By: Eric J. Wittenberg

Thus, the greatest cavalry battle ever fought in North America ended. It ended a draw. Seemingly, little was accomplished by it, other than heavy casualties. Was there no result?

With more than twenty thousand men involved, Brandy Station was the largest cavalry fight ever to occur in North America. The battle had been a draw, although Stuart could claim victory as he held the field at the end of the day. It was “a passage of arms filled with romantic interest and splendor to a degree unequaled to anything our [Civil War] produced.” (1) For nearly fourteen bitter hours, the Federal troopers battled an enemy that outnumbered them insofar as cavalry is counted.

Nevertheless, and for the second time in the war, Federal cavalrymen slugged it out with Stuart’s men and fought them to a standoff. One trooper of the 8th New York wrote, “the Rebels were going to have a review of their cavalry that day, but our boys reviewed them.” (2) John Gibbon wrote to his wife, “From all accounts, [the fight] must have been a heavy one. Our men behaved well but were overpowered and obliged to come back to this side of the river again, but were not followed.” (3) The Confederates sustained 51 killed, 250 wounded, and 132 missing, while the Yankees suffered 484 killed and wounded and 372 taken prisoner. These casualties speak volumes for the severity of the fighting that day. Perhaps the greatest consequence of Brandy Station was its effect on the morale of the Federal cavalry. As Stuart’s aide Henry McClellan later wrote, “This battle...made the Federal Cavalry. The fact is that up to June 9, 1863, the Confederate cavalry did have its own way...and the record of their success becomes almost monotonous...But after that time we held our ground only by hard fighting.” (4) Another Confederate, Trooper John N. Opie of the 6th Virginia, noted, “In this battle the Federal cavalry fought with great gallantry, and … they exhibited marked and wonderful improvement in skill, confidence, and tenacity.” (5) One member of the 8th Illinois wrote to his parents two days after the battle: They had five brigades of cavalry, ten pieces of artillery, and Longstreet’s infantry there. It was their intention to make raids into Maryland and Pennsylvania. We spoiled their fun anyway. We had about 10,000 cavalry and two 6 gun batteries, and had 6,000 infantry….Our object was accomplished. We had found out their strength and their intentions. They would have commenced crossing the river in an hour if we had not got the start of them. (6)

Capt. Willard C. Glazier of the 2nd New York observed that Brandy Station “was a glorious fight, in which the men of the North had proved themselves more than a match for the boasted Southern Chivalry.” (7) The historian of the 10th New York noted that the performance of the blue troopers that day “forever settled the question of superiority as between the gray and the blue cavalry in favor of the latter.” (8) Edward P. Tobie of the 1st Maine recorded, “…a higher value attaches to Brandy Station as affecting the regiment…It was…the first time it had ever tasted…the fruit of victory. The battle aroused its latent powers, and awoke it…to a new career. It became self-reliant, and began to comprehend its own possibilities. It became inspired with an invincible spirit that never again forsook it.” (9)

On June 11, upon returning to Warrenton Junction two days the brutal fight, Pleasonton reported to Hooker that he had “...just reviewed [the] cavalry. They are in fine spirits and good condition for another fight.” (10) That was undoubtedly the case, but some men were not entirely pleased with the way that the battle ended. Pleasonton had failed in his mission to disperse the concentration of Confederate cavalry in the area around Culpeper. He also failed, ultimately, to delay the departure of the Confederates on their march north—the great invasion started one day later than originally planned. After Gettysburg, Pleasonton claimed that he had discovered the Confederate plan to invade the north at Brandy Station, but this argument has little merit. Pleasonton’s subsequent actions and communications with army headquarters simply do not support this contention. Capt. Charles Francis Adams, of the 1st Massachusetts--never an admirer of Alfred Pleasonton’s--grumbled, “I am sure a good cavalry officer would have whipped Stuart out of his boots, but Pleasonton is not and never will be that.” (11) The Federal troopers had performed admirably in exceedingly difficult circumstances, especially Buford’s command, which had carried the brunt of the fighting, fighting largely alone for a good portion of the day. Not all of the Confederates believed that Brandy Station was a decisive victory, either. Capt. Charles Minor Blackford, of Stuart’s staff, wrote to his family, “The cavalry fight at Brandy Station can hardly be called a victory. Stuart was certainly surprised and but for the supreme gallantry of his subordinate officers and the men in his command, it would have been a day of disaster and disgrace.” Another Confederate soldier wrote, “Genl Stuart was beautifully surprised and whipped the other day. He drove them back, but not until he had received a considerable chastising. It is amusing to hear the cavalry fellows trying to bluff out of it.” (12) John B. Jones, a clerk in the Confederate War Department, noted in his diary, “The surprise of Stuart on the Rappahannock has chilled every heart, notwithstanding it does not appear that we lost more than the enemy in the encounter. The question is on every tongue—have the generals relaxed in vigilance? If so, sad is the prospect!” (13)

Brig. Gen. Theophilus F. Rodenbough, the leading early cavalry historian, wrote a few years later, “Stuart had the advantage of position; the ground, intersected by ravines and low stone fences and interspersed with groves of large trees, rose gradually in the direction of Brandy Station.” With such advantages, Stuart should have won decisively, but he did not. Rather, it was too close a margin for Southern comfort. In fact, given the extreme circumstances, Stuart had fought well. He had handled his troops well, shifting forces as needed to meet threats. Rodenbough observed, “…the Confederate cavalry, caught napping, endeavored to repair its fault with promptness and gallantry; it had, however, been checked upon the threshold of an aggressive movement, and its leader was taught a lesson, which sooner or later is learned by the general who undervalues his enemy.” (14)

The Southern newspapers excoriated Stuart for being taken by surprise at Brandy Station. The Richmond Sentinel concluded its coverage of the battle by stating, “The fight, on the whole, may be said to have begun in a surprise and ended in a victory, The latter is what we are accustomed to hear of Confederate soldiers; the former we trust never to hear again.” The Richmond Examiner was far harsher in its appraisal: it referred to Stuart’s command as “this much puffed cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia”, and pointed out that, along with the battle at Kelly’s Ford three months earlier, it was at least the second time that Stuart had been surprised by the Federals. The article opined, “If the war was a tournament, invented and supported for the pleasure and profit of a few vain and weak-headed officers, these disasters might be dismissed with compassion. But the country pays dearly for the blunders which encourage the enemy to overrun the land with a cavalry which is daily learning to despise the mounted troops of the Confederacy. It is high time that this branch of the service should be reformed...”, with the implication that Stuart should be replaced as its commander. The editorial concluded by stating, “The enemy is evidently determined to employ his cavalry extensively, and has spared no pains or cost to perfect that arm. The only effective means of preventing the to reorganize our own forces, enforce a stricter discipline among the men, and insist on more earnestness among the officers in the discharge of their very important duty.” The harsh criticism stung the proud Stuart. (15) He wrote home to his wife Flora, “The papers are in great error, as usual about the whole transaction. It was no surprise, the enemys (sic) movement was known, and he was defeated.” Stuart called The Examiner’s account “lies”. (16) John Buford had done quite well in his first combat in command of a large body of troopers. As the commander of an entire wing, Buford spent the day engaged in intense and bloody combat with the vaunted Confederate troopers. He overcame the loss of a brigade commander very early in the battle, and took personal command of a portion of the field. Davis was a great loss to the Cavalry Corps. John Gibbon wrote of him, “I regard his death as the greatest loss this army has met with in a long time. He ought long ago have been promoted, but I am sorry to say seldom get the positions to which their merit and their services entitle them.” (17)

Despite the loss of Davis, Buford proved to the Union high command that he was capable of directing the actions of a significant body of men in the heat of pitched combat, and even though he and his men were hotly engaged for fourteen hours, they withdrew from the field only under orders from Pleasonton. As Gibbon pointed out, “Buford carried with his troops the strongest position of the enemy.” (18) Finally, when the withdrawal did come, it came on John Buford’s terms-leisurely, and at his own pace, not galloping back across the river in disgrace, with gray troopers in hot pursuit. The only flaw in his performance was in ordering too many piecemeal attacks, such as those launched at St. James Church. Perhaps this may be explained by the lack of good intelligence. Nevertheless, Buford gave a solid performance and proved his mettle in command of a very large battle.

David Gregg also performed well that day. His men had engaged in a very severe fight with the very best that the Confederate cavalry had to offer, and had held their own. While they were largely fought out by the end of the day, his men had withdrawn leisurely, and without pursuit. The greatest criticism that can be leveled against Gregg is that his delay in crossing the river and in going to the sound of Buford’s guns cost the Union a prime opportunity to destroy the Confederate force. Had Duffie and Gregg come to Buford’s aid much sooner, it is possible that Jeb Stuart’s vaunted cavalry would have been driven from the field in ignominious flight. Victory lay within the grasp of the Federal troopers that day, but they let it slip away from them because of poor intelligence and poor planning by Alfred Pleasonton. This, however, does not take away from the performance of the individual troopers, who performed admirably. Almost as significantly, two young Federal officers had performed with distinction that day. Capt. Wesley Merritt, commander of the Buford’s own 2nd U.S., did extremely well, personally leading the charge against the strong Confederate position on Yew Ridge. Merritt went gone saber to saber with a high ranking Confederate officer, possibly Rooney Lee himself, and returned to talk about it. Merritt’s bravery caught Pleasonton’s eye, and Pleasonton marked Buford’s eager young protégé for future promotion.

Likewise, Capt. Elon J. Farnsworth of the 8th Illinois did well in the heat of the great battle. Like Merritt, Farnsworth learned a lot about commanding cavalry troops under Buford’s command, and like Merritt, was marked by Pleasonton for future high command. Neither Merritt nor Farnsworth would have long to wait for their promotions, and, along with young Lt. George Armstrong Custer of Pleasonton’s staff, who had also caught the attention of his corps commander with his performance at Brandy Station, all would play significant roles in the coming Gettysburg Campaign.