Today marks the 154th Anniversary of the Battle of Brandy Station. One of the more interesting and I think forgotten figures of the engagement is Col. Benjamin Franklin “Grimes” Davis. Unlike many of his comrades, Davis was a Southerner. George Sanford, who served with him in the 1st U.S. Cavalry later claimed he was a distant relative of the Confederate president. Davis, however, remained loyal to the Union, an action that so impressed Frederick Newhall, a member of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, wrote after the war that Davis should be “remembered with special honor.” Davis is also recognized more for his actions during the Antietam Campaign, rather than his death in battle. His fall, however, in the early phase of Brandy Station, proved to be a critical moment in the battle.
Davis graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1854. After a brief stint with the 5th U.S. Infantry, he was transferred to the 1st U.S. Dragoons and served in the Southwest. In 1857, he was wounded in action against the Apaches. Davis was promoted to Captain in late July 1861, following his regiment’s re-designation to the 1st U.S. Cavalry. “To Captain Davis more than any other one officer I was, and am, indebted for whatever I afterwards became in the service” Sanford wrote. “He was a thorough officer, and as far as I can remember, never missed an opportunity to impart the instruction I required.”
In June, 1862 Davis received a commission as colonel of the 8th New York Cavalry. “He was a military man clear through…he was a strict disciplinarian, and brought the regiment down under the regular army regulations” wrote a member of Davis’ new command. Less than three months later during the Antietam Campaign, rather than surrender to Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps, Davis led the cavalry assigned to the Harper’s Ferry garrison in a successful breakout. During the march through the Maryland countryside, Davis stumbled upon and captured Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s reserve ordnance train. By the following spring, Davis was in command of a brigade attached to Brig. Gen. William Averell’s division, which he led in Stoneman’s Raid during the Chancellorsville Campaign.
Riding the wave of momentum from his victory at Chancellorsville, Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to launch a second invasion of the Northern states. Preparatory to his movement from Fredericksburg to the Shenandoah Valley, Lee ordered his cavalry, under Davis’ former West Point classmate, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart to concentrate his men in Culpeper County. Stuart’s assignment was to screen the upcoming infantry march. This enemy presence was soon detected by the Federals and Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker directed his cavalry chief, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, to cross the Rappahannock and destroy the Confederates.
Shortly before 4:30 a.m. on the morning of June 9, 1863, Brig. Gen. John Buford’s division prepared to cross the Rappahannock at Beverly Ford. Once across, Buford was to ride to a nearby stop on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad known as Brandy Station and rendezvous with Brig. Gen. David Gregg’s division. Buford and Gregg would then proceed to Culpeper Court House and engage Stuart. Davis would lead Buford’s advance. His brigade consisted of his old 8th New York, 8th Illinois, and several companies from the 3rd Indiana, 9th New York and 3rd West Virginia. Not surprsingly, Davis rode at the head of the 8th New York.
After wading the river, Davis ran into a company of the 6th Virginia Cavalry from Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones’ brigade picketing the ford. Davis must have been surprised as the Federals anticipated encountering the Confederates in Culpeper and not so close to the Rappahannock. Nevertheless, his troopers soon gained the upper hand and began to push the Virginians back along the Beverly Ford Road. Unbeknownst to Davis, he was leading his brigade directly toward Maj. Gen. Robert Beckham’s Confederate Horse Artillery, parked just below the field.
Riding in the middle of the road, Davis soon outdistanced the Empire Staters. Reaching a sharp bend, he turned back and yelled “Stand firm, 8th New York”. As he did so, Davis felt someone close by and he immediately turned and swung his saber at Lt. Robert Allen of the 6th Virginia. Allen had been riding at the rear of the retreating Virginians and had looked back to see a lone Federal along the road. Allen approached Davis just in time to dodge the saber blow. As he ducked, Allen discharged his pistol. The ball struck Davis in the head. He was probably dead before he hit the ground.
This loss sapped the momentum of the Union advance. A counterattack by the newly arrived 7th Virginia helped to buy time for the Confederate guns to withdraw to a new position on a ridge to the west. Had Davis been able to reach and capture even several batteries, if not all of Beckham’s guns, it would have certainly impacted the evolving battle and been a serious blow to Stuart. Instead, the surprised Confederates were able to rally and ultimately bring the blue cavalry to a halt.
But perhaps more importantly, Davis’ death deprived the Union cavalry of a valuable asset at the outset of another campaign. He was an aggressive and reliable officer, having risen from company to brigade command in less than two years. Similar to Elon Farnsworth who fell at Gettysburg, Davis would never have the opportunity to realize his full potential.
Robert Beckham’s Horse Artillery Park along the Beverly Ford Road near the location of Davis’ death will be one of the stops during this year’s ECW Symposium Tour of Brandy Station. You may register for the Fourth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium here. For more information on the tour, you may click here.