Prelude to the Battle of Brandy Station
In early May 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia soundly defeated Major General Joseph Hooker and his Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Despite the Confederate victory, Lee’s army needed food, horses, and equipment after the battle. With northern Virginia ravaged by two years of combat, Lee took the war to the North.
In early June, Lee began gathering his army near Culpeper, Virginia to prepare for an invasion into Pennsylvania. To mask his intentions and screen the assembly of his invasion force, Lee stationed his cavalry, commanded by Major General J. E. B. Stuart, at Brandy Station, a few miles northeast of Culpeper.
Union officials mistakenly interpreted Lee’s cavalry deployment as evidence of an impending attack on Hooker’s supply lines or, perhaps, an assault on the nation’s capital. Stung by the defeat at Chancellorsville, Hooker went on the offensive and ordered Major General Alfred Pleasonton to lead his cavalry corps, augmented by 3,000 infantrymen, in a two-pronged attack to “disperse and destroy” the enemy cavalry.
Federal Troopers Cross the Rappahannock River
At 4:30 a.m. on June 9, 1863, Brigadier General John Buford led 5,500 Federal soldiers across the Rappahannock River, surprising Stuart’s pickets at Beverly’s Ford. At the same time, Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg led 2,800 Federal cavalrymen and infantrymen across the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford, about four miles downstream.
Jones Delays Buford
After crossing the Rappahannock, Buford’s command moved south toward Stuart’s encampment at Brandy Station. Confederate Brigadier General William E. “Grumble” Jones’s brigade rushed forward and briefly delayed Buford’s advance long enough for Stuart’s main force to escape and to form battle lines to the south. As Buford advanced farther, he encountered stiff resistance, resulting in heavy federal losses.
Kelly Surprises Stuart
At approximately 11 a.m., Kelly’s forces surprised Stuart a second time when the Confederates approached Brandy Station from the south, providing Buford’s soldiers some relief. A series of charges and countercharges ensued for the rest of the battle, which continued until Confederate infantry reinforcements from Culpeper approached.
By late afternoon, Pleasonton ordered a withdrawal as the Confederate reinforcements began to arrive.
Outcome of the Battle of Brandy Station
Despite being surprised twice on the same day, Stuart drove his attackers from the field. The Confederates suffered fewer casualties than the Federals (575 to 866) making the battle, technically, a Confederate victory. Nevertheless, the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War served as a morale booster for the battered Army of the Potomac by showing that the Union cavalry was emerging as a worthy opponent for its formerly, far-superior Confederate counterpart.