Two days after the embarrassment at Verdiersville, Stuart pushed his cavalry across the Rapidan. He accompanied the newly arrived brigade of Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson through Stevensburg. The gray troopers soon encountered pickets from Brig. Gen. George Bayard’s Union cavalry brigade. Bayard’s men slowly pulled back in the direction of Brandy Station. There the two sides clashed amidst the surrounding fields and woodlots before Bayard eventually withdrew to the north bank of the Rappahannock. Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s wing arrived at Brandy Station that evening and Stuart established outposts to screen the Confederate infantry and observe enemy activity.
The next morning, Stuart sent Col. Thomas Rosser’s 5th Virginia Cavalry over the Rappahannock at Beverly’s Ford. Rosser was able to establish a bridgehead in anticipation of the infantry following later in the day. This movement, however, was delayed and Rosser later returned to the Confederate lines. Early on August 22, Stuart moved to Freeman’s Ford. Shortly after his arrival, he received an order from Lee which authorized him to launch a raid into Pope’s rear.
“At 10 a.m., I started to the execution of the plan with the main portion of Robertson’s brigade, except Seventh Virginia Cavalry…and Lee’s brigade, except Third Virginia Cavalry” Stuart wrote. The Confederates marched through Jefferson and crossed the Rappahannock at Waterloo Bridge and Hart’s Mill before heading to Warrenton. After he reached the towen, Stuart turned his column toward Catlett’s Station where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad crossed Cedar Run. Destruction of the bridge could seriously impede Pope’s ability to supply his army along the Rappahannock.
Shortly after their departure, a “terrific storm set in.” Braving the downpour, the cavalry continued through Auburn. Rosser’s 5th Virginia led the way and through his “good address and consummate skill” captured the camp’s pickets. “We soon found ourselves in the midst of the enemy’s encampments, [in] the darkest night I ever knew” Stuart remembered.
Along with the pickets, the Confederates also stumbled upon a slave who informed Stuart that Pope’s personal baggage and staff were just ahead at the station. The raid now took on new meaning and gave the cavalier a chance to avenge the capture of his plumed hat. To garner additional information, he dispatched Capt. William W. Blackford of his staff to reconnoiter. “Throwing an oilcloth over my uniform, I rode all around the outskirts of their encampment, and found a vast assemblage of wagons and a city of tents, laid out in regular order and occupied by the luxuriously equipped quartermasters and commissaries,” Blackford recalled. The station was lightly guarded by invalids and a small contingent of the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves.
Blackford reported his findings to his chief and Stuart formulated a plan. Colonel William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee was to take his 9th Virginia and capture Pope’s staff. The 1st Virginia and the 5th Virginia were to move around beyond the railroad and assail another camp. Riding up and down the column, Stuart instructed his troopers to give “their wildest Rebel yell” when they advanced. Taking his place at the head of the column, he turned to his bugler and ordered him to sound the charge.
“Instantly the bugles rang out, on the still night air, half a note of the stirring call-the rest was drowned by a roar like Niagara” Blackford wrote. The Confederates thundered through the Union camps. The surprised Federals offered little resistance and many of them either fled in terror before the oncoming enemy or surrendered. It was not long before Stuart controlled Catlett’s Station. While his men plundered, he directed Blackford and a contingent from Col. Williams C. Wickham’s 4th Virginia to destroy the railroad bridge. When an attempt to detonate it failed, the Virginians tried to chop it down, but to no avail. Concerned with the rising waters and the safety of his command, Stuart gave up and elected to return to Lee’s army.
Throughout the following day, Stuart and his troopers retraced their route. After safely recrossing the Rappahannock, he took up a position between Jefferson and Amissville. “I have had my revenge out of Pope” Stuart crowed to his wife, Flora, on August 25. Along with a number of prisoners, Stuart came away with Pope’s uniform coat. Gamely, he sent a note through the lines requesting an exchange of the coat for his hat. When he received no reply, Stuart sent the coat to Virginia’s governor, John Letcher, in Richmond. Letcher in turn placed it on public display in the city. Stuart had also captured Pope’s dispatch book. The information it contained would impact operations in the days ahead.