Part three in a series.
The early June day dawned with the promise of being another warm day. It was early summer and by now George Custer had become accustomed to the heat and humidity that are so famous during this Virginia season. Just a scant several days before, he had been on a ship returning from a successful raid on the Northern Neck. His arrival at Aquia Landing was greeted with the news that Major General Alfred Pleasonton had replaced George Stoneman as head of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry corps. Young Custer had been serving on Pleasonton’s staff for barely a month. After procuring two cups of freshly made coffee, one for himself and one for his chief, Custer made his way to Pleasonton’s tent for the orders of the day.
Greeting his chief, Pleasonton outlined a plan for an expedition across the Rappahannock River to strike at the Confederate cavalry. Over the last ten days, intelligence had been filtering into Union lines that J.E.B Stuart and his cavaliers were concentrating around Culpepper, Virginia. This concentration was the prelude to a larger movement by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. On June 3, Lee began pulling his men out of their lines at Fredericksburg and moving westward toward the Shenandoah Valley. It was the first step in a second northern invasion.The new head of the Union cavalry wanted to break up and destroy the Confederate horsemen.
On June 7, Custer rode to Warrenton Junction with Pleasonton. The next day, Pleasonton finalized the details of the assault. The First Division and Reserve Brigade, or Right Wing, under the direction of John Buford would cross the river at Beverly Ford. Crossing downstream from Buford at Kelly’s Ford would be David Gregg’s Left Wing, consisting of the Second and Third Divisions. Following the river crossing, Gregg and Buford would link up at Brandy Station, a stop on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. The combined force would then move on Culpepper while Alfred Duffie would secure the left flank of the force with the Third Division. Pleasonton hoped that Gregg and Buford would then engage and overwhelm Stuart. Both Buford and Gregg would be supported by handpicked Union infantry.For the operations, Pleasonton designated Custer to be the Officer of the Day. Custer would accompany Buford’s force across Beverly Ford.
That night, Custer took advantage of a few moments of rest to write to his step-sister. In the event that he would fall in the upcoming fight, he gave directions for the disposition of his personal effects.
Around four o’clock the next morning, Buford’s troopers moved to Beverly Ford. There, the brigade of Colonel Benjamin Davis led the advance across the Rappahannock. Custer, along with an orderly named Joseph Fought, rode with Davis.
Fought remembered “Custer and I crossed the ford and took the inside of the field. There were two or three Rebels near the woods, but we clipped along towards them and they fired at us and we fired back. We rode on through the woods and met our advance guard, Col. Davis and his command, and reported to him. All at once we saw the Rebels coming in a body, full speed and we met them in the narrow road. One rode straight up to Colonel Davis and shot him dead.”
Davis’ leading regiments, the 8th New York and the 8th Illinois had run into the camp of the 6th Virginia Cavalry of William “Grumble” Jones’ brigade. In the ensuing counterattack, Davis was killed by Lieutenant Robert Allen. In fact, the Yankees had stirred a hornet’s nest. Stuart’s cavalry was not encamped near Culpeper as Pleasonton had surmised, but in the fields around Brandy Station. Davis’ assault had alarmed the rest of Jones’ regiments, who along with Wade Hampton, quickly rode to block the Federal’s path. Arriving on the scene, Jones and Hampton set up a defensive position that stretched across the Beverly Ford Road, effectively blocking Buford’s path to Brandy Station. Davis’ death, the loss of line officers in his lead regiments and the appearance of Jones and Hampton brought the Union advance to a standstill. With Pleasonton arriving on the field, Custer joined the headquarters party. From Pleasonton’s headquarters, Custer had an ideal view of famous charge by the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry on the Confederate artillery at St. James Church.
By late morning, elements from Hampton’s brigade on the Confederate right could be seen pulling out of the line. This maneuver signaled the arrival of David Gregg’s wing, which was coming up from the south. Moving through Brandy Station, Gregg’s troopers advanced on Fleetwood Hill, forcing Stuart to pull troops away from Buford to deal with the threat in his rear.
As the fighting raged across Fleetwood Hill, Buford moved to exploit Gregg’s presence. Focusing on his right, the old dragoon decided to send the 2d and 6th U.S. along with the 6th Pennsylvania against the Confederates. For this new effort, Custer, along with Fought decided to ride with the 2d Cavalry. This section of the line was held by W.H.F “Rooney” Lee’s horsemen. The culling of troops to deal with Gregg had uncovered Lee’s right flank and he was beginning to withdraw when the three Federal regiments attacked.
The bulk of the action would center upon an extension of Fleetwood Hill known as Yew Ridge and involve Custer and 2d U.S. Cavalry. Custer probably decided to ride with the Second as they were commanded by his former West Point classmate, Captain Wesley Merritt. As Lee withdrew, he left the 9th Virginia Cavalry to cover his retreat. Reaching the area around St. James Church, the Virginians suddenly turned and engaged the 2d U.S. and 6th Pennsylvania. Driving back the Confederates, Merritt led his regiment onward, only to run into the 2d North Carolina along with the 10th and 13th Virginia who had been sent back by Lee. The resulting hand to hand combat saw Lee and Merritt personally engage in a brief duel. Overwhelmed by the Confederates, the Regulars wisely withdrew.
The fight on Yew Ridge was the last action Custer would experience that day. With Gregg ultimately stymied at Fleetwood, Pleasonton elected to begin withdrawing Buford back across the Rappahannock early that evening. The young staffer had once again proven himself in the eyes of Pleasonton. The raid on the Northern Neck showed Custer to be resourceful; the fight at Brandy Station displayed his aggressiveness. These were two qualities required of any commander. To show his appreciation and respect, Pleasonton gave Custer the honor of delivering the captured flag of the 12th Virginia Cavalry to army headquarters.