At daylight General Buford’s leading brigade, consisting of three regiments under Colonel Benjamin Franklin (Grimes) Davis, hero of last September’s siege of Harpers Ferry, splash across the Rappahannock and swiftly break through the thin Confederate picket line. The Federal horsemen gallop hard, four abreast, down the narrow country road to Brandy Station.
Roused from their sleep, the Confederates hasten to mount up. Twenty-two-year-old Major Cabell E. Flournoy of the 6th Virginia gathers about 100 men and charges headlong at the oncoming Federals. Badly outmatched, Flourney soon withdraws—but only after gaining some precious time for the Conederates. Left behind by Flourney’s retreating Confederates is Lieutenant R.O. Allen, whose horse has been slightly wounded. Taking cover in a grove of trees, Allen spots a Federal officer advancing in front of an enemy column. Allen decides to use the only bullet left in his revolver at the closest possible range, and spurs his injured mount on. The Federal officer is looking back toward his men, waving them on with his saber. Sensing Allen’s attack at the last instant, he turns and slashes wildly with his saber. But the Confederate avoids the cut by swinging to the side of his horse—and at the same time, he fires his last bullet. As Allen gallops to safety, Grimes Davis falls dead, shot through the head.
Jeb Stuart hears the deadly rattle of small-arms fire while he is drinking his morning coffee in his headquarters tent next to the red-brick Barbour House. The house is situated on Fleetwood Hill, a long and commanding north-south ridge that rises about a half mile northeast of Brandy Station. Stuart’s supply train is loaded and ready to accompany the cavalry on its move north, scheduled to begin this morning. While his staff is scurrying about, hastily dressing and saddling the horses, an alarmed Stuart dispatches the wagons rearward to safety in Culpeper. Then he issues orders for reinforcements to move toward the fighting near Beverly’s Ford.
As Buford’s Federals advance farther, they come up against Brigadier General Wade Hampton’s brigade, formed in line of battle at the edge of a wood near Saint James’s Church. Major Robert Morris, a Philadelphia blue blood who commands the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, is ordered to clear the enemy from his front. Morris deploys his men and charges. Grape and canister are poured into their left flank and a storm of rifle bullets in their front. They have to leap three wide, deep ditches, and many of their horses and men pile up in a writhing mass in those ditches and are ridden over. The charge falters, and the Confederates counterattack, capturing Major Morris and driving his troopers back in savage hand-to-hand fighting. Buford’s troopers begin to fall back toward the Rappahannock. As they do so groups of cavalrymen dismount to form skirmish lines alongside infantrymen who have come up in support.
Just as the Confederate regiments are gathering for a decisive charge, Grumble Jones receives bad news from his scouts: A column of dust has been seen rising from the direction of Kelly’s Ford. Jones instantly sends word to Stuart that Federals have crossed the river downstream. Stuart is incredulous—and issues a scornful reply: “Tell General Jones to attend to the Yankees in his front, and I’ll watch the flanks.” Jones accepts the rebuff with grim humor, remarking: “So he thinks they ain’t coming, does he? Well, let him alone, he’ll damn soon see for himself.”
Indeed, the Federal flanking force under Duffié and Gregg has found its bearings and is coming fast. At a crossroads three miles beyond Kelly’s Ford, the force splits: Duffié’ continues westward toward Stevensburg, a village about five miles south of Brandy Station, to menace the Confederate rear; Gregg’s column turns north on a road heading straight to Brandy Station. The way is wide open for Gregg—and Fleetwood Hill, which commands his approach, is virtually undefended.
Hurrying off toward the fight near Beverly Ford with three brigades, Stuart has left behind at Fleetwood Hill only his adjutant, Major Henry McClellan, and a few couriers. McClellan doesn’t believe a report he receives that Gregg has outflanked the Confederates, but goes to look for himself and is stunned to find that so it is! Within cannon shot of the hill a long column of the enemy fills the road, which there skirts the woods. They are pressing steadily forward upon the railroad station, which would in a few moments be in their possession. By chance, a single howitzer is near the foot of Fleetwood Hill, having been withdrawn from the battle near the river when ammunition ran low. It is only a 6-pounder, but it will have to do. Without an instant to spare, McClellan orders the gun’s commander, Lieutenant John W. Carter, to move the piece to the crest of the hill and commence firing. Scrounging in his limber box, Carter finds some round shot and a few shells, and is soon lobbing them toward the oncoming enemy. In the vanguard of the Federal troopers is a brigade of three regiments under the command of Colonel Sir Percy Wyndham, a veteran British soldier of fortune. Uncertain of the enemy strength, Wyndham halts to wait for the rest of Gregg’s division.
McClellan, meanwhile, has sent a courier galloping to warn Stuart of the threat, but this is not Stuart’s day for accepting reality. “Ride back there and find out what all this foolishness is about,” he orders a staff officer. Just then another courier rides up to confirm the news—and any remaining doubt is dispelled by the sound of Carter’s howitzer opening up on Fleetwood Hill. Stuart acts fast, dispatching four more artillery pieces to Fleetwood Hill and pulling two of Grumble Jones’s regiments out of the line and sending them rearward up the ridge as fast as they can ride. They near the crest just as Carter, his pitiful supply of ammunition completely gone, is withdrawing. The Federal horsemen are now approaching at the gallop. Not fifty yards below, Colonel Percy Wyndham is advancing the 1st New Jersey Cavalry in magnificent order, in column of squadrons, with flags and guidons flying. Without pausing, Jones’s troopers gallop over the crest and down the far slope, headlong into Wyndham’s charging horsemen. The opposing ranks meet with a dead, heavy crash and it is the Confederates who give ground. They break like a wave on the bow of a ship, and over and through them the Federals ride, sabering as they go.
Wyndham has taken a bullet in the leg, but he leads his men up up the slope, overrunning the four Confederate artillery pieces. Some artillerists fight back with revolvers, while others wielding handspikes and spongestaffs knock Federal troopers from the saddle. Just as the Federal momentum ebbs fresh Confederate units enter the fray, driving Wyndham’s scattered regiments back down the hill. At the foot of the hill, the men of a New York battery have just unlimbered three guns when the 35th Virginia Battalion gallops into them. The men of the battery fight with desperation. There is no demand for surrender or offer of one until nearly all the men are either killed or wounded. Of the thirty-six New York artillerists, only six escape death, wounds, or capture. With the tide of battle turning against him, General Gregg sends an urgent appeal to Colonel Duffié to ride immediately to the sound of the guns.
To the northeast, meanwhile, Buford is again trying to force the Confederate position near Saint James’s Church. Again the 6th Pennsylvania charges, only to be met and repulsed by the 9th Virginia. As batteries of horse artillery fire over their heads, the 2nd US Cavalry, tough Regular Army troops, gallop into the fray. There is little halting to make prisoners. Those who surrender are told with a motion to go to the rear, and those who resist are sabered or shot till they reel from their saddles. Yet the Regulars are unable to affect the breakthrough, and eventually they are pushed back by the 2nd North Carolina and 10th Virginia. The battle around the church is winding down now; one of the last Confederate casualties there is Robert E. Lee’s 26-year-old son, Brigadier General W.H.F. (Rooney) Lee, who is shot in the thigh as he heads his brigade in a final charge.
Off to the southeast, Duffié has hooked around to Brandy Station from Stevensburg, but he arrives too late to present any real threat. In the end, General Stuart and his Confederates hold Fleetwood Hill. At 4:30 pm, Pleasanton begins pulling his men back across the Rappahannock in good order. The Federals have suffered 81 men killed, 403 wounded, and 382 missing for a total of 866. Confederate casualties are put at 523. Each side had approximately 10,000 men engaged. But the credible performance of Pleasanton’s troopers against the legendary Stuart has given them a new sense of confidence that will sustain them through the balance of the war. The Battle of Brandy Station, Henry McClellan will write, “made the Federal Cavalry.” No longer can the infantry jibe, “Whoever saw a dead cavalryman?”
Twenty Federals are killed and fourteen injured when a powder magazine explodes near Alexandria, Virginia.
The Federals hang two Southern soldiers as spies at Franklin, Tennessee.
Skirmishes occur at Triune, Tennessee; Monticello and Rocky Gap, Kentucky; Macon Ford on Big Black River, Mississippi; and near Lake Providence, Louisiana.
—G. K. Chesterton