Since their first arrival on a battlefield as a fighting unit in May 1862, the Stuart Horse Artillery had been galloping their way to commendations in battle reports and providing swift firepower support and offensive tactics for the Confederate cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. The Peninsula, Second Manassas, Antietam, the Chambersburg Raid, the Loudoun Campaign, Fredericksburg, and the Fairfax Raid had allowed the mounted gunners and their officers to learn, refine, and innovate their tactics.
The spring of 1863 found the horse artillery at its strength, but also at the point of change. Their commander, John Pelham, had died of a wound received at the battle of Kelly’s Ford on March 17, 1863. Instead of promoting an officer from within the ranks of the horse artillery, General J.E.B. Stuart appointed Major Robert F. Beckham to command and the new officer gained the respect of his battery captains and men. The battle of Chancellorsville at the beginning of May 1863 put Beckham to the battlefield test with his new command, and they performed admirably together. Cannons from the Stuart Horse Artillery blocked and held the Orange Turnpike west of Chancellorsville and the XI Corps position while the Confederate infantry prepared for their flank attack. Then, two guns raced along the road, keeping pace with the infantry, and Beckham won praise that evening from General “Stonewall” Jackson for his artillery skills.
By the beginning of June 1863, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia started moving west, preparing to swing northward and carry Lee’s invasion plans into Pennsylvania. As usual, the cavalry would act as a screen to the infantry’s movements. Times and tactics shifted though. Union cavalry had gained skills and confidence, ready to rival the Confederates in the fight for information, concealment, skirmishes, and battle fights. Even as prominent civilians and later General Lee himself reviewed the Confederate cavalry in the fields near Brandy Station, just north of Culpeper, Union cavalry generals readied their troopers for an offensive attack and probe.
The Stuart Horse Artillery numbered five batteries by June 1863, commanded by Captains McGregor, Moorman, Chew, Hart, and Breathed. With the exception of Breathed’s battery, which had temporary split to bivouac with cavalry at some forward positions, the horse artillery camped comfortably about a mile south of Beverly Ford on the Rappahannock River along a road that led to Brandy Station. As the artillerymen slept, Union General John Buford’s regiments of horsemen gathered to cross the river at Beverly’s Ford.
Later—three days after the battle—Major Beckham recalled what happened: “Just before sunrise, I received information to the effect that our pickets had been driven in, and that the enemy was advancing rapidly in large force. I immediately directed Captain [J.F.] Hart to place one piece by hand in the road, and ordered all the others to be hitched up as promptly as possible, and to take position on the high ground, about 600 or 800 yards south of the camp. The enemy approached rapidly and boldly, and had it not been for the delay of a few minutes caused him by the arrival of a regiment under General Jones, it is more than probable we would have been compelled to abandon the pieces. As it was, several of the horses were wounded before we could move from camp.”[i]
Beckham’s written words calmly described the startling scene. All the artillery pieces in their camp had been in danger of capture. Consider the flurry of activity and some organized panic after being roused from sleep as the artillerymen struggled to grasp what was happening and then raced to harness horses, move cannons, and prepare to fight. While Beckham sent one cannon to cover the road and slow the attackers so the rest of the guns could be moved, he sent most of his batteries racing for high ground near St. James’s Church.
Beckham explained in his report: “The position first taken was just opposite Saint James’ Church, and on the east of the road. This was held with ease against the enemy’s column for two hours or more, and could, I think, have been held all day had not the appearance of the enemy in our rear rendered it necessary to abandon this point….”[ii]
As the battle shifted, so did the horse artillery. As Union cavalry galloped toward Fleetwood Heights—a significant piece of high ground and the location of Stuart’s headquarters—Beckham moved cannon to sweep the hill. Some gunners fought hand to hand with Union horsemen who attacked them directly. “A small party of the enemy charged them. The charge was met by the cannoneers of the pieces. Lieutenant [C.E.] Ford killed one of the enemy with his pistol; Lieutenant [William] Hoxton killed one and Private Sully [Sudley?] of McGregor’s battery, knocked one off his horse with a sponge-staff. Several of the party were taken prisoners by the men at the guns.”[iii] Beckham also recalled that the accuracy of the guns covering Fleetwood Hill visibly broke up Union cavalry charges.
The battle swirled around and over Fleetwood Heights before the tide of Union cavalrymen retreated toward the end of June 9. The artillery held their position until ordered to withdraw. As the sunset set over the fields of fallen men and dead horses near Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle in North America finished. The Stuart Horse Artillery had lost 12 casualties: 1 killed, 10 wounded, 1 missing. Total battle casualties combining both sides was approximately 1300. Around 20,500 soldiers engaged in the battle, but the results were inconclusive though the Confederates held the field at the end of 14 hours of fighting.
Commending the Stuart Horse Artillery for their role in the battle of Brandy Station, General Stuart wrote in his official report: “The conduct of the Horse Artillery, under that daring and efficient officer, Maj. R.F. Beckham, deserves the highest praise. Not one piece was ever in the hands of the enemy, though at times the cannoneers had to fight pistole and sword in its defense.”[iv]
Robert J. Trout, Galloping Thunder: The Stuart Horse Artillery Battalion (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2002).
Eric J. Wittenberg and Daniel T. Davis, Out Flew The Sabres: The Battle of Brandy Station (El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie, 2016).
[i] Official Records, Beckham’s Report, Battle of Brandy Station.
[iv] Official Records, Stuart’s Report, Battle of Brandy Station.