I know the few men of Company A, 6th Virginia cavalry, were shocked when, at about 4:30 that Tuesday morning, 9 June, 1863, Federal cavalry appeared without warning out of a pea soup fog In the shrouded anonymity there was no mercy except that provided by sheer chance.
Some of the rebel pickets were paralyzed with fear when the madmen in blue came bursting toward their dugouts in the tree line, sabers slashing. Others panicked and went scampering to the rear on foot. Behind the blue attackers Federal cavalry formations galloped through the muddy water of Bevery's Ford (above), crossing the Rappahannock, the infamous “Dare You Yankees to Attack Line”, intending to clear a path 10 miles south to Culpeper, where they expected to find J.E.B. Stuart's 7,000 man rebel cavalry corps gathered for a raid. But Stuart was far closer than that. And soon it would the Yankees turn to be surprised.
The Federals at Beverly's Ford - named for early landowner Robert Beverly – were the 5,000 man division under 37 year old General John Buford (above), a West Pointer, who had been superseded as over all commander of the Army of the Potomac cavalry corps.
But Buford was a cautious commander before a battle. He had scouted the approaches to river days earlier, and the enemy picket positions. According to General Pleasanton's plan, Buford's troopers were right on time and expected to reach Culpeper by 9:00 a.m. that morning.
What the plan had not allowed for was the determination of Captain Bruce Gibson's company, camped in the wooded hillocks above the river (above). Despite having left their horses loose to graze overnight, about 100 of Gibson's men managed to get mounted – a few bareback – and delay the 2 regiments of federal cavalry under Colonel Benjamin “Grimes” Davis. And as the Beverly's Ford Road gained altitude above the Rappahannock, the fog thinned along with Confederate confusion.
Within half an hour, the entire 6th Virginia regiment was throwing itself against the Union troopers, and dozens of fierce battles involving half a dozen men at a time sparked along both sides of the road. It was, to borrow the title of a favored Army of the Potomac march, “Hell Along the Rappahannock”.
But when the Federal cavalry broke out of the woods, they found themselves facing a low hill, atop which was line of cannons around Saint Jame's Church (above). As was his nature, Colonel Davis immediately lead a charge straight up the slope against the rebel cannon. The grapeshot cut down horses and men of the 6th Pennsylvania and 6th regular cavalry, as well as Colonel Davis. But the guns were overrun.
However, without a commander, the Federals could not organize a defense, and a new rebel cavalry regiment charged to retake the guns and drive the Federals back. By now Buford had joined his spearhead, and rather then launch another frontal assault, he moved his troopers around the rebel left at Yew ridge, only to find dismounted rebel cavalry behind a stone wall. Removing them would take some time.
Meanwhile, 4 miles to the southeast, General David Gregg (above) was 90 minutes late crossing the Rappahannock at the little 19th century industrial park called Kellysville.
Two regiments of Federal cavalry and a brigade of infantry crossed Kelly's Ford (above), also looking to reach Culpeper by 9:00 a.m.. But they found their chosen road already blocked by alerted rebel cavalry. Rather than fighting his way through, General Gregg decided to look for another route.
By the time Buford's men finally carried the stone wall – well after 9:00 a.m. - and pried the rebels out of their position around St. James Church, he had realized Stuart's cavalry corps was not 8 miles to the south, but right in front of him, and gathering. Buford was smart enough to still wonder about the location of the rebel infantry. He knew A.P. Hill's corps of 21,000 rebels were still 35 miles to the east at Fredricks Crossing. But that left 2/3rds of the rebel army missing - where were Longstreet and “Old Baldy” Ewell's 42,000 men? About 11:00 a.m. Buford decided to push 2 regiments ahead, hoping to uncover rebel infantry.
Waiting across the field, General J.E.B. Stuart (above) was prepared to crush the charging Federals between his 6th and 12th Virginia regiments, and White's 35th Virginian cavalry battalion.
Buford’s men were spared this fate because General Gregg had finally reached the rear of the rebel line at Brandy Station - on the Orange and Alexandria railroad line - and then turned west to the northern foot of Fleetwood Hill (above). The view from this low ridge was so dominate that just days before General Stuart had used it as a viewing stand for a grand review of his entire cavalry corps. Had Gregg gained the crest of that hill, J.E.B. Stuart's entire command would have been crushed between the Federal wings. Stuart was saved that fate because of one odd little Confederate cannon.
Almost all of the guns lined up to defend St. James Church were standard cannons that fired 12 pound shot.
But there was also at least one 1841 howitzer that fired a 6 pound shell (above). It's bronze barrel was less than 5 feet long, the top of it's large wheels stood no more than 3 feet high and it weighed less than 800 pounds and could be pulled by a single mule. But it required a crew of 6, like a standard 12 pound Napoleon. The Federals had only 6, and the rebels only 23. This particular little gun was under the charge of Lieutenant John Carter. When his irregular ammunition had run low, Carter had been forced to withdraw his little howitzer and its crew to the rear. He wrote later, "As we came near Fleetwood Hill...the whole plateau east of the hill and beyond...was covered with Federal cavalry.”
There were no rebel troops on the hill except Major George Brinton McClellan – first cousin to the hesitant Federal General, and his staff. McClellan had already dispatched one warning to Stuart of the federal division a mile and a half in his rear. But Stuart had not responded. So McClellan now ordered Lieutenant Carter to drag his howitzer up the hill, and open fire. Without explaining that he had only one round of high explosive left, Carter's 6 man gun crew did just that.
And that one shot caused the advancing Federals to pause. They suspected there must be more rebel howitzers on the reverse slope, ready to lob explosives into their crowded ranks. So they waited while their own artillery could be brought forward. And that was just enough time for a second warning from McClellan to reach Stuart, punctuated by Carter's desperate single shot.
Without pausing a moment, Stuart wheeled around the force he had intended to crush Buford, and sent them galloping back to Fleetwood Hill to stop Gregg. The weary rebel troopers reached the summit just as the Federal troopers did.
In the clash of colliding regiments rebel numbers drove the union cavalry back down the slope. But they quickly returned. In the words of one of the rebel gunners, over the next 4 hours, “The two forces met with a crash that could have been heard miles away...Back and forth they swayed across the slope of Fleetwood Hill." It was a form of warfare that had more in common with WWII era fighter plane dog fights than Napoleonic cavalry charges. The battle devolved into individual combats, in which casualties were surprisingly low, and unit cohesion difficult to maintain. About 5:00 p.m., General Pleasanton decided to pull his men back north of the Rappahannock, and the battle faded into the twilight and the river..
Some 17,000 troopers had fought over 70 square miles of Virginia countryside, in the largest single cavalry engagement on north American soil. The Federals had suffered causalities of just under 900, while Stuart reported under 600 dead, wounded and captured. General Stuart held the field of battle, a traditional talisman of victory. But as one of his subordinates said, “Brandy Station made the Federal Cavalry.” The Yankee professionalism and skills could no longer be doubted. But the ultimate measure of the success in this particular battle went to Stuart. The Federal cavalry had detected no rebel infantry, anywhere.
The next morning Wednesday 10 June, 1863 the lead regiments of Richard “Baldy” Ewell's Corps began marching toward Chester Gap, gateway to the Shenandoah Valley. They were unimpeded, and Army of the Potomac commander, General Hooker was totally unaware they were on the march.. Five days later “Old Pete” Longstreet's Corp would cross the upstream fords of the Rappahannock, screened by Stuart's cavalrymen. The first day of the battle of Gettysburg was now less than 3 weeks away.