By: Eric J. Wittenberg

We will recall that part of Gregg’s column, the Second Cavalry Division, was commanded by Col. Alfred N. Duffie, was to cross the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford, march to Stevensburg, about six miles away, and then turn north and head toward a junction with the rest of Gregg’s column at Culpeper. Duffie’s advance was supposed to step off at dawn, in conjunction with John Buford’s advance across Beverly’s Ford. As we have seen, Duffie’s advance was delayed significantly, which also delayed Gregg’s advance.

Before we explore the specifics of the situation, some biographical information about Duffie will be helpful. Alfred Napoleon Alexander Duffie, known as “Nattie” was born in Paris, France, on May 1, 1835, the son of a French count. He graduated from the military college of St. Cyr in 1854, and served in Algiers and Senegal, Africa as lieutenant of cavalry. He also was decorated for valor during the Crimean War, where he was badly wounded. He came to the United States in 1859, and met and married the daughter of a wealthy New Yorker. When the Civil War broke out, Duffie resigned his commission in the French army and was commissioned a captain in the 2nd New York Cavalry. He quickly rose to the rank of major, and was appointed colonel of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry in July 1862. In March 1863, he performed well at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, causing Joseph Hooker to request that the Frenchman be promoted to brigadier general, a promotion that came through exactly two weeks after Brandy Station. (1)

Alfred Pleasonton was known to be a bigot who despised foreigners such as Duffie and Percy Wyndham. He considered foreign soldiers mercenaries, and once wrote, “I conscientiously believe that Americans only should rule in this matter & settle this rebellion--& that in every instance foreigners have injured our cause.” (2) While this was undoubtedly a false statement, in Duffie’s case, it was clear that he was proof of the Peter Principle, that in every hierarchy, each member will rise to his level of incompetence and remain there. Duffie, while a good man and an outstanding organizer of men, simply was not competent to command a division. This weakness would severely penalize the Union cavalry in the Battle of Brandy Station.

Duffie later wrote that he received the order to move his command to Kelly’s Ford at 12:15 a.m. on June 9. Once there, he was to report to Gregg for further orders, cross the river, and advance to Stevensburg. (3) Duffie obeyed his orders, and advanced to the ford. After meeting with Gregg, he crossed the river at the ford, and took time to deploy into line of battle on the Stevensburg Road, near the ford. He deployed his own 1st Rhode Island and also the 6th Ohio on the right, the 1st Massachusetts on the left, and kept the 3rd Pennsylvania in reserve. He placed his artillery in the center, “and took care to protect well my flanks.” (4) In this array, Duffie advanced slowly toward Stevensburg, sending a battalion of the 6th Ohio forward to scout.

At about 8:30, Major Stanhope of the 6th Ohio sent back word that he was in Stevensburg, that the enemy was in sight, and that he had sent skirmishers forward to meet them. (5) The presence of any Confederate forces at all was due to the foresight of Wade Hampton. As word reached the main Confederate battle line that Gregg’s forces had crossed at Kelly’s Ford, Hampton rode to the camp of Col. Matthew C. Butler’s 2nd South Carolina Cavalry, ordered him to mount his regiment and to move to Brandy Station to await further orders. Butler obeyed, but not before sending a small force to Stevensburg to picket the area. These pickets had no sooner arrived in Stevensburg when they spotted Duffie’s advance. Knowing there were no other Confederate forces in the area, and without waiting for orders, Butler ordered his regiment to advance to Stevensburg. (6)

Matthew Butler was a good soldier. Born on March 8, 1836 in Greenville, South Carolina, Butler had been a lawyer before the Civil War. When the war broke out, Butler was commissioned a captain in the Hampton Legion, and was promoted to major after First Bull Run. In August 1862, he was made colonel of the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry. Young and aggressive, Butler was known as one of the better regimental commanders. Indeed, by the end of the war, he would wear a major general’s stars, and would command a division under Hampton. (7) This day, he proved to be the right man in the right place.

The protection of the road between Stevensburg and Culpeper was critical—the infantry corps of Longstreet and Ewell were camped there, and the cavalry sought to screen the presence of the Confederate infantry at all costs. (8) Knowing the urgency of the situation, Butler ordered his second-in-command, Lt. Col. Frank Hampton, younger brother of Wade Hampton, to gallop on to Stevensburg with twenty men to do what they could to delay the Yankee advance. Butler wanted Hampton to buy sufficient time for him to deploy his command on a ridge line just outside of the hamlet of Stevensburg known as Hansborough’s Ridge. McClellan noted, “The position in which Butler awaited attack was well chosen. The woods concealed the smallness of his numbers, and even on the road the sloping ground prevented the enemy from discovering any but the leading files of Hampton’s detachment.” (9)

When Hampton and his small contingent arrived at Stevensburg, he learned that the Yankees had already passed through the town, but had withdrawn after being fired upon by the Confederate videttes. With a scratch force of 36 men, Hampton ordered his men to charge the Yankee column, which withdrew instead of engaging. Thus, Hampton bought time for the rest of Butler’s small column to advance to Stevensburg and deploy into line of battle.

While Butler was deploying his troops, the famous Confederate scout, Capt. Will Farley, galloped up with a message from Stuart, informing Butler that the 4th Virginia Cavalry, under command of Col. Williams Wickham, was on its way to reinforce Butler, along with a single piece of artillery. (10) As Wickham’s men arrived, Wickham sent Lt. Col. William H. Payne forward to alert Butler that the reinforcements had arrived. Butler “requested Colonel Payne to inform Colonel Wickham of the disposition I had made of the few men at my disposal and to say to him, as he reached me, I would cheerfully take orders from him.” Wickham declined to assume command, so Butler requested that Wickham bring two squadrons of his command forward mounted, to support Hampton’s squadron. The rest of the 4th Virginia was to come into line dismounted alongside the balance of Butler’s regiment. By this time, it was approximately 11:00 a.m., and the battle was raging at Brandy Station as the first elements of Gregg’s command reached Fleetwood Hill. (11)

Duffie’s first advance was slow and tentative. Mounted skirmishers came up, but were repulsed by a couple of volleys from Butler’s dismounted troopers. Another similar attack was repulsed by the Confederates, and the Federals shifted the focus of their attack on the small mounted contingent of Hampton’s, waiting in the road. (12)

Duffie noted:

I immediately threw forward the skirmishers of the First Massachusetts, First Rhode Island and Sixth Ohio Cavalry, who immediately became engaged with the enemy, who were strongly posted and partly concealed in the woods. Pushing steadily forward, the enemy were quickly dislodged from those dense woods into open fields, where the First Rhode Island Cavalry was ordered to charge on the right, the First Massachusetts on the left, and one squadron of the Sixth Ohio Cavalry on the road, in order to cut off the retreat of the enemy on his flank and check him in his front. (13)

Butler recounted, “Imagine my surprise when I learned from the right that a regiment of the enemy’s cavalry had charged Colonel Hampton’s handful of men and swept him out of the road. In the melee, Colonel Hampton received a pistol ball in the pit of his stomach and died that afternoon from the effects of it.” (14) Duffie’s charge crashed into Butler’s line. In the process, the 4th Virginia was cut in two by the force of the Federal charge, and was sent flying from the field in disorder. 58 members of the regiment were captured by Duffie in this charge. (15) Butler wrote many years after the battle, “Colonel Wickham not only did not move up his mounted and dismounted squadrons to Colonel Hampton’s support, but when the enemy charged they took to their heels toward Culpeper Court House.” (16) Duffie reformed his command, and pushed forward once again as Butler struggled to rally his small force. Seeing this, Duffie brought up his horse artillery, and unlimbered it on a small rise. There, the guns opened on Butler’s line, wreaking havoc. Butler and Will Farley were the only Confederates still mounted at that time, and they provided a natural target for the Federal guns. Supported by artillery, Duffie ordered another charge. Seeing the approaching Federals, Farley drew his revolver, spurred his horse forward, and opened fire. (17) Butler gave orders to the officer in command of Company G, positioned next to Farley, not to fire too soon, to protect men of Butler’s regiment who might have gone forward to escape the artillery. Butler recounted, When, however, we discovered the enemy making their way through the bushes and opened fire, I gave the command, “Commence firing” all along the line. I noticed a mounted cavalryman in blue slide off his horse…very easily, and the horse trot back to his rear, and assumed he had dismounted not more than fifty yards down the hill for the purpose of getting the protection of a tree in his future efforts. About that time a man wearing a striped hat turned to me and said, “Colonel, I got that fellow”. I replied by saying, “Got him, the devil; he has dismounted to get you; load your gun.” It turned out…he was right. He had killed this man, who proved to be an officer. (18)

Butler realized that his flank had been turned as a result of the rout of the 4th Virginia, so he decided to redeploy his command on the other side of a small stream called Mountain Run. A second line of battle of was taken up on the other side of the creek. Butler deployed his single gun there, where it engaged in counterbattery fire with the Federal guns atop the hill near the little town of Stevensburg. As this duel continued, and as Duffie redeployed his own forces, a short lull occurred in the fighting. Farley and Butler sat their horses, laughing as Butler recounted to Farley the anecdote about the Federal officer killed by his men. They sat astride their horses, facing opposite directions, Butler with his back to the Federal position, not paying much attention to the artillery fire.

Suddenly, [a] twelve pound shell from the enemy’s gun on the hill (we had evidently been located by a field glass), struck the ground about thirty steps from our position in an open field ricocheted and passed through my right leg above the ankle, through Farley’s horse, and took off his right leg at the knee. My horse bounded in the air, threw me, saddle and all, flat on my back in the road, when the poor fellow moved off with his entrails hanging out towards the clover field where he had been grazing in the early morning and died there, as I was afterwards informed. Farley’s horse had dropped in the road, terribly lacerated, and Farley fell with his head on the horse’s side. As soon as we discovered what the trouble was my first apprehension was we would bleed to death before assistance could reach us. I therefore directed Farley to get out his handkerchief and make a tourniquet by binding around his leg above the wound. I got out my handkerchief, and we were doing our best in the tourniquet business when Capt. John Chestnut and Lieutenant John Rhett of my regiment came to our relief, soon followed by…[the] surgeon and assistant surgeon of the regiment. (19)

Butler’s ankle had been shattered and would require amputation; Farley would die later that day. That single artillery shot had taken quite a toll.

With Hampton dead and Butler badly wounded, Maj. Thomas J. Lipscomb assumed command of the 2nd South Carolina. As Lipscomb attempted to rally his forces, Duffie saw that he was about to carry the position, and issued orders for the 1st Massachusetts to charge the Confederate position. As the Bay Staters prepared to charge, orders reached Duffie from Gregg that he should “return and join the Third Division, on the road to Brandy Station.” (20)

Duffie drew off most of his division, leaving the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry and one section of artillery to watch Lipscomb’s men, and to keep them from returning to the main Confederate line of battle at Fleetwood Hill. This small force remained at Stevensburg for about an hour, but seeing no enemy and hearing the heavy firing at Fleetwood Hill, Col. J. Irvin Gregg, commander of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, and David Gregg’s cousin, moved up to the sound of the guns, arriving at about 4 p.m., as the fighting ended on Fleetwood Hill, and as the Federals began to withdraw. (21)

As he advanced toward the sound of the guns, Duffie encountered a squadron of the 10th New York Cavalry, fleeing back toward Stevensburg. Learning that these men had been routed by a charge of the Rebels, Duffie lost half an hour while he deployed into line of battle to protect against any Confederate threats. Finally, Duffie moved forward to the fighting, connected with Gregg, and relieved his batteries to cover the retreat of the Cavalry Corps. (22) Thus, Duffie played no role at all in the great cavalry fight at Fleetwood Hill. Had he not lost an entire day to the stubborn resistance put forth by Butler’s small but intrepid band, Duffie’s 1900 troopers may very well have been the factor that would have tipped the scales in favor of Gregg’s men in the fight for Fleetwood Hill.

In his report of the battle, Stuart wrote, “I received intelligence of affairs at Stevensburg. The two regiments sent there failed to resist the enemy effectually, and one (the Fourth Virginia Cavalry) broke in utter confusion without firing a gun, in spite of every effort of the colonel to rally the men to the charge. This regiment usually fights well, and its stampede on this occasion is unaccountable.” (23) While the criticism of Butler’s men is unfair, the criticism of the Virginians is valid. Had Wickham’s men not broken, Duffie’s command could have been further delayed, or even repulsed. As it was, the South Carolinians had done well, at a frightful cost.

Stuart further noted, “Col. M.C. Butler, Second South Carolina Cavalry, received a severe wound, causing the loss of his foot, which deprived the regiment and the country of his gallant and valuable services for a time. Capt. W.D. Farley, of South Carolina, a volunteer aide on my staff, was mortally wounded by the same shell, and displayed even in death the same loftiness in bearing and fortitude which have characterized him through life. He had served without emolument, long, faithfully, and always with distinction. No nobler champion has fallen. May his spirit abide with us!” (24)

Thus, Butler’s single regiment had stopped an entire division of Union cavalry. The timid Duffie had spent his last day in command of a division of cavalry; immediately after the Battle of Brandy Station, Pleasonton reorganized his cavalry, and Duffie was demoted to command of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry. After another poor performance at Middleburg on June 19, Duffie was relieved of command of the Rhode Island regiment, and never commanded troops in the Army of the Potomac again. Again, the “what-if’s” are fascinating. If Duffie had not gotten bogged down at Stevensburg, or if Butler’s resistance had not been so tenacious, the possibilities are boundless. Had Duffie’s command made it to Fleetwood Hill earlier in the day, the weight of numbers probably would have been sufficient to tip the balance in favor of the Federals, and a very different outcome indeed would have happened. Thus, Duffie’s foray to Stevensburg represents a world of lost opportunities.