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

Conclusion of a series

Alfred Pleasonton
Alfred Pleasonton

The blue troopers were puzzled as they made their way to the north bank of the Rappahannock River at Beverly Ford. For the past fourteen hours, they had engaged the Confederate cavalry in the open countryside near Brandy Station. During the fight, they had gained ground and exchanged blow after brutal blow with the enemy. They were not ready to withdraw when the order arrived. Many wondered why and the horse soldiers did not have to look farther than the man who sat atop a knoll overlooking the ford and watched them as they filed by: their corps commander, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton. 

In part one of the series, I stated that an explanation for the  performances of Alfred Pleasonton and his counterpart, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” at the Battle of Brandy Station could possibly be derived from an examination of their personalities. In part two, I gave an overarching summary of the background leading up to the battle, the engagement itself and the actions of Pleasonton and Stuart.

As mentioned earlier, Alfred Pleasonton possessed an air of caution, which is not exactly a becoming characteristic for someone whose primary assignment is reconnaissance and collecting intelligence. Despite Brig. John Buford’s initial success in forging a bridgehead at Beverly Ford, the repulse of the charge of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry at St. James Church likely impacted Pleasonton’s decision making. The massed horse artillery on the ridge gave the impression that the position was impregnable. Further, Lee’s cavalry occupied a relatively strong position on the Cunningham farm behind a stone wall. Pleasonton deduced that any further attacks against the St. James Church line were futile. Rather than look for alternatives, Pleasonton was content to sit still and await developments. Had Pleasonton ordered Buford to put more pressure on the Confederates, they likely would have discovered the shift of units to Fleetwood Hill in the early stages of the movement. Such an occurrence would have offered Pleasonton an enormous opportunity to deal a crushing blow to Stuart. His fear of failure clouded his judgement despite the thought of what a potential success might bring.

On the other hand, the character of the dashing cavalier that J.E.B. Stuart had molded shone through. Although surprised by Buford’s advance that morning, Stuart handled the fighting remarkably well. Just as he had at Chancellorsville, he inspired his men to battle as he directed the defense of the St. James Church Ridge. What might be more impressive is that he was able to fight a battle on two fronts as he skillfully shifted troopers to contend with David Gregg on Fleetwood Hill while keeping Buford occupied. He cannot and did not escape criticism. Stuart failed to secure his position from the prying eyes of the enemy in the weeks leading up to the battle. Perhaps his ongoing success caused him to become complacent. Stuart also felt the sting from a source that had always attempted to cultivate in the Southern press. Newspapers roundly criticized him for the surprise attack. These comments resonated with Stuart and may have impacted his actions later in the campaign.

Brandy Station was both a Union and Confederate victory. The Federals proved their fighting prowess to themselves and to the enemy. Tactically, Stuart’s horsemen remained in control of the field as the sun set on June 9. Stuart and Pleasonton continued to dog one another in the weeks to come as the campaign progressed on fields in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Following the failure of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren early in 1864, Pleasonton was replaced as the Potomac army’s cavalry chief by Philip Sheridan. Pleasonton was transferred to Missouri where he later engaged Confederates under Sterling Price. He resigned from the army after the war and died on February 17, 1897. He is buried in the Congressional Cemetery. Stuart remained in command of Lee’s cavalry until his mortal wounding at the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864. He rests today in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.


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

  1. This article is written really well. It is very engaging. Im partial to the Union generals and the pictures of the Union soldier at the beginning of the piece compelled me to read more.

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