Part one in a series
153 years ago this week, Union and Confederate cavalry clashed across the fields and rolling hills of Culpeper County. Deriving its name from a nearby hamlet and train stop along the Orange and Alexandria railroad, the Battle of Brandy Station was the opening engagement of the Gettysburg Campaign. Most importantly, it was a watershed for the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps. The blue horse soldiers had engaged the enemy in a pitched fight and had proved they could stand toe to toe with them on the field of battle. Major Henry McClellan, an officer serving on Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s staff wrote afterwards the engagement “made the Federal cavalry.” What makes McClellan’s statement all the more interesting is that the Union cavalrymen were able to achieve such a success despite a mediocre performance from their corps commander, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton. In contrast, Pleasonton’s opponent, although surprised by the enemy offensive, managed the fight remarkably well. Perhaps an understanding of how they performed that hot June day can be found in an examination of the two men.
Alfred Pleasonton graduated from West Point in the Class of 1844. As a member of the 2nd U.S. Dragoons, he fought in the War with Mexico and against the Seminoles in Florida. Pleasonton steadily rose through the ranks to command the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry at Antietam and Fredericksburg. When Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker reorganized the cavalry in early 1863, Pleasonton found himself in command of a division which he led in the Chancellorsville Campaign. When Maj. Gen. George Stoneman took a leave of absence following the campaign, Pleasonton took over as the head of the corps.
Unfortunately, Pleasonton’s personality overshadowed his experience. He was a “newspaper humbug” wrote one Union officer and was always looking for the next headline. First and foremost, he was a self promoter. Pleasonton never let an opportunity to advance his own status slip by. These traits tended to dilute his skills in combat, which at times made Pleasonton overly cautious.
Like his antagonist at Brandy Station, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart was a graduate of West Point. Stuart served in the 1st U.S. Cavalry prior to the outbreak of the war. He led the 1st Virginia Cavalry at First Manassas and eventually rose to command the cavalry division in the Army of Northern Virginia. Stuart launched mounted expeditions in the spring and summer of 1862 which resulted in the gathering of intelligence that aided Robert E. Lee during Seven Days’ battles and at Second Manassas. Stuart’s service, however, had not only been relegated to the cavalry. At Chancellorsville, he took over command of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps after Jackson’s wounding and ably directed them in ferocious fighting that contributed to the Confederate victory.
In contrast to Pleasonton, Stuart had molded an image of the rollicking cavalier, rather than that of a martinet. Stuart’s trademark was “a hat looped up with a golden star and decorated with a black plume.” He also enjoyed the attention from Southern newspapers as well as the populace. His record, however, was far more impressive than that of Pleasonton. As May gave way to June in 1863, Pleasonton planned to challenge Stuart’s prowess. Stuart had concentrated his horsemen in Culpeper, on the south bank of the Rappahannock River west of Fredericksburg. To the Union commander, a major raid was in the offing and he aimed to break it up and destroy Stuart.