American Civil War: Battle of Brandy Station

Alfred Pleasonton during the Civil War
Major General Alfred Pleasonton. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of Brandy Station - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Brandy Station was fought June 9, 1863, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders



Battle of Brandy Station - Background:

In the wake of his stunning victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Confederate General Robert E. Lee began making preparations to invade the North. Prior to embarking on this operation, he moved to consolidate his army near Culpeper, VA. Early June 1863, the corps of Lieutenant General James Longstreet and Richard Ewell had arrived while the Confederate cavalry, led by Major General J.E.B. Stuart screened to the east. Moving his five brigades into camp around Brandy Station, the dashing Stuart requested a full field review of his troops by Lee.

Scheduled for June 5, this saw Stuart's men move through a simulated battle near Inlet Station. As Lee proved unable to attend on June 5, this review was re-staged in his presence three days later, though without the mock battle. While impressive to behold, many criticized Stuart for needlessly tiring his men and horses. With the conclusion of these activities, Lee issued orders for Stuart to cross the Rappahannock River the next day and raid advanced Union positions. Understanding that Lee intended to begin his offensive shortly, Stuart moved his men back into camp to prepare for the next day.

Battle of Brandy Station - Pleasonton's Plan:

Across the Rappahannock, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General Joseph Hooker, sought to ascertain Lee's intentions. Believing that the Confederate concentration at Culpeper signaled a threat to his supply lines, he summoned his cavalry chief, Major General Alfred Pleasonton, and ordered him to conduct a spoiling attack to disperse the Confederates at Brandy Station. To assist with the operation, Pleasonton was given two select brigades of infantry led by Brigadier Generals Adelbert Ames and David A. Russell.

Though the Union cavalry had performed poorly to date, Pleasonton devised a daring plan which called for dividing his command into two wings. The Right Wing, consisting of Brigadier General John Buford's 1st Cavalry Division, a Reserve Brigade led by Major Charles J. Whiting, and Ames' men, was to cross the Rappahannock at Beverly's Ford and advance south toward Brandy Station. The Left Wing, led by Brigadier General David McM. Gregg, was to cross to the east at Kelly's Ford and attack from the east and south to catch the Confederates in a double envelopment.

Battle of Brandy Station - Stuart Surprised:

Around 4:30 AM on June 9, Buford's men, accompanied by Pleasonton, began crossing the river in a thick fog. Quickly overwhelming the Confederate pickets at Beverly's Ford, the pushed south. Alerted to the threat by this engagement, the stunned men of Brigadier General William E. "Grumble" Jones' brigade rushed to the scene. Barely prepared for battle, they succeeded in briefly holding up Buford's advance. This allowed Stuart's Horse Artillery, which had nearly been taken unawares, to escape south and establish a position on two knolls flanking the Beverly's Ford Road (Map).

While Jones' men fell back to a position on the right of the road, Brigadier General Wade Hampton's brigade formed on the left. As the fighting escalated, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry unsuccessfully charged forward in an attempt to take the Confederate guns near St. James Church. As his men fought around the church, Buford began probing for a way around the Confederate left. These endeavors led him to encounter Brigadier General W.H.F. "Rooney" Lee's brigade which had assumed a position behind a stone wall in front of Yew Ridge. In heavy fighting, Buford's men succeeded in driving Lee back and taking the position.

Battle of Brandy Station - A Second Surprise:

As Buford advanced against Lee, Union troopers engaging the St. James Church line were stunned to see Jones' and Hampton's men retreating. This movement was in reaction to the arrival of Gregg's column from Kelly's Ford. Having crossed early that morning with his 3rd Cavalry Division, Colonel Alfred Duffié's small 2nd Cavalry Division, and Russell's brigade, Gregg had been blocked from advancing directly on Brandy Station by Brigadier General Beverly H. Robertson's brigade which had taken a position on the Kelly's Ford Road. Shifting south, he succeeded in finding an unguarded road which led into Stuart's rear.

Advancing, Colonel Percy Wyndham's brigade led Gregg's force into Brandy Station around 11:00 AM. Gregg was separated from Buford's fight by a large rise to the north known as Fleetwood Hill. The site of Stuart's headquarters before the battle, the hill was largely unoccupied except for a lone Confederate howitzer. Opening fire, it caused the Union troops to pause briefly. This permitted a messenger to reach Stuart and inform him of the new threat. As Wyndham's men began their attack up the hill, they were met by Jones' troops riding in from St. James. Church (Map).

Moving to join the battle, the Colonel Judson Kilpatrick's brigade moved east and assaulted the south slope of Fleetwood. This attack was met by Hampton's arriving men. The battle soon deteriorated into a series of bloody charges and countercharges as both sides sought control of Fleetwood Hill. The fighting ended with Stuart's men in possession. Having been engaged by Confederate troops near Stevensburg, Duffié's men arrived too late to alter the outcome on the hill. To the north, Buford maintained pressure on Lee, forcing him to retreat to the hill's northern slopes. Reinforced late in the day, Lee counterattacked Buford but found that the Union troops were already departing as Pleasonton had ordered a general withdrawal near sunset.

Battle of Brandy Station - Aftermath:

Union casualties in the fighting numbered 907 while the Confederates sustained 523. Among the wounded was Rooney Lee who was later captured on June 26. Though the fighting was largely inconclusive, it marked a turning point for the much-maligned Union cavalry. For the first time during the war, they matched their Confederate counterpart's skill on the battlefield. In the wake of the battle, Pleasonton was criticized by some for not pressing home his attacks to destroy Stuart's command. He defended himself by stating that his orders had been for a "reconnaissance in force toward Culpeper."

Following the battle, an embarrassed Stuart attempted to claim victory on the grounds that the enemy had departed the field. This did little to hide the fact that he had been badly surprised and caught unawares by the Union attack. Chastised in the Southern press, his performance continued to suffer as he made key mistakes during the upcoming Gettysburg Campaign. The Battle of Brandy Station was the largest predominantly cavalry engagement of the war as well as the largest fought on American soil.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Brandy Station." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). American Civil War: Battle of Brandy Station. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Brandy Station." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).