon found the range
of Elders battery, and disabled several pieces manned by Batteries B and
L, 2nd U.S. Artillery.
At 11:30 a.m., Pleasonton, who was now on the field, wired Hooker: All the enemys force are engaged with me. I am holding them until Gregg can come up. Greggs guns are being heard in the enemys rear. (57) It was nearly noon, and Bufords troopers had been fighting constantly since dawn. Although Greggs attack was supposed to have been coordinated with Bufords, Buford had fought alone for nearly six hours. Gregg had no good explanation for the delay; rather, he blamed it on Duffie: the attack of Gen. Bufords command at a very early hour on the 9th was a complete surprise to the enemy. But for the prompt withdrawal of Stuarts batteries they all would have been captured. His grand guard was able to oppose sufficient resistance to Bufords determined advance to accomplish the formation of a new line with his assembled brigades near St. James Church, and now an obstinate contest was maintained for more than two hours without any advantage to either party.
Col. Duffie, commanding the 2nd Division, was ordered to be at the crossing by daylight, and to proceed directly on Stevensburg. His unnecessary delay in reaching the Fort seriously interfered with the movement. His division across, the 3rd promptly followed. While crossing, the heavy firing or artillery heard from above indicated that Buford was engaged and our column pushed forward as rapidly as possible. Felled trees and other obstructions in the road interfered with the march of the batteries .(58)
In his after-action report, Gregg noted that Duffies delay in crossing set back the schedule by about three hours, to between 5 and 6 a.m. (59) The delay left Buford alone to bear the burden of the fight against Stuarts cavaliers.
Nobody had expected a battle of such magnitude, but neither side was willing to quit. Both Stuart and Pleasonton used the lull to redeploy and to take the opportunity to recover dead and wounded comrades. At that moment, as Stuart prepared for a full-scale counterattack, the sound of fighting to his rear shifted his attention away from Buford. Finally, around 11:30, as one member of the 8th New York recorded in his diary, Bufords men heard the booming of distant cannon which told us that Gen. Graig (sic) had arrived from Kellys Ford and was engaging the enemy. (60)
Brig. Gen. David McM. Greggs Third Division of Union cavalry had succeeded in getting behind Stuart to the southwest of St. James Church before being spotted near Fleetwood Hill. A protracted and desperate fight broke out along Greggs front. Hearing the sound of Greggs guns, Buford resolved to go to him if possible. With that goal in mind, Buford took all of his force, except for the 5th U.S., which was left in support of Grahams Battery to anchor the right, swung around under a tremendous artillery fire and gained the crest overlooking Brandy Station, then came the infantry. (61) Finally realizing the size and the strength of the force opposing him, Pleasonton reported to Hooker large numbers of Confederate cavalry (reported to be 30,000-strong by Confederate prisoners) faced him, and asked to have a good force of the Fifth Army Corps sent to his aid. (62) Greggs attack faced strong resistance along Fleetwood Hill, and the fight grew desperate when Duffies division arrived from Stevensburg.
In order to counter the threat from Gregg, Stuart detached Jones and Hampton from Bufords front and ordered them to the defense of Fleetwood Hill, leaving only Rooney Lees Brigade in Bufords front. Apparently under orders from Pleasonton to hold his position, Buford did not move directly around Lees flank to Fleetwood Hill, but remained in a defensive position along a ridge on the Cunningham farm. Perhaps Lees strong defensive position behind the stone wall deterred Buford. Knowing Bufords pugnacious nature and his inclination to fight, the best explanation for the inactivity is that Pleasonton ordered it. If so, Buford must have been extremely frustrated by the opportunity which now presented itself.
Buford took advantage of the withdrawal of the two Confederate brigades to extend his own lines in an effort to outflank Lee along the stone wall. Eventually, he got his dismounted troopers into a position which threatened to envelop Lees lines. (63) The area where the stone wall lay is in a valley between two ridges, one of which served as Bufords headquarters. The ground on either side of the wall was cleared, and provided excellent fields of fire for both sides. At least a part of the low-lying area was swampy and filled with mud. It was not (and is not today) ground easily suited to mounted operations, and had to be approached dismounted. This was a difficult task, as the almost waist-high stone wall provided a natural breastwork. Also, the entire area was covered by Confederate artillery firing from the ridge behind Lees main line. In short, it was a formidable defensive position. This fact probably also deterred Bufords ardor to pitch headlong into Lees lines. (64)
A successful attack by Buford would have placed him in the rear of Stuarts position, poised to roll up the Confederate flank from the side and rear. However, at 4:00 p.m., Rooney Lee attacked, pushing forward his own skirmishers in an attempt to flank Bufords position and to sever his lines of communication and retreat across Beverlys Ford. Some of Lees sharpshooters took positions behind the stone wall and peppered away at Amess infantry brigade, which had moved up to support the planned attack of Bufords troopers. Visibly annoyed, Buford approached a group of officers of the 3rd Wisconsin of Amess brigade, and asked of Capt. George W. Stevenson, Do you see those people down there? Theyve got to be driven out.
One of the Wisconsin officers responded that the enemys force greatly outnumbered their own. Buford responded, Well, I didnt order you, mind: but, if you think you can flank them, go in, and drive them off. (65)
Impressed with Bufords calm demeanor and manner of command, the Wisconsin officers ordered several companies of their infantry to advance. Screened from Lees view by woods and the nature of the terrain, the infantrymen sidled around Lees flank until they reached a position from which they could enfilade the Confederate position. When in position, the flankers unleashed a killing fire on Lees exposed flank. The infantry then retreated back to Bufords original line.
Emboldened by the success of the infantry, Buford ordered Maj. Henry C. Whelan, now in command of the 6th Pennsylvania, to launch a mounted charge against the Confederate position. Supported by Capt. Wesley Merritts 2nd U.S., the Pennsylvanians thundered toward the 10th Virginia through a storm of small arms and artillery fire. Major Whelan, whose horse was shot out from under him, later described the charge as decidedly the hottest place I was ever in. A man could not show his head or a finger without a hundred rifle shots whistling about....The air [was] almost solid with lead. (66) Spearheaded by the Pennsylvanians, the Federals pressed forward until they were met by a countercharge of the 9th Virginia.
The 9th Virginia, with sabers drawn, crashed into the charging Pennsylvanians, and broke them into confusion and forcing them back, not along the line of their retreat, but directly on the stone fence through which there was but a narrow opening; and dealing them some heavy blows during the necessary delay in forcing their way through it. They were followed by men of the Ninth at a gallop through the field beyond the fence to the edge of the woods, where a Federal battery was in position. A good many of the prisoners which the Federals had taken were released by this charge. (67)
The Confederate success was short-lived. No sooner was the 6th Pennsylvania driven from the hill than the 2nd U.S. attacked. The 2nd U.S. had spent much of the day supporting one of the Federal batteries, and was eager to join the fray. Merritt later wrote, At last an order-which we all had hoped and all but asked for, and which General Buford told me he was anxious to give, but had not the authority, but which no doubt he carried- finally came. The order to attack was delivered by Bufords trusted aide, Capt. Joseph OKeeffe, who remained with the 2nd U.S. after delivering his message. (68) In addition, Buford ordered the horse artillery battery of Lt. Albert O. Vincent to unlimber within 400 yards of the enemy and to open fire in conjunction with the Regulars attack. (69) Keenly aware of the opportunity that lay ahead if he could achieve a junction with Gregg, Buford must have chafed at the delay in ordering the charge. Again, we can only assume that Pleasonton had given Buford orders not to attack until Greggs command was fully engaged with Stuart.
Following the line of the 6th Pennsylvanias attack, and supported by the fire of Vincents battery, the 2nd U.S. pitched into the flank of the 9th Virginia, driving it back. In his after-action report, Buford described the charge of the Regulars, Out flew the sabres, and most handsomely they were used. (70) As Merritt later described the charge of the 2nd U.S.,
We rode pell-mell, with sabers in hand at the astonished enemy...The next moment it [the Rebel line] had broken and was flying, while horsemen of the 2nd 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 this terrible carnage, each apparently for the same destination. (71)
Merritt personally led the charge of the 2nd, which continued up the slope of Yew Ridge, across the plateau, and across the crest. OKeeffe rashly joined the charge, riding boot to boot with Merritt. Merritt and OKeeffe were separated when the Confederates broke and the sabres began to fly. Sometime during the melee, OKeeffe was unhorsed, badly wounded in the leg, and captured. (72) Maj. Whiting, the commander of the Reserve Brigade, later noted, I have to regret the loss of Captain OKeeffe, who requested to act with me during the day, and after affording most valuable service could not resist the temptation of charging with the Second United States Cavalry and was wounded and taken prisoner. (73) Buford no doubt mourned the loss of his gallant young Irish aide. At that moment, however, there was no time to mourn the loss of his aidethere was more work to do.
Merritts charge, in its impetuosity, carried everything before it. It bore up the hill, across the plateau, and to the crest on the other side. The Regulars had driven back more than twice their numbers, so savage was their attack. (74) However, a vicious Confederate counterattack by the 2nd North Carolina, commanded by Col. Solomon Williams, and the 10th Virginia, reached the hill, crashed into the Regulars, blunted their own charge, and pushed them back toward the Union starting point, although Williams, a West Pointer, fell, mortally wounded by a pistol ball. (75) An unidentified member of Company F of the 10th Virginia, in a letter to the Richmond Daily Dispatch written the day after the battle, noted, The 2nd U.S. Cavalry, supported by other cavalry, came up when the 10th Va. Cav .were about to charge them. This regiment charged them gallantly, driving them back precipitately, killing many, chopping many over the head, and taking some prisoners I think it was the hardest cavalry fight of the war. (76)
After serving as artillery support for much of the afternoon, portions of the 6th U.S. also joined the charge, and enjoyed some success. One squadron, under command of Lt. Isaac M. Ward got around the Confederate flank, and into the rear of the 9th Virginia. Ward deployed into a line of battle, ordered his small command to charge, and cheering wildly, the small force of Regulars used the element of surprise to drive back the superior force of the 9th Virginia. One Confederate, captured in the charge, told the Yankees, From the noise you men made, we thought it was a whole brigade coming out of those woods. Ward was wounded in the exchange. The Confederates eventually rallied and drove the Regulars back. (77)
As the Regulars retreated, Merritt and his aide, Lt. Quirk, found themselves alone among the Confederates. Merritt, who believed that his entire regiment was with him, was armed only with his saber and courage, and his situation appeared grim. A group of Confederate officers nearby spotted him, and one yelled, Kill the damned Yankee! Riding over to the group of officers, Merritt boldly approached the apparent leader of the group, brought his saber to a point, and demanded, Colonel, you are my prisoner!
Some later thought it possible that the officer whom Merritt approached was Rooney Lee himself, although a positive identification is impossible. The response was not surrender; rather, the officer proclaimed, The hell I am! and swung his saber at Merritts head. Merritt parried the blow, but the thrust of the Confederates saber pierced Merritts hat and a kerchief which he had tied around his head as a sweatband, just cutting Merritts scalp. Recognizing the danger he and Quirk were in, Merritt and his aide beat a hasty retreat when other Confederates opened fire with their revolvers. With Confederate shots and orders to surrender ringing in his ears, Merritt safely reached his own lines, where, he noted, a kindly Hibernian gave me the hat off his own head. (78) In the course of the fight on Yew Ridge, Rooney Lee suffered a severe wound to the leg in the melee. Deprived of their senior officers, the Confederates did not press their advantage and fell back to their lines along Fleetwood Hill. (79)
When Buford prepared his report of the battle, he wrote that his men gained the crest overlooking Brandy Station, but that they could not hold it. He further noted that The enemy, although vastly superior in numbers was fought, hand to hand and was not allowed to gain an inch of ground once occupied. During this fighting, Lt. [Albert O.] Vincent poured his shot into them with terrible execution. (80) Vincent later reported that he kept up his fire for about half an hour, and that his battery expended approximately 400 rounds over the course of the days fighting. Obviously, their fire from only 400 yards away took a toll on the Confederates. (81)
The fight for Yew Ridge was savage and bloody, with sabers flashing in the afternoon sun. Recalling the wild melee, one Union trooper recalled that At one time the dust was so thick we could not tell friend from foe. (82) Had Buford and Gregg coordinated their efforts and linked forces, they may very well have driven the Confederates from the field. However, they failed to do so, and a golden opportunity slipped away. Buford must have been frustrated by the nearness of total victory.
Earlier in the afternoon, Hooker gave Pleasonton discretionary orders allowing him to withdraw if he felt it was necessary to do so. By 5 p.m., Pleasontons command had been fought out, and he decided to exercise the discretion given him by Hooker when he learned that Confederate infantry was reaching the battlefield. In fact, Robert E. Lee himself came to the battlefield to see what all of the noise was after receiving a dispatch from Stuart describing the attack. Lee wrote back that two divisions of Confederate infantry were nearby, and that Stuart was not to expose his men too much, but to do the enemy damage when possible. As the whole thing seems to be a reconnaissance to determine our force and position, he wishes these concealed as much as possible, and the infantry not to be seen, if it is possible to avoid it. (83) Lee correctly guessed that the Union mission was in part a reconnaissance in force, and wanted to avoid tipping his hand regarding the proximity of his infantry if possible. However, as the day dragged on and the fighting grew more desperate, the Confederate commander finally ordered Confederate infantry to come to Stuarts support. (84)
Concluding that his men had done enough for one day, Pleasonton sent
one of his staff officers, Capt. Frederick C. Newhall of the 6th Pennsylvania,
to Buford with orders to withdraw from the field. Newhall found Buford
entirely isolated from the rest of the command under Pleasonton...but
paying no attention and fighting straight on... (85) Buford later wrote
that once the firing ceased on Greggs front along Fleetwood Hill, ...I
was ordered to withdraw. Abundance of means was sent to aid me, and we
came off the field in fine shape and at our convenience. Capt. [Richard
S.C.] Lord with the 1st U.S. came up fresh comparatively with plenty of
ammunition and entirely relieved my much exhausted but undaunted command
in a most commendable style. The engagement lasted near 14 hours. (86)
Lord later reported that his command came under fire from 2 oclock p.m.
until after sunset, constantly exposed to cannonading and musketry of the
Covered by the fresh men of the 1st U.S., which had been kept in reserve to support the artillery most of the day, and the men of Amess infantry brigade, Buford withdrew back across Beverlys Ford at a leisurely pace. Newhall, of Pleastontons staff, who had communicated the order to retreat to Buford while he watched the charge of the 2nd U.S., recalled that Buford himself came along serenely at a moderate walk. Buford then climbed the knoll above the river, and joined Pleasonton and a large group of officers to observe the final act of the days drama as the sun set. (88) Pleasonton later noted, General Buford withdrew his command in beautiful style to this side, the enemy not daring to follow, but showing his chagrin and mortification by an angry and sharp cannonading. (89)
Bufords tired but unbowed troopers were perplexed by the withdrawal. As the regimental historian of the 8th New York wrote, Our cavalry fell back across the river that night. It was a mystery to the boys why they fell back. The head officers knew all about it. (90) Nevertheless, Bufords men battled the Confederates for almost fourteen straight hours, for six of which they fought largely alone. Later, Pleasonton reported to Hooker, Bufords cavalry had a long and desperate encounter, hand to hand, with the enemy, in which he drove handsomely before him very superior forces. Over 200 prisoners were captured, and one battle flag. The troops are in splendid spirits, and are entitled to the highest praise for their distinguished conduct. The corps commander later reported Bufords loss at 36 officers and 435 enlisted men killed, wounded and missing, for total casualties in Bufords Division of 471, more than 50% of the total Union casualties of 866. One of the missing officers was Joseph OKeeffe, Bufords trusted young aide. The 6th Pennsylvania suffered the largest loss, 108, including eight officers. (91) Buford later said that the 6th Pennsylvania had covered itself with glory at Brandy Station. (92) The 2nd U.S. Cavalry suffered 66 killed or wounded out of 225 present for duty during the days fight. (93) John Buford must have been extremely proud of the performance of his Regulars that day.
The General wrote, The men and officers of the entire command without exception behaved with great gallantry. He had good reason to be proud of his men-- they had acquitted themselves well, and had matched their foe. Buford singled out a few officers for commendation, including his young protégé, Captain Wesley Merritt. He further commended his staff, in particular Capts. Myles Keogh and Peter Penn-Gaskell, for their bravery under fire. Finally, he singled out two captains of Pleasontons staff, Ulric Dahlgren, of the 1st U.S., and Elon Farnsworth, of the 8th Illinois, for their work during the fight. (94)