“Some of the Hardest Fighting of the War”: Alfred Pleasonton and J.E.B. Stuart at Brandy Station

Part two in a series

Maj. Gen. JEB Stuart
Maj. Gen. JEB Stuart

The first week of June 1863 saw Gen. Robert E. Lee begin to withdraw his infantry from their lines at Fredericksburg and head west toward the Shenandoah Valley. Lee was embarking on his second invasion of the Northern states. A key element in Lee’s plan was the screening of his infantry by his mounted arm led by the capable and accomplished Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart. For this mission, Stuart had concentrated his five brigades of cavalry northeast of Culpeper Court House near a stop on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad known as Brandy Station.

Stuart’s concentration did not go unnoticed for long by Union cavalry  patrolling on the north bank of the Rappahannock west of the hamlet of Morrisville. Stuart’s presence was a cause of great consternation to the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton along with the army’s commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Intelligence collected led them to believe that Stuart was planning a massive raid into the Federal rear toward Washington. Hooker determined to foil Stuart’s plans and send his own cavalry across the river and strike the enemy.

Pleasonton formulated a plan that called for one division under Brig. Gen. John Buford to cross the river at Beverly Ford. The divisions of Brig. Gen. David Gregg and Col. Alfred Duffié  were to cross below Buford at Kelly’s Ford. Gregg was to rendezvous with Buford at Brandy Station while Duffié covered the left flank and moved on the village of  Stevensburg. Together, Buford and Gregg were to ride to Culpeper and engage Stuart. Unfortunately, Pleasonton’s plan was shaped upon a misunderstanding of the location of Stuart’s brigades. Pleasonton believed Stuart was in the vicinity of Culpeper rather than Brandy Station. One of the Confederate brigades under Brig. Gen. William “Grumble” Jones’ picketed the river at Beverly Ford and lay right in Buford’s path.

At 4:30 a.m. on June 9, 1863, Buford’s division splashed across Beverly Ford. His lead brigade under Col. Benjamin “Grimes” Davis ran headlong into pickets from the 6th Virginia Cavalry. The Virginians gave ground stubbornly, which bought time to spread the alarm that the Yankees were on the south bank of the Rappahannock. Davis led the advance himself, riding at the head of one of his old regiments, the 8th New York. As he proceeded along the Beverly Ford Road, Davis encountered Lt. Robert Allen of the 6th Virginia. In the brief melee, Allen shot Davis dead.

Following the 8th New York in column on the road was the 8th Illinois. Within minutes of them entering the fight, the regiment’s two senior captains were wounded. The loss of Davis as well as the officers in the 8th Illinois drained the momentum of Buford’s advance. Stiff resistance offered by Jones’ arriving troopers also allowed the Confederates to withdraw their horse artillery from a field adjacent to the Beverly Ford Road and reach safety on the next ridge to the west. The major landmark on this high ground was a small house of worship known as St. James Church.

Stuart used the St. James Church ridge to form a line and meet the Federals. Elements of Jones’ brigade held the center and left with the artillery. Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton’s brigade formed on Jones’ right. Brig. Gen. W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee’s brigade extended the Confederate left to property owned by the Cunningham family. Meanwhile, Buford had arrived and occupied a high knoll just north of the Beverly Ford Road and opposite the Cunningham Farm  (now known as Buford’s Knoll).

Buford decided to probe Stuart’s position and sent the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry forward in a mounted charge. The Confederates repulsed the attack and Pleasonton, who had come across the river, was content to engage in long range skirmishing and artillery fire. For the time being, Stuart had managed to stave off disaster, however, another crisis was in the offing. As Stuart directed the fighting up and down the line, a courier arrived to inform him that Federal troopers had been spotted well in the rear of the St. James Church line.

It was around 11 a.m. and David Gregg’s division had finally arrived in Brandy Station. They had been discovered by one of Stuart’s staff officers, Maj. Henry McClellan. McClellan was near Stuart’s headquarters atop a long, high ridge known as Fleetwood Hill when he noticed the blue troopers deploying near Brandy Station below him. Fleetwood Hill dominated the area around the station and surrounding countryside. If it were captured, the bulk of Stuart’s command would be trapped between Buford and Gregg. A courier was immediately sent to warn Stuart and ordered a nearby gun which had withdrawn to replenish its ammunition to open fire. For the next several hours, the fighting raged across the open and rolling terrain of Fleetwood Hill.

Gregg sent the brigade of Col. Percy Wyndham in a charge to capture the hill, only to be met by elements of Jones’ brigade. When Wyndham was repulsed, Gregg committed Col. Judson Kilpatrick’s troopers who were in turn met by Hampton as Stuart withdrew men from St. James Church to deal with the threat to his rear. In classic cavalry fashion, the two sides charged and counter charged and engaged in close in combat with sabers and pistols. Fortunately for Stuart, he was able to hold the crucial ground from the Federals.

Wesley Merritt. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Wesley Merritt. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As the fight raged on Fleetwood Hill, farther to south Duffié was approaching Stevensburg. Waiting for him were the 2nd South Carolina and 4th Virginia. After an assault stampeded the Virginians, the Yankees neglected to follow up their success and attack the Confederates along the north bank of Mountain Run.  Duffié disengaged when he received word from Gregg to join him at Brandy Station. This fight was not the only one that occurred on the periphery of Fleetwood Hill. When it was detected that Lee’s brigade was abandoning the Cunningham Farm, the 2nd U.S. Cavalry under Capt. Wesley Merritt pursued the Confederates. Merritt ran head long into Lee’s rearguard. In the sharp fight that followed, Merritt and Lee personally engaged in a saber duel. Lee was later wounded in the action and Merritt withdrew. Late in the afternoon, with his troopers exhausted, Pleasonton elected to withdraw and return to the north bank of the Rappahannock. Not surprisingly, Stuart elected not to follow up with a pursuit.



2 Responses to “Some of the Hardest Fighting of the War”: Alfred Pleasonton and J.E.B. Stuart at Brandy Station

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!