“On Came the Johnnies”: The First Battle of Brandy Station

Fleetwood Hill at Brandy Station

This Sunday, attendees of the Fourth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge will tour the battlefield of Brandy Station. This area in eastern Culpeper County was some of the most fought over during the Civil War. While the largest and most important of the engagements, fought on June 9, 1863, will be explored, the first battle occurred in August, 1862.

The middle of August 1862 found the armies of Gen. Robert E. Lee and Maj. Gen. John Pope glaring at one another across the Rapidan river in central Virginia. Lee had recently defeated Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac outside Richmond and had moved north to engage Pope. Lee’s chief concern was to attack him before reinforcements from McClellan arrived. The Confederate general intended to assail the Union left, however, an intelligence coup tipped Pope off to Lee’s plans. On the afternoon of the eighteenth, Pope ordered his commanders to begin the withdrawal to a new line along the Rappahannock. He detailed the cavalry brigades of Brig. Gens. George Bayard and John Buford to cover the rear of the columns.

Bayard’s brigade waited patiently throughout the day while Brig. Gen. Franz Sigel’s corps abandoned their position. His command consisted of the 1st Maine, 1st New Jersey, 1st Pennsylvania, 1st Rhode Island and 2nd New York. Finally under way on August 19, Bayard’s troopers passed through Culpeper that night. “Along a road marked by the little fires kindled all along its borders, where the lingering infantry had cooked its hurried meal, the cavalry…slowly followed up the line of march” wrote a member of the 1st New Jersey.

The march continued until Bayard reached Brandy Station, a hamlet on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Early on the morning of August 20, he dispatched parties to watch the fords along the Rapidan. Unbeknownst to Bayard, Confederate cavalry was heading straight for him.

Around 4 a.m., Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart sent Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s Virginia brigade and elements from Brig. Gen. Beverly’s Robertson’s brigade across the river. Stuart himself accompanied the Sixth, Seventh and Twelfth Virginia from Robertson’s and headed for Stevensburg, a small village several miles south of Brandy Station. Bayard and Stuart were old friends from the antebellum years. The two had served together in the 1st U.S. Cavalry, at one time sharing a mess. On July 11, 1860, Bayard had been seriously wounded while accompanying Stuart on an expedition against the Kiowas.

In the countryside between Stevensburg and Brandy Station, Colonel William E. “Grumble” Jones 7th Virginia ran into a squadron of the 1st Maine. Jones soon gained the upper hand and pressed the Federals back. Coming to the support of their comrades, Col. Judson Kilpatrick, reinforced by some New Jerseyans, engaged the Virginians. “Heavy skirmishing on both sides then ensued, which lasted several hours, during which some of our men were wounded and a few of the enemy’s horses killed” Robertson wrote. Kilpatrick stubbornly fell back upon the main force, buying time for the other reconnoitering parties to rejoin the brigade at Brandy Station.

Reaching the scene, Stuart directed Robertson to swing his regiments around to the left and cut off Bayard’s line of retreat. Unfortunately, Robertson misinterpreted the orders and swung farther out than Stuart anticipated, fumbling the opportunity. Stuart would now have to fight Bayard head on.

With most of the blue infantry on the north bank of the Rappahannock, Bayard decided to send the 1st Maine and 1st Rhode Island across while he engaged Stuart. Bayard placed his men at the base of Fleetwood Hill, a long undulating ridge that rises above Brandy Station. The 1st New Jersey formed to the right of the 2nd New York and about 600 yards behind its flank. The 1st Pennsylvania made up Bayard’s reserve. Still in the process of reforming after the first phase of the action, Bayard placed them in the rear beyond a strip of timber.

“The long columns of the enemy’s cavalry could be marked by the clouds of dust arising” Bayard recalled. Approaching the Federals, Robertson ordered his regiments to charge. The 2nd New York ¬†advanced to meet the Virginians “in column of platoons, keeping splendid order, with sabres glittering in the sun.” Suddenly, a young lieutenant at the head of the regiment reined in his horse and withdrew back through the ranks. Some nearby troopers followed suit, causing confusion among the ranks. At that moment, the 12th Virginia slammed into the Empire Staters and the regiment collapsed.

Lt. Col. Joseph Karge of the 1st New Jersey watched as Kilpatrick gave way and attempted to wheel his men to meet the threat. Before he could execute the maneuver, elements of the 12th Virginia along with the 6th Virginia and 7th Virginia crashed into the Garden Staters. “Karge emptied the chambers of his revolver into into their ranks, and then…dashed among them with his sabre” wrote the regiment’s historian. In the ensuing melee, Karge was wounded and like the 2nd New York, the New Jerseyans were forced to retreat.

“On came the Johnnies after breaking the line…yelling and whooping and doubtlessly supposing they would have it all their own way” observed a member of the 1st Pennsylvania. Bayard had watched as the Virginians had broken his line. Stubbornly, Bayard directed a battalion of the 1st New Jersey under Capt. Virgil Broderick into the timber. When Robertson attempted to move around the woods, Bayard ordered Maj. Richard Falls’ battalion of the 1st Pennsylvania to charge. This counterattack brought the Virginians to a halt. Sensing an opportunity, Broderick launched a mounted assault of his own and slammed into Robertson’s flank. The Confederates recoiled and were pushed back. Unable to break through and without reinforcements, Stuart called off the fight and withdrew. That afternoon, Bayard gathered his weary troopers and safely crossed the Rappahannock.

Nearly ten months to the day, many of the men involved in the August engagement would fight each other again at Brandy Station, this time for possession of Fleetwood Hill. The 1st New Jersey and 1st Pennsylvania once again faced the 6th Virginia and 12th Virginia, now under the leadership of “Grumble” Jones. Virgil Broderick was mortally wounded and died a few days later. Interestingly enough, he shared the same fate as his former brigade commander. George Bayard was struck in the hip by a shell during the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. He succumbed the following afternoon. Judson Kilpatrick commanded a brigade himself and among his regiments was the 2nd New York. The 1st Maine participated in one of the more memorable charges of the day. Together the two battles form a lasting tribute to the courage and sacrifice of the horse soldiers who wore the blue and gray.


9 Responses to “On Came the Johnnies”: The First Battle of Brandy Station

  1. Good job capturing the events of the day. The narrative had a real “You are there” feel to it.

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