By the time the Gettysburg campaign began 154 years ago tomorrow, Robert E. Lee, vaunted commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, had been preparing his army for weeks. Lee had much to do. Following the army’s victory at Chancellorsville a month prior, Lee had traveled to Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederacy, to meet with Confederate President Jefferson Davis and other influential Confederate cabinet and congressional leaders. Lee had to successfully argue his case for permission to take the army northward during the summer.
At the time there had been much speculation, rumor, and potential strategy to either send Lee himself, or Lee with a portion of his army to the Western Theater. For the past several months, Union General Ulysses S. Grant had been working towards and successfully completing a siege of Vicksburg. Events in this theater had not proved at all successful for Confederate armies, generals, or strategy, unlike Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia back east. Confederate leadership thought that Lee going to the beleaguered front might be able to turn the tide.
Lee had other ideas, however. He wanted to keep his army intact, together, and in Virginia,with himself there in command as well. Virginia was his sphere of influence, and whether he stated it or not, he felt his army’s victories in Virginia would have a larger impact on the Confederate war effort. Thus, Lee laid out numerous objectives for a summer campaign into the north before Davis and others during those three separate trips to Richmond. First, Lee wanted to disrupt any Federal plans for the summer that may be in the works. Lee, as a command trait, did his best when he maintained the military initiative, forcing his opponents to react to his movements. This strategic objective would allow him to do both. Lee also needed to feed and forage his army. Longstreet’s contingent had missed the battle of Chancellorsville for this very reason. His men had been foraging for the Army of Northern Virginia in Suffolk during the late battle. The Virginia countryside around the army’s encampment was barren. The army could feed and forage as it moved north while also sending additional supplies rearward. This would also allow the Virginia farmers to plant and harvest one, if not more crop cycles unmolested by either military force the longer Lee stayed north of the Potomac.
Lee also wanted to the clear the Shenandoah Valley of Federal forces. It had been an objective for Lee since pulling Jackson’s force out of the Valley after their late successes a year earlier. He would use the Valley as his route into Maryland and Pennsylvania and could clear it as he moved. Lee also hoped to make an impact on the morale of the northern home-front and thus their congressional representatives in Washington, D.C. The idea of Lee’s army roaming freely in northern states, or, if brought to battle, a victory on northern soil, would have a rippling and shuddering effect across the north.
Davis and others with a stake in Confederate grand strategy gave Lee the blessing he desired. Lee, ever prepared, had already started working on getting his army ready for the campaign before he received the final go ahead. The first thing Lee did was reorganize his army. The casualties from Chancellorsville of officers and enlisted alike had been immense. With the loss of Jackson, Lee used the need for a new corps commander to change the organization of the Army of Northern Virginia from two corps into three. Lee had thought for months, even at the time of the Maryland campaign, that the two large corps were unwieldy. The new army would have a three corps structure, Longstreet retaining command of the First Corps, the still-recovering R.S. Ewell commanding Jackson’s old corps, the Second, and the newly-created Third Corps under the command of A.P. Hill. Both Longstreet and Ewell lost one division each from their corps to help form the foundation of the new Third Corps with a third, new division, added to compliment the other two veteran units. Lee also worked tirelessly to increase the size of his army and replace the many losses from the previous engagement. Cavalry from western Virginia and North Carolina would join the army, as well as infantry long-detached from his army in the Richmond defenses as well.
With preparations complete, Lee’s army stepped off on June 3, 1863. The army would leave the old battlefields and positions of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and head west to Culpeper Court House. The army would then head into the Valley, head down the Valley to the Potomac, cross that river into Maryland, and continue northward into Pennsylvania. Lee had his army depart their positions slowly, divisions at a time. He wanted to maintain the secrecy of the movement from Hooker and the prying eyes of the Union army for as long as possible. Hill’s Corps would be the last to leave.
Meanwhile, in Culpeper County, J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry prepared to host their third grand review in as many weeks. On the rolling ground around Brandy Station, Stuart hosted numerous important Confederate officers and politicians to see the gray cavaliers in all their glory. The third review took place on June 8 and had as additional guests the entire division of J.B. Hood. The old cavalrymen had been invited by Fitz Lee and told to bring any of his friends. Hood brought his whole division. As Stuart hosted the latest grand review, Alfred Pleasonton, in command of the Federal cavalry, was ordered by Army of the Potomac commander Joseph Hooker to head to Culpeper Court House. Hooker had received various pieces of intelligence on the recent, and in Federal eyes, possible movements and intentions of the Rebel army. Some of that intelligence implied a massing of Confederate units at Culpeper Court House. Pleasonton was ordered to destroy and disperse this force, potentially Stuart’s command. The forces that Pleasonton dispatched engaged Stuart’s vaunted cavalry just twenty-four hours later at Brandy Station.
Fighting began in the predawn hours as men in John Buford’s division splashed across the Beverly Ford and engaged advanced Confederate videttes. Fighting continued to rage all morning and into the afternoon and spread as far as Stevensburg. At the end of the fight Stuart’s surprised command was able to regain the day. After nearly fourteen hours of fighting, with no more reinforcements to commit and reports of Confederate infantry in the area, Federal cavalry pulled back to the other side of the Rappahannock.
“Thus ended one of the greatest cavalry battles of modern times,” said Confederate staff officer Maj. Heros von Borcke. Casualties from both sides demonstrated the ferocity of the fight. Confederate casualties were 51 killed, 250 wounded, and 132 missing while Union losses numbered 484 killed and wounded and 372 listed as prisoners of war.
For the cavalry of both armies, the battle at Brandy Station had marked a turning point. Recalling this moment after the war, Stuart’s staff officer, Maj. H.B. McClellan wrote, “one result of incalculable importance did follow this battle,—it made the Federal cavalry.” Many wondered what kind of Confederate victory Brandy Station had been. Of those that pondered the results in the Confederate officer corps was General McLaws. Writing his wife Emily on June 10, 1863, McLaws noted that “our cavalry were surprised yesterday by the enemy and had to do some desperate fighting to retrieve the day.” Of the notion that Stuart’s men pushed the Federal cavalry back across the Rappahannock, McLaws wrote, “The enemy were not however driven back but retired at their leisure, having accomplished I suppose what they intended.”
As the Federal cavalry recrossed the Rappahannock and reported to Pleasonton, had they accomplished their orders as laid out by Hooker? Clearly as later events unfolded, such as the numerous cavalry engagements in which Stuart screened the mountain gaps into the Valley, Pleasonton and his force had not destroyed and dispersed the vaunted southern cavaliers.
To see some of these Gettysburg campaign sites in person, check out Rob Orrison’s Weekender today at 1 pm.